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Wilson's Border Tales
Recollections of Burns - Chapter 4

From scenes like these old Scotia’s grandeur springs,
That makes her lov’d at home, revered abroad.
                                             Cottar’s Saturday Night.

There was a wide and cheerful circle this evening round the hospitable hearth of Lochlea. The father of my friend, a patriarchal-looking old man, with a countenance the most expressive I have almost ever seen, sat beside the wall, on a large oaken settle, which also served to accommodate a young man, an occasional visitor of the family, dressed in rather shabby black, whom I at once set down as a probationer of divinity. I had my own seat beside him. The brother of my friend (a lad cast in nearly the same mould of form and feature, except perhaps that his frame, though muscular and strongly set, seemed in the main less formidably robust, and his countenance, though expressive, less decidedly intellectual) sat at my side. My friend had drawn in his seat beside his mother, a well-formed, comely brunette, of about thirty-eight, whom I might almost have mistaken for his elder sister; and two or three younger members of the family were grouped behind her. The fire blazed cheerily within the wide and open chimney; and, throwing its strong light on the faces and limbs of the circle, sent our shadows flickering across the rafters and the wall behind. The conversation was animated and rational, and every one contributed his share. But I was chiefly interested in the remarks of the old man, for whom I already felt a growing veneration, and in those of his wonderfully gifted son.

"Unquestionably, Mr Burns," said the man in black, addressing the farmer, "politeness is but a very shadow, as the poet hath it, if the heart be wanted. I saw, to-night, in a strictly polite family, so marked a presumption of the lack of that natural affection of which politeness is but the portraiture and semblance, that truly I have been grieved in my heart ever since."

"Ah, Mr Murdoch," said the farmer, "there is ever more hypocrisy in the world than in the church, and that, too, among the class of fine gentlemen and fine ladies who deny it most. But the instance"—"You know the family, my worthy friend," continued Mr Murdoch—"it is a very pretty one, as we say vernacularly, being numerous, and the sons highly genteel young men; the daughters not less so. A neighbour of the same very polite character, coming on a visit when I was among them, asked the father, in the course of a conversation to which I was privy, how he meant to dispose of his sons; when the father replied that he had not yet determined. The visitor said, that, were he in his place, seeing they were all well educated young men, he would send them abroad; to which the father objected the indubitable fact, that many young men lost their health in foreign countries and very many their lives. ‘True,’ did the visitor rejoin; ‘but, as you have a number of sons, it will be strange if some one of them does not live and make a fortune.’ Now, Mr Burns, what will you, who know the feelings of paternity, and the incalculable, and assuredly, I may say, invaluable value of human souls, think when I add, that the father commended the hint as showing the wisdom of a shrewd man of the world!"

"Even the chief priests," said the old man, pronounced it unlawful to cast into the treasury the thirty pieces of silver, seeing it was the price of blood; but the gentility of the present day is less scrupulous. There is a laxity of principle; for there have ever been evil manners among us, and waifs in no inconsiderable number, broken loose from the decencies of society—more, perhaps, in my early days than there are now. But our principles, at least, were sound; and not only was there thus a restorative and conservative spirit among us, but, what was of not less importance, there was a broad gulf, like that in the parable, between the two grand classes, the good and the evil—a gulf which when it secured the better class from contamination, interposed no barrier to the reformation, and return of even the most vile and profligate, if repentant. But this gulf has disappeared, and we are standing unconcernedly over it, on a hollow and dangerous marsh of neutral ground, which, in the end, if God open not our eyes, must assuredly give way under our feet."

"To what, father," inquired my friend, who sat listening with the deepest and most respectful attention, "do you attribute the change?"

"Undoubtedly," replied the old man, "there have been many causes at work; and, though not impossible, it would certainly be no easy task to trace them all to their several effects, and give to each its due place and importance. But there is a deadly evil among us, though you will hear of it from neither press nor pulpit, which I am disposed to rank first in the number—the affectation of gentility. It has a threefold influence among us: it confounds the grand, eternal distinctions of right and wrong, by erecting into a standard of conduct and opinion, that heterogeneous and artificial whole which constitutes the manners and morals of the upper classes; it severs those ties of affection and good-will which should bind the middle to the lower orders, by disposing the one to regard whatever is below them with a too contemptuous indifference, and by provoking a bitter and indignant, though natural jealousy in the other for being so regarded; and, finally, by leading those who most entertain it, into habits of expense, torturing their means, if I may so speak, on the rack of false opinion—disposing them to think in their blindness, that to be genteel is a first consideration, and to be honest merely a secondary one—it has the effect of so hardening their hearts, that, like those Carthaginians of whom we have been lately reading in the volume Mr. Murdoch lent us, they offer up their very children, souls and bodies, to the unreal, phantom-like necessities of their circumstances."

"Have I not heard you remark, father," said Gilbert, "that the change you describe has been very marked among the ministers of our Church?"

"Too marked and too striking," replied the old man; "and in affecting the respectability and usefulness of so important a class, it has educed a cause of deterioration, distinct from itself, and hardly less formidable. There is an old proverb of our country—‘Better the head of the commonality than the tail of the gentle.’ I have heard you quote it, Robert, oftener than once, and admire its homely wisdom. Now, it bears directly on what I have to remark—the ministers of our Church have moved but one step during the last sixty years; but that step has been an all-important one—it has been from the best place in relation to the people to the worst in relation to the aristocracy."

"Undoubtedly, worthy Mr Burns," said Mr Murdoch, "there is great truth, according to mine own experience, in that which you affirm. I may state, I trust, without over boasting or conceit, my respected friend, that my learning is not inferior to that of our neighbour the clergyman—it is not inferior in Latin, nor in Greek, nor yet in French literature, Mr Burns, and probable it is he would not much court a competition; and yet, when I last waited at the Manse regarding a necessary and essential certificate, Mr Burns, he did not so much as ask me to sit down."

"Ah!" said Gilbert, who seemed the wit of the family, "he is a highly respectable man, Mr Murdoch—he has a fine house, fine furniture, fine carpets—all that constitutes respectability, you know; and his family is on visiting terms with that of the Laird. But his credit is not so respectable, I hear."

"Gilbert," said the old man, with much seriousness, "it is ill with a people when they can speak lightly of their clergyman. There is still much of sterling worth and serious piety in the Church of Scotland; and if the influence of its ministers be unfortunately less than it was once, we must not cast the blame too exclusively on themselves. Other causes have been in operation. The Church, eighty years ago, was the sole guide of opinion, and the only source of thought among us. There was, indeed, but one way in which a man could learn to think. His mind became the subject of some serious impression:—he applied to his Bible, and, in the contemplation of the most important of all concerns, his newly awakened faculties received their first exercise. All of intelligence, all of moral good in him, all that rendered him worthy of the name of man, he owed to the ennobling influence of his Church; and is it a wonder that that influence should be all-powerful from this circumstance alone? But a thorough change has taken place;—new sources of intelligence have been opened up; we have our newspapers, and our magazines, and our volumes of miscellaneous reading; and it is now possible enough for the most cultivated mind in a parish to be the least moral and the least religious; and hence necessarily a diminished influence in the Church, independent of the character of its ministers."

I have dwelt too long, perhaps, on the conversation of the elder Burns; but I feel much pleasure in thus developing, as it were, my recollections of one whom his powerful minded son has described—and this after acquaintance with our Henry M’Kenzies, Adam Smiths, and Dugald Stewarts—as the man most thoroughly acquainted with the world he ever knew. Never, at least, have I met with any one who exerted a more wholesome influence, through the force of moral character, on those around him. We sat down to a plain and homely supper. The slave question had, about this time, begun to draw the attention of a few of the more excellent and intelligent among the people, and the elder Burns seemed deeply interested in it.

"This is but homely fare, Mr Lindsay," he said, pointing to the simple viands before us, "and the apologists of slavery among us would tell you how inferior we are to the poor negroes, who fare so much better. But surely ‘Man liveth not by bread alone!’ Our fathers who died for Christ on the hillside and the scaffold were noble men, and never, never shall slavery produce such, and yet they toiled as hard, and fared as meanly as we their children."

I could feel, in the cottage of such a peasant and seated beside such men as his two sons, the full force of the remark. And yet I have heard the miserable sophism of unprincipled power against which it was directed—a sophism so insulting to the dignity of honest poverty—a thousand times repeated.

Supper over, the family circle widened round the hearth and the old man, taking down a large clasped Bible, seated himself beside the iron lamp which now lighted the apartment. There was deep silence among us as he turned over the leaves. Never shall I forget his appearance. He was tall and thin, and, though his frame was still vigorous, considerably bent. His features were high and massy—the complexion still retained much of the freshness of youth, and the eye all its intelligence; but the locks were waxing thin and grey round his high, thoughtful forehead, and the upper part of the head, which was elevated to an unusual height was bald. There was an expression of the deepest seriousness on the countenance, which the strong umbery shadows of the apartment served to heighten; and when, laying his hand on the page, he half turned his face to the circle, and said, "Let us worship God," I was impressed by a feeling of awe and reverence to which I had, alas! been a stranges for years. I was affected, too, almost to tears, as I joined in the psalm; for a thousand half-forgotten associations came rushing upon me: and my heart seemed to swell and expand as, kneeling beside him when he prayed, I listened to his solemn and fervent petition, that God might make manifest his great power and goodness in the salvation of man. Nor was the poor solitary wanderer of the deep forgotten.

On rising from our devotions, the old man grasped me by the hand. "I am happy," he said, "that we should have met, Mr Lindsay. I feel an interest in you, and must take the friend and the old man’s privilege of giving you an advice. The sailor, of all men, stands most in need of religion. His life is one of continued vicissitude—of unexpected success, or unlooked-for misfortune; he is ever passing from danger to safety, and from safety to danger; his dependence is on the ever-varying winds, his abode on the unstable waters. And the mind takes a peculiar tone from what is peculiar in the circumstances. With nothing stable in the real world around it on which it may rest, it forms a resting-place for itself in some wild code of belief. It peoples the elements with strange occult powers of good and evil, and does them homage—addressing its prayers to the genius of the winds, and the spirits of the waters. And thus it begets a religion for itself;—for what else is the professional superstition of the sailor? Substitute, my friend, for this—(shall I call it unavoidable superstition?)—this natural religion of the sea—the religion of the Bible. Since you must be a believer in the supernatural, let your belief be true; let your trust be on Him who faileth not—your anchor within the vail; and all shall be well, be your destiny for this world what it may."

We parted for the night, and I saw him no more.

Next morning, Robert accompanied me for several miles on my way. I saw, for the last half hour, that he had something to communicate, and yet knew not how to set about it; and so I made a full stop:—

"You have something to tell me, Mr Burns," I said "need I assure you I am one you are in no danger from trusting." He blushed deeply, and I saw him, for the first time, hesitate and falter in his address.

"Forgive me," he at length said—"believe me, Mr Lindsay. I would be the last in the world to hurt the feelings of a friend—a—a—but you have been left among us penniless, and I have a very little money which I have no use for;—none in the least;—will you not favour me by accepting it as a loan?"

I felt the full and generous delicacy of the proposal, and with moistened eyes and a swelling heart, availed myself of his kindness. The sum he tendered did not much exceed a guinea; but the yearly earnings of the peasant Burns fell, at this period, of his life rather below eight pounds.

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