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Wilson's Border Tales
Recollections of Burns - Chapter 5

Corbies an’ Clergy are a shot right kittle.—Brigs of Ayr.

The years passed, and I was again a dweller on the sea; but the ill fortune which had hitherto tracked me like a bloodhound, seemed at length as if tired in the pursuit, and I was now a master of a West India trader, and had begun to lay the foundation of that competency which has secured to my declining years the quiet and comfort which, for the latter part of my life, it has been my happiness to enjoy. My vessel had arrived at Liverpool in the latter part of the year 1784, and I had taken coach for Irvine, to visit my mother, whom I had not seen for several years. There was a change of passengers at every stage; but I saw little in any of them to interest me, till within about a score of miles of my destination, when I met with an old respectable townsman, a friend of my father’s. There was but another passenger in the coach, a north country gentleman from the West Indies. I had many questions to ask my townsman, and many to answer—and the time passed lightly away.

"Can you tell me ought of the Burnses of Lochlea?" I inquired, after learning that my mother and my other relatives were well. "I met with a young man Robert above five years ago, and have often since asked myself what special end Providence could have in view in making such a man."

"I was acquainted with old William Burns," said my companion; "when he was gardener at Delholm, an’ got intimate wi’ his son Robert, when he lived wi’ us at Irvine, a twalmonth syne. The faither died shortly ago, sairly straitened in his means, I’m fear’d, an’ no very square wi’ the laird—an’ ill wad he hae liked that, for an honester man never breathed. Robert, puir chield, is no very easy either."

"In his circumstances?" I said.

"Ay, an’ waur:—he gat entangled wi’ the Kirk, on an unlucky sculduddery business, an’ has been writing bitter, wicked ballads on a’ the guid ministers in the country ever syne. I’m vexed it’s on them he suld hae fallen; an’ yet they hae been to blame too."

"Robert Burns so entangled, so occupied!" I exclaimed; "you grieve and astonish me."

"We are puir creatures, Matthew," said the old man; "strength an’ weakness are often next door neighbours in the best o’ us; nay, what is our vera strength taen on the ae side, may be our vera weakness taen on the ither. Never was there a stancher, firmer fallow than Robert Burns; an’ now that he has taen a wrang step, puir chield, that vera stanchness seems just a weak want o’ ability to yield. He has planted his foot where it lighted by mishanter, an’ a the guid an’ ill in Scotland wadna budge him frae the spot."

"Dear me! that so powerful a mind should be so frivolously engaged! Making ballads, you say?—with what success?"

"Ah, Matthew, lad, when the strong man puts out his strength," said my companion, "there’s naething frivolous in the matter, be his object what it may. Robert’s ballads are far, far aboon the best things ever seen in Scotland afore, we auld folk dinna ken whether maist to blame or praise them, but they keep the young people laughing frae the ae nuik o’ the shire till the ither."

"But how," I inquired, "have the better clergy rendered themselves obnoxious to Burns? The laws he has violated, if I rightly understand you, are indeed severe, and somewhat questionable in their tendencies; and even good men often press them too far."

"And in the case of Robert," said the old man, "our clergy have been strict to the very letter. They’re guid men an’ faithfu ministers; but ane o’ them, at least, an’ he a leader, has a harsh, ill temper, an’ mistakes sometimes the corruption o’ the auld man in him for the proper zeal o’ the new ane. Nor is there any o’ the ithers wha kent what they had to deal wi’ when Robert cam afore them. They saw but a proud, thrawart ploughman, that stood uncow’ring under the glunsh o’ a hail session; an’ so they opened on him the artillery o’ the kirk, to bear down his pride. Wha could hae tauld them that they were but frushing their straw an’ rotten wood against the iron scales o’ Leviathan? An’ now that they hae dune their maist, the record o’ Robert’s mishanter is lying in whity-brown ink yonder in a page o’ the session-buik, while the ballads hae sunk deep deep intil the very mind o’ the country, and may live there for hunders and hunders o’ years."

"You seem to contrast, in this business," I said, "our better with what you must deem our inferior clergy. You mean, do you not, the Higher and Lower parties in our Church? How are they getting on now?"

"Never worse," replied the old man; "an,’ oh, it’s surely ill when the ministers o’ peace become the very leaders o’ contention! But let the blame rest in the right place. Peace is surely a blessing frae Heaven—no a guid wark demanded frae man; an’ when it grows our duty to be in war, it’s an ill thing to be in peace. Our Evangelicals are stan’in, puir folk, whar their faithers stood; an’ if they maun either fight or be beaten frae their post, why, it’s just their duty to fight. But the Moderates are rinnin mad a’ thegither amang us: signing our auld Confession, just that they may get intil the Kirk to preach against it; paring the New Testament doun to the vera standard o’ heathen Plawto; and sinking ae doctrine after anither, till they leave ahint naething but Deism that might scunner an infidel. Deed, Matthew, if there comena a change among them, an’ that sune, they’ll swamp the puir Kirk a’ thegither. The cauld morality that never made ony ane mair moral, taks nae haud o’ the people: an’ patronage, as meikle’s they roose it, winna keep up either kirk or manse o’ itsel. Sorry I am, sin’ Robert has entered on the quarrel at a’, it suld hae been on the wrang side."

"One of my chief objections," I said, "to the religion of the Moderate party is, that it is of no use."

"A gey serious ane," rejoined the old man; "but maybe there’s a waur still. I’m unco vexed for Robert, baith on his worthy faither’s account and his ain. He’s a fearsome fellow when ance angered, but an honest, warm-hearted chield for a’ that; an’ there’s mair sense in yon big head o’ his than in ony ither twa in the country."

"Can you tell me aught," said the north country gentleman, addressing my companion, "of Mr R-----, the chapel minister in K-----? I was once one of his pupils in the far north; but I have heard nothing of him since he left Cromarty."

"Why," rejoined the old man, "he’s just the man that, mair nor a’ the rest, has borne the brunt o’ Robert’s fearsome waggery. Did ye ken him in Cromarty, say ye?"

"He was parish schoolmaster there," said the gentleman "for twelve years; and for six of these I attended his school. I cannot help respecting him; but no one ever loved him. Never surely was there a man at once so unequivocally honest and so thoroughly unamiable."

"You must have found him a rigid disciplinarian," I said.

"He was the most so," he replied, "from the days of Dionysius, at least, that ever taught a school. I remember there was a poor fisher boy among us named Skinner, who as is customary in Scottish schools, as you must know blew the horn for gathering the scholars, and kept the catalogue and the key; and who, in return, was educated by the master, and received some little gratuity from the scholars besides. On one occasion, the key dropped out of his pocket; and, when school-time came, the irascible dominie had to burst open the door with his foot. He raged at the boy with a fury so insane, and beat him so unmercifully, that the other boys, gathering heart in the extremity of the case, had to rise en masse and tear him out of his hands. But the curious part of the story is yet to come: Skinner has been a fisherman for the last twelve years; but never has he been seen disengaged, for a moment, from that time to this, without mechanically thrusting his hand into the key pocket."

Our companion furnished us with two or three other anecdotes of Mr R—. He told us of a lady who was so overcome by sudden terror on unexpectedly seeing him, many years after she had quitted his school, in one of the pulpits of the south, that she fainted away; and of another of his scholars, named M’Glashan, a robust, daring fellow of six feet, who, when returning to Cromarty from some of the colonies, solaced himself by the way with thoughts of the hearty drubbing with which he was to clear off all his old scores with the dominie.

"Ere his return, however," continued the gentleman, "Mr R—had quitted the parish; and, had it chanced otherwise, it is questionable whether M’Glashan, with all his strength and courage, would have gained anything in an encounter with one of the boldest and most powerful men in the country."

Such were some of the chance glimpses which I gained, at this time, of by far the most powerful of opponents of Burns. He was a good, conscientious man; but unfortunate in a harsh, violent temper, and in sometimes mistaking, as my old townsman remarked, the dictates of that temper for those of duty.

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