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Robert Burns Lives!
Pretty Nancy By Ian MacMillan

Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA

Several things over the past week have converged which caused me to think more than usual about the old, out-of-date and seldom used way of communication - letter writing. Just this weekend I sent a hand-written letter to my sister Peggy who now lives in Texas who was willing for me to live with her and her family after the death of both Mama and Daddy, just three months apart, the year I turned fifteen. That was back in 1953. It is not a stretch to say that for nearly forty years I have written her once a month.

Then there is George Scott Wilkie’s new book, Robert Burns: A Life in Letters that I have been reading lately that started my thought process about letters, you know, those things left in the attic by our parents that we cherish so much we will not part with them for love nor money. Yet, since the emergence of computers and email, we are seldom likely to participate in that activity they held so dear. You will read a lot more about Wilkie’s excellent book in a few weeks, so I will stop now as I do not want to get ahead of myself. Oops, one final word – his is a book I already cherish and which will go into the “reserve” collection of publications by my desk that I refer to on a regular basis for speeches and articles.

Then, while cleaning out some emails from my computer (hoping to get it to work a bit faster!), I ran across a few from Ian MacMillan way up in Scotland’s Wester Ross. I quickly popped off a brief return message reminding him it was about time for an article from him for the pages of Robert Burns Lives! Several years had gone by since our last communication, so I asked him to update me on what had been going on with him in his neck of the woods. This is what email can do that letter writing cannot begin to touch.

Ian sent me the article below. However, his emails were so interesting and chocked full of details that I asked his consent to share them with you as well. So with Ian’s permission, here is the journey of a Burnsian who over the last few years, to say the least, has been rather busy for Burns. First, his article followed by his emails.

(FRS: 6.8.11)

Pretty Nancy
By Ian MacMillan

The Wester Ross Burns Club 2010

       ‘Ae Fond Kiss.’ Is there anybody who does not recognise this song, which Sylvander composed for Clarinda and which Walter Scott later said contained the essence of a thousand love songs.   It is hard to believe that Robert Burns wrote it for Mrs. Agnes McLehose. She was born Agnes Craig (26/4/1758), the daughter of a respected Glasgow surgeon Andrew Craig and his wife, whose McLaurin family came from Tiree.

      Agnes was a delicate young girl, but the only one of the Craig’s four children to survive past the age of 20. She was known as ‘The Pretty Miss Nancy.’ She grew into an eminent beauty and amongst other admirers attracted the attention of a young Glasgow lawyer, James McLehose. The family did not approve of him but James, learning that Nancy, ’the pretty, little blonde with the pert figure and dancing eyes,’ was to take a coach from Glasgow to go to boarding school in Edinburgh, booked all the seats apart from hers for this, then, an all day journey.

      He was handsome, had an insinuating manner and won her affections. Six months later, ignoring advice from her family, she became engaged. In 1776 the 17 year old Nancy married James who was 5 years older. As she grew to know him it soon became clear he had a foul temper, and was jealous of her, particularly her extremely capable powers of conversation. In 1780 they separated but by that time had three children one of whom died in infancy and then a fourth born soon after they parted.

      Under the, then, Scottish law, the husband was entitled to custody, which James vigorously enforced but then placed the two children with his relatives, the baby was looked after by a nurse.

The Immortal Memory, Inverness Burns Club, Town Hall, January 2008

     Dr Craig died leaving Nancy his estate, which included a house in Trongate and £50. This allowed her to move to Edinburgh taking the first floor of a house at the back of General’s Entry, Potterow. Two and a half years later, James, now dissolute, renewed his interest in his wife, or perhaps in her dowry? He asked for an interview with her. She refused. He bitterly reproached her and asked that she now move to Glasgow and place the three children under her protection as he claimed that by now his relatives wanted nothing further to do with them.

      Nancy’s Uncle, Sherrif, later Lord Craig, now an important Advocate in the Court of Session and also one of Edina’s well-respected intellectuals, provided her with much needed financial support which allowed her to take care of her children. When he died he left her provided for.

      James was now in London, a drunkard in debtor’s prison. His long-suffering mother and the family paid for him to be set free on the strict condition that he emigrated to Jamaica as did so many other young Scots who worked on the sugar-cane plantations. This he did in November 1784.

      In November 1787 Robert Burns came to Edinburgh to arrange a second and more comprehensive publication of his works. He was feted and lionised by the different classes of society as Edina’s Enlightenment reached its glittering peak.

      In the next month Nancy arranged to meet him at a tea party and so commenced the famous romance between Sylander and Clarinda, as they described themselves, so as to keep their correspondence anonymous, commenced. Thus began one of the greatest literary love affairs in history. 

With members of The Burns Club of Atlanta, on their tour of Scotland's Highlands July 2009

      Goodness knows what might have happened had Robert not suffered a serious accident which he claimed was caused by a drunken coachman and was virtually confined to his room for some six weeks. He did demonstrate his physical capabilities however by impregnating her maid, Jenny Clow, who Nancy was dumb enough to send with a message to his bed-chamber! Nancy and Robert flirted and conducted a passionate but platonic romance through meetings and many letters were exchanged.

       Clarinda was a devout Calvinist (as was Lord Craig) and tried her best to persuade Robert of that belief and not to stray into sin. This all culminated with the world famous song of parting in ‘Ae Fond Kiss’ to this charming Grass-widow, after Robert went back to Ayrshire to marry Jean Armour and commence his new life in Ellisland then as a ‘gauger’.

      In 1792, at her husband’s request, Nancy went to Jamaica, strangely enough on the Rozelle, the boat on which Robert Burns had booked the same passage just 6 years before. By now James was prospering but not prepared to share his wealth. They parted amicably enough even though James had sired a daughter with a Mulatto slave woman. James died in 1812 and His estate, worth some £100, passed to his wife and children.

      Of Nancy’s four sons, two died in infancy, one at 8 years old and the only survivor, Andrew, became a writer to the Signet. He married and had one son, William Craig McLehose, who went on to become a Civil Engineer in America, but must have returned home as he, living in Edinburgh, is named as the sole inheritor of Clarinda’s Estate in 25 5 1842 (she died intestate.) 

The Estate amounted to £106 19s and 1 pence - I’ll bet he blew the latter!

Ian walking with Robert Ferguson down the Royal Mile 2009

      Clarinda died in 1841, aged 83, some 45 years after Robert Burns. But there was one final poignant part to this romantic tale. In 1821 the 56 year old Jean Armour met a number of the Bard’s friends including ‘pretty Nancy.’ Jean said “I well remember the visit by Agnes McLehose, we had tea together and talked at length about our families, it was most evident that she had a fondness for Robert.” The two ladies are said to have got on very well as they swapped tales of the man, ‘wha should hae had twa wives.’

      What would we, Burns enthusiasts, give to have a recording of that auspicious meeting?

                           Ian MacMillan, Wester Ross Burns Club


James Mackay’s Bio of Robert Burns
Bill Dawson
Clarinda’s will
Jean Armour by Peter Westwood
Burns Chronicle

Editor’s note: Here are the emails:

Good evening Frank.

     We are now back home in the black house. Unfortunately Clarinda, our new Heilan heifer, broke down the divider wall while trying to get at our stovies and disabled the broadband. Luckily Gordon Dunlop Creech Nichol Glencairn managed through the blizzards and re-connected using a Lewars/Armour technique.

   I have read through the vast increase in your 'Burns Lives' compendium and am hugely impressed. Do you intend to get this lot bound in fine vellum and offer it for subscription to your adoring fans? If so sign me in!!!!

    I asked myself, dare I submit another of my Ayrshire wanderings along-side the eminence of Purdie, Carruthers, Reader et al and very firmly answer YES

    However I note your pieces are quite short, so may I humbly submit the attached tribute to a short but memorable affair in our Bard's life.

    I sign off with a recent sunrise from our bedroom windae.

                                All the best in Burns, Ian


     I suspect you may not wish to include the story that follows on, written for a school re-union but I thought it might amuse you. The latter half is of course fiction

   My first memory of our Bard is being scared with my brother and sister as my father, as Holy Willie, launched into a candle-lit prayer. Then passing quickly over my school-days, like so many I put my Kilmarnock aside until, in my forties, we were invited to a Supper in a friend's home in Morpeth, Northumberland, where we then lived. We had a cracking night and I became more and more involved to the extent that my own bonnie Jean would describe as fanatical

    We had several Suppers in our and other's homes in England and I first learned 'The Haggis', then 'The 'Prayer' then 'The Louse.' Stemming from this, Burns Suppers were held for the first time at the rugby, golf, and sailing clubs. Then several at Kielder Water as I worked for Northumbrian Water.

     When we moved to The Hielans some 8 years ago I established The Wester Ross Burns Club who have held a Supper and various events since then.

     I have viciously stabbed many Haggii, held candles in my off-white goonie, and have had the honour to address The Immortal Memory about a dozen times I think. Last year I gave this address in Dingwall then travelled to Southend in The Mull of Kintyre to do the same, almost as far as you can travel in Scotland.

    I am a personal member of the Burns Federation and have made friends with well-kent figures in the Burns world.

    In 2009 on the occasion of the 250th Anniversary I acted as a guide to a group from Atlanta Burns Club who retraced Rabbie's travels in the HIghlands from Edinburgh to Inverness.

Friars Carse cottage where Burns stayed temporarily while Ellisland was being completed

   Articles include 22 days, an account of Robert Burns Highland journey. A three part programme on local radio covering his life and pieces for The Chronicle including Pretty Nancy, Burns diamond stylus, and Burns and drink

   I know one could spend several life-times learning more and more about and from this young man of this wee country so long ago, as my respect for his achievements grows.

                                       All the best, Ian

      I owe a great deal to Olny. He, Mr. Easson, was my English teacher in Hillhead High School, Glasgow. From him, I developed a life-long love of literature and poetry. I am deeply grateful that his skill as a teacher encouraged this interest in my life.

     There were only two problems, the first being his. This articulate, well-read man just could not pronounce the word properly. He always mis-said it as olny. We used to watch with bated breath as he headed fluently, but inevitably towards another mis-pronunciation. We were never disappointed, hence the nickname known to generation upon generation of young scholars.

    The second problem was, I am sure, a major factor in the fearsome stutter that was to plague my pimpled teens. Can you imagine my terror when his imperious gaze focused on me and he said “Ian, your recitation please!” To my intense embarrassment I stood up before the class, who quivered to attention to watch the spectacle as eagerly as women knitting by the guillotine. Even worse was that I had to stumble through ’O my Luve’s like a red red rose’ to sniggers from my supposed friends. My hesitant delivery was not at all helped by Peem McNaughton at the desk behind, jabbing his, especially sharpened, dividers through my thin shorts. But worse by far was knowing that three rows across and two desks down sat Venus. Irene McMeechan had golden hair like rippling, sun-kissed corn, eyes of agate blue, a twinkling smile and a laugh capable of creating sudden coronaries. You may have gathered I quite liked her.

      I am very glad to let you know that, a short while later, we had exchanged more than our School scarves! Also that, in spite of this ordeal, I later rediscovered ‘A red red rose’ and developed an increasing interest and pleasure in the rest of the works of Scotland’s Bard, Rabbie Burns.

      I was nearing retirement age when I took part in the programme on BBC 4. Our group discussed the relative importance of the contributions to Scottish literature of Robert Burns, Jessie Kesson and Hugh MacDiarmid. When I watched my copy of the video later, I smiled as I remembered Olny and events so long in the past. I was therefore completely taken aback when, shortly afterwards, I received a telephone message. It was from ‘Campsie Glen Sheltered Homes’ and the gist was that a Mr. Easson had seen the TV programme and would like to meet me.

      He was sitting in his own room looking out over the hills. He was smartly dressed in sports jacket and flannels. Perhaps he had dressed especially for the occasion but I suspected that was the way he liked to appear. I pretended not to notice the signs of increasing frailty following his stroke. We chatted over old times and he told me how much he had enjoyed the discussion on television. After a while I could see that he was getting tired so started to make verbal moves towards my farewell. He stopped me and said, “Ian, there is one thing I wanted you to understand. All teachers know their nick names. I was quite pleased with mine. You see it is a very difficult thing for any teacher to find a way of drawing teenagers attention to their studies when it is so obvious that, while hormones are surging through their fit young bodies, they are far more interested in gaining the respect of their friends and, particularly, of the other sex than some aged teacher. So you see I was only joking!”

Ian MacMillan   

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