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Robert Burns Lives!
The Life and Poetry of Thomas Burns by Dr Christine Seal

Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Greater Atlanta, GA, USA

One of the great things about having your own website is you can go in different directions trying to get to the same destination. An interesting email came across my desk via computer magic a few months ago and naturally Dr. Gerry Carruthers was involved. May I introduce you to a rather new scholar who is searching for a connection between Scotland’s Bard, Robert Burns, and another Scottish poet known as Thomas Burns. Now I can share her email with you after suggesting to Dr. Seal she write a brief article on her subject and ask your help. Everyone is looking for something new about Robert Burns or an original that has been lost, misplaced, or hidden long ago without a trail to follow.

After you have read the article below from Dr. Seal, maybe you can lend her a bit of help. If you run across anything that may of interest, she would appreciate your sending it to me to be passed along. Yes, I know, it could be like reading the old testament with all the “begats” when so many with the same name can pop up! But then again, who knows. One bit of information might be the one thing to help Christine in her search. As I was writing this brief introduction, I kept going back to the lovely picture Dr. Seal sent me and wondered why there is a handle and a keyhole in the picture. You may have the key to open the door. Maybe that is why both keyhole and handle ended up in the picture - for you to do your part so Christine can do her part. Many thanks to Christine and to you, dear readers. A final word of encouragement, for those of you so inclined, forward me another article on Robert Burns!  We need more to come in so more can be shared. The pantry has been empty far too long, so help out Robert Burns Lives! Cheers. (FRS)                                                

Dr. Christine Seal

Short Biography of Dr Christine Seal

Dr Seal came to higher education at the age of 40, completing a BA (Honours) with the Open University in History and Music.  In 2002 she completed an MPhil in Modern History investigating domestic servants in the houses of the aristocracy and industrialists in the Midland County.  Christine then took a PhD at the Centre for English History at the University of Leicester, where the thesis topic was relief of the poor in the community and in the workhouses of Belper and Cheltenham.  This was taken part time while working full time in administration at the University of Oxford.

In 2012, following the death of her husband, Christine took early retirement and moved to Northumberland.  Christine has become involved with the Family and Community Historical Research Society and has spent time researching alms houses in County Durham, Northumberland, Cumbria, and more recently on the Home Front in the First World War.  It was while working on the 1WW that she became interested in the life story and poetry of Thomas. 

Since moving to Northumberland Christine have been appointed Circuit Archivist for the Methodist Church, have become involved with the conservation group at Hexham Abbey, helping to record the textiles in the Abbey, and is a member of the NE Methodist History Society.  Her current research and writing is on the homes for the aged miners, continuing the history of Thomas and his poetry, and on stories of prominent Methodists in the north-east.

The Life and Poetry of Thomas Burns

Thomas was born in 1848 and baptized at Morebattle Free Church.  No father was listed at the baptism except the surname “Burns” and “Laidlaw” appeared on the baptism record.  His mother was Elizabeth Laidlaw and in the Kirk Minutes she “confessed to the sin of fornication” and was restored to the communion of the church.  At this time the father of Thomas was not known, but in the same Kirk Minutes the name ‘John Burns’ appeared admitting that he was “guilty of the sin of uncleanness with Elizabeth Laidlaw, also of Cessford, which led to him being “suitably admonished by the Moderator” and restored to church privileges.  Although a promising pupil he was not allowed to continue his education.” He became an agricultural labourer before age 13, and was hired at Kelso fair to a Ford farmer.  Ford and Etal were in the northern area of Northumberland.  The Marchioness of Waterford recognised Thomas’ ability and encouraged him in his efforts.  She remained an admirer and a patron until her death.  Thomas married Margaret in 1869, just 20 years of age, and they were living at Lilburn Towers Farm in the 1870s.  Land around Pallisburn and Lilburn was owned by Mr Askew Robertson, a patron of Thomas.  There were three children born to Thomas, Elizabeth born in 1870 at Eglingham, Mary born in 1874 at Rothbury and Thomas John born in 1876 in Newcastle.

The simplest elements of education, except reading, were beyond his acquired knowledge.  Without a teacher or any assistance he set himself to study arithmetic, writing, grammar, phonography and composition.  Once his knowledge was improved Thomas left North Northumberland to take up a job as a police constable in May 1876.

Thomas remained with the police in Newcastle for 3 years until resigning in July 1879 to take up a post as School Attendance Officer.  Sadness came to Thomas when his wife died in 1880.  His mother, Elizabeth, came to look after the family until her death later in the 1880s.  Thomas remarried in 1885 to Janet White and went on to have a daughter, Olive, who sadly lived for just two years.  As a School Board Officer he made house to house visits, to enquire after absentees and serve default notices to parents.  A free house was provided for the family at Diane Street School in Newcastle and initially he was provided with a uniform.  This later changed to a yearly clothing allowance.

Can you help to locate the missing books of poems?

Despite contacting the Bodleian Library, the National Library for Scotland, the British Library and patrons of his books, I have not been able to locate seven of the twelve books Thomas published.

Four books were published between 1890 and 1901:

            Poems and Songs
            The Romance of a Life
            Scottish Songs and their authors
            Tours in the Highlands of Scotland

A further three books were published between 1901 and 1906 and the titles are referred to:

            Tours in the Borders
            Holiday Sketches
            A Panegyric on the Life and Works of Robert Burns

Patronage has included The Lady Louisa, Marchioness of Waterford, Mayor and Councillors of Newcastle, Sheriff of Newcastle, W A Watson-Armstrong of Cragside, Lord Percy, The Lord Bishop of Newcastle, Professor Blackie in Edinburgh and a long list of Vicars from Newcastle and the surrounding villages.

Thomas wrote four poems dedicated to Robert Burns.  The first was Lines on the Anniversary of Robert Burns:

I the fervour of feeling our spirits o’erflow,
            As the mem’ry leaps back to where Robbie was born,
On the banks of the Doon, with a patriot’s glow,
            The song-roll of time to exalt and adorn.

At the shrine of devotion our love-kindled hearts,
           Beating high with Scotch pride so intensely profound;
All jubilant, we sing o’er his exquisite arts,
            By the mandate of nature and intellect crowned.

So pathetic and warm, love flowed from his lips,
            That beauty threw down her best dower at his feet,
While a tenderness hung, like the moon in eclipse,
            From his dark flashing eyes, so entrancingly sweet.

Tho’ the strains of his genius with culture began,
            Still the Iris of promise, that herald of light,
His pathway to favour continues to span
            With grand swelling chimes of a passionate delight.

On the surge and the fret of this turbulent age
            His influence runs with a dominant aim,
And the joy-mellowed wit that enriches his page
            Gives a classic result to the blaze of his fame.

His life so romantic, in passions and powers –
            Of its joys and its sorrows he bore a full share;
Both in sunshine and tempest, and hope blighting showers,
            He worked at the garland his country now wears.

As long as the songs of old Scotland are sung,
            Or the love of a man to a woman returns,
The loftiest note on the cottager’s tongue
            Shall ring to the honour and glory of Burns.

A second poem with the same title, Lines on the Anniversary of Robert Burns but published in a different book:

Let adverse time research her urns,
            And bring her relics out to gaze;
Few greater names extant than Burns,
            None more deserves a poet’s praise.

His soul in friendship’s mutual flush,
            Was laden with a rich perfume;
While nature’s fresh consonant blush,
            Nursed fancy into bridal bloom.

Wed to the music of the spheres,
            That gleesome sonorous voice of his;
Clear through the isles like echo veers,
            To fill a waiting world with bliss.

He charged his heart with ardent love,
            And tuned his intellect for song;
His harmonizing muses prove,
            How buoyant was his pow’r and strong

Divine the strains to Mary sung,
            No other singer so refined;
When Heaven’s dart his soul had stung,
            And burst the flood-gates of his mind.

Ye monarchs of the Muse give ear,
            Mark well the transports of his pen;
Did ever man such music hear,
            As echo’s over Logan Glen.

The Burns’ Anniversary Song, 1889 was given a tune title, Kelvin Grove.

We are met wi’ one acclaim – bonnie laddies, O!
To extol the honoured name – bonnie laddies, O!
            Of the ploughman bard o’Kyle,
            Whose fine poetic style,
Sheds glory on our Isle – bonnie laddies, O!

Though a humble peasant lad – bonnie laddies, O!
He has made the nations glad – bonnie laddies, O!
            Wi’ his native Doric lore,
            Which we feelingly adore,
As it thrills us to the core – bonnie laddies, O!

We’ve had many singers here – bonnie laddies, O!
|Who have pleased the human ear – bonnie laddies, O!
            But the ploughman bard o’ Ayr,
            Left strains so passing fair,
Time fondles them wi’ care – bonnie laddies, O!

‘Tis to “Burns” we owe the fire – bonnie laddies, O!
Of auld Scotia’s harp and lyre – bonnie laddies, O!
            So it’s meet that we should sing,
            To th’ genius of our king,
Till the world’s rafters ring, bonnie laddies, O!

The last of the Robert Burns poems forms part of the Sonnets and include poems about famous British Poets.

Low in a vale within love’s choice retreat,
            The peasant bard in blazing glory stands;
Near where the temperate gales repress the heat,
            He shows to heaven his toil-innured hands;
Full ankle-deep in intermingling flowers,
            Sun-painted beds, a variegated show,
Yes, there he stands; while round in wild-wood bowers,
            Each high-shrined beauty bids her offspring blow;
Gay nature here her richest garment wears,
            Her rustic limbs in royal purple clad;
She views Burns through alternate smiles and tears,
            Then blushing drops her nectar-dropping head.
Contending cupids play about the grove,
Where he is standing wreathed in flowers of love.

Thomas retired in 1913, moved to Wylam, and in retirement wrote 21 poems about the war, between 1914 and December 1915, published in the local newspaper.

There were many poems written that had associations to his life in the Border counties of Roxburghshire and Berwickshire, and to his tours in Scotland.  On a visit to Edinburgh his poems included : An Ode on a Visit to the Scottish National Gallery, Edinburgh, and,  Musings on Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh.  His poems written about Scotland include: Sailing through the Kyles of Bute; On Entering a Highland Glen; Reverie written among the Highland Hill.

A View of Ben Lomond;
What a burst of magnificence kindled my eye,
When the sun pitched his tent on Ben Lomond so high;
The sweet breeze of summer on soft tinsel wing,
Seemed bound by a spell, and too solemn to sing.

The wrinkles that time had engraved on his brow,
By its moon-horned spears and conquest crowned plough,
Unfolded to me through the light bracing air,
A beauty more potent than mind can compare.

The awe-moving spirit soothed my soul as it fell,
And freshened devotion its wonders to tell;
O’er glens of black umbrage by cataracts riven,
His shadow hung high in the azure of heaven.

Here the glory of nature hath nothing to fear,
For time the restorer unbidden sits here;
On Ben Lomond the sun rests his banquet to keep,
And mirror his glow on the breast of the deep.

When the swift billows sleep in the calm sober eve,
Down the sides of Ben Lomond the Highland winds heave;
O, land of my fathers, of friendship and might,
Glowing with virtue and smiling in light.

Thy freedom and honours full chartered retain
The fame of thy WALLACE, SCOTT, and BURNS maintain,
For their art sculptured busts I saw on my way,
With the tombstone at Greenock will shrink and decay.

But the songs are engraven in letters of love,
And circle the seal of the mintage above;
Ben Lomond subdued to soft feeling declares,
No country save Judah have any such heirs.

Banks of the Ayr and Afton (mentions Robert Burns and the Doon);

The Lugar and the Afton streams,
               With Ayr and Nith, and “bonnie Doon,”
Now girdle earth with pleasing themes,
               And deck it in the light of noon.

The tongue that sang their sweetest note,
               The eyes that saw their fairest turns,
Have ting’d with gold an empire’s thought,
               And crown’d with worth the name of Burns.

We saw the relics of a day
              That wreath’d his brow in sorrow’s cloud;
We stood beside the walls of clay
              Where death spread out his sable shroud;

We trod the haunts and fields among,
               Where first the matchless lyre he strung,
And heard the accents of his song
               From female lips divinely flung. 

While Nature has a voice to raise,
               And beauty’s lamp holds oil to burn,
The banks of Doon shall wear his bays,
               While old Dumfries preserves his urn. 

The impulse of a nation’s heart
               Which keeps aglow old Scotia’s lays,
May lose itself in sculptured art,
               But never in the ploughman’s praise.

The tree-fring’d dells and flowery meads,
               The lights and shades on waving corn,
The songsters, with their changeless creeds,
               Proclaim him to each dewy morn.

Copyright, Dr Christine Seal

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