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Robert Burns Lives!
Robert Aiken - Orator Bob by Dr. Clark McGinn

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

Any day I receive an article from Dr. Clark McGinn is a very good day for me as I know he will write as if the article may be the last one he ever writes. I will use a baseball analogy about Clark to express my feelings about him. He is a tremendous speaker, an excellent writer, an oft- quoted Burnsian in the Scottish press, and one of Scotland’s most sought after Burns speakers. As a result, I have never heard him strike-out giving a speech or writing an article on Robert Burns. He does the unthinkable and that is he hits a homerun every time he speaks about Burns.

Thus, this year I had the task of filling in for Clark in Washington, DC for a Burns Supper sponsored by The University of Glasgow and The Robert Burns Centre that business kept him from fulfilling. Mother nature dealt us a severe blow by allowing two feet of snow to redecorate the Washington streets and shrubbery with the whiteness of angels. I figured I would slip down to the Ritz Carlton Pentagon City Hotel banquet room, shake a few hands who had braved the cold, and what was now ice to say a few words if they wanted me to and head back to Atlanta early the next morning. People in the South do not know much about driving in weather like this and to my surprise the place was nearly packed, not standing room only, but not far from it! We had a marvelous time, I pretty much kept to my allotted time and the food, band and music were wonderful. Most importantly to me I got to take the presentation haggis to my room, enjoy myself a bit before bedtime, and share it with son Scott the following night back in Atlanta.

Now here is your surprise, the article below is a part of a series Clark has been writing for Robert Burns Lives! regarding the men who celebrated the first Robert Burns Supper ever held. Thanks, Clark, for another homerun article about men who cherished their relationships with Scotland’s National Bard. (FRS: 8.20.15)

By Dr. Clark McGinn

Our next guest from that pivotal first Burns Supper in July 1801 is another important man in the early career of our Bard: Robert Aiken, who was immortalised by his protégé as ‘Orator Bob.’ He was born on 23 August 1739 and died in his seventy-eighth year on 24 March 1807 living a prosperous and influential life between those two dates – very much in contrast to the poet’s struggles

In writing last about Provost John Ballantine, I described the concept of the ‘connexion’ within a burgh or county in the time of Burns. This grouping of political and financial self-interest was cemented by family ties and secured by the oligarchic nature of political institutions of the time. Those bonds of blood and process were then stronger in many ways than the political whips of the Westminster or Capitol Hill authorities are today. Powerful groups could rely on the distance from Edinburgh and London and the slow communications to do what just what they wanted within their communities as long as they raised little fuss that could be hear from afar. . It will come as no surprise that this convivial solicitor of good family and a substantial practice in the town and county of Ayr, who also held the government patronage post of the Surveyor of Taxes for the burgh, occupied a prominent place in the crossover between town and county in both business and politics.

In this world Robert Aiken’s father, John Aiken, was a man of some substance who owned his own vessels as an independent shipmaster. He was part of the Ballantine connexion as he operated out of the port of Ayr substantially on contract with the provost’s family trading between Scotland and the family’s commercial interests first in Virginia and then in Jamaica. In fact at young Bob’s Christening Provost John’s Uncle Patrick stood in for the baby’s absent father who was then on venture upon the high seas. Through his mother, Robert Aiken was related to the Dalrymples of Ayrshire, who were a branch of the lowland powerhouse of the Dalrymples of Stair (most famous, or infamous, as the instigators of the Massacre of Glencoe). His maternal grandfather has been Sherriff-clerk of Ayr and his uncles included the Reverend William Dalrymple (‘Dalrymple mild’ as the Bard described him) who was for many years the senior of the ministers of Ayr’s Auld Kirk. His aunts were the wife of Reverend David Shaw of Coylton (who would years after employ Hamilton Paul as a curate) while the other uncle by marriage was David Tennant who served as master of the Grammar School (he was the brother of Burns’s friend and farming mentor John ‘Old Glen’ Glenconner). Of his relations though the most interesting was Uncle Charles Dalrymple, who had succeeded his father as Sherriff-clerk in the county and who had married one of the most unexpected heiresses in the history of Scotland: Miss Macrae McGuire.

It is impossible not to digress here. At the turn of the Seventeenth Century a poor orphan boy ran messages in Ayr. Barefoot but bright, James McCrae was befriended by a fiddler in the town and his wife. The McGuires, despite being relatively poor and with a family of their own to care for, fed the lad and even paid his tuition at the Burgh School. Afraid of being a burden on his humble but kind benefactors, when he could read, write and sum, young Jim ran away to sea and through the industry and education that epitomised the Scots lads of the time, he found himself in India and rose through his own efforts to be the Governor of Madras. He retired wealthy beyond belief and came back to Ayr in the 1730s to seek out his benefactors. The fiddler had already joined the heavenly orchestra, but his widow still lived in Ayr. She had a son and three surviving daughters had named her youngest daughter Macrae McGuire after her orphan boy. The Governor – in a denouement worthy of a fairy story – gave fortunes to each of the violinist’s four children. The eldest daughter (who had a chest of jewels) married the 13th Earl of Glencairn (and was Burns’s ‘Lady Betty’), the second married a Senator of the College of Justice (a Scottish supreme court judge) and the youngest received the title deeds of the estate of Orangefield just outside Ayr and married the up and coming Charles Dalrymple.

Their son James Dalrymple of Orangefield was the man Burns met in Edinburgh and whom the poet described him as ‘sticking closer than a brother.’ Unfortunately a love of racing and hunting (let alone other pleasures) led James to dissipate the Indian fortune and in the old saying ‘clogs to clogs in three generations’ he was eventually bankrupted. His trustees in bankruptcy included Provost John, Orator Bob and his Uncle William. (The estate is now under the runway of Glasgow Prestwick airport which has as much financial security as James Dalrymple had, but there is a campaign to have it rechristened ‘Robert Burns International Airport).

So here we have Robert Aiken, with a prestigious law practice in a prosperous burgh, with a government position and salary, with close contacts with the political masters in the town and related to one of the richest country estates. As a cousin to the Earl of Glencairn, whose family had been the political fixers of the north of Ayrshire and equally as a business associate of John Ballantine and his bank, Robert was a man at the pivot of his society. Add to that his literary interests, he was an ideal and efficient patron for a poet such as our Burns.

How Aiken met Burns is unknown, but possibly it was through mutual friendship (and Freemasonic links) with Gavin Hamilton, the lawyer of Mauchline. Aiken had vigorously (and successfully) defended Hamilton in the Ayr Presbytery and Synod hearings into pettifogging charges from the Auld Licht conservatives that were to be the inspiration for that great poem of satire, Holy Willie’s Prayer where the Poet has Willie Fisher apostrophise him as ‘that glib-tongu'd Aitken, […] wi' hingin lip an' snaking.’ Aiken, called rather more positively ‘Orator Bob’ in another of Burns’s satires against the hardliners of the Kirk, The Kirk’s Alarm, was a major supporter of Burns’s publication of the Kilmarnock Edition. He personally secured subscriptions for 145 copies out of the edition of 612, and was a tireless promoter of the work through his work and the county. In return, Burns dedicated The Cotter’s Saturday Night to his benefactor, ‘who read him into fame’ and repeatedly referred to him in letters to Ballantine and others as his first patron.

Aiken chose to support Robert as he had a genuine interest in literature. He was a committee member of the Ayr Library Society which was an early and important club within the town which allowed subscribers access to the latest books. Actually, not all the latest books, for all his outspokenness Bob was one of the officers of the society who burned Thomas Paine’s works under government orders.

Burns’s letters to Aiken show a robust openness and a desire to have good counsel from the older man. Their letters seem to have dried up after the flitting to Dumfries, but unfortunately, as is so often the case, the correspondence is not complete as many of the lawyer’s papers were lost or stolen by a rogue clerk in his office after his death.

It was not all plain sailing, to be honest, nothing ever is in the story of Burns. There is a confusing period in their relationship. When Jean Armour’s father was keen to be rid of the penniless poet who had got his favourite child pregnant, he took the marriage declaration signed by Robert and Jean to Aiken who mutilated it – making old Armour feel that the common law marriage was annulled (it probably wasn’t but the question is as complex as it is boring, so let’s move on). This caused a coolness as can be imagined but one which was overcome in time. Burns wrote his Epistle To A Young Friend to Aiken’s son Andrew. It ends, in my opinion, all too poignantly:

In ploughman phrase, "God send you speed,"
Still daily to grow wiser;
And may ye better reck the rede,
Then ever did th' adviser!

(The son of ‘his youthfu’ friend’ called Peter Aiken was chairman of the 1859 Centenary dinner in Bristol.)

So when Robert got on his pony to take Edinburgh by storm, in his pocket were letters of introduction from Provost John and Orator Bob to several gentlemen, but notably Dalrymple of Orangefield which were to launch Burns on Edinburgh and cement three generations of affection within the Aiken family.

After Burns’s death, Aiken appears to have taken a keen interest in the Allowa’ Club. We know that the first Ode which was written by Hamilton Paul was met with praise on the day, as Hamilton Paul recounted an anecdote to William Chambers much later. Paul records that he was asked to meet Robert Aiken ahead of the first dinner in July 1801:

The Club was to dine in Burns’s Cottage. Mr Aiken and I took a walk before dinner towards Allowa Kirk. He requested me to show him the ode which I had prepared for the occasion. He read a verse or two and walked a few paces without speaking – at last he said with great emotion – in a flattering tone – ‘That will do – there are two Criteria by which I judge of the merit of a production of this kind. First my eyes are suffused – next the button of my waistcoat skelps.’ He was dressed in a Brown coat and a snow white vest which actually burst open.

He regularly attended the Allowa’ Club dinners both in the chair and ‘in the body of the Kirk’ until his death in 1807 and the following year’s Ode by Hamilton Paul, was in the form of a paean to him and to William Crawford of Doonside who had been one of the other original guests and died on the very same day as Aiken:

Lamented AIKEN, first I hail thy name,
Whose pure benevolent regard
Gave counsel to the youthful Bard,
Admir’d and ‘read him into fame.’

Aiken is buried in the calm cloisters of Auld Kirk’s kirkyard in Ayr along with many names from the story of Burns. That story would have been a lot shorter had Aiken not drummed up 145 subscriptions to Burns’s first book which he did, having seen the young Ayrshire famer’s genius for himself. Burns called him ‘My lov’d, much honour’d, much respected friend’ and no greater epitaph could a man have than that!

© Dr Clark McGinn, 2015

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