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Robert Burns Lives!
Nine Men: The Soldier, The Gardener (And not to forget the Innkeeper) by Dr Clark McGinn.

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

Getting emails from Dr. Clark McGinn is like getting presents from Santa Claus at Christmas. You know the time is close and you think you know what his article will be about, but you have no idea what his treatment of the subject will be when you open your attachment.

Nine Men: The Soldier, The Gardener (And Not to Forget the Innkeeper) fits perfectly into this category and brings us to the end of Clark’s series on the men who participated in the first Burns Supper a few years after the Bard’s untimely death.

I emailed Clark and asked him to send me a current picture of himself and noted that if he did not have one then I would happily take one of him and someone else together. He readily fired off a picture of a new friend he had recently made in Norway to deliver an Immortal Memory. He wrote he had made a new friend and a picture of them together was enclosed. He did not give me his new friend’s name, but the picture is one I’ll never forget and neither will you - it is outstanding!

Thank you, Clark, for this wonderful series of articles on the inaugural Burns Supper. Our readers have certainly enjoyed getting to know each man who participated. You have enlightened our lives with your scholarly work, and I am deeply appreciative of all you have done on this herculean task.

Dr. Clark McGinn and his new Norway friend


By Dr Clark McGinn.

After seven biographies thus far, we are coming to the end of the stories of the men who gathered together in Burns Cottage in July 1801 to celebrate the very first Burns Supper. I feel slightly guilty to my readers, for after reading (and I sincerely hope, enjoying) the lives of the clubbable and witty cleric, the Enlightment provost, the wily lawyer and fixer, the war hero friend of Washington, the urbane doctor and slave owner, the industrious banker, and the wise and liberal professor, the last two gentlemen have left little more mark in the history books beyond their participation in Hamilton Paul’s earliest Burnsfest. There is a famous entry in a Victorian book of the lives of the Saints which ends ‘and that is all, or rather more than all, that we know about the blessed Saint Neot,’ and I feel an equally inadequate biographer of the last two gentlemen who helped inaugurate the Burns Supper: Captain Hugh Fergusson and William Crawford of Doonside.

When we looked at the career of Provost John Ballantine, we saw that his family with its interlinked network with the Hunters and the Fergussons had ambitious mercantile plans to expand trade in the Royal Burgh of Ayr (to the general good of the town and to garner a good personal fortune therefrom). One less than successful commercial venture was the building and furnishing of a sugar house or refinery near the harbour. Messrs Hunters & Company petitioned the town council in 1772 to lease some land on the site of the old citadel, near the harbour and, upon a deal being struck, they built a seven story factory to refine sugar in competition to the great manufacturers who were based in Greenock and Port Glasgow, some 30 miles away. As Ayr’s harbour trade was mainly fishing and the export of coal there were few of the major trading firms interested in diverting their landings from the Glasgow conurbation, but the Hunters thought that they could compete by offering a cheaper service. Unfortunately, the cost in both time and money of transferring cargoes from the wharves of Glasgow down to Ayr and back again outweighed any benefit from the new machinery and its lower refining cost so before long, the ‘sugar house’ became a bit of a white elephant. By 1790 it lay empty and it looked as if the sagacious Hunters would be out of pocket on their investment. Fortunately, the history of Europe was to intervene.[1]

Before two years were up, 1792 saw the tumult of the French Revolution and the call to arms that would see British ships and troops in active warfare against the French for over twenty years. As part the surge in military manpower which underpinned Britain’s defence policy, the old scheme of billeting individual soldiers in homes and farms could not cope and Parliament voted money to build large barracks in various town across the country. Billeting soldiers at inns or on the populace was almost as unpopular in Scotland as it had been in the American Colonies where Jefferson’s many ringing denunciations against George III included the charge that the King ‘has kept among us, in Times of Peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our Legislatures […] quartering large Bodies of Armed Troops among us.’ More than that, billetting was not only unpopular as a policy, it was inefficient in cost and egregious to military discipline. A report to the House of Commons calculated that a network of barracks would not only remove the men from the temptations of civilian life (basically drink, more drink and prostitutes) but with an economy on war-footing, it would save three shillings-thruppence-three-farthings per enlisted man and £4 7s 11 ¾d per horse (the disparity between those two figures tells you about the relative values of each in the official mind of the day.) This economy would generate something in the order of £40,000 in savings each year. (Which would be around £9 million today – which wouldn’t make much of a dent in today’s military budget!).[ii]

Having a barracks within any town was ‘a wartime boost to ‘[the burgh] economy […] bringing not only additional capital to the burgh but also increased demand for grain and other goods, and adding regimental officers to its society and assemblies.’[iii] Ayr was approached as one of the potential sites and the Town Council recognised the boost it would provide to the burgh economy and so (no doubt through John Ballantine’s quick eye) it offered to sell the defunct sugar house to the Barracks Department. Thus in 1794, title changed hands, enriching the Council and as they sold the buildings, Messrs Hunters also recovered their investments in an unexpected coup. Thanks to the war, everyone came out financially better.

With its seven stories, the old Sugar House had room to accommodate around 450 soldiers, plus their equipment, making it the fourth largest military establishment in Scotland. The barracks in time became the regimental headquarters of The Royal Highland Fusiliers (Princess Margaret’s Own) and they remained in active use – latterly renamed after a former commanding officer as the Churchill Barracks - until they were demolished in 1967 and replaced by the town’s rather monstrous leisure centre. Each of these establishments was commanded by an officer bearing the title of barrack-master. These men were appointed by, and responsible to, the new Barrack-master General and they remained on the Army List as serving officers. For Ayr, the appointment fell on Captain Hugh Fergusson who entered his office in 1794 and earned 10 shillings a day. In context, this salary is about double what Burns hoped to earn in the Excise, so it was a relatively small piece of patronage. But patronage it certainly was.

I know little about Captain Hugh, (sometimes with his Christian name spelled ‘Hew’) other than his grandfather Revd Thomas Ferguson owned the house and estate of Castlehill, leaving it to his son Provost David Fergusson who had married John Ballantine’s sister Elizabeth.[iv] The close family linkage can be further deduced from an entry in the Auld Kirk of Ayr’s baptismal register. In 1812, ‘at the desire of Capt FERGUSSON late Barrack-master,’ the records of his grandnephews Hugh Fergusson (born 1797 in Kingston, Jamaica) and Patrick Ballantine Fergusson (born Marylebone, London in 1798) were recorded. The younger boy could easily have been named after Provost John’s elder brother. This seems even more likely as Captain Hugh’s landlord was that same Patrick Ballantine when he lived on South Harbour Street which was a few minutes’ walk from the barracks and sits on one of the approaches to the New Bridge of Ayr that was upgraded as part of that major burgher infrastructure development that made John Ballantine’s reputation.[v] The house still stands today.

Fergusson was a friend of Primrose Kennedy, although I can find no record of them serving together under the Colours so we must assume that their acquaintance was through Ayrshire connections rather than the Army. They must have been relatively close and have trusted one another, for Hugh acted as the guardian of the orphan children of a mutual cousin David Fergusson Kennedy of Finnarts at Primrose’s request. In less happy circumstances, he joined Primrose in being a character witness for the Major Campbell who attended the Allowa’ Club once, but who was hanged for duelling in 1807.[vi] From the entry in the registers above, and the fact that he vacated his town lodgings, he must have retired sometime in 1812 (or slightly earlier), and he died (‘much respected’) on 19 November, 1820 in his home outside the burgh, called Midsands.[vii] And that, dear readers, is the limited knowledge I have of the life story of Captain Hugh Fergusson, Barrack-master of Ayr.

For the last gentleman who attended that highly memorable day, I have even less historical data. Let us look at the fragments we know about William Crawford Esquire of Doonside.

When the Burgh of Ayr sold the lands around Alloway (to the South of the Burgh) by public auction just before Burns’s birth, the part known as Upper Alloway Crofts and the ruined tower of an ancient castle called Brigend, was acquired by a local man called John Crawford who resolved to build a fine modern country seat overlooking the beautiful river Doon and its famed Old Bridge.[viii] He named his estate Doonside. To create the amenities that every gentleman of quality in the county needed, he employed our Poet’s father, William Burnes in 1754 for a period two or three years as his gardener. The gardens of Doonside House showed Burnes’s skills, as the demesne was described by a tourist at the time as ‘a pretty dwelling, surrounded with gardens, orchards and parks.’[ix] Once the Doonside project was completed, William Burnes jumped across the river Doon to enjoy the employment by Provost William Fergusson of Doonholm, who would subsequently rent the farm of Mount Oliphant to his gardener so he could become a farmer the better to support his young family.

John Crawford of Doonside died, childless, in 1776 and his second cousin William inherited the handsome estate.[x] If you visit Alloway’s Auld Kirk, you can still see the weathered stone marking the Crawford vault bearing the inscription ‘John Crawford of Doonside, who died 2D Apr. 1776.’[xi] William married Jane Campbell the daughter of an Ayr doctor and in their marriage they went on to have three sons and three daughters.[xii] In the mercenary politics of the day he was recorded as one of the county voters for Ayrshire along with Kennedy and Douglas. The government agent who canvassed votes in 1788 described him as having an ‘Estate small and entailed. A family. Should be provided for [i.e. bribed through patronage]. Undecided [i.e. as to which party to vote for].’ [xiii] I have found no evidence of the famed patronage of Henry Dundas adding to the joys of the Crawfords.

Like most of the other guests that day, William was a prominent Freemason in the town, serving as master of Ayr Kilwinning (the ‘Operative’) Lodge no 123 for a total of five years (1785 to 1786, and 1800 to 1802). In fact, he would have been the ranking mason present at the first two dinners in his capacity of Right Worshipful Master, following in the footsteps of past-masters Ballantine, Aitken and Douglas.[xiv]

In 1800 he noticed the ill repair of the old Brig o’Doon and in respect for its history and its poetical connections with Burns, he led a campaign in the county to raise funds for its preservation and upkeep (just as Hamilton Paul would do around twenty-five years later, and the Burns Federation in 1907.) This homage to the poet, along with the linkage to William Burnes through the Doonside estate made him an eminently suitable guest for the first Burns Supper.[xv] Hamilton Paul’s minutes of the Allowa’ Club mention him attending the second dinner as well, which was the first to be held on the poet’s birthday which they erroneously thought was 29 January, 1802.[xvi]

William died on 22 March 1807 at the age of 48 (which would have been the same age as Rabbie, had he lived) and was laid to rest beside his cousin in Alloway.[xvii] He was commemorated at the next Allowa’ Club dinner (held that year in the Cottage but in the rather more seasonable weather of July as being more comfortable and appropriate to the elderly gentlemen.) They seemed to be in need of looking after, for Robert Aiken had also died that year, as did Dr William McGill the second minister of Ayr’s Auld Kirk (himself another Lodge 123 brother), in fact, all three (including Crawford) expired within a few weeks of each other. Hamilton Paul’s Ode for that July, 1807 dinner was entitled ’Anniversary of Burns And Tribute To The Memory of Three Friends To Whom The Poet Was Dear And Some Of Whom He Distinguished With Peculiar Marks Of Gratitude And Esteem As His Writings Testify.’[xviii] The passage relating to William Crawford follows:

To frolic prone, to melancholy slow,
The Muse long struggling gains the tide of grief,
Now bursts the floodgates of her oppressive woes,
And tries in utt’rance to obtain relief;
The while her fav’rites, mid unbroken gloom
Partake the dreamless slumber of the tomb.


Thy Banks, O Doon shall long retain,
And echo back the plaintive strain
As near thy glassy wave,
We heave the sigh when Beauty weeps,
O’er the cold turf where CRAWFORD sleeps,
That turf that wraps his grave,
Ye trees that crown the wat’ry glade,
Ye birds that chaunt the boughs among,
Ye seem to wear a deeper shade,
Ye seem to pour a sadder song.

And, DOON, more solemn and more slow
Thou seems’t amid thy woods to flow
In mournful cadence to the sounding shore
For he who like the Summer beam
Gave life and beauty to thy stream
Shall tread the daisied turf no more.
No more with voice of welcome call
The stranger to his bounteous hall
No wore when social tribes convene
With wine & song & mirth
To pay homage due to the Poet’s birth
With his lov’d presence grace the joyous scene.[xix]

            So there we have all nine guests recorded – to the greater or lesser extent that we have available. But it came to me that there was a tenth person present. Not a guest but the landlord of the Cottage. When the Burns family moved from Alloway to Mount Oliphant, William could not manage to sell ‘the auld clay biggin’, so for the next fifteen years he let it out to various tenants. In 1781, the Incorporation of Shoemakers in Ayr were looking for a safe investment in real estate for their cash, and William agreed to sell it to them for £160. The Shoemakers were one of nine ‘incorporated trades’ which had exclusive rights to make and sell their wares within the Royal Burgh. On joining this livery company, members paid a fee the company which was invested to provide benefits for fellow members who fell ill, or out of trade or at the end of the day to support their widows. For the next nineteen years the Shoemakers rented it to one of their members for £10 per annum, but in 1801 the tenant, Matthew Dick appears to have decided to turn the cottage into a public house.[xx] It’s hard to tell if that decision was a factor in prompting John Ballantine to think of holding the dinner in July. I think it probably was, for the inn sign – a portrait of Burns – was reported in the press as having been, ‘done at the expence [sic], and at the direction of, several gentlemen of the neighbourhood’ to be hung outside the cottage. It was this picture that was brought into the first dinner where Hamilton Paul apostrophised it in his First Ode, as he recorded in the first minute of the club:

A portrait of the Poet, painted on wood, intended as a signpost to the cottage, which is a rural tavern, was presented to the company, to which there is an allusion in the poem, --

            ‘When even his image in my burning breast,’ &c. [xxi]

There is an inn sign in the collection of the Burns Birth Place Museum. When I last saw it, Amy Miller from BBPM told me that ‘according to local knowledge, this board is much older than it looks - in the 20th century someone “spruced it up” and painted over the original,’ so it is perfectly likely that is the board that was toasted on that first dinner.[xxii] Not all critics thought that this was either an appropriate or a well-executed manner in which to commemorate the birth-place of the Bard. One ‘R.M.’ of Glasgow visited the Cottage some weeks before the first Supper and was scathing about the portrait:

in the whole design there was exhibited such a poverty of intellect, such a deplorable beggary of taste, and such a woeful display of ignorance and folly, that for a moment, I was unable to decide whether it was most deserving of laughter, ridicule, indignation, or contempt.[xxiii]

But on the ancient commercial principle of ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity’ the commentary and connection with the national poet ensured good trade and financial success for the cottage in its new role, to the extent that before the second dinner, John Maitland, a flesher (or butcher) in Ayr thought that the new inn would be a money-spinner and so he struck a bargain with the Incorporation to permit him to live in the cottage and carry on as a publican for a significantly enhanced rent of £25/10/-. He took possession of the cottage at Martinmas in November, 1801 and after two years he sublet his tenancy to the infamous old drunk, John ‘Miller’ Goudie who held sway (quite literally) over Burns Cottage for forty years entertaining and annoying many pilgrims to the birthplace of Burns including John Keats in 1818 who memorably ‘drank some toddy to Burns’s memory with an old man who knew Burns – damn him and damn his Anecdotes – he was a great bore.’[xxiv]

I am running ahead of the story.

After the success of the second dinner in 1802, the Allowa’ club continued to hold anniversary dinners in the Cottage in January 1803 (when they determined that the poet’s true birthday was 25th not 29th) and again in January 1804.  As mentioned above, the chill of the cottage in winter was uncongenial to the older gentlemen, so they switched back to a Summer celebration between 1805 and 1808. There was no dinner held in 1809 and in January 1810 the company met at the King’s Arms Inn at the bottom of the High Street in Ayr when Hamilton Paul was present in person as laureate for the ninth and last time before leaving for the Borders and his new pulpit.  His Ode that day celebrated his tenure and echoed his departure through quoting the words of his poetic hero:

Nine times the annual lyre I’ve strung,
Nine times the Poet's praises sung;
Thus have the Muses all, by turns,
Paid homage to the shade of Burns,
While you, the Patrons of the Nine,
Delighted, charm'd, enraptur'd, fir’d,
By love of poesy and wine,
Politely listen'd and admir’d;
But should my day be overcast,
And this effusion prove my last,
In words that oft have met your ear,
‘This last request permit me here;
When yearly, ye assemble a',
One round, I ask it with a tear,
To him, the Bard, that's far awa’!’[xxv]

The Allowa’ Club continued to meet annually in Ayr until January 1819, with their absent reverend friend mailing an annual Ode to be read by one of the assembled guests. He returned to Ayr to help preside over the laying of the foundation stone of the Burns Monument on Burns’s Anniversary in 1820 and that evening there were several (possibly two dozen!) competing Burns Suppers held in the town and so the Allowa’ Club did not meet that night, or as it transpired, ever again.[xxvi] But by then, Hamilton Paul’s invention – the Burns Supper – had become a popular national (and international) festival celebrating one of the greatest poets ever. His convivial invention continues to grow today, and so we all owe a great vote of thanks to him, and his eight friends who started this joyful and convivial tradition.

So next January please raise a glass in a toast to the first Nine Men and their happy legacy.

HERE’S, a bottle and an honest friend! 
  What wad ye wish for mair, man? 
Wha kens, before his life may end, 
  What his share may be of care, man. 

Then catch the moments as they fly,       
  And use them as ye ought, man: -
Believe me, happiness is shy, 
  And comes not ay when sought, man.[xxvii]

© Clark McGinn, MMXVI

[1] ‘Enterprise and Refinement: James Hunter and the Ayr Sugar House’ August 5, 2013 by South Ayrshire Libraries  (last accessed 30 March 2016)

[ii] The State Of The Nation [...] Comprised In The Reports Of The Select Committee On Finance […] Appointed By The House Of Commons [etc., etc.], (London: Printed by R Shaw,1799), vol iii, pp.21-22.

[iii] Bob Harris and Charles McKean, The Scottish Town in the Age of Enlightenment: 1740 – 1820, (Edinburgh: EUP, 2011), p.42.

[iv] Paterson, History of the Counties of Ayr and Wigton, (Edinburgh: James Stillie, 1864), vol ii, p.129.

[v] Joseph D Shearer, Ayr And Its People From 1428 To The Time Of Burns, (Ayr: The Art of Joseph Shearer, 2004).

[vi] McKie Collection, Dean Castle, East Ayrshire: McKie, IX, 35 B, p.2, and [Anon], A Short Vindication of the Memory of the Late Major Alexander Campbell of the 21st Regiment of Foot [Etc. Etc.], (Edinburgh: Constable, 1810), p.35.

[vii] Edinburgh Magazine & Literary Miscellany, (1820), p.94.

[viii] Paterson, op cit, vol I, p.201.

[ix] John Wilson, Robert Chambers and David Octavius Hill, The Land of Burns, (Glasgow: Blackie, 1840), vol 1, pp.16-18, at p.18.The house was extensively damaged by fire in 1852 but was remodelled. It was demolished in 1961.

[x] Paterson, op cit, vol ii, pp.368-9.

[xi] David Williams, Robert Burns and Ayrshire: A Guide to the People and Places the Poet Knew,’ (Catrine: Alloway Publishing, 2013), p.98. The Scots Magazine gives the date as 23 March.

[xii] Paterson, op cit, vol ii, pp.427-428.

[xiii] Sir Charles Adam of Blair-Adam (ed.), The Political State Of Scotland In The Last Century: A Confidential Report: Political Opinions, Family Connections, Or Personal Circumstances Of The 2662 County Voters In 1788, Edited With An Introductory Account Of The Law Relating To County Elections. (Edinburgh: David Douglas, 1887), p.38 (at paragraph 137).

[xiv] Archibald Chalmers, ‘The First Ever Burns Supper, The Ashlar, issue 38 (September 2009).

[xv] McKie IX, 35, A p.1.

[xvi] McKie IX, 35, A, p.3.

[xvii] The Athenaeum, 1807 p.541.

[xviii] McKie IX, 35, D.

[xix] Air Advertiser, 30 July 1807.

[xx] Peter Westwood, ‘Burns Cottage,’ Burns Chronicle (Homecoming 2009), pp.i – xlvii,

[xxi] McKie IX, 35, E.

[xxii] Personal email to author, 20 February 2013.

[xxiii] The Monthly Magazine, No. 73, 1 June 1801, pp.408-409, at p.408. See also Aberdeen Journal, 15 June 1801 which called it a ‘posthumous honour,’ see also the Hull Advertiser and Exchange Gazette of 13 June 1801. By 1817, this had been brought indoors to act as an icon; see Andrew Bigelow, Leaves From a Journal; or Sketches of Rambles in Some Parts of North Britain and Ireland Chiefly in the Year 1817, (Boston: Wells & Lilly, 1821), p.33.

[xxiv] Letter, John Keats to Thomas Keats, 17 July 1818, Hyder Edward Rollins (ed.), Letters of John Keats 1814 – 1821, 2 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1958), vol.I, pp.331-332.

[xxv] McKie IX, 35, F, G; Air Advertiser, 1 February 1810; Glasgow Courier, 3 February 1810.

[xxvi] [Anon], Auld Ayr, ‘Laying The Foundation Stone of Burns’ Monument,’ pp.180-184.

[xxvii] The Poems and Songs of Robert Burns, James Kinsley (ed.), 3 vols (Oxford: OUP, 1968)., K.618 [Here’s a bottle and an honest friend.]

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