In 1800 a sorrow of a
peculiarly painful nature came to Mr. Burns in connection with one of
his Liverpool steamers.
About one o’clock in the morning of the 18tli of June of that year, when
the sea was smooth as a mirror and most of the passengers were asleep,
the Orion struck on a sunken rock off Portpatrick, and in five minutes
heeled over in seven fathoms of water. Out of a large number of
passengers many perished, among them being Dr. John Burns and Miss
Morris, a niece of his wife.
George Burns was attending a meeting in Glasgow of what was then styled
the Council of the Forth and Clyde Canal, when he was called out of the
room, and informed of the terrible occurrence hy his friend Mr. Hugh
Moncrieff, the law agent of the Council. On the instant Mr. Burns
started by rail to Greenock, where he found one of his own coasting
vessels, which happened to be lying in the harbour ready to sail; and
without a moment’s delay he was on board, steaming across to Dunoon,
where his family was then residing.
Twenty-two years afterwards the Rev. C. B. Gribble, who was at the time
of the wreck staying with Mr. Burns at Dunoon, wrote of the sad event to
Mr. James Cleland Burns as follows:—
“It has fallen to my lot to share with your family many of the joys and
sorrows which have marked and chequered their course. I was with you all
in the calamity which so distressed you when the Orion was wrecked, and
I remember the affecting scene at Dunoon, and how your dear father said,
‘Let us call together the household and pray.’ We went into another room
and humbled ourselves before God, acknowledging our sins, submitting to
His dispensations, and imploring His mercy to console the relations of
those who had been drowned. I remember the energy of John in sending off
a steamer, and our sad view of that vessel as she passed down the Clyde,
and the grief of that sweet sister of yours as the news arrived of one
or another known and loved, being lost; but this I recollect, that the
catastrophe was met by your honoured parents in the sweet spirit of
submission to God.”
It was a great shock to George Burns, from which he did not fully
recover for some years. He was very tenderly attached to his brother
John, and although George was twenty years his junior, they had long
taken sweet counsel together; in their religious views and hopes and
aspirations they were in thorough sympathy; in their sorrows they had
always found comfort from the same sources, and in each others successes
they had taken an ardent interest.
Now, at the age of seventy-five, in the midst of terrible circumstances,
Dr. John Burns was suddenly removed from the world in the attitude and
exercise of prayer.
His portrait, one of Graham Gilbert’s hest works, hangs in the Hunterian
Museum of the University of Glasgow and it is a faithful representation.
"Dr. Burns’s appearance,” says one who knew him well, “must still he
familiar to many of us—the long white hair, the bright face, the trig
figure, the quaint costume, collarless coat, knee breeches, black silk
stockings, shoes and buckles. He was the last man in Glasgow who stuck
to this fashion, and he stuck to it to the end of his days.”
There were many who wrote to Mr. Burns at this time to condole with him.
We will only quote one letter written by the Ptev. W. H. Havergal.
Dunoon, Sept. 2, 1850.
The sentence lias just been told to me. It will afflict you, but ‘It is
the Lord,’ therefore ‘It is well.’ You lounc it is not of yourself; it
can be of no one but by Wet-mission. Here lies your solace—you have not
brought it on yourself, but your God, for righteous reasons, has brought
it on you. He means much by it to a gazing world around you. ‘Hast thou
considered my servant Job?’ will be a new question to the commercial
throng of Glasgow. T hardly meant to say so much, but simply to certify
you that you a re remembered by one at least. The Lord comfort you ! He
will not forsake you. May dear Mrs. Burns, and all your dear ones, find
the God of Israel a very present help in time of trouble. I pray you
think of no sort of reply to this, but believe me, in quietness,
Gratefully and faithfully yours,
W. H. Havergal.
The freshness of his grief for the loss of brother and friends had not
passed away before Mr. Burns had to hear another severe heart-trial. His
beloved sister Elizabeth (“Bess”), Mrs. MacBrayne, was called to her
rest after a long and useful life of great influence and activity.
Yet another trial befell Mr. Burns much about the time of which we are
writing. On the 5th of February, 1851, when the Plover, one of his
ships, was getting up steam in Glasgow Harbour, the boiler burst, the
engineer was killed, and great damage was done to the vessel. Only a
very short time before the explosion, Mr. John Burns, the eldest son of
Mr. Burns, was in the engine-room ; and his narrow escape, while
overflowing the heart of his father with gratitude, at the same time
affected him deeply.
It could hardly be otherwise than that this combination of sorrowful and
terrible events should cause Mr. Burns great distress of mind.
Letters of sympathy poured in from all quarters. We select an extract
from one only:—
Mr. Andrew Ahlcorn, M.D., to Mr. John Burns.
Oban, Feb. 8, 1851.
I am sure I need not say to you that I sympathise deeply with your
father, yourself, and all of you in the renewed distress into which you
are again thrown by the recurrence of another, or more, it is said here,
of those sad accidents that have been so frequent of late. This is
another trial sent, I have not a doubt, for good and gracious purposes
towards all of you, by Him without whose permission not a sparrow
falleth to the ground; and I hope and pray that every one of yon may be
enabled by His grace to improve this and every dispensation of His
providence that He may see meet to order in your lot. We, blind and
ignorant as we are, know not what is best for us, hut He knows who seeth
the end from the beginning, ; and it is our duty as well as our interest
to submit in all things to His wisdom which is infallible, and to His
goodness which is unbounded. ... I know I need not apologise to you for
writing thus, for I am satisfied that, whether you think it proper or
not, you will at least believe it to he meant in true kindness and from
sincere friendship, llemember me very kindly to your father, mother, and
Yours most sincerely,
Soon after this, Mr. Burns, finding the burden of business laid upon him
somewhat greater than he could hear, and being anxious to meet the
pressure of larger enterprises in the Cunard business and the Irish
service, resolved to abandon some of his smaller lines of steam traffic;
and the first to be surrendered was “the Royal Route,” or Western
The Highland trade had been commenced in a small way in 1832, and three
years later it passed entirely into the hands of Messrs. Burns. How that
came about is an interesting episode.
Mr. Burns had in his employment, as head of the Quay Department at the
Broomielaw, a very able and valuable man, one James Mitchell, who had
the knack of picking up useful information on trade matters. One day
Mitchell went to Mr. Bums, and said that Mr. Young, a plumber, who owned
three small vessels in the West Highland trade—the Bob Boy, the Helen
Macgregor, and the Inverness—was anxious to make some arrangement, as he
was not succeeding, and wondered whether Mr. Bums would take the agency.
Mr. Bums immediately replied that he would not, hut that he would at
once buy one-lialf of his vessels on condition that he had power to
purchase the other half if he wished. This was done, and it became the
nucleus of what was hereafter to be a very large trade. Of course there
was opposition, but, as in other instances, it was overcome. William
Ainslie, of Fort William, hacked hy a wealthy firm, was the first to
start a rival company, hut his vessels did not run for long. Being hard
pressed, he was glad to come to a compromise, and sold his.vessels to
Mr. Burns. A similar fate awaited the steamers which belonged, snb rosd,
to the Greenock Bailway Company, until at length the West Highland trade
was in the sole hands of Messrs. Burns.
From a small beginning “they worked up a whole system of steamers for
the day passage through the Oman, or the night passage round the Mull,
gliding along the canals or battling with the Atlantic, meeting at Oban,
crossing and recrossing, plunging into the locks, winding along the
sounds, threading their way among the islands; fine pleasure-boats for
the Hock of summer swallows, stout trading-boats summer and winter
serving the whole archipelago, linking with the world the lonely bay or
the outer islet, freighted out with supplies of all sorts and shapes,
freighted in with wool and sheep, Highland beasts and Highland bodies;
surely the liveliest service in the world.” In 1851, the whole of this
fleet was handed over to Mr. David Hutcheson, one of their old “ hands ”
who had been with them ever since the days when the six smacks, the
origin of the whole shipping business, were first managed and
subsequently purchased. He was joined by liis brother, Mr. Alexander
Hutcheson, and by Mr. David MacBrayne, a nephew of Messrs. Burns, in
whose hands the trade has ever since remained.
"But there has been many a change since then in the service,” observes
the writer from whom we have already quoted. “Dairy steamers have
replaced the Crinan track-boats of our youth and the boys galloping in
their scarlet jackets; the Iona and the Columba, the Clansman and the
Claymore— we had not dreamt of such vessels; in every detail in article
already quoted on “Janies Burns.” there have been improvements. But in
all its main features the service is as the Messrs. Burns made it. To
their initiative, which others have only followed up, thousands of
travellers from all parts owe the most delightful of their
travels—thousands of ourselves” (Glasgow men), “ worn by the strain of
the town, owe the new life sucked in with the breath of heather, the
music of the ocean, the untold delights of the West Highlands.”
In the time of trial Mr. Burns found great comfort in the counsels and
sympathy of friends with whom he corresponded—although none were able to
give him such help as his large-hearted and clear-headed wife. We append
some extracts from her letters written at this time, letters full of the
most excellent practical advice:—
Glasgow, Dec. 5, 1852.
Whether in London or Byde, I trust that you are able to be in church,
and are comforted with the services, especially ‘in the breaking of
bread.’ May your heart burn within you as He opens up to you a view of
His love, even in the discipline which He is causing you to pass
through. But, my dear George, see that you do not make your burden
heavier than He intends. There is such a thing as nursing sorrow, which
often arises from the same cause that made Jonah think ‘lie did well to
be angry.’ . . .
Do not be careful for the things of this life further than as a duty to
which God has called you.
Look forward and upward, my dear George, but, except to thank God for
past mercies, never look back. It is not safe for you, nor is it
honouring to God to murmur at His providence.
Next to his wife there was no one who knew the innermost heart of George
Burns better than his friend Captain Caffin, to whom he writes thus:—
Glasgow, Oct. 14, 1852.
My leal Caefix,—I was comforted yesterday by the receipt of your letter
of the 12th. ‘Let the righteous smite me; it shall be a kindness: and
let him reprove me; it shall be an excellent oil, which shall not break
my head’. I can truly say, 1 thank you for your faithfulness and
kindness. I have indeed been in deep waters for several years, yet they
have not been permitted to overwhelm me. Blessed is the man that
endureth temptation; I have found that God has not laid on me more than
He has given me strength to bear, but has really made a way of escape
for me, not only in temporal matters, but more especially in my soul’s
When sad, travelling alone in the railway, the first time I went to
Liverpool lately (for I have been twice there), I was much comforted by
the words, ‘Then were the disciples glad when they saw the Lord.’ All
the discipline I have been receiving, and am still receiving, is little
enough to promote my sanctification, and perfect my resemblance to my
Lord. Yet, blessed be His name, He is working in me, and by degrees,
through llis Holy Spirit, perfecting that which concerneth me.
You are going upon a very important undertaking. It will have its trials
for you; one has already commenced— separation from your wife and
family. How strangely you and I have been mixed up together, apparently
tied together in our course so that we cannot separate.
The Duke made ‘duty’ his guiding principle. Let us, having an eye to the
recompense of reward hereafter to be enjoyed through the merits of
Christ, make ‘duty’ also our rule, and by faith go through with our
business as appointed foil us. All is ‘appointed’ from eternity, and
that is our comfort. He who goes to war, and Iks who stays by the stuff,
shall be equally blessed when acting in the fear of the Lord.
I take very sober views of all that is proceeding in our business, but
God moves all, and He will protect and bless us to the measure that will
be good for us. I was enabled on Tuesday night to attend a public
meeting, and to say a few words of sympathy in behalf of the Madiai
which brought a blessing to my own soul.
May God bless and protect you, and cause His face to shine on you. My
wife, beside whom I am writing, joins her prayers to mine in your
Yours very affectionately,
We cannot digress in order to follow Captain Caffin in his adventurous
career further than to append one extract from a letter written by him
two years later, in which he gives a graphic account of the taking of
H.M.S. Penelope, Farsund, Port Gottland.
Nov. 21, 1854.
“You allude to the peril we were in off the large fort at Bomarsund;
indeed if our hearts were never grateful before, that should have melted
them, and in retui'ning thanks in our prayers on the following morning I
made an appeal to the men to that effect. We were from half-past eleven
till half-past three under fire, and at the lowest computation they must
have fired three hundred shot and shell at us. How we escaped with so
small a loss passes human comprehension; three killed and three wounded.
I must tell you the particulars, which you may not have heard. Sir
Charles Napier sent for me on the morning of the 12th of August, and
said he had been examining the large fort, and he was under the
impression that it had no guns from the twenty-second embrasure to the
end, and that he wanted me to go in and ascertain this, saying that I
was to go up abreast of the twenty-second embrasure, and stop and coax
them to fire at me to draw their guns out; and, having done this, then
to go to abreast of the eleventh embrasure, and anchor, and await
further orders. He asked me if I knew the navigation, and said he wrould
send the Master of the Fleet to pilot me. I immediately returned to my
ship, and up anchor. Sir Charles Napier hoisted the signal to me ‘Very
smart,’ and in we went slowly and steadily, and had not quite got into
one station when bamg, bang, bang came their shot at us, the two Irst
falling short, and the third passing across our cutwater; the fourth
came into us just abaft the bridge, and through both sides of the
paddle-box boat. At this moment I said to the Master of the Fleet, ‘ Sir
Charles Napier will be satisfied that the fort has plenty of guns here
at all events,’ for the shot and shell followed in rapid succession. I
hoisted the signal ‘Permission to engage enemy’—which Sir Charles
answered by hoisting the negative. I then told the Master of the Fleet
we would now proceed as slowly as possible into our berth abreast of the
eleventh embrasure. The ship had not gone twice her own length when she
took the ground, broadside on to the fort, which now peppered us most
unmercifully, and which continued until we floated at half-past three.
We all had many hair-breadth escapes necessarily; the top of one of my
poor fellow’s heads was taken clean off above the eyebrows, and the
scalp hit me on the right arm just below my elbow, covering me from head
to foot with his brains; this shot knocked down at least a dozen men
with the splinters, but they were not much hurt. One red-hot shot came
through the midshipman’s berth just between wind and water, passed
through two of their chests in the steerage, setting fire to their
linen, and fell, spent, in my clerk’s office. The Admiral made the
signal for me to throw my guns overboard, which I did—all of which I
recovered after the fort capitulated; in the meanwhile I was fresh armed
by subscription from the fleet.
One of the Russian guns was presented by Vice-Admiral Sir Crawford
Caffin to Mr. John Burns, and stands at the present hour in a commanding
position on the terrace of Castle Wemyss, bearing the following
This Gun was taken at Bomarsund, 12 August, 1854, by Vice Admiral Sir
Crawford Caffin, K.C.B., then in command of H.M.S. Penelope, and by him
presented to John Burns, on 10th August; it took part, with other guns
of the large fort, for four hours in a heavy fire of shot, shell, and
redhot shot on the Penelope, as she grounded in reconnoitring that
Among the trials incident to family life, there are few things more
painful than to witness the extinction of one of its branches. This,
however, was the case in the family of Dr. Burns. We have narrated how
he lost his daughter Rachel, his son Allan, and how he himself perished
in the Orion.
In 1853, his son, Colonel John Burns of the 2nd Royals, the last
surviving member of his family, died at the Cape of an illness, the
result of fatigue and exposure in the Kaffir War. By a curious
coincidence, the place where he was struck down in Kaffraria was Burns’
Hill, a mission station that had been founded from Glasgow and named
after Dr. Burns of the Barony—as “Lovedale,” another station founded at
the same time, was named after Dr. Love, of Anderston.
In the early autumn of 1854, Mr. and Mrs. Burns, in company with Mr.
James Agnew (who afterwards was best man to Mr. John Burns at his
wedding), a son of Sir Andrew Agnew, went on a tour through the English
Soon after their return, Dr. Burns was called upon to endure the
heaviest sorrow, save one, that ever overshadowed his life. The story of
that severe trial we can only tell in his own words as given in a letter
to a friend :—
14 Oct., 1854.
Our much loved and only daughter died on the 80th of September. She was
in her thirtieth year, and has left behind her three infants, a boy and
two girls. The second child took gastric fever, and from attendance on
her she caught the infection, and, being nursing at the time, was unable
to stand the violence of the attack. At the end of a month, after most
severe suffering, her Redeemer took her to Himself. When she was taken
ill, she expressed unreservedly to her mother her full assurance of
safety in relying on Jesus as her God and Saviour, but saying ‘her faith
was not a conventional one.’ She told her not to be alarmed at her
speaking as if she were going to be taken from us. She had no wish to
die, and fully expected to recover, but, as the issue of fever is always
uncertain, she wished to speak of her state while she was able, lest her
mind might become clouded. She was most faithful to her attendants. She
sent for her nursery-maid, Jane Kenneth (who is held in high esteem by
all our family), and urged on her the necessity of looking to Jesus for
safety, saying it was only assurance in His love that gave to herself
the peace she enjoyed amid all the restlessness of the fever. She
desired her at once to go to her own room and pray for the obtaining of
this blessing, adding that she would at the same time join in prayer for
her. We heard afterwards from the sick nurse that she had said to her
she would willingly go through all she was suffering if it might be the
means of bringing only one soul to Christ. Many touching proofs we
received of her being one of the beloved in the Lord. . . .
The parting has been a sore wrench, but blessed are the dead who die in
the Lord. She possessed the ornament of a meek and quiet spirit,
combined with beauty and ability, and, shining as a light in our little
circle, was deservedly very precious to us.
The funeral service was performed by the old friend and pastor of the
family, the Eev. C. P. Miles, and the mortal remains of the young wife
and mother were laid to rest in the Glasgow Necropolis.
Letters of sympathy and condolence poured in from all quarters, from one
of which we make a quotation. It was written by Mr. J. 0. Mitchell, an
old friend of the family.
Dunoon, Oct. 6, 1854.
... So young and so pretty, so clever and so good, with such work to do
(in bravely doing which she met her death), and with so many to love
her, it seems puzzling that she should be the one called away, and so
many useless ones left behind (though they have their use too, if they
will). One day, when we see the disjointed bits of the puzzle all put
up, we shall no doubt understand it all, but now you must feel ‘like
infants crying in the dark, and with no language but a cry.’ The blow
that has been dealt must be borne as well as may be. It is no use trying
to make little of a sorrow that cannot be magnified to the widower and
the little orphans, to Mrs. Burns and yourself, and to the boys. In
presence of this great grief it is not for others to speak, but none who
have been privileged to know Mrs. Beddie will soon forget or replace