Life was designed to be
beautiful from beginning to end. As the hour before sunset is the
loveliest in the day, as October is the ripest month of the year and the
richest in colours, so old age, serene, virtuous, and happy, has a charm
not less fascinating than the graces of infancy, the hopes of youth, or
the vigour of manhood. Oftentimes the end of summer is more glorious
than the summer itself; and sometimes, though rarely, old age is so
round and rich and bright and beautiful as to make youth seem poor in
comparison. It was so in the case of Mr. Burns.
Until the early part of the spring of 1888 no thought of a biography
appears to have entered his mind, and then it was not his own idea, but
was put there by those who loved him. At first he smiled at it, then
shrunk from it. But when it was suggested to him that perhaps the story
of his life, simply told, might influence other lives; that an old age
such as his belongs, according to the great scheme of life, to every
individual if he only knows how to build it; that hundreds of personal
friends would be gratified to have his acknowledgment how well God had
dealt with him all through the years— these considerations prevailed,
and when, in March of that year, I was invited to spend some time at
Wemyss Bay for the express purpose of throwing open the floodgates of
his memory, I looked forward to the visit with as much pleasure as he
did misgiving. Very soon, however, the satisfaction was mutual, and as
long as I live I can never forget that period of my life and his when we
went together over the long past, now laughing over some comical stoiy,
or wading through correspondence brown with age, or drinking in the
inspiration of lives long passed away from earth — sometimes driving, or
sitting in the sunshine on the lawns, at others making morning visits to
his bedroom, or spending long cosy afternoons in the library, when he
let me see into his heart of hearts, as well as into the outward
circumstances of his life, and without a note-book or external aid of
any kind, would tell me anecdotes, describe events, and give the details
of historical movements with a precision simply marvellous. “Here comes
the chiel takin' notes,” he would say laughingly, as I entered his room,
and then we would proceed to talk of what he, a boy of ten, did on the
day when the victory of Trafalgar was celebrated, or discuss the day’s
Times and the Parnell Commission.
Truly a wonderful old man was he. It was utterly impossible for any one
to know him and not to love him, and it was equally impossible to know
and love him and not to be impressed with the singular grace and charm
of his Christian character; the “beauty of holiness” shone and sparkled
in every word and action, and made the merry laugh and genial smile as
impressive as prayer and praise.
I said at the time, and repeat it here, that if the Bible were blotted
out of existence, if there were no prayer-book, catechism, or creed, if
there were no visible Church, I could not fail to believe in the
doctrines of Christianity while the “living epistle” of his life
remained in my memory.
Instead of the biography Being a trouble to him, it became a distinct
pleasure. Old boxes, desks, and drawers were ransacked, and as fresh
documents, long since forgotten, and some that had not seen the daylight
for two-thirds of a century, were found, it tilled his heart with new7
thankfulness as he reviewed all the way in which he had been led, and
the goodness and mercy that had followed him all the days of his life.
He would sometimes speak to friends who visited him of v7hat was being
done. To one (the Rev. David Keith) he said :—
Men say that I have had a very successful life, that mine has been a
highly prosperous career—and it is true, and I am most thankful for it.
But in looking back as I do now, this reflection gives me no real
satisfaction ; there is nothing in the fact upon which I can rest. But
when I read, as I have been reading lately, letters written by myself as
a young man sixty or seventy years ago, and find that then I was decided
for Christ, that knowledge indeed rejoices my heart in my old age.
“The beautiful smile,” says Mr Reith, “in the bright clear eyes, the
light on the fine sweet face, as he spoke these words, I can never
From any Pharisaical pride in his religion he was absolutely free. He
was of a higher type than those who are merely called, and it may be
called truly, "very religious people.” He was by habit too much of the
“thorough gentleman,” in the real sense of the phrase, to have had
anything false or untruthful in his outward manner, and he was too
loving, both towards God and man, to be anything else than transparent,
simple, and unaffected in all that he said or did.
His heart remained fresh and young, open to all good and happiness in
the world, to all truth, beauty, and joy; his sympathies were with
little children as well as with aged saints; his laughter over a good
story, or a good joke, was still as infectious as his sympathy with
To him “the world wars only what was not of the Father; while all that
was of the Father—all that is worth knowing and loving in social life,
all that is according to God’s will in nature, from the flowers of earth
to the stars of heaven—he rejoiced in.”
Even his old love of sight-seeing remained as keen as ever, and one day
in September he started off to see the Glasgow International Exhibition
! He went from Wemyss House to the station in his Bath-cliair, took the
train to Glasgow, spent the day in the exhibition, and drove lorn thence
to Glenlee (a distance of twelve miles), the beautiful place of Mr.
Cleland Burns, vacated on the death of his wife, and to which he had
returned after nearly twenty years’ absence. There Mr. Burns remained
for two days. On his return to Wemyss Bay he drove to the Castle in
order to see Sir John and Lady Ivennaway, who were staying there, then
back to Wemyss House, where he sat in the garden for two hours receiving
and entertaining visitors. A marvellous old man truly!
In the spring of the following year an event of peculiar interest
One bright May morning he was in his room with Ann Fraser, his faithful
friend, and Mary Hay Burns, his youngest grandchild, Mr. and Mrs. John
Burns and the rest of his family being" away yachting, when a letter and
telegram were placed in his hands, which he quietly opened. The letter
was from the Marquis of Salisbury, and ran thus :
Foreign Office, May 23, 1880.
I have the pleasure of informing you that Her Majesty has been pleased
to direct that a Baronetcy of the United Kingdom should he conferred on
you on the occasion of her birthday, in recognition of the great
benefits which your enterprise and administrative power have preserved
to the commerce of the country.
Yours very faithfully,
The telegram was from the Marquis of Lothian, Secretary for Scotland,
and was as follows :
I have great gratification in informing you that Her Majesty is
graciously pleased to confer upon you the honour of a Baronetcy on the
occasion of Her Majesty’s birthday.
He was greatly overcome, and no wonder. Suddenly, when lying in bed,
almost alone, and ninety-four years of age—the oldest recipient of such
an honour in the world’s history—he realises that Her Gracious Majesty,
the head of our social system, has recognised his life - work and has
conferred upon him a high honour.
What followed is almost too sacred to tell, and is perhaps as unique as
the conferring of the baronetcy.
The old man bowed his snowy head in his hands, and thanked the King of
kings and the Lord of lords, blessing Him for putting it into the hearts
of others to give him this honour, praying that he might use it aright,
and when it should descend to his beloved son that he might sustain it
unsullied, and through all the future of his life walk humbly with God.
Then the old patriarch blessed Mary Hay Burns and Ann Fraser, and
afterwards, when talking to them, said, "I know that God would never
have allowed it if it should have an evil effect on the welfare of my
soul. If it had come in earlier life it might have hindered my spiritual
progress.” Then, as old memories flashed before him, he added, “How
proud my brother, the doctor, would have been if he had lived to see the
Barony boy made a Baronet!”
Busy days in Wemyss Bay followed. Seventy telegrams, hundreds of letters
from all parts and persons, came pouring in, while almost every
newspaper in the land had its notes and comments; the burden of which
was that the act was peculiarly appropriate, that a life spent for the
good of his country and his fellow-men entitled him to the honour, while
his historic connection with one of the greatest commercial undertakings
in the world made his claim a stronger one; it was a recognition of the
fact that to the enterprise, intelligence, and foresight of men like him
the country owes its position and prosperity.
For himself the mere title was of little account; the value of the
distinction was that it was the expression of his sovereign’s favour,
and a "recognition of all that God’s grace had enabled him to be and to
do.” He was much more touched by the kind letters and messages of
congratulation than by the honour itself, although that he fully
Now that his name was brought prominently before the public, Sir George
had to meet the inevitable interviewer, and a visit from a
representative of The World he found to be interesting and amusing, and
very kindly. What seems to have principally struck the reviewer was the
fact that lie was talking to a man who was born in the year of Warren
Hastings’ acquittal; who clung tremblingly to his mother’s skirt in the
Old Barony Kirk on that darksome watch-night which ushered in the
nineteenth century and the “year of dearth”; who could remember the
magistrates issuing a solemn proclamation against the eating of hot
rolls, and his mother conveying him certain dainty morsels
surreptitiously in spite of the injunction, and who had heard, nearly
ninety years since, from his venerable grandfather’s lips the story of
the stirring events of 1715.
There are many devices for making old age miserable. One of
them—probably the most prolific source of self-inflicted torture—is to
keep up the anniversaries of births, deaths, and marriages of relatives
and friends. Sir George was above all such pettiness. He did not believe
that joy or sorrow was to be subject to arbitrary times and seasons,
and, as we have seen, would have allowed the anniversary of his own
golden wedding to pass unobserved.
But he loved to keep up old friendships, and it was a source of comfort
to him to the very last to receive letters from those who, like himself,
had adhered with firmness to the first principles of their faith, and
had stood fast to their old love of Divine truth without having been
carried away by any of the divers winds of doctrine, or influenced by
the “different schools of thought.” It comforted him to know that there
were still thousands who had not bowed the knee to the Baal of
philosophic systems, who could still write and talk and preach
evangelical truth as it flowed from the lips of the Saviour and His
apostles, and who were zealous to contend for “the faith once delivered
to the saints.”
His old friend Canon Miles, who had worked with him shoulder to shoulder
in former days, said in one of his latest letters :—
God knows His own and is known of thorn, and come what may as a trial to
prove the faithful, the elect will continue steadfast to the end
‘looking to Jesus,’ looking to nothing else; resume upon Jesus, resting
upon nothing else; and believing in Jesus, rejoicing in nothing else.
This doctrine I publicly taught some fifty years ago, I never deviated
from it—you are my witness; and now in my seventy-ninth year I hold and
cling to the same precious truth ‘complete in Christ,’ who is our All in
All, our righteousness, sanctification, and redemption; He in us and we
in Him—in Him the Eternal. So may we, in our time, like Simeon in his,
depart in peace and rest in our blessed Lord for ever and ever.
The days of correspondence were nearly at an end; rheumatic gout in the
hand made it almost impossible for him to use a pen, and though he was
able to the last to send his words and wishes by the hand of another,
the interchange of letters necessarily lost much of its old charm.
He was still capable of a full share of enjoyment, and in the spring of
1890 he loved to sit in the gardens and watch the annual renewal of the
great miracle of vegetation, or on the upper lawns to see the shipping
entering or leaving the Clyde.
He had everything that, as Shakespeare says, should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends. And, as he sat thus, he
could say: And so beside the Silent Sea I wait the muffled oar; No harm
from Him can come to me On ocean or on shore.
Very solemn were those last days on earth, when he was gathering from
the garden of the borderland, where alone they grow, “the great
passionflower of God’s love, the crown of thorns, the blood-red rose,
and the amaranth of the eternal realm.”
All the most beautiful phases of his character shone out with sunset
glories; his perfect acquiescence in God’s will, as he lay calmly in the
shadow of the wings of the Almighty, and the intensity of his
compassionate sympathy with suffering. Wounded and bruised affections,
blighted capacities, broken and defeated hopes, desolation,
solitariness, silence, sorrow, anguish, and sin—all things that caused
or consummated the “death of life,” touched him keenly. At the same time
he had the most intense interest in the young, and all the avenues to
his heart were open to them. Everything bright and beautiful, joyous and
glad, seemed in him to have the charm of dewy freshness. All the world
was a mirror revealing the image of God; all its gladsome sounds—song of
birds, plash of ocean, words of friends—echoes of His voice. His
spiritual sympathy with God caused him to see men and things in the
intense light of the Divine love, and his whole being was filled with
charity, patience, forbearance, and good.
It is difficult to depict the beauty of his Christian character without
incurring the charge of exaggeration under the unconscious influence of
personal affection, but one who knew and loved him well, said, “It is
the most perfect embodiment I have ever seen of the character of Jesus
Christ.” While another bore this testimony, “He lives so closely in
communion with God, that when I am with him I seem to he conscious of
another Person, unseen, hut always there.” This sense of God’s presence
was not necessarily conveyed by anything he said—it pervaded his whole
Throughout the early months of the year he had several severe attacks of
illness, which were borne with exemplary patience though attended with
great suffering, and it became apparent to those who watched him closely
that the end was not far off.
On the ‘28th of May he was well enough to he wheeled in his chair along
the Bay, but he was in great pain, and begged to be taken back to the
house, saying quietly, “I shall never see the Bay again.”
A pretty white tent had been erected on the lawn in front of Wemyss
House, and on a sofa there he had enjoyed some pleasant days in the warm
sunshine. Here he tarried for awhile, and received a number of special
friends, conversing with them cheerfully and instructively. Many were
struck with the beauty of his appearance. A bright flush, caused by the
pain he was suffering, overspread his face, and gave him so fresh and
healthy a look, that one of the visitors, who had seen him for the first
time, thought him looking hale and hearty, and could scarcely credit the
fact that he was so ill.
The next day being wet, he spent the afternoon in the library, reading
at intervals “The Apocrypha,” edited by Dr. Henry Wace, and a monthly
magazine relating to the Jews. For three days after this he was
suffering intense pain, no sooner getting rid of one complaint, than
another and a worse one set in.
All through this time, and through many previous months of more or less
suffering, he was attended night and day by his loving and faithful Ann
Fraser, who anticipated every wish, and ministered to him with a wealth
of tenderness and affection.
Now, as ever, prayer was the very breath of his spiritual life, and
quiet contemplation its daily bread. Even to the last he spent the early
morning hours in “talking aloud to God,” and pouring out to Him all that
concerned the best interests of those he loved, whose names, in the
beautiful simplicity of his faith, he was wont to mention. Next to the
Bible he loved the writings of Pascal, and even in his last illness
quoted passages from his works. God, heaven, unseen and eternal things,
were intensely real to him from the day when he “put on Christ,” to the
day when he “saw Him and was made like unto Him.” In all the weary hours
of suffering and weakness which marked the close of his earthly career,
this realisation of the unseen became more and more vivid, and some of
his utterances, while quietly waiting God’s time and will, are very
I had a wearisome night, and I felt I might be called away at any
moment. I thought that last night was to be my last. . . . He kept me
awake that I might have communion with Himself. I do not see Him, but I
know lie is in this very room.
Oh, my God, how loving, how loving Thou art! What more could have been
done than Thou hast done in redeeming us? Oh, let me thank aloud, and
praise my God, from whom all blessings flow.
Oh, my God and Saviour, how many and how wondrous are Thy ways. How
unspeakable is Thy love. Never now can I be lost. As sure as Christ is,
I am saved!
I will wait Thy time, O God! Thy will shall be my will. I cannot learn
that lesson unless I learn it here. In heaven all will be joy and rest.
God has revealed enough for our salvation, but not for our curiosity.
I long to see Thee, O Jesus, but not a moment before Thou pleasest.
Oh, the bright glory! The Throne of God and the Lamb! I shall be there.
I do not care who else I am to see. I shall see Jesus, and be like Him.
I long to speak to Jesus. I deserve nothing, but in Him I am deserving.
He has united me to Himself with an everlasting bond.
His interest in many of the subjects relating to work for the Master was
as keen as in the days of his activity, thus :—
I pray for Ireland, and for all those there who are in darkness. I pray
for my friend Captain Kearney White, who is working there for the good
of others, and doing what he can to bring the Word of God to perishing
souls. I pour out my heart in supplication for that country, that it may
be brought out of darkness into His marvellous light.
For two days before his death his voice failed. He was quite conscious
to the very last, and tried hard to speak, but could only utter a word
now and again. These were, “Lord Jesus, come, come; I am waiting, I am
ready.” “Home, home.” "Give me patience to wait Thy time, but Thou
knowest what I suffer.”
The prayer was answered; pain passed away, peace like sunshine rested
upon him, and on Monday the 2nd of June, at mid-day, lie fell asleep in
the arms of his son John, who, with his wife, their three daughters, and
Ann Eraser, were around his bed. Thus the grand old saint went Home, and
death was Not more than the sudden lifting of a latch—
Naught but a step into the open air out of a tent Already luminous with
On Thursday, the 5th of June, while the flags of all the ships in the
harbours of Glasgow and Greenock and in the port of Liverpool and
elsewhere were at half-mast, in the presence of crowds of relatives,
friends, and neighbours, many of whom have figured in the pages of this
book, the mortal remains of Sir George Burns were borne by the sailors
of his son’s steam yacht Capercailzie to their last resting-place in the
rock-hewn cave, and deposited beside the wife he loved so tenderly and
“Eulogy is not biography,” say the reviewers, and, as a general rule,
they are right. But Sir George Burns was an altogether exceptional
man—everybody loved him, and I have found it impossible to write of his
excellences in cold, critical language.
After his decease letters poured in upon his son, Sir John Burns, the
successor to the title and estates, from all quarters, and from every
rank and class in society, testifying to the respect and love in which
his father was universally held. Let a few brief extracts from these
letters, written by well-known people of the land, hear out the estimate
given in these pages of the character and work of Sir George Burns, the
Patriarch of Wemyss Bay.
You can have nothing but pride in the thought of his life. . . . No
other word than beautiful is suited to him. . . . Altogether admirable
and loveable all round. . . . You must, indeed, have often thanked God
to have made you his son. ... I have known of no relationship so
delightful to look at as yours to him, and no life continued to anything
like the age in all outward perfectness as his was. No man could see him
to the last without being the better for it.
So loveable, wise, and large-hearted. Not readily shall any of us forget
that kindly, benevolent countenance that kindled with exquisite humour
when surveying the little foibles and weaknesses of men — that face so
winsome in its mingled strength and sweetness.
Your father, one of those great men who in our century has helped to
make our Empire and the Nation what it is, has left us after a long life
that will ever be a great example to his descendants.
The finest old man it has ever been my good fortune to know.
One of the best of fathers, the noblest of citizens, and as pure,
honourable, and saintly a man as ever lived. His life was spotless and
his end peace. Memory is the only friend that grief can call its own,
and the sweet memories of his career will be a boon to you and cast a
lustre on the path of all descended from him.
For him it is far better. he had lived long and lived much; enjoyed
largely God’s goodness; served faithfully his blessed Master ; and
inspired many with the sense of a devotion saintly yet human, all
thought pervaded by an unearthly beauty, yet seeking, in that which is,
to realise the heavenly ideal. May we follow him who so closely followed
His death will make a blank in many homes and haunts, and I can imagine
no greater joy to him than to meet the many and many in the land beyond
who he has been the means of leading to the Saviour.
He was a wonderful epistle of Christ, and there was no doubt about the
reading—it was always so open, so true, so expressive. You could not be
"with him without feeling the power of the Master in him.
What more complete an idyll or more absolutely splendid than that of
your father’s earthly career.
I have never had the privilege of knowing one with so many qualities of
mind and heart and character, and in so high a degree and so beautiful a
combination as there were in him. . . . his knowledge was extensive, his
opinions were wisely formed and firmly held, and he was as ripe in
Christian faith and experience as he was in years.
His presence was an inspiration and incentive to a good and holy life,
lie leaves a cherished memory which shall long shine bright for the
encouragement of others.