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George Burns, His Times and Friends
Chapter XXIV. Honours


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 forget.”

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 sorrow.

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 occurred.

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.

I am,

Yours very faithfully,

Salisbury.

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 appreciated.

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 being.

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 beautiful. .

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 light.

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 so long.

“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 Christ.

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.

THE END


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