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George Burns, His Times and Friends

Thousands of persons, every year, and from every part of the civilized world, visit the Highlands of Scotland. They wander among the romantic beauties of the Trossachs and Loch Lomond; they gaze upon the wild Pass of Glencoe; they stand amid the ruins of Iona; they explore the wonderful recesses of Staffa; they sail along the magnificent line of lakes to Inverness; they penetrate into the wildernesses and picturesque glens of the mainland; lake and river, moor and forest, sea and island—all are known to them. But, perhaps, when after a lapse of time they recall their “impressions,” there are few things that stand out with more vivid distinctness in their memories than the steam voyage down the Clyde.

Let us take that journey, in imagination, now. We leave the rush and roar of mercantile life at the Broomielaw of Glasgow — the focus of the commerce, wealth, and enterprise of Scotland—and amid ships and shipping and beside crowded wharves we steam along until, after a few miles, we find ourselves in the country with villages and parks and handsome mansions on either hand.

It is the early summer, when the rich foliage is wearing its garb of tenderest green, and the first faint blush of the heather is colouring the distant hills.

As the river widens into the Firth, we pass the isolated rock of Dumbarton, with its emerald slopes casting their shadows into the sea; while in the far background rise the blue ranges of high-peaked mountains which encircle Ben Lomond. We see the red and purple hills where Holy Loch and Loch Long cut their way in among the statelier mountains, and follow with our eyes the long line of shore on our right hand where the sunbeams light up the white houses of Dunoon and Innellan, set in their framework of woods and gardens and hacked by gently sloping hills. Passing the spectral Clock Lighthouse and the charming little village of Inverkip embowered in luxuriant foliage on our left, Ave round the promontory on which, beautiful for situation, stands Castle Whunyss, and then there is spread before us one of the finest panoramas in Scotland. Behind the coast-line of Bute rise the glorious Alpine ranges of Arran; the Great and Little Cumbrae, lying low on the horizon, are before us; to our right stretches the coast of Argylesliire down to Toward, and on our left is the coast of Ayrshire down to Largs and the reaches beyond.

We are in Wemyss Bay, and here let us tarry awhile.

Near to the shore is a handsome house, standing in the midst of lawns and shrubberies, and backed by a cliff of exquisite beauty, with winding walks leading to terraced gardens.

Upon the lawn in front of the house, there sits an old man of ninety four, singularly handsome, with finely-cut features, clear, penetrating eyes, a massive head, and beautiful snow-white hair. No covering is on his head, and he is accustomed to sit thus in the open air in all kinds of weather; he wears no spectacles; his sight, which a few years ago had become dim, has grown strong and vigorous again. A book is in his hand, for he is still a diligent reader, and enjoys, with a keen relish, the best literature of the day.

But he is not reading now; he is meditating. It has been a life-long habit that has helped his judgment, wisdom, and faith. Many an hour of holy solitude has he spent in that garden overlooking the sea, but rarely has he passed an hour of loneliness there. Every spot within the range of his vision is peopled with memories. As he gazes on that wondrous panorama of sea and mountain, there is another panorama unrolled before him which no other eyes than his can see, and there are voices around him which no other ears than his can hear.

Old age has been called “the holy place of life,” and he is in a vast sanctuary where he holds communion with the living mid the dead, and with the Spirit of the Lord.

From childhood to old age he has been more or less a “dweller by the sea,” and it has never lost its charm for him. He was familiar with it when, as a child, “he laid his hand upon its mane,” and through life it has had the power to “stir his soul with thoughts profound.” Now, in the evening time, as he gazes upon the broad bosom of the Firth, stirred only by a gentle ripple, his thoughts go back to early times, to the day of small things, to his boyish pastimes and the labour of his manhood on the banks of the Clyde. Life to him has been like a river, always in motion, always gliding along to its destiny, sometimes through bowers of beauty and in the midst of delectable mountains, sometimes through weary wastes and dull, monotonous tracks; never rushing into roaring cataracts or plunging into abysmal depths, but always widening as it flowed. And now, in the broad expanse before him, he sees the emblem of that wide ocean upon which, under the pilotage of the Great Captain, he is soon to set sail.

As he gazes, ships pass to and from Glasgow— the city of which he has been one of the “Makers” —and they carry his memory back to the time when he was engaged in mighty shipping enterprises, which helped to revolutionise the trade of the whole country and its relations with other countries. A splendid man of business has he been in his day! He has trodden the pathway which all must take who acquire affluence and position. A “son of the Manse,” by Industry and frugality and the right use of his talents, he has lived to amass wealth and to become the centre of a wide-spreading and beneficent influence. In the midst of the strife and fierce competition of business, he has never forgotten that he is a servant of God, and has never soiled his hands or his garments by contact with anything that could defile. Nor in his most hard-working days have the commercial activities in which he has engaged ever made him neglect the wider claims of life.

A man of cultivated taste, he has always loved and cherished everything that is elegant and refined —the companionship of nature, the beautiful in art, in literature, and in all the products of genius.

A lover of home, he has been wont to throw open all the casements to let in the light and everything bright and beautiful and winsome, so that wife and children and friends might find there the mirth and gladness of earth, as well as the peace and the sweetness of heaven.

Gentleness and affability have been the very spirit of his social life—kindliness and cheerfulness its natural outgrowths. He has retained through life that grand old-fashioned courtesy that will neither hurt another man’s character nor injure his interests, nor give pain to his feelings, and that has caused him to treat rich and poor, his own servants and the noblemen who have dined at his hoard, with equal kindness and consideration.

There is not a goodlier sight in the world than a bright, cheerful, and beautiful old age—the hoary head found in the way of righteousness; and while we gaze upon this patriarch of Wemyss Bay, children and grandchildren and friends break into his meditations to sit beside him and enjoy his society. There is no quiver in his voice, no tremor in his hand, no dimness in his eye. His conversation is bright and sprightly; the world is still full of interest to him; he loves its social joys, and has never found that life is less earnest and solemn, or less full of glorious purpose because it has had its proper and apportioned place for innocent and healthful recreation. A merry peal of laughter rings from the little group upon the lawn as they hear him tell, in his own inimitable way, one of the stories of long ago.

No wonder that he is a man of many friends. Never in his life has he known anything of the theory that the heart has room for only one true friend; his has been large enough for hundreds— not mere acquaintances, but faithful, true, and intimate friends, who have instinctively turned to him in their hours of special joy. or sorrow, certain that he would weep with them real tears, or rejoice with them with real joy. The "communion of saints” never meant to him simply the Lord’s Supper; it included that wider and grander meaning of holy, human fellowship.

A multitude of friends has he had, and still has —men and women of all ranks and conditions, who have left their mark in the world’s history, and not in one department only, but in many; whose actions have been the basis of action in others, and whose words he has treasured up in letters, as well as in memory, that they may still be transmitted from soul to soul, and perchance become centres of ever-unfolding thought.

Echoes of many voices long since hushed ring in the old man’s ears as he sits upon the lawn in the calm of life’s evening.

The shadows are lengthening; the bells of the church near at hand—built as a memorial of one who was the sharer of his life for much more than half a century — ring out their peal. A thousand memories flash through his mind, but there is no sign of sadness upon his face. He has passed through many sore trials in his life, but he looks back upon them now, not to weep again, but to see in them landmarks around which, long since, sweet dowers have grown. His faith has always been strong enough to trust God in the dark, and if now we see his lips move, and his head bow, it is not that he is repining for the past, but that with great thankfulness he is giving praise for the mercies of the present, for praise has ever been the spirit of his life.

He conies of a long race of God-fearing men, and the energy of moral suasion, the silent beauty of holiness, the eloquence of holy living, have been handed down from generation to generation — a priceless legacy of hallowed remembrances and associations.

There is nothing better to express the religion of this venerable man than the grand old phrase of Scripture, “He walked with God"—not in fear, but as a child with his parent, with a heart ready to find all enjoyment in Him, with a reverence which made submission to His will easy, with a pride which made him feel that everything else was poor and insufficient compared with this honour and supreme joy.

He has drunk deep at the fountain-head of spiritual things; he has had an all-absorbing personal affection for the Master of his life, while the Word of God, which he has read without cavil or suspicion, has ever been to him one of the sources of his keenest enjoyment.

* * * * *

The sun is hovering upon the verge of the horizon, the islands are gilded by his farewell beams, the ships sail on like aerial things over the sea which gleams like polished silver, the birds in their umbrageous homes upon the terraces sing their evening hymn, the light clouds in the western sky are tinged with purple and gold. The day is passing away, but the morrow will dawn. In the calm of the twilight hour, and in the calm of life’s eventide, that aged man enters his house, and, as he retires to rest, places his life back in the hands of God, to take it again in the morning, it may be, as a fresh gift from Him.

This patriarch of Wemyss Bay is he whose life-story will he told in these pages. He never kept a diary, for he was far too self-forgetful for that, but he treasured up the letters of friends, and preserved records of his business, social, family, and religious associations; moreover his memory was as reliable as that of a man in the fullest vigour, and from these, and contemporaneous sources, there is ample material to construct his biography.

I can never be sufficiently thankful that it was my privilege to know and love George Burns, and it is no exaggeration to say that I never knew one who took a fuller share in the commercial, social, controversial, and philanthropic movements of his times with greater honour than he; or who more completely embodied the ideal of Christian living.

St. Aubyns, Shortlands, Kent.

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