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The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 06, No. 36, October, 1860 online

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THE

ATLANTIC MONTHLY.

A MAGAZINE OF LITERATURE, ART, AND POLITICS.

* * * * *

VOL. VI. - OCTOBER, 1860. - NO. XXXVI.

* * * * *


SOME OF THE HAUNTS OF BURNS.

BY A TOURIST WITHOUT IMAGINATION OR ENTHUSIASM.

We left Carlisle at a little past eleven, and within the half-hour
were at Gretna Green. Thence we rushed onward into Scotland through a
flat and dreary tract of country, consisting mainly of desert and bog,
where probably the moss-troopers were accustomed to take refuge after
their raids into England. Anon, however, the hills hove themselves up
to view, occasionally attaining a height which might almost be called
mountainous. In about two hours we reached Dumfries, and alighted at
the station there.

Chill as the Scottish summer is reputed to be, we found it an awfully
hot day, not a whit less so than the day before; but we sturdily
adventured through the burning sunshine up into the town, inquiring
our way to the residence of Burns. The street leading from the station
is called Shakspeare Street; and at its farther extremity we read
"Burns Street" on a corner house, - the avenue thus designated having
been formerly known as "Mill Hole Brae." It is a vile lane, paved with
small, hard stones from side to side, and bordered by cottages or mean
houses of white-washed stone, joining one to another along the whole
length of the street. With not a tree, of course, or a blade of grass
between the paving-stones, the narrow lane was as hot as Tophet, and
reeked with a genuine Scotch odor, being infested with unwashed
children, and altogether in a state of chronic filth; although some
women seemed to be hopelessly scrubbing the thresholds of their
wretched dwellings. I never saw an outskirt of a town less fit for a
poet's residence, or in which it would be more miserable for any man
of cleanly predilections to spend his days.

We asked for Burns's dwelling; and a woman pointed across the street
to a two-story house, built of stone, and white-washed, like its
neighbors, but perhaps of a little more respectable aspect than most
of them, though I hesitate in saying so. It was not a separate
structure, but under the same continuous roof with the next. There was
an inscription on the door, bearing no reference to Burns, but
indicating that the house was now occupied by a ragged or industrial
school. On knocking, we were instantly admitted by a servant-girl, who
smiled intelligently when we told our errand, and showed us into a low
and very plain parlor, not more than twelve or fifteen feet square.

A young woman, who seemed to be a teacher in the school, soon
appeared, and told us that this had been Burns's usual sitting-room,
and that he had written many of his songs here.

She then led us up a narrow staircase into a little bed-chamber over
the parlor. Connecting with it, there is a very small room, or
windowed closet, which Burns used as a study; and the bedchamber
itself was the one where he slept in his latter life-time, and in
which he died at last. Altogether, it is an exceedingly unsuitable
place for a pastoral and rural poet to live or die in, - even more
unsatisfactory than Shakspeare's house, which has a certain homely
picturesqueness that contrasts favorably with the suburban sordidness
of the abode before us. The narrow lane, the paving-stones, and the
contiguity of wretched hovels are depressing to remember; and the
steam of them (such is our human weakness) might almost make the
poet's memory less fragrant.

As already observed, it was an intolerably hot day. After leaving the
house, we found our way into the principal street of the town, which,
it may be fair to say, is of very different aspect from the wretched
outskirt above described. Entering a hotel, (in which, as a Dumfries
guide-book assured us, Prince Charles Edward had once spent a night,)
we rested and refreshed ourselves, and then set forth in quest of the
mausoleum of Burns.

Coming to St. Michael's Church, we saw a man digging a grave; and,
scrambling out of the hole, he let us into the churchyard, which was
crowded full of monuments. Their general shape and construction are
peculiar to Scotland, being a perpendicular tablet of marble or other
stone, within a frame-work of the same material, somewhat resembling
the frame of a looking-glass; and, all over the churchyard, these
sepulchral memorials rise to the height of ten, fifteen, or twenty
feet, forming quite an imposing collection of monuments, but inscribed
with names of small general significance. It was easy, indeed, to
ascertain the rank of those who slept below; for in Scotland it is the
custom to put the occupation of the buried personage (as "Skinner,"
"Shoemaker," "Flesher") on his tombstone. As another peculiarity,
wives are buried under their maiden names, instead of their husbands;
thus giving a disagreeable impression that the married pair have
bidden each other an eternal farewell on the edge of the grave.

There was a footpath through this crowded churchyard, sufficiently
well-worn to guide us to the grave of Burns; but a woman followed
behind us, who, it appeared, kept the key of the mausoleum, and was
privileged to show it to strangers. The monument is a sort of Grecian
temple, with pilasters and a dome, covering a space of about twenty
feet square. It was formerly open to all the inclemencies of the
Scotch atmosphere, but is now protected and shut in by large squares
of rough glass, each pane being of the size of one whole side of the
structure. The woman unlocked the door, and admitted us into the
interior. Inlaid into the floor of the mausoleum is the gravestone of
Burns, - the very same that was laid over his grave by Jean Armour,
before this monument was built. Stuck against the surrounding wall is
a marble statue of Burns at the plough, with the Genius of Caledonia
summoning the ploughman to turn poet. Methought it was not a very
successful piece of work; for the plough was better sculptured than
the man, and the man, though heavy and cloddish, was more effective
than the goddess. Our guide informed us that an old man of ninety, who
knew Burns, certifies, this statue to be very like the original.

The bones of the poet, and of Jean Armour, and of some of their
children, lie in the vault over which we stood. Our guide (who was
intelligent, in her own plain way, and very agreeable to talk withal)
said that the vault was opened about three weeks ago, on occasion of
the burial of the eldest son of Burns. The poet's bones were
disturbed, and the dry skull, once so brimming over with powerful
thought and bright and tender fantasies, was taken away, and kept for
several days by a Dumfries doctor. It has since been deposited in a
new leaden coffin, and restored to the vault. We learned that there is
a surviving daughter of Burns's eldest son, and daughters likewise of
the two younger sons, - and, besides these, an illegitimate posterity
by the eldest son, who appears to have been of disreputable life in
his younger days. He inherited his father's failings, with some faint
shadow, I have also understood, of the great qualities which have made
the world tender of his father's vices and weaknesses.

We listened readily enough to this paltry gossip, but found that it
robbed the poet's memory of some of the reverence that was its due.
Indeed, this talk over his grave had very much the same tendency and
effect as the home-scene of his life, which we had been visiting just
previously. Beholding his poor, mean dwelling and its surroundings,
and picturing his outward life and earthly manifestations from these,
one does not so much wonder that the people of that day should have
failed to recognize all that was admirable and immortal in a
disreputable, drunken, shabbily clothed, and shabbily housed man,
consorting with associates of damaged character, and, as his only
ostensible occupation, gauging the whiskey which he too often tasted.
Siding with Burns, as we needs must, in his plea against the world,
let us try to do the world a little justice too. It is far easier to
know and honor a poet when his fame has taken shape in the
spotlessness of marble than when the actual man comes staggering
before you, besmeared with the sordid stains of his daily life. For my
part, I chiefly wonder that his recognition dawned so brightly while
he was still living. There must have been something very grand in his
immediate presence, some strangely impressive characteristic in his
natural behavior, to have caused him to seem like a demigod so soon.

As we went back through the churchyard, we saw a spot where nearly
four hundred inhabitants of Dumfries were buried during the cholera
year; and also some curious old monuments, with raised letters, the
inscriptions on which were not sufficiently legible to induce us to
puzzle them out; but, I believe, they mark the resting-places of old
Covenanters, some of whom were killed by Claverhouse and his
fellow-ruffians.

St. Michael's Church is of red freestone, and was built about a
hundred years ago, on an old Catholic foundation. Our guide admitted
us into it, and showed us, in the porch, a very pretty little marble
figure of a child asleep, with a drapery over the lower part, from
beneath which appeared its two baby feet. It was truly a sweet little
statue; and the woman told us that it represented a child of the
sculptor, and that the baby (here still in its marble infancy) had
died more than twenty-six years ago. "Many ladies," she said,
"especially such as had ever lost a child, had shed tears over it." It
was very pleasant to think of the sculptor bestowing the best of his
genius and art to re-create his tender child in stone, and to make the
representation as soft and sweet as the original; but the conclusion
of the story has something that jars with our awakened sensibilities.
A gentleman from London had seen the statue, and was so much delighted
with it that he bought it of the father-artist, after it had lain
above a quarter of a century in the church-porch. So this was not the
real, tender image that came out of the father's heart; he had sold
that truest one for a hundred guineas, and sculptured this mere copy
to replace it. The first figure was entirely naked in its earthly and
spiritual innocence. The copy, as I have said above, has a drapery
over the lower limbs. But, after all, if we come to the truth of the
matter, the sleeping baby may be as fitly reposited in the
drawing-room of a connoisseur as in a cold and dreary church-porch.

We went into the church, and found it very plain and naked, without
altar-decorations, and having its floor quite covered with unsightly
wooden pews. The woman led us to a pew cornering on one of the
side-aisles, and, telling us that it used to be Burns's family-pew,
showed us his seat, which is in the corner by the aisle. It is so
situated, that a sturdy pillar hid him from the pulpit, and from the
minister's eye; "for Robin was no great friends with the ministers,"
said she. This touch - his seat behind the pillar, and Burns himself
nodding in sermon-time, or keenly observant of profane things - brought
him before us to the life. In the corner seat of the next pew, right
before Burns, and not more than two feet off, sat the young lady on
whom the poet saw that unmentionable parasite which he has
immortalized in song. We were ungenerous enough to ask the lady's
name, but the good woman could not tell it. This was the last thing
which we saw in Dumfries worthy of record; and it ought to be noted
that our guide refused some money which my companion offered her,
because I had already paid her what she deemed sufficient.

At the railway-station we spent more than a weary hour, waiting for
the train, which at last came up, and took us to Mauchline. We got
into an omnibus, the only conveyance to be had, and drove about a mile
to the village, where we established ourselves at the Loudoun Hotel,
one of the veriest country-inns which we have found in Great Britain.
The town of Mauchline, a place more redolent of Burns than almost any
other, consists of a street or two of contiguous cottages, mostly
white-washed, and with thatched roofs. It has nothing sylvan or rural
in the immediate village, and is as ugly a place as mortal man could
contrive to make, or to render uglier through a succession of untidy
generations. The fashion of paving the village-street, and patching
one shabby house on the gable-end of another, quite shuts out all
verdure and pleasantness; but, I presume, we are not likely to see a
more genuine old Scotch village, such as they used to be in Burns's
time, and long before, than this of Mauchline. The church stands about
midway up the street, and is built of red freestone, very simple in
its architecture, with a square tower and pinnacles. In this sacred
edifice, and its churchyard, was the scene of one of Burns's most
characteristic productions, - "The Holy Fair."

Almost directly opposite its gate, across the village-street, stands
Posie Nansie's inn, where the "Jolly Beggars" congregated. The latter
is a two-story, redstone, thatched house, looking old, but by no means
venerable, like a drunken patriarch. It has small, old-fashioned
windows, and may well have stood for centuries, - though, seventy or
eighty years ago, when Burns was conversant with it, I should fancy it
might have been something better than a beggars' alehouse. The whole
town of Mauchline looks rusty and time-worn, - even the newer houses,
of which there are several, being shadowed and darkened by the general
aspect of the place. When we arrived, all the wretched little
dwellings seemed to have belched forth their inhabitants into the warm
summer evening; everybody was chatting with everybody, on the most
familiar terms; the bare-legged children gambolled or quarrelled
uproariously, and came freely, moreover, and looked into the window of
our parlor. When we ventured out, we were followed by the gaze of the
whole town: people standing in their door-ways, old women popping
their heads from the chamber-windows, and stalwart men - idle on
Saturday at e'en, after their week's hard labor - clustering at the
street-corners, merely to stare at our unpretending selves. Except in
some remote little town of Italy, (where, besides, the inhabitants had
the intelligible stimulus of beggary,) I have never been honored with
nearly such an amount of public notice.

The next forenoon my companion put me to shame by attending church,
after vainly exhorting me to do the like; and, it being Sacrament
Sunday, and my poor friend being wedged into the farther end of a
closely filled pew, he was forced to stay through the preaching of
four several sermons, and came back perfectly exhausted and desperate.
He was somewhat consoled, however, on finding that he had witnessed a
spectacle of Scotch manners identical with that of Burns's "Holy
Fair," on the very spot where the poet located that immortal
description. By way of further conformance to the customs of the
country, we ordered a sheep's head and the broth, and did penance
accordingly; and at five o'clock we took a fly, and set out for
Burns's farm of Moss Giel.

Moss Giel is not more than a mile from Mauchline, and the road extends
over a high ridge of land, with a view of far hills and green slopes
on either side. Just before we reached the farm, the driver stopped to
point out a hawthorn, growing by the way-side, which he said was
Burns's "Lousie Thorn"; and I devoutly plucked a branch, although I
have really forgotten where or how this illustrious shrub has been
celebrated. We then turned into a rude gateway, and almost immediately
came to the farm-house of Moss Giel, standing some fifty yards removed
from the high-road, behind a tall hedge of hawthorn, and considerably
overshadowed by trees. The house is a whitewashed stone cottage, like
thousands of others in England and Scotland, with a thatched roof, on
which grass and weeds have intruded a picturesque, though alien
growth. There is a door and one window in front, besides another
little window that peeps out among the thatch. Close by the cottage,
and extending back at right angles from it, so as to inclose the
farm-yard, are two other buildings of the same size, shape, and
general appearance as the house: any one of the three looks just as
fit for a human habitation as the two others, and all three look still
more suitable for donkey-stables and pig-sties. As we drove into the
farm-yard, bounded on three sides by these three hovels, a large dog
began to bark at us; and some women and children made their
appearance, but seemed to demur about admitting us, because the master
and mistress were very religious people, and had not yet come back
from the Sacrament at Mauchline.

However, it would not do to be turned back from the very threshold of
Robert Burns; and as the women seemed to be merely straggling
visitors, and nobody, at all events, had a right to send us away, we
went into the back-door, and, turning to the right, entered a kitchen.
It showed a deplorable lack of housewifely neatness, and in it there
were three or four children, one of whom, a girl eight or nine years
old, held a baby in her arms. She proved to be the daughter of the
people of the house, and gave us what leave she could to look about
us. Thence we stepped across the narrow mid-passage of the cottage
into the only other apartment below-stairs, a sitting-room, where we
found a young man eating bread and cheese. He informed us that he did
not live there, and had only called in to refresh himself on his way
home from church. This room, like the kitchen, was a noticeably poor
one, and, besides being all that the cottage had to show for a parlor,
it was a sleeping-apartment, having two beds, which might be curtained
off, on occasion. The young man allowed us liberty (so far as in him
lay) to go upstairs. Up we crept, accordingly; and a few steps brought
us to the top of the staircase, over the kitchen, where we found the
wretchedest little sleeping-chamber in the world, with a sloping roof
under the thatch, and two beds spread upon the bare floor. This, most
probably, was Burns's chamber; or, perhaps, it may have been that of
his mother's servant-maid; and, in either case, this rude floor, at
one time or another, must have creaked beneath the poet's midnight
tread. On the opposite side of the passage was the door of another
attic-chamber, opening which, I saw a considerable number of cheeses
on the floor.

The whole house was pervaded with a frowzy smell, and also a
dunghill-odor, and it is not easy to understand how the atmosphere of
such a dwelling can be any more agreeable or salubrious morally than
it appeared to be physically. No virgin, surely, could keep a holy awe
about her while stowed higgledy-piggledy with coarse-natured rustics
into this narrowness and filth. Such a habitation is calculated to
make beasts of men and women; and it indicates a degree of barbarism
which I did not imagine to exist in Scotland, that a tiller of broad
fields, like the farmer of Mauchline, should have his abode in a
pig-sty. It is sad to think of anybody - not to say a poet, but any
human being - sleeping, eating, thinking, praying, and spending all his
home-life in this miserable hovel; but, methinks, I never in the least
knew how to estimate the miracle of Burns's genius, nor his heroic
merit for being no worse man, until I thus learned the squalid
hindrances amid which he developed himself. Space, a free atmosphere,
and cleanliness have a vast deal to do with the possibilities of human
virtue.

The biographers talk of the farm of Moss Giel as being damp and
unwholesome; but I do not see why, outside of the cottage-walls, it
should possess so evil a reputation. It occupies a high, broad ridge,
enjoying, surely, whatever benefit can come of a breezy site, and
sloping far downward before any marshy soil is reached. The high
hedge, and the trees that stand beside the cottage, give it a pleasant
aspect enough to one who does not know the grimy secrets of the
interior; and the summer afternoon was now so bright that I shall
remember the scene with a great deal of sunshine over it.

Leaving the cottage, we drove through a field, which the driver told
us was that in which Burns turned up the mouse's nest. It is the
inclosure nearest to the cottage, and seems now to be a pasture, and a
rather remarkably unfertile one. A little farther on, the ground was
whitened with an immense number of daisies, - daisies, daisies,
everywhere; and in answer to my inquiry, the driver said that this was
the field where Burns ran his ploughshare over the daisy. If so, the
soil seems to have been consecrated to daisies by the song which he
bestowed on that first immortal one. I alighted, and plucked a whole
handful of these "wee, modest, crimson-tipped flowers," which will be
precious to many friends in our own country as coming from Burns's
farm, and being of the same race and lineage as that daisy which he
turned into an amaranthine flower while seeming to destroy it.

From Moss Giel we drove through a variety of pleasant scenes, some of
which were familiar to us by their connection with Burns. We skirted,
too, along a portion of the estate of Auchinleck, which still belongs
to the Boswell family, - the present possessor being Sir James Boswell,
[Sir James Boswell is now dead.] a grandson of Johnson's friend, and
son of the Sir Alexander who was killed in a duel. Our driver spoke of
Sir James as a kind, free-hearted man, but addicted to horse-races and
similar pastimes, and a little too familiar with the wine-cup; so that
poor Bozzy's booziness would appear to have become hereditary in his
ancient line. There is no male heir to the estate of Auchinleck. The
portion of the lands which we saw is covered with wood and much
undermined with rabbit-warrens; nor, though the territory extends over
a large number of acres, is the income very considerable.

By-and-by we came to the spot where Burns saw Miss Alexander, the Lass
of Ballochmyle. It was on a bridge, which (or, more probably, a bridge
that has succeeded to the old one, and is made of iron) crosses from
bank to bank, high in air, over a deep gorge of the road; so that the
young lady may have appeared to Burns like a creature between earth
and sky, and compounded chiefly of celestial elements. But, in honest
truth, the great charm of a woman, in Burns's eyes, was always her
womanhood, and not the angelic mixture which other poets find in her.

Our driver pointed out the course taken by the Lass of Ballochmyle,
through the shrubbery, to a rock on the banks of the Lugar, where it
seems to be the tradition that Burns accosted her. The song implies no
such interview. Lovers, of whatever condition, high or low, could
desire no lovelier scene in which to breathe their vows: the river
flowing over its pebbly bed, sometimes gleaming into the sunshine,
sometimes hidden deep in verdure, and here and there eddying at the
foot of high and precipitous cliffs. This beautiful estate of
Ballochmyle is still held by the family of Alexanders, to whom Burns's
song has given renown on cheaper terms than any other set of people
ever attained it. How slight the tenure seems! A young lady happened
to walk out, one summer afternoon, and crossed the path of a
neighboring farmer, who celebrated the little incident in four or five
warm, rude, - at least, not refined, though rather ambitious, - and
somewhat ploughman-like verses. Burns has written hundreds of better
things; but henceforth, for centuries, that maiden has free admittance
into the dream-land of Beautiful Women, and she and all her race are
famous! I should like to know the present head of the family, and
ascertain what value, if any, they put upon the celebrity thus won.

We passed through Catrine, known hereabouts as "the clean village of
Scotland." Certainly, as regards the point indicated, it has greatly
the advantage of Mauchline, whither we now returned without seeing
anything else worth writing about.

There was a rain-storm during the night, and, in the morning, the
rusty, old, sloping street of Mauchline was glistening with wet, while
frequent showers came spattering down. The intense heat of many days
past was exchanged for a chilly atmosphere, much more suitable to a
stranger's idea of what Scotch temperature ought to be. We found,
after breakfast, that the first train northward had already gone by,


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Online LibraryVariousThe Atlantic Monthly, Volume 06, No. 36, October, 1860 → online text (page 1 of 21)