Herbert Eustace Maxwell.

A history of Dumfries and Galloway online

. (page 28 of 33)
Online LibraryHerbert Eustace MaxwellA history of Dumfries and Galloway → online text (page 28 of 33)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


but a wife and children have a wonderful power in blunting
these kind of sensations. Fifty pounds a-year for life, and a
provision for widows and orphans, you will allow, is no bad
settlement for a poet"

The social relations that prevailed in Nithsdale at this time
have no parallel in any rural neighbourhood of the present
•day. A farmer's life was as lowly as his craft was unpre-
tending. One cannot but smile at Cunningham's description
of the usual test of the readiness of the land to receive the
seed. The farmer seated himself on the soil: if heat was
imparted to his body, he began sowing ; if, on the other hand,
the soil drew heat from the cultivator, the operation was
postponed. Yet the farmer was encouraged to meet on easy
terms with the owners of the soil, many of whom had but one
idea of spending their leisure — namely, in conviviality. Burns,
with little natural inclination to austerity, was certainly not to
learn abstemious habits in Nithsdale.

One of the orgies in which he took part has been im-
mortalised in the poem entitled "The Whistle." Three
neighbouring lairds — Captain Riddell of Friars Carse, Fergu-
son of Craigdarroch, and Sir Robert Lawrie — resolved to
•drink against each other, the prize being a whistle of ebony,
which an ancestor of Lawrie's was recorded to have won
by prodigious potation from a foreign toper of distinction.
Robert Burns was invited to make a fourth and see fair play.
So one afternoon the shutters were closed and the curtains
drawn to shut out the fair summer sunshine, candles were
lit, and the match began.



Digitized by VjOOQIC



340 BURNS GIVES UP FARMING. [1791.

"They had already swallowed six bottles apiece and
day was breaking when Ferguson, decanting a quart of wine,
dismissed it at a draught. Upon this Glenriddell, recollecting
that he was an elder and a ruling one in the Kirk, and feeling
he was waging an ungodly strife, meekly withdrew from the
contest . . . Though Sir Robert could not well contend
both with fate and quart bumpers, he fought to the last
and fell not till the sun rose. Not so Ferguson, and not
so Burns : the former sounded a note of triumph on his
whistle. ... It is said that the poet drank bottle for bottle
in this arduous contest, and when daylight came, seemed
much disposed to take up the conqueror."

It is said that Sir Robert Lawrie's health never recovered
the severity of this bout. Another gathering at Friars Carse
leaves less for the friendly veil of oblivion, and was even
more fruitful of good poetry than the other. Francis Grose,
the antiquary, having arrived as the guest of Captain Riddell,
his advent was hailed by Burns in the stanzas beginning
" Hear, Land o' Cakes and brither Scots." Burns asked him
to make a drawing of Alloway Kirk, the burial-place of his
family. Grose agreed on condition that Burns should write
a poem on the place. The result was the immortal ballad
of "Tarn o' Shanter," s composed, as the poet assured one of
his correspondents, in a single day's walk beside the Nith.

Burns must have been a genius even more versatile than
he was if, between poetic flights, bacchanalian descents, and
long rides as an exciseman, he had reserved energy and time
to make his farm pay. The summer of 1791 was not far
spent when it became clear that if any of his capital was
to be saved he must give up Ellisland. The lease was

8 Shanter is a small farm on Lord Ailsa's property near Maybole. The
name is Gaelic— 1.*., sean (shan) Hr, old land or farm. Cf. Shambellie*
Sanquhar, &c.



Digitized by VjOOQIC



1791.] SETTLES IN DUMFRIES. 34I

surrendered and a move was made to Dumfries. The Burnses
lived first in the Wee Vennel (now Bank Street) from De-
cember 1 79 1 till May 1793, and then moved into a house
in Mill Vennel (now Burns Street). Before settling in Dum-
fries Burns paid a farewell visit to Edinburgh, where he bade
adieu to Mrs M'Lehose.

Burns now drew ^70 a-year as exciseman, but his ac-
quaintance with the county lairds was a sad hindrance to
the regular discharge of his duties. On the last day of
1792 he writes to Mrs Dunlop that though he has given
up taverns, "hard-drinking is the devil to him," The ex-
cessive hospitality of Mr Walter Riddell of Woodley Park
(now Goldielea), a brother of Captain Riddell of Friars Carse,
was a mischievous snare to him, and it is melancholy to trace
the rudderless course of this gifted mind.

About this time Burns earned a rebuke from his superiors
for his advocacy of revolutionary politics. Hitherto he
had professed a Platonic sympathy with the lost cause of
the Jacobites. Lady Winifred Maxwell, daughter and heiress
of the last Earl of Nithsdale, had wakened his song before
he left Ellisland by the gift of a costly snuff-box with a
portrait of Queen Mary on the lid. But now the course
of events in France won his sympathy. "A Vision," com-
posed in the ruins of lincluden, was an ode to Liberty,
very mild compared to certain of his writings at this time,
of which some did not appear in print till nearly fifty years
after his death. A little revolutionary club, presided over
by his intimate friend Dr Maxwell, and frequented by John
Syme, a distributer of stamps, became a favourite resort

In February 1792 an armed smuggler got entangled in
the shoals of Solway. Burns was posted to watch her while
his superior officer rode to Dumfries for assistance. He
employed his time in composing "The DeiTs awa* wr* the



Digitized by VjOOQIC



342 REVOLUTIONARY CLUB. [179a.

Exciseman"; but when the troops came up, he plunged
foremost into the water and was first on board of the prize.
Lockhart says that he purchased four of her brass guns for
^3, and sent them as a present to the French Directory.
Cunningham questions the truth of this story; but even if
it be groundless, there was plenty of reason for the warning
which he received from the authorities. His political tracts-
had already engaged serious attention, and in the October
following the capture of the smuggler a scene took place ir*
the theatre at Dumfries which could not be overlooked.
"God save the King" was played at the close of the per-
formance, the audience rising and uncovering. Burns alone
remained hatted in his seat, and there were loud cries of
" Turn him out ! " and " Shame, Burns ! " Cunningham 9
and his other biographers have censured the intolerance of
the Government for taking notice of Burns's political opinions,
and Burns hotly disclaimed any seditious intention, protesting
that he stood by the constitution of 1688. But it should be
remembered that, as a civil servant, he was transgressing the
rules of the service by taking an active share in party politics,
and there was no harshness in the warning he received.
Burns took the hint given him, and in 1795 was anxiously
expecting his promotion. But in truth it is only too likely
that he was not fit for the office of supervisor, and he was
passed over.

All this time he had been writing songs for publication
by George Thomson and Andrew Erskine of Edinburgh.
For these he obstinately refused payment, declaring that
they were either above or below price. Neither would he
take any remuneration for prose papers contributed to the
'Morning Chronicle.' Peter Stuart, editor of the 'Star/
offered him a salary equal to his salary as exciseman, but
9 Allan Cunningham's ' Life of Burns/ vol. i. p. 279.



Digitized by VjOOQIC



1789.] JOHN LOWE. 343

he would none of it He said he would be damned if ever
he wrote for money — a sentiment greatly at variance with that
of Dr Johnson, who said that none but a blockhead ever
wrote except for money. Burns was consistent in this to the
last, for although he had insisted on payment for his volume
published by Creech, those poems had not been written for
gain, but for his own pleasure.

There is a curious story told by Currie about the composi-
tion of " Brace's Address to his troops at Bannockburn " — the
soul-stirring "Scots wha hae." On July 27, 1793, J onri
Syme and Burns dined together at Parton, the seat of the
Glendinnings. 1 The poet was greatly interested in viewing
Airds, on the opposite side of the Dee, the dwelling-place of
Lowe, author of "Mary's Dream."

The story of John Lowe had been a sad one. Son of the
gardener at Kenmure Castle, he was born in 1750, and
apprenticed at fourteen to a weaver in New Galloway. His
taste for letters and lively manners engaged the attention of
the Rev. J. Gillespie, minister of New Galloway, by whose
interest and the assistance of some of the wealthier neighbours
he was enabled to become a student in Edinburgh University
when twenty-one years of age. Afterwards he was appointed
tutor in the family of Mr M'Ghie of Airds, and became
betrothed to one of the daughters of that house. Thereafter
he emigrated to America, whence for two years he continued
to send assurance of his constancy to Miss M'Ghie. Never-
theless he proved faithless ; proposed to a Virginian lady, who
refused him, and then, from a sentiment of gratitude, married
her sister. His wife, it is said, proved unfaithful to him;
Lowe took to drink, and died in 1789, aged thirty-nine.

After dinner, Burns and Syme rode on to Kenmure Castle
to sup, where they stayed three days with the Gordons.
1 Now the property of Mr Rigby Murray.



Digitized by VjOOQIC



344 DEATH OF BURNS. [1795.

Thence they journeyed over the moors in a heavy thunderstorm
to Gatehouse, where, being soaked to the skin, Burns insisted
on both of them getting very drunk. Next day Burns pro-
duced the poem, having composed it during the ride from
Kenmure to Gatehouse.

This account is not exactly consistent with what Burns told
Thomson in sending him the poem in the month of September
following, saying that it was "composed in my yesternight's
evening walk." But it may be that he then put into their
immortal form the stanzas which he had roughly outlined
before.

This brilliant but troubled life was drawing to its close.
The matchless voice was soon to fall silent for ever. Burns's
irregular habits had told with fatal effect on his constitution.
In June 1794 he complained of "a flying gout" to punish him
for the follies of his youth. In October 1795 he was laid up
till the following January. Convalescent, he took too much
drink at the Globe Tavern, and fell asleep in the open air on
his way home. This exposure brought on rheumatic fever,
and he became a sheer wreck. On July 4 he went to Brow,
on the Solway, for sea-bathing, leaving Mrs Burns at Dumfries,
expecting her confinement Worried about a few small debts,
he was driven to borrow ^£15 from friends to pay them. On
July 18 he was brought back to Dumfries, only to die on the
2 1 st. On the day her husband was buried Mrs Burns bore a
son, to be named Maxwell, after the doctor who had been so
close a friend of Burns in his latter years and had attended
him in his last illness.

One more figure in literature, though in a very different
field thereof from the last, must be noticed before bringing
the record of this century to a close.

Alexander Murray, son of a hill-shepherd at Kitterick on
the Palnure, was born on October 22, 1775* From very



Digitized by VjOOQIC



1795-3 ALEXANDER MURRAY. 345

early years he showed an extraordinary appetite and aptitude
for learning, to satisfy which, as may be supposed, material
was exceedingly scanty in the wild district where he was bred.
He learnt his letters at home, and was then sent to school
at New Galloway. His short sight disqualified him for the
calling of his father and grandfather, and at twelve years of
age he was already employed to teach the children of the
neighbouring farmers. His local fame as a linguist attracted
the attention of Mr Douglas of Orchardton, through whose
assistance he entered Edinburgh University in 1794 as a
divinity student He had already some knowledge of Greek,
Latin, French, German, Hebrew, and Arabic; while at the
University he is said to have mastered most European lan-
guages. In 1806 he became assistant and successor to the
Rev. Dr Muirhead of Urr, and in 1808 was appointed min-
ister of that parish. In that quiet retreat he composed his
'History of the European Languages,' a work in which,
notwithstanding the vast advance of comparative philology
since that time, may be traced many of the sound principles,
unformulated and even unsuspected until then, on which the
science has since been constructed. The value of his re-
searches was instantly recognised; in 181 2 he was elected
Professor of Oriental Languages in the University of Edin-
burgh, but he enjoyed the well -merited honour only a few
months. He died April 15, 181 3, in his thirty-seventh year.
A noble obelisk of granite was erected on Dunkitterick in
1834 to mark the birthplace of Galloway's most learned son.

The ardour for land improvement in these and subsequent
years in Galloway was the cause of the obliteration of many
monuments of early times. Cairns, the burial-places of notable
men among the primitive Picts, afforded convenient quarries
for building field dykes, and most of these have long since
disappeared. Sometimes there lingered in the neighbourhood



Digitized by VjOOQIC



346 PREHISTORIC REMAINS.

of such ancient remains a feeling of reverence for their sanctity,
which had survived all the destructive fervour of the Reforma-
tion and the Covenanters, and many stories might be collected
tracing the punishment which followed on their disturbance.
At Laggangarn,* for instance, a hill-farm in a wild moorland
district on the borders of New Luce arid Kirkcowan parishes,
there are some very interesting remains. On the hillside
to the east of Laggangarn is the site of the old chapel of
Kilgallioch, which has been pulled down to build sheepfolds ;
but three wells, now known as the Wells of the Rees, 8 still
remain. They are within a few yards of each other ; each is
covered with a massive dome of stones, built without mortar,
with a niche above the aperture, either to receive the image of
a saint, as a repository for offerings, or simply as a convenient
resting-place for a pitcher. At the foot of this hill is the
deserted farmhouse of Laggangarn, on the banks of the Tarf, 4
where the old pack-horse track crosses the water. Two
standing-stones remain erect here, each bearing a large incised
cross and five smaller crosses, representing the five wounds of
God. There were formerly three such stones (some people
say twelve), but one was taken to serve as a lintel for a new
barn at Laggangarn. Some time after that, it is said, the
tenant's sheep-dogs went mad and bit him. He also went
mad, and in that solitary region no help was at hand, so his
wife and daughters " took and smoored him atween twa cauf

* Laggangarn —lagdn earn, hollow of the cairns. The cairns have
disappeared, the material having been used for dyke and house building.

* Rees — i. *. , sheep-rees = sheepfolds.

4 There are streams called Tarf in the counties of Perth, Inverness,
Forfar, and Kirkcudbright, also the Tarth in Peeblesshire, all taking their
name from the Gaelic tarbh (tarriv, tarve), a bull But the fanciful ex-
planation usually given, that the name was conferred because of the roar-
ing of the stream, will not bear examination. The meaning is simply
(amhuinn) tarbh, stream of the bulk — i.e., a stream frequented by cattle,
whether wild or domesticated.



Digitized by VjOOQIC



THE RUTHWELL CROSS. 347

beds," 6 and buried him on the hillside, placing the broken
stone over his grave. Thus, as I was informed by one who
guided me to the place, was the sacrilege avenged.

Record remains of another act of utilitarian zeal, doubtless
only one out of many which have been forgotten. In 1791
Sir Stair Agnew designed a new approach to his Castle of
Lochnaw. The moat hill, where the baron's court used of
old to assemble, afforded a convenient supply of material for
road-making, so it was demolished without compunction. 6

Better fortune has befriended a celebrated monument in
Dumfriesshire, which long lay in sore peril of destruction.
A richly sculptured cross, upwards of 17 feet high, dating
from early Saxon days, stood beside the parish church of
Ruthwell. It escaped the destructive fervour of the early
Reformers, and remained uninjured until 1642, in which year
the General Assembly, scandalised at the leniency shown
to this monument of idolatry, decreed its destruction. Folk,,
however, had a kindly feeling for the old cross. It was cast
down, indeed, and its beautiful shaft and nimbed head
were broken into several pieces, but the fragments were
laid within the kirk, where Pennant viewed them 130 years
later. Subsequently even that degree of respect was with-
drawn, and the cross was flung into the kirkyard, where wind,
weather, and wanton mischief began to do their inevitable
work. Then, by a happy disposition of lay patronage, Dr
Duncan, the father of savings banks, was appointed minister
of Ruthwell, when he pieced the fragments together and set
them up in the manse garden. There the cross stood till,
a few years ago, some local antiquaries concerned themselves
to get it placed under shelter, and collected funds for this
excellent purpose. Now, duly scheduled as an ancient

* Smothered him between two cbaff mattresses.

• Agnew's Hereditary Sheriffs, vol. ii. p. 389.



Digitized by VjOOQIC



348 THE RUTHWELL CROSS.

monument under Act of Parliament, it stands within a small
apse built to receive it in the parish church, where it sug-
gests reflections on Scottish Church history almost as pro-
found as those stirred by the recent restoration, in memory
of Montrose, of a side-chapel in St Giles* Cathedral of Edin-
burgh.

Now this cross bears a long inscription in Runic char-
acters. Early in the century an Icelandic scholar of renown,
Thorleif Repp, undertook the translation of this inscription
from a careful copy made by Dr Duncan. Inasmuch as all
Runes known up to that time were in the Norse language,
he proceeded on the assumption that the Ruthwell Runes
were also Norse. He revealed a most interesting story,
how " a vessel of Christ of eleven pounds weight, with orna-
ments, made by Therfusian fathers, was given in expiation
for the devastation of Ashlafardhal — /.*., the vale of Ashlafr.
"As if to place the interpretation beyond doubt, there is,"
says the 'New Statistical Account,' "preserved along with
the column an ornamental circular stone," no doubt "the
vessel of Christ," or baptismal font, alluded to.

Complete satisfaction prevailed in antiquarian circles at the
reading of the riddle by the erudite Repp. No one, it is
true, had ever heard of the Therfusian fathers; but there
were plenty of places in broad Scotland easily identified with
Ashlafardhal — the only difficulty was to decide between them.
Presently, however, comes Professor Finn Magnusson with a
different rendering of the Runes. Still assuming the lan-
guage to be Norse, he declares that it was not a " devasta-
tion " which was commemorated, but a marriage ! Moreover,
deceived by certain Latin characters inserted by Dr Duncan
to fill up a blank in the inscription, he pronounced the
" Therfusian fathers " to be a delusion, and interpreted these
characters to mean "Ofa, the descendant of Toda, caused



Digitized by VjOOQIC



THE RUTHWELL CROSS. 349

it [the stone] to be raised." This caused a stir, not alto-
gether harmonious, among the wise men sitting at the feet of
Thorleif Repp ; but in the end Magnusson's explanation was
accepted as orthodox.

But there are tiresome people who never know when to
let well alone. In 1838 it occurred to Mr John Kemble,
a student of Anglo-Saxon, who was spending the vacation
in Dumfriesshire, that there was something curious in a stone
bearing Saxon ornamentation, along with a Scandinavian
inscription. Why, he asked, should the inscription not be
Saxon also? Setting to work independently with this idea,
Kemble made out that the cross was inscribed with a metrical
soliloquy, supposed to be spoken by the cross itself. Forth-
with there began a storm which raged for years between
all the universities of Western Europe, and might be raging
still but for a little incident that happened about forty
years ago. Among some Anglo-Saxon homilies preserved
at Vercelli, near Milan, there was found a hymn entitled
the " Dream of the Holy Rood," since known as Qedmon's
hymn. In this hymn the cross — the original cross of the
crucifixion — is supposed to address the sleeping Csedmon.
There are, in all, fifty-nine lines in the hymn ; of these, seven-
teen were found to correspond word for word with the in-
scription on the Ruthwell cross, rendered into English by
Mr Kemble as follows: —

" Then the young hero prepared himself,
That was Almighty God,
Strong and firm of mood,
He mounted the lofty cross
Courageously in the sight of many.
• . • • •

I raised the powerful King,
The Lord of the heaven ;
I dared not fall down.



Digitized by VjOOQIC



350 GRETNA GREEN MARRIAGES.

They reviled as both together,
I was all stained with blood,
Poured from the man's side.

Christ was on the cross,

Yet hither hastening

Men came from afar

Unto the noble one,

I beheld that all

With sorrow I was overwhelmed.

I was all wounded with shafts ;
They laid him down limb-weary ;
They stood at the head of the corpse ;
They beheld the Lord of Heaven."

Thus, all learned controversy being set for ever at rest, the
traveller may leave the train at Ruthwell station, and view
this beautiful relic of the Anglo-Saxon church of Northumbria
in the eighth or ninth century — by far the most important of
the ecclesiastical remains of Dumfriesshire. He may quaff
a cup from the chalybeate spring, now called the Brow
Well, but formerly the Rood Well, softened into Ruthwell,
and slurred in local dialect into RivveL

No notice of Dumfriesshire would be complete without
reference to the new notoriety acquired in the eighteenth
century by the once turbulent Debatable Land. According
to the marriage law of Scotland, neither previous notice nor
previous residence in the locality where the ceremony of
marriage was gone through was necessary in order to con-
stitute its legality. Hence it came to pass that at Gretna
Green, close to the English Border, a number of self-
constituted "parsons" sprang into existence, ready to tie
the hymeneal knot for such persons as might find it
inconvenient to submit to the dilatory forms of English
law and ecclesiastical ritual. The name of Gretna became
as familiar to anxious parents and guardians of youth as to



Digitized by VjOOQIC



DECAY OF GRETNA GREEN. 35 1

readers of romance. But it is a popular mistake to sup-
pose that the "parson" was a blacksmith. Joseph Paisley,
it is true, who began to officiate about 1753, was commonly
known as the Old Blacksmith; but though he started in
life as a smuggler, a farmer, and a fisherman, and then
became a tobacconist, he never was a blacksmith except in
name. He used to wear some kind of canonical dress when
officiating professionally, and was a notoriously hard drinker,
weighing 25 stone when he died in 181 1.

Paisley was succeeded by one Robert Elliot, son of a
Northumbrian farmer, who married a couple on the day of
Paisley's death. He was the author of a book entitled ' The
Gretna Green Memoirs,' published in London in 1842. The
business was so brisk in his time that he entered into part-
nership with Simon Lang, and used to state that between
181 1 and 1839 he had transacted 3872 marriages, though
no reliance can be placed on these figures.

John Murray, who used to officiate in Alison's Bank toll-
house, began business in 1827, and is said to have conducted
on an average 400 marriages a-year up to 1856. In that
year Lord Brougham's Act spoiled the trade, for it made
illegal all such marriages unless one of the parties had
resided twenty-one days in Scotland immediately before the
ceremony. It is said, however, that the business is still
carried on by a representative of the Langs — a family of
which several members played the parson in their time —
and that couples do occasionally present themselves. 7 But
Gretna Green is but a ghost of its former self in the days
when the trade was brisk enough to keep several rival
"parsons" and a squadron of postboys. During the ten
years previous to the passing of Lord Brougham's Act the

7 See an interesting paper by Mr G. C. Boase, in ' Notes and Queries,
January 25, 1896.



Digitized by VjOOQIC



352 RETROSPECT.

yearly average of marriages is stated, on dubious authority,



Online LibraryHerbert Eustace MaxwellA history of Dumfries and Galloway → online text (page 28 of 33)