Corbies an' clergy are a shot right kittle.
THE years passed, and I was again a dweller on the
sea; but the ill-fortune which had hitherto tracked me like a bloodhound,
seemed at length as if tired in the pursuit, and I was now the master of a
West India trader, and had begun to lay the foundation of that competency
which has secured to my declining years the quiet and comfort which, for
the latter part of my life, it has been my happiness to enjoy. My
vessel had arrived at Liverpool in the latter part of the year 1784; and I
had taken coach for Irvine, to visit my mother, whom I had not seen for
several years. There was a change of passengers at every stage; but
I saw little in any of them to interest me till within about a score of
miles of my destination, when I met with an old respectable townsman, a
friend of my father's. There was but another passenger in the coach,
a north-country gentleman from the West Indies. I had many questions
to ask my townsman, and many to answer, and the time passed lightly away.
"Can you tell me aught of the Burnses of Lochlea?" I
inquired, after learning that my mother and my other relatives were well.
"I met with the young man Robert about five years ago, and have often
since asked myself what special end Providence could have in view in
making such a man."
"I was acquainted with old William Burns," said my companion,
"when he was gardener at Den Denholm, an' got intimate wi' his son Robert
when he lived wi' us at Irvine a twalmonth syne. The faither died
shortly ago, sairly straitened in his means, I'm fear'd, an' no very
square wi' the laird; an' ill wad he hae liked that, for an honester man
never breathed. Robert, puir chield, is no very easy either."
"In his circumstances?" I said.
"Ay, an waur. He gat entangled wi' the kirk on an
unlucky sculduddery business, an' has been writing bitter wicked ballads
on a' the crude ministers in the country ever sinsyne. I'm vexed
it's on them he suld hae fallen; au' yet they hae been to blame too."
"Robert Burns so entangled, so occupied!" I exclaimed; "you
grieve and astonish me."
"We are puir creatures, Matthew," said the old man; "strength
an' weakness are often next-door-neighbours in the best o' us; nay, what
is our vera strength ta'en on the a'e side, may be our vera weakness ta'en
on the ither. Never was there a stancher, firmer fallow than Robert
Burns; an', now that he has ta'en a wrang step, puir chield, that vera
stanchness seems just a weak want o' ability to yield. He has
planted his foot where it lighted by mishanter, and a' the gude an' ill in
Scotland wadna budge him frae the spot."
"Dear me! that so powerful a mind should be so frivolously
engaged! Making ballads, you say? With what success?
"Ah, Matthew, lad, when the strong man puts out his
strength," said my companion, "there's naething frivolous in the matter,
be his object what it may. Robert's ballads are far, far aboon the
best things ever seen in Scotland afore. We mild folk dinna ken
whether maist to blame or praise them; but they keep the young people
laughing frae the a'e nuik o' the shire till the ither."
"But how," I inquired, "have the better clergy rendered
themselves obnoxious to Burns? The laws he has violated, if I
rightly understand you, are indeed severe, and somewhat questionable in
their tendencies; and even good men often press them too far."
"And in the case of Robert," said the old man, "our clergy
have been strict to the very letter. They're gude men, an' faithfu'
ministers; but ane o' them at least, an' he a leader, has a harsh, ill
temper, an' mistakes sometimes the corruption o' the auld man in him for
the proper zeal o' the new ane. Nor is there ony o' the ithers wha
kent what they had to deal wi' when Robert cam' afore them. They saw
but a proud, thrawart ploughman, that stood uncow'ring under the glunsh o'
a haill session; and so they opened on him the artillery o' the kirk, to
bear down his pride. Wha could hae tauld them that they were but
frushing their straw an' rotten wood against the iron scales o' Leviathan?
An' now that they hae dune their maist, the record o' Robert's mishanter
is lying in whity-brown ink yonder in a page o' the session-buik; while
the ballads hae sunk deep, deep intil the very mind o' the country, and
may live there for hunders and hunders o' years."
"You seem to contrast, in this business," I said, "our better
with what you must deem our inferior clergy. You mean, do you not,
the higher and lower parties in our church? How are they getting on now?"
"Never worse," replied the old man; "an' oh, it's surely ill
when the ministers o' peace become the very leaders o' contention! But let
the blame rest in the right place. Peace is surely a blessing frae
heaven,—no a glide wark demanded frae man; an' when it grows our duty to
be in war, it's an ill thing to be in peace. Our Evangelicals are
stan'in', puir folk, whar their faithers stood; au' if they maun either
fight or be beaten frae their post, why, it's just their duty to fight.
But the Moderates are rinnin' mad a'thegither amang us; signing our auld
Confession just that they may get intil the kirk to preach against it;
paring the New Testament doun to the vera standard o' heathen Plawto; and
sinking a'e doctrine after anither, till they leave ahint naething but
Deism that might scunner an infidel. Deed, Matthew, if there comena
a change amang them, an' that sune, they'll swamp the puir kirk
a'thegither. The cauld morality, that never made ony ane mair moral,
tak's nae haud o' the people; an' patronage, as meikle's they roose it,
winna keep up either kirk or manse o' itsel'. Sorry I am, sin'
Robert has entered on the quarrel at a', it suld hae been on the wrang
"One of my chief objections," I said, "to the religion of the
Moderate party, is, that it is of no use."
"A gey serious ane," rejoined the old man; "but maybe there's
a waur still. I'm unco vexed for Robert, baith on his worthy
faither's account and his ain. He's a fearsome fellow when ance
angered, but an honest, warm-hearted chield for a' that; an' there's mair
sense in yon big head o' his than in ony ither twa in the country."
"Can you tell me aught," said the north-country gentleman,
addressing my companion, "of Mr. R, the chapel minister in K——? I
was once one of his pupils in the far north; but I have heard nothing of
him since he left Cromarty."
"Why," rejoined the old man, "he's just the man that, mair
nor a' the rest, has borne the brunt o' Robert's fearsome waggery.
Did ye ken him in Cromarty, say ye?"
"He was parish schoolmaster there," said the gentleman, "for
twelve years; and for six of these I attended his school. I cannot
help respecting him; but no one ever loved him. Never, surely, was
there a man at once so unequivocally honest and so thoroughly unamiable."
"You must have found him a rigid disciplinarian," I said.
"He was the most so," he replied, "from the days of Dionysius
at least, that ever taught a school. I remember there was a poor
fisher-boy among us, named Skinner, who, as is customary in Scottish
schools, as you must know, blew the horn for gathering the scholars, and
kept the catalogue and the key; and who, in return, was educated by the
master, and received some little gratuity from the scholars besides.
On one occasion the key dropped out of his pocket; and when the
school-time came, the irascible dominie had to burst open the door with
his foot. He raged at the boy with a fury so insane, and beat him so
unmercifully, that the other boys, gathering heart in the extremity of the
case, had to rise en masse and tear him out of his hands. But the
curious part of the story is yet to come. Skinner has been a
fisherman for the last twelve years; but never has he been seen disengaged
for a moment, from that time to this, without mechanically thrusting his
hand into the key-pocket.
Our companion furnished us with two or three other anecdotes
of Mr. R. He told us of a lady who was so overcome by sudden terror
on unexpectedly seeing him, many years after she had quitted his school,
in one of the pulpits of the south, that she fainted away; and of another
of his scholars, named M'Glashan, a robust, daring fellow of six feet,
who, when returning to Cromarty from some of the colonies, solaced himself
by the way with thoughts of the hearty drubbing with which he was to clear
off all his old scores with the dominie.
"Ere his return, however," continued the gentleman, "Mr. R—
had quitted the parish; and, had it chanced otherwise, it is questionable
whether M'Glashan, with all his strength and courage, would have gained
anything in an encounter with one of the boldest and most powerful men in
Such were some of the chance glimpses which I gained at this
time of by far the most powerful of the opponents of Burns. He was a
good, conscientious man, but unfortunate in a harsh, violent temper, and
in sometimes mistaking, as my old townsman remarked, the dictates of that
temper for those of duty.
It's hardly in a body's pow'r
To keep at times frae being sour,
To see how things are
How best 'o chiels are whiles in want,
While coots on countless thousands rant,
And kenna how to wair't.
I VISITED my friend, a few days after my arrival in
Irvine, at the farm-house of Mossgiel, to which, on the death of his
father, he had removed, with his brother Gilbert and his mother. I
could not avoid observing that his manners were considerably changed.
My welcome seemed less kind and hearty than I could have anticipated from
the warm-hearted peasant of five years ago; and there was a stern and
almost supercilious elevation in his bearing, which at first pained and
offended me. I had met with him as he was returning from the fields
after the labours of the day. The dusk of twilight had fallen; and,
though I had calculated on passing the evening with him at the farm-house
of Mossgiel, so displeased was I that after our first greeting I had more
than half changed my mind. The recollection of his former kindness
to me, however, suspended the feeling, and I resolved on throwing myself
on his hospitality for the night, however cold the welcome.
"I have come all the way from Irvine to see you, Mr. Burns,"
I said. "For the last five years I have thought more of my mother
and you than of any other two persons in the country. May I not
calculate, as of old, on my supper and a bed?"
There was an instantaneous change in his expression.
"Pardon me, my friend," he said, grasping my hand; "I have,
unwittingly, been doing you wrong. One may surely be the master of
an Indiaman, and in possession of a heart too honest to be spoiled by
The remark served to explain the haughty coolness of his
manner which had so displeased me, and which was but the unwillingly
assumed armour of a defensive pride.
"There, brother," he said, throwing down some plough-irons
which he carried; "send wee Davoc with these to the smithy, and bid
him tell Rankin I won't be there to-night. The moon is rising, Mr.
Lindsay; shall we not have a stroll together through the coppice?"
"That of all things," I replied; and, parting from Gilbert,
we struck into the wood.
The evening, considering the lateness of the season, for
winter had set in, was mild and pleasant. The moon at full was
rising over the Cumnock hills, and casting its faint light on the trees
that rose around us, in their winding-sheets of brown and yellow, like so
many spectres, or that, in the more exposed glades and openings of the
wood, stretched their long naked arms to the sky. A light breeze
went rustling through the withered grass; and I could see the faint
twinkling of the falling leaves, as they came showering down on every side
"We meet in the midst of death and desolation," said my
companion; "we parted when all around us was fresh and beautiful. My
father was with me then, and— and Mary Campbell; and now"—
"Mary! your Mary!" I exclaimed, "the young, the
beautiful,—alas! is she also gone?"
"She has left me," he said,—"left me. Mary is in her
I felt my heart swell as the image of that loveliest of
creatures came rising to my view in all her beauty, as I had seen her by
the river-side, and I knew not what to reply.
"Yes," continued my friend, "she is in her grave. We
parted for a few days, to reunite, as we hoped, for ever; and ere those
few days had passed she was in her grave. But I was unworthy of
her,—unworthy even then; and now—But she is in her grave!"
I grasped his hand. "It is difficult," I said, "to bid
the heart submit to these dispensations; and oh, how utterly impossible to
bring it to listen! But life—your life, my friend—must not be passed
in useless sorrow. I am convinced—and often have I thought of it
since our last meeting—that yours is no vulgar destiny, though I know not
to what it tends."
"Downwards!" he exclaimed, "it tends downwards! I see,
I feel it. The anchor of my affection is gone, and I drift shoreward
on the rocks."
"'Twere ruin," I exclaimed, "to think so!"
"Not half an hour ere my father died," he continued, "he
expressed a wish to rise and sit once more in his chair; and we indulged
him. But, alas! the same feeling of uneasiness which had prompted
the wish remained with him still, and he sought to return again to his
bed. 'It is not by quitting the bed or the chair,' he said, 'that I
need seek for ease; it is by quitting the body.' I am oppressed, Mr.
Lindsay, by a somewhat similar feeling of uneasiness, and at times would
fain cast the blame on the circumstances in which I am placed. But I
may be as far mistaken as my poor father. I would fain live at peace
with all mankind; nay, more, I would fain love and do good to them all;
but the villain and the oppressor come to set their feet on my very neck
and crush me into the mire, and must I not resist? And when, in some
luckless hour, I yield to my passions,—to those fearful passions that must
one day overwhelm me,—when I yield, and my whole mind is darkened by
remorse, and I groan under the discipline of conscience, then comes the
odious, abominable hypocrite, the devourer of widows' houses and the
substance of the orphan, and demands that my repentance be as public as
his own detestable prayers! And can I do other than resist and
expose him? My heart tells me it was formed to bestow; why else does
every misery that I can not relieve render me wretched? It tells me,
too, it was formed not to receive; why else does the proffered assistance
of even a friend fill my whole soul with indignation? But ill do my
circumstances agree with my feelings. I feel as if I were totally
misplaced in some frolic of Nature, and wander onwards, in gloom and
unhappiness, for my proper sphere. But, alas! these efforts of
uneasy misery are but the blind gropings of Homer's Cyclops round the
walls of his cave."
I again began to experience, as on a former occasion, the
o'ermastering power of a mind larger beyond comparison than my own; but I
felt it my duty to resist the influence. "Yes, you are misplaced, my
friend," I said,—"perhaps more decidedly so than any other man I ever
knew; but is not this characteristic, in some measure, of the whole
species? We are all misplaced; and it seems a part of the scheme of
Deity that we should work ourselves up to our proper sphere. In what
other respect does man so differ from the inferior animals as in those
aspirations which lead him through all the progressions of improvement,
from the lowest to the highest level of his nature?"
"That may be philosophy, my friend," he replied, "but a heart
ill at ease finds little of comfort in it. You knew my father,—need
I say he was one of the excellent of the earth, a man who held directly
from God Almighty the patent of his honours? I saw that father sink
broken-hearted into the grave, the victim of legalized oppression: yes,
saw him overborne in the long contest which his high spirit and his
indomitable love of the right had incited him to maintain,— overborne by a
mean, despicable scoundrel, one of the creeping things of the earth.
Heaven knows I did my utmost to assist in the struggle. In my
fifteenth year, Mr. Lindsay, when a thin, loose-jointed boy, I did the
work of a man, and strained my unknit and over-toiled sinews as if life
and death depended on the issue, till oft, in the middle of the night, I
have had to fling myself from my bed to avoid instant suffocation,—an
effect of exertion so prolonged and so premature. Nor has the man
exerted himself less heartily than the boy. In the roughest,
severest labours of the field I have never yet met a competitor. But
my labours have been all in vain. I have seen the evil bewailed by
Solomon, the righteous man falling down before the wicked." I could
answer only with a sigh. "You are in the right," he continued, after
a pause, and in a more subdued tone: "man is certainly misplaced; the
present scene of things is below the dignity of both his moral and
intellectual nature. Look around you" (we had reached the summit of
a grassy eminence, which rose over the wood and commanded a pretty
extensive view of the surrounding country); "see yonder scattered
cottages, that in the faint light rise dim and black amid the
stubble-fields. My heart warms as I look on them, for I know how
much of honest worth, and sound, generous feeling shelters under these
roof-trees. But why so much of moral excellence united to a more
machinery for ministering to the ease and luxury of a few of perhaps the
least worthy of our species—creatures so spoiled by prosperity that the
claim of a common nature has no force to move them, and who seem as
miserably misplaced as the myriads whom they oppress?
If I'm designed yon lordling's slave,—
By nature's law designed,—
Why was an independent wish
E'er planted in my mind?
If not, why am I subject to
His cruelty and scorn?
Or why has man the will and power
To make his fellow mourn?
"I would hardly know what to say in return, my friend," I
rejoined, "did not you yourself furnish me with the reply. You are
groping on in darkness, and, it may be, unhappiness, for your proper
sphere; but it is in obedience to a great though occult law of our
nature,—a law general, as it affects the species, in its course of onward
progression; particular, and infinitely more irresistible, as it operates
on every truly superior intellect. There are men born to wield the
destinies of nations; nay, more, to stamp the impression of their thoughts
and feelings on the mind of the whole civilized world. And by what
means do we often find them roused to accomplish their appointed work?
At times hounded on by sorrow and suffering, and this, in the design of
Providence, that there may be less of sorrow and suffering in the world
ever after; at times roused by cruel and maddening oppression, that the
oppressor may perish in his guilt, and a whole country enjoy the blessings
of freedom. If Wallace had not suffered from tyranny, Scotland would
not have been free."
"But how apply the remark?" said my companion.
"Robert Burns," I replied, again grasping his hand, "yours, I
am convinced, is no vulgar destiny. Your griefs, your sufferings,
your errors even, the oppressions you have seen and felt, the thoughts
which have arisen in your mind, the feelings and sentiments of which it
has been the subject, are, I am convinced, of infinitely more importance
in their relation to your country than to yourself. You are, wisely
and benevolently, placed far below your level, that thousands and ten
thousands of your countrymen may be the better enabled to attain to
theirs. Assert the dignity of manhood and of genius, and there will
be less of wrong and oppression in the world ever after."
I spent the remainder of the evening in the farm-house of
Mossgiel, and took the coach next morning for Liverpool.
His is that language of the heart
In which the answering heart would speak,—
Thought, word, that bids the warm tear start,
Or the smile light up the cheek;
And his that music to whose tone
The common pulse of man keeps time,
In cot or castle's mirth or moan,
In cold or sunny clime.
THE love of literature, when once thoroughly
awakened in a reflective mind, can never after cease to influence it.
It first assimilates our intellectual part to those fine intellects which
live in the world of books, and then renders our connection with them
indispensable by laying hold of that social principle of our nature which
ever leads us to the society of our fellows as our proper sphere of
enjoyment. My early habits, by heightening my tone of thought and
feeling, had tended considerably to narrow my circle of companionship.
My profession, too, had led me to he much alone; and now that I had been
several years the master of an Indiaman, I was quite as fond of reading,
and felt as deep an interest in whatever took place in the literary world,
as when a student at St. Andrews. There was much in the literature
of the period to ratify my pride as a Scotchman. The despotism, both
political and religious, which had overlaid the energies of our country
for more than a century, had long been removed; and the national mind had
swelled and expanded under a better system of things till its influence
had become coextensive with civilized man. Hume had produced his
inimitable history, and Adam Smith his wonderful work which was to
revolutionize and new-model the economy of all the governments of the
earth. And there in my little library were the histories of Henry
and Robertson, the philosophy of Kames and Reid, the novels of Smollett
and M'Kenzie, and the poetry of Beattie and Home. But if there was
no lack of Scottish intellect in the literature of the time, there was a
decided lack of Scottish manners; and I knew too much of my humble
countrymen not to regret it. True, I had before me the writings of
Ramsay and my unfortunate friend Fergusson; but there was a radical
meanness in the first that lowered the tone of his colouring far beneath
the freshness of truth; and the second, whom I had seen perish,—too soon,
alas! for literature and his country,—had given us but a few specimens of
his power when his hand was arrested for ever.
My vessel, after a profitable though somewhat tedious voyage,
had again arrived at Liverpool. It was late in a December, 1786; and
I was passing the long evening in my cabin, engaged with a whole sheaf of
pamphlets and magazines which had been sent me from the shore. "The
Lounger" was at this time in course of publication. I had ever been
an admirer of the quiet elegance and exquisite tenderness of M'Kenzie; and
though I might not be quite disposed to think, with Johnson, that "the
chief glory of every people arises from its authors," I certainly felt all
the prouder of my country from the circumstance that so accomplished a
writer was one of my countrymen. I had read this evening some of the
more recent numbers,—half-disposed to regret, however, amid all the
pleasure they afforded me, that the Addison of Scotland had not done for
the manners of his country what his illustrious prototype had done for
those of England,—when my eye fell on the ninety-seventh number. I
read the introductory sentences, and admired their truth and elegance.
I had felt, in the contemplation of super-eminent genius, the pleasure
which the writer describes, and my thoughts reverted to my two friends,
—the dead and the living. "In the view of highly superior talents,
as in that of great and stupendous objects," says the essayist, "there is
a sublimity which fills the soul with wonder and delight, which expands
it, as it were, beyond its usual bounds, and which, investing our nature
with extraordinary powers and extraordinary honours, interests our
curiosity and flatters our pride."
I read on with increasing interest. It was evident,
from the tone of the introduction, that some new luminary had arisen in
the literary horizon; and I felt something like a schoolboy when, at his
first play, he waits for the drawing up of the curtain. And the
curtain at length rose. "The person," continues the essayist, "to
whom I allude"—and he alludes to him as a genius of no ordinary class—"is
Robert Burns, an Ayrshire ploughman." The effect on my nerves seemed
electrical. I clapped my hands and sprung from my seat. "Was I
not certain of it! Did I not foresee it!" I exclaimed. "My
noble-minded friend, Robert Burns!" I ran hastily over the
warm-hearted and generous critique,—so unlike the cold, timid, equivocal
notices with which the professional critic has greeted, on their first
appearance, so many works destined to immortality. It was M'Kenzie,
the discriminating, the classical, the elegant, who assured me that the
productions of this "heaven-taught ploughman were fraught with the
high-toned feeling and the power and energy of expression characteristic
of the mind and voice of a poet," with the solemn, the tender, the
sublime; that they contained images of pastoral beauty which no other
writer had ever surpassed, and strains of wild humour which only the
higher masters of the lyre had ever equalled; and that the genius
displayed in them seemed not less admirable in tracing the manners, than
in painting the passions, or in drawing the scenery of nature. I
flung down the essay, ascended to the deck in three huge strides, leaped
ashore, and reached my bookseller's as he was shutting up for the night.
"Can you furnish me with a copy of 'Burns's Poems,'" I said,
"either for love or money?"
"I have but one copy left," replied the man, "and here it
I flung down a guinea. "The change," I said, "I shall
get when I am less in a hurry."
'Twas late that evening ere I remembered that 'tis customary
to spend at least part of the night in bed. I read on and on with a
still increasing astonishment and delight, laughing and crying by turns.
I was quite in a new world. All was fresh and unsoiled,—the
thoughts, the descriptions, the images,—as if the volume I read were the
first that had ever been written; and yet all was easy and natural, and
appealed with a truth and force irresistible to the recollections I
cherished most fondly. Nature and Scotland met me at every turn.
I had admired the polished compositions of Pope and Grey and Collins;
though I could not sometimes help feeling that, with all the exquisite art
they displayed, there was a little additional art wanting still. In
most cases the scaffolding seemed incorporated with the structure which it
had served to rear; and though certainly no scaffolding could be raised on
surer principles, I could have wished that the ingenuity which had been
tasked to erect it had been exerted a little further in taking it down.
But the work before me was evidently the production of a greater artist.
Not a fragment of the scaffolding remained,—not so much as a mark to show
how it had been constructed. The whole seemed to have risen like an
exhalation, and in this respect reminded me of the structures of
Shakspeare alone. I read the inimitable "Twa Dogs." Here, I
said, is the full and perfect realization of what Swift and Dryden were
hardy enough to attempt, but lacked genius to accomplish. Here are
dogs—bona fide dogs—endowed, indeed, with more than human sense and
observation, but true to character, as the most honest and attached of
quadrupeds, in every line. And then those exquisite touches which
the poor man, inured to a life of toil and poverty, can alone rightly
understand; and those deeply-based remarks on character which only the
philosopher can justly appreciate! This is the true catholic poetry,
which addresses itself, not to any little circle, walled in from the rest
of the species by some peculiarity of thought, prejudice. or condition,
but to the whole human family. I read on. "The Holy Fair," "Hallowe'en,"
"The Vision," the "Address to the Deil," engaged me by turns; and then the
strange, uproarious, unequalled "Death and Doctor Hornbook." This, I
said, is something new in the literature of the world. Shakspeare
possessed above all men the power of instant and yet natural
transition,—from the lightly gay to the deeply pathetic, from the wild to
the humorous,—but the opposite states of feeling which he induces, however
close the neighbourhood, are ever distinct and separate: the oil and the
water, though contained in the same vessel, remain apart. Here,
however, for the first time, they mix and incorporate, and yet each
retains its whole nature and full effect. I need hardly remind the
reader that the feat has been repeated, and with even more completeness,
in the wonderful "Tam o' Shanter." I read on. "The Cotter's
Saturday Night" filled my whole soul: my heart throbbed, and my eyes
moistened; and never before did I feel half so proud of my country, or
know half so well on what score it was I did best in feeling proud.
I had perused the entire volume, from beginning to end, ere I remembered I
had not taken supper, and that it was more than time to go to bed.
But it is no part of my plan to furnish a critique on the
poems of my friend. I merely strive to recall the thoughts and
feelings which my first perusal of them awakened, and this only as a piece
of mental history. Several months elapsed from this evening ere I
could hold them out from me sufficiently at arms' length, as it were, to
judge of their more striking characteristics. At times the amazing
amount of thought, feeling, and imagery which they contained,—their
wonderful continuity of idea, without gap or interstice,—seemed to me most
to distinguish them. At times they reminded me, compared with the
writings of smoother poets, of a collection of medals, which, unlike the
thin polished coin of the kingdom, retained all the significant and
pictorial roughnesses of the original die. But when, after the lapse
of weeks, months, years, I found them rising up in my heart on every
occasion, as naturally as if they had been the original language of all my
feelings and emotions; when I felt that, instead of remaining outside my
mind, as it were, like the writings of other poets, they had so
amalgamated themselves with my passions, my sentiments,—ideas that they
seemed to have become portions of my very self, I was led to a final
conclusion regarding them. Their grand distinguishing characteristic
is their unswerving and perfect truth. The poetry of Shakspeare is
the mirror of life; that of Burns the expressive and richly modulated
voice of human nature.
Burns was a poor man from his birth, and an exciseman from
necessity; but—I will say it!—the sterling of his honest worth poverty
could not debase; and his independent British spirit oppression might
bend, but could not subdue.—
LETTER TO MR.
I HAVE been listening for the last half-hour to the
wild music of an Æolian harp. How
exquisitely the tones rise and fall! now sad, now solemn; now near, now
distant. The nerves thrill, the heart softens, the imagination
awakes as we listen. What if that delightful instrument be animated
by a living soul, and these finely-modulated tones be but the expression
of its feelings! What if these dying, melancholy cadences, which so
melt and sink into the heart, be—what we may so naturally interpret
them—the melodious sinkings of a deep-seated and hopeless unhappiness!
Nay, the fancy is too wild for even a dream. But are there none of
those fine analogies which run through the whole of nature and the whole
of art to sublime it into truth? Yes, there have been such living
harps among us—beings the tones of whose sentiments, the melody of whose
emotions, the cadences of whose sorrows, remain to thrill and delight and
humanize our souls. They seem born for others, not for themselves.
Alas for the hapless companion of my early youth! Alas for him, the
pride of his country, the friend of my maturer manhood! But my
narrative lags in its progress.
My vessel lay in the Clyde for several weeks during the
summer of 1794, and I found time to indulge myself in a brief tour along
the western coasts of the kingdom from Glasgow to the borders. I
entered Dumfries in a calm, lovely evening, and passed along one of the
principal streets. The shadows of the houses on the western side
were stretched half-way across the pavement, while on the side opposite
the bright sunshine seemed sleeping on the jutting irregular fronts and
high antique gables. There seemed a world of well-dressed company
this evening in town; and I learned, on inquiry, that all the aristocracy
of he adjacent country, for twenty miles round, had come in to attend a
country ball. They went fluttering along the sunny side of the
street, gay as butterflies, group succeeding group. On the opposite
side, in the shade, a solitary individual was passing slowly along the
pavement. I knew him at a glance. It was the first poet,
perhaps the greatest man, of his age and country. But why so
solitary? It had been told me that he ranked among his friends and
associates many of the highest names in the kingdom, and yet to-night not
one of the hundreds who fluttered past appeared inclined to recognize him.
He seemed, too,—but perhaps fancy misled me,—as if care-worn and
dejected,—pained, perhaps, that not one among so many of the great should
have humility enough to notice a poor exciseman. I stole up to him
unobserved, and tapped him on the shoulder. There was a decided
fierceness in his manner as he be turned abruptly round; but, as he
recognized and I shall never forget the heartiness with which he grasped
We quitted the streets together for the neighbouring fields,
and, after the natural interchange of mutual congratulations, "How is it,"
I inquired, "that you do not seem to have a single acquaintance among all
the gay and great of the country?"
"I lie under quarantine," he replied, "tainted by the plague
of Liberalism. There is not one of the hundreds we passed to-night
whom I could not once reckon among my intimates."
The intelligence stunned and irritated me. "How
infinitely absurd!" I said. "Do they dream of sinking you into a
"Even so," he rejoined. "Do they not all know I have
been a gauger for the last five years?"
The fact had both grieved and incensed me long before.
I knew, too, that Pye enjoyed his salary as poet laureate of the time, and
Dibdin, the song writer, his pension of two hundred a year; and I blushed
for my country.
"Yes," he continued,—the ill-assumed coolness of his manner
giving way before his highly-excited feelings,—"they have assigned me my
place among the mean and the degraded, as their best patronage; and only
yesterday, after an official threat of instant dismission, I was told that
it was my business to act, not to think. God help me! what have I
done to provoke such bitter insult? I have ever discharged my
miserable duty,—discharged it, Mr. Lindsay, however repugnant to my
feelings, as an honest man; and though there awaited me no promotion, I
was silent. The wives or sisters of those whom they advanced over me
had bastards to some of the—family, and so their influence was necessarily
greater than mine. But now they crush me into the very dust. I
take an interest in the struggles of the slave for his freedom; I express
my opinions as if I myself were a free man; and they threaten to starve me
and my children if I dare so much as speak or think."
I expressed my indignant sympathy in a few broken sentences,
and he went on with kindling animation.
"Yes, they would fain crush me into the very dust! They
cannot forgive me, that, being born a man, I should walk erect according,
to my nature. Mean-spirited and despicable themselves, they can
tolerate only the mean-spirited and despicable; and were I not so entirely
in their power, Mr. Lindsay, I could regard them with the proper contempt.
But the wretches can starve me and my children, and they know it;
nor does it mend the matter that I know in turn, what pitiful,
miserable little creatures they are. What care I for the butterflies
of to-night? They passed me without the honour of their notice; and
I, in turn, suffered them to pass without the honour of mine, and I am
more than quits. Do I not know that they and I are going on to the
fulfilment of our several destinies,—they to sleep in the obscurity of
their native insignificance, with the pismires and grasshoppers of all the
past; and I to be whatever the millions of my unborn countrymen shall yet
decide? Pitiful little insects of an hour! What is their
notice to me! But I bear a heart, Mr. Lindsay, that can feel the
pain of treatment so unworthy; and, I must confess, it moves me. One
cannot always live upon the future, divorced from the sympathies of the
present. One cannot always solace one's self under the grinding
despotism that would fetter one's very thoughts, with the conviction,
however assured, that posterity will do justice both to the oppressor and
the oppressed. I am sick at heart; and, were it not for the poor
little things that depend so entirely on my exertions, I could as
cheerfully lay me down in the grave as I ever did in bed after the
fatigues of a long day's labour. Heaven help me! I am
miserably unfitted to struggle with even the natural evils of existence;
how much more so when these are multiplied and exaggerated by the proud,
capricious inhumanity of man!
"There is a miserable lack of right principle and right
feeling," I said, "among our upper classes in the present day; but, alas
for poor human nature! it has ever been so, and, I am afraid, ever will.
And there is quite as much of it in savage as in civilized life. I
have seen the exclusive aristocratic spirit, with its one-sided injustice,
as rampant in a wild isle of the Pacific as I ever saw it among
"'Tis slight comfort," said my friend, with a melancholy
smile, "to be assured; when one's heart bleeds from the cruelty or
injustice of our fellows, that man is naturally cruel and unjust, and not
less so as a savage than when better taught. I knew you, Mr.
Lindsay, when you were younger and less fortunate; but you have now
reached that middle term of life when man naturally takes up the Tory, and
lays down the Whig; nor has there been aught in your improving
circumstances to retard the change; and so you rest in the conclusion
that, if the weak among us suffer from the tyranny of the strong, 'tis
because human nature is so constituted; and the case therefore cannot be
"Pardon me, Mr. Burns," I said; "I am not quite so finished a
Tory as that amounts to."
"I am not one of those fanciful declaimers," he continued,
"who set out on the assumption that man is free-born. I am too well
assured of the contrary. Man is not free-born. The earlier
period of his existence, whether as a puny child or the miserable denizen
of an uninformed and barbarous state, is one of vassalage and
subserviency. He is not born free; he is not born rational; he is
not born virtuous; he is born to become all these. And woe to
the sophist who, with arguments drawn from the unconfirmed constitution of
his childhood, would strive to render his imperfect because immature state
of pupilage a permanent one! We are yet far below the level of which
our nature is capable, and possess, in consequence, but a small portion of
the liberty which it is the destiny of our species to enjoy. And
'tis time our masters should be taught so. You will deem me a wild
Jacobin, Mr. Lindsay; but persecution has the effect of making a man
extreme in these matters. Do help me to curse the scoundrels!
My business to act, not to think!"
We were silent for several minutes.
"I have not yet thanked you, Mr. Burns," I at length said,
"for the most exquisite pleasure I ever enjoyed. You have been my
companion for the last eight years."
His countenance brightened.
"Ah, here I am, boring you with my miseries and my
ill-nature," he replied; "but you must come along with me, and see the
bairns and Jean, and some of the best songs I ever wrote. It will go
hard if we hold not care at the staff's end for at least one evening.
You have not yet seen my stone punch-bowl, nor my Tam o' Shanter, nor a
hundred other fine things besides. And yet, vile wretch that I am, I
am sometimes so unconscionable as to be unhappy with them all. But
We spent this evening together with as much of happiness as
it has ever been my lot to enjoy. Never was there a fonder father
than Burns, a more attached husband, or a warmer friend. There was
an exuberance of love in his large heart that encircled in its flow
relatives, friends, associates, his country, the world; and, in his
kindlier moods, the sympathetic influence which he exerted over the hearts
of others seemed magical. I laughed and cried this evening by turns.
I was conscious of a wider and a warmer expansion of feeling than I had
ever experienced before. My very imagination seemed invigorated, by
breathing, as it were, in the same atmosphere with his. We parted
early next morning; and when I again visited Dumfries, I went and wept
over his grave. Forty years have now passed since his death; and in
that time, many poets have arisen to achieve a rapid and brilliant
celebrity; but they seem the meteors of a lower sky; the flash passes
hastily from the expanse, and we see but one great light looking steadily
upon us from above. It is Burns who is exclusively the poet of his
country. Other writers inscribe their names on the plaster which
covers for the time the outside structure of society; his is engraved,
like that of the Egyptian architect, on the ever-during granite within.
The fame of the others rises and falls with the uncertain undulations of
the mode on which they have reared it; his remains fixed and permanent as
the human nature on which it is based. Or, to borrow the figure
Johnson employs in illustrating the unfluctuating celebrity of a scarcely
greater poet, "The sand heaped by one flood is scattered by another, but
the rock always continues in its place; the stream of time which is
continually washing the dissoluble fabrics of other poets passes by,
without injury, the adamant of Shakspeare."
THE SALMON-FISHER OF UDOLL.
And the fishers shall mourn and lament;
All those that cast the hook on the river,
And those that spread nets on the face of the waters,
IN the autumn of 1759, the Bay of Udoll, an arm of
the sea which intersects the southern shore of the Frith of Cromarty, was
occupied by two large salmon-wears, the property of one Allan Thomson, a
native of the province of Moray, who had settled in this part of the
country a few months before. He was a thin, athletic, raw-boned man,
of about five feet ten, well-nigh in his thirtieth year, but apparently
younger; erect and clean-limbed, with a set of handsome features, bright,
intelligent eyes, and a profusion of light brown hair curling around an
ample expanse of forehead. For the first twenty years of his life he
had lived about a farm-house, tending cattle when a boy, and guiding the
plough when he had grown up. He then travelled into England, where
he wrought about seven years as a common labourer. A novelist would
scarcely make choice of such a person for the hero of a tale; but men are
to be estimated rather by the size and colour of their minds than the
complexion of their circumstances; and this ploughman and labourer of the
north was by no means a very common man. For the latter half of his
life he had pursued, in all his undertakings, one main design. He
saw his brother rustics tied down by circumstance—that destiny of vulgar
minds—to a youth of toil and dependence, and an old age of destitution and
wretchedness; and, with a force of character which, had he been placed at
his outset on what may be termed the table-land of fortune, would have
raised him to her higher pinnacles, he persisted in adding shilling to
shilling and pound to pound, not in the sordid spirit of the miser, but in
the hope that his little hoard might yet serve him as a kind of
stepping-stone in rising to a more comfortable place in society. Nor
were his desires fixed very high; for, convinced that independence and the
happiness which springs from situation in life lie within the reach of the
frugal farmer of sixty or eighty years, he moulded his ambition on the
conviction, and scarcely looked beyond the period at which he anticipated
his savings would enable him to take his place among the humbler tenantry
of the country.
Our friths and estuaries at this period abounded with salmon,
one of the earliest exports of the kingdom; but from the low state into
which commerce had sunk in the northern districts, and the irregularity of
the communication kept up between them and the sister kingdom, by far the
greater part caught on our shores were consumed by the inhabitants.
And so little were they deemed a luxury, that it was by no means uncommon,
it is said, for servants to stipulate with their masters that they should
not have to diet on salmon oftener than thrice a week. Thomson,
however, had seen quite enough, when in England, to convince him that,
meanly as they were esteemed by his country-folks, they might be rendered
the staple of a profitable trade; and, removing to the vicinity of
Cromarty, for the facilities it afforded in trading to the capital, he
launched boldly into the speculation. He erected his two wears with
his own hands; built himself a cottage of sods on the gorge of a little
ravine sprinkled over with bushes of alder and hazel; entered into
correspondence with a London merchant, whom he engaged as his agent; and
began to export his fish by two large sloops which plied at this period
between the neighbouring port and the capital. His fishings were
abundant, and his agent an honest one; and he soon began to realize the
sums he had expended in establishing himself in the trade.
Could any one anticipate that a story of fondly-cherished but
hapless attachment —of one heart blighted for ever, and another fatally
broken—was to follow such an introduction?
The first season of Thomson's speculation had come to a
close. Winter set in, and, with scarcely a single acquaintance among
the people in the neighbourhood, and little to employ him, he had to draw
for amusement on his own resources alone. He had formed, when a boy,
a taste for reading; and might now be found, in the long evenings, hanging
over a book beside the fire. By day he went sauntering among the
fields, calculating on the advantages of every agricultural improvement,
or attended the fairs and trysts of the country, to speculate on the
profits of the drover and cattle-feeder and make himself acquainted with
all the little mysteries of bargain-making.
There holds early in November a famous cattle-market in the
ancient barony of Ferintosh, and Thomson had set out to attend it.
The morning was clear and frosty, and he felt buoyant of heart and limb,
as, passing westwards along the shore, he saw the huge Ben Wevis towering
darker and more loftily over the Frith as he advanced, or turned aside,
from time to time, to explore some ancient burying-ground or Danish
encampment. There is not a tract of country of equal extent in the
three kingdoms where antiquities of this class lie thicker than in that
northern strip of the parish of Resolis which bounds on the Cromarty
Frith. The old castle of Craig House, a venerable, time-shattered
building, detained him, amid its broken arches, for hours; and he was only
reminded of the ultimate object of his journey when, on surveying the moor
from the upper bartizan, he saw that the groups of men and cattle, which
since morning had been mottling in succession the track leading to the
fair, were all gone out of sight, and that, far as the eye could reach,
not a human figure was to be seen. The whole population of the
country seemed to have gone to the fair. He quitted the ruins; and,
after walking smartly over the heathy ridge to the west, and through the
long birch wood of Kinbeakie, he reached, about mid-day, the little
straggling village at which the market holds.
Thomson had never before attended a thoroughly Highland
market, and the scene now presented was wholly new to him. The area
it occupied was an irregular opening in the middle of the village, broken
by ruts and dung-hills and heaps of stone. In front of the little
turf-houses, on either side, there was a row of booths, constructed mostly
of poles and blankets, in which much whiskey, and a few of the simpler
articles of foreign merchandise, were sold. In the middle of the
open space there were carts and benches, laden with the rude manufactures
of the country: Highland brogues and blankets; bowls and platters of
beech; a species of horse and cattle harness, formed of the twisted twigs
of birch; bundles of split fir, for lath and torches; and hair tackle and
nets for fishermen. Nearly seven thousand persons, male and female,
thronged the area, bustling and busy, and in continual motion, like the
tides and eddies of two rivers at their confluence. There were
country-women, with their shaggy little horses laden with cheese and
butter; Highlanders from the far hills, with droves of sheep and cattle;
shoemakers and weavers from the neighbouring villages, with bales of webs
and wallets of shoes; farmers and fishermen, engaged, as it chanced, in
buying or selling; bevies of bonny lasses, attired in their gayest;
ploughmen and mechanics; drovers, butchers, and herd-boys. Whiskey
flowed abundantly, whether bargain-makers bought or sold, or friends met
or parted; and, as the day wore later, the confusion and bustle of the
crowd increased. A Highland tryst, even in the present age, rarely
passes without witnessing a fray; and the Highlanders seventy years ago
were of more combative dispositions than they are now. But Thomson,
who had neither friend nor enemy among the thousands around him, neither
quarrelled himself, nor interfered in the quarrels of others. He
merely stood and looked on, as a European would among the frays of one of
the great fairs of Bagdad or Astrakan.
He was passing through the crowd, towards evening, in front
of one of the dingier cottages, when a sudden burst of oaths and
exclamations rose from within, and the inmates came pouring out pell-mell
at the door, to throttle and pummel one another, in inextricable
confusion. A gray-headed old man, of great apparent strength, who
seemed by far the most formidable of the combatants, was engaged in
desperate battle with two young fellows from the remote Highlands, while
all the others were matched man to man. Thomson, whose residence in
England had taught him very different notions of fair play and the ring,
was on the eve of forgetting his caution and interfering, but the
interference proved unnecessary. Ere he had stepped up to the
combatants, the old man, with a vigour little lessened by age, had shaken
off both his opponents; and, though they stood glaring at him like
tiger-cats, neither of them seemed in the least inclined to renew the
"Twa mean, pitiful kerns," exclaimed the old man, "to tak
odds against ane auld enough to be their faither; and that, too, after
burning my loof wi' the het airn! But I hae noited their twa heads
thegither! Sic a trick!—to bid me stir up the fire after they had
heated the wrang end o' the poker! Deil, but I hae a guid mind to
gie them baith mair o't yet!"
Ere he could make good his threat, however, his daughter, a
delicate-looking girl of nineteen, came rushing up to him through the
crowd. "Father!" she exclaimed, "dearest father! let us away.
For my sake, if not your own, let these wild men alone. They always
carry knives; and, besides, you will bring all of their clan upon you that
are at the tryst, and you will be murdered."
"No muckle danger frae that, Lillias," said the old man.
"I hae little fear frae ony ane o' them; an' if they come by twasome, I
hae my friends here too. The ill-deedy wratches, to blister a' my
loof wi' the poker! But come awa, lassie; your advice is, I dare
say, best after a'."
The old man quitted the place with his daughter, and for the
time Thomson saw no more of him. As the night approached, the
Highlanders became more noisy and turbulent; they drank, and disputed, and
drove their very bargains at the dirk's point; and as the salmon-fisher
passed through the village for the last time, he could see the waving of
bludgeons, and hear the formidable war-cry of one of the clans, with the
equally formidable "Hilloa! help for Cromarty!" echoing on every side of
him. He kept coolly on his way, however, without waiting the result;
and, while yet several miles from the shores of Udoll, daylight had
departed, mid the moon at full had risen, red and huge in the frosty
atmosphere, over the bleak hill of Nigg.
He had reached the Burn of Newhall,—a small stream which,
after winding for several miles between its double row of alders and its
thickets of gorse and hazel, falls into the upper part of the bay,—and was
cautiously picking his way, by the light of the moon, along a narrow
pathway which winds among the bushes. There are few places in the
country of worse repute among believers in the super- natural than the
Burn of Newhall; and its character seventy years ago was even worse than
it is at present. Witch meetings without number have been held on
its banks, and dead-lights have been seen hovering over its deeper pools;
sportsmen have charged their fowling-pieces with silver when crossing it
in the night-time; and I remember an old man who never approached it after
dark without fixing a bayonet on the head of his staff. Thomson,
however, was little influenced by the beliefs of the period; and he
passing under the shadow of the alders; with more of this world than of
the other in his thoughts, when the silence was suddenly broken by a burst
of threats and exclamations, as if several men had fallen a-fighting,
scarcely fifty yards away, without any preliminary quarrel; and with the
gruffer voices there mingled the shrieks and entreaties of a female.
Thomson grasped his stick, and sprang forward. He reached an opening
among the bushes, and saw in the imperfect light the old robust Lowlander
of the previous fray attacked by two men armed with bludgeons, and
defending himself manfully with his staff. The old man's daughter,
who had clung round the knees of one of the ruffians, was already thrown
to the ground, and trampled under foot. An exclamation of wrath and
horror burst from the high-spirited fisherman, as, rushing upon the fellow
like a tiger from its jungle, he caught the stroke aimed at him on his
stick, and, with a side-long blow on the temple, felled him to the ground.
At the instant he fell, a gigantic Highlander leaped from among the
bushes, and, raising his huge arm, discharged a tremendous blow at the
head of the fisherman, who, though taken unawares and at a disadvantage,
succeeded, notwithstanding, in transferring it to his left shoulder, where
it fell broken and weak. A desperate but brief combat ensued.
The ferocity and ponderous strength of the Celt found their more than
match in the cool, vigilant skill and leopard-like agility of the Lowland
Scot; for the latter, after discharging a storm of blows on the head,
face, and shoulders of the giant, until he staggered, at length struck his
bludgeon out of his hand, and prostrated his whole huge length by dashing
his stick end-long against his breast. At nearly the same moment the
burly old farmer, who had grappled with his antagonist, had succeeded in
flinging him, stunned and senseless, against the gnarled root of an alder;
and the three ruffians—for the first had not yet recovered—lay stretched
on the grass. Ere they could secure them, however, a shrill whistle
was heard echoing from among the alders, scarcely a hundred yards away.
"We had better get home," said Thomson to the old man, "ere these fellows
are reinforced by their brother ruffians in the wood." And,
supporting the maiden with his one hand, and grasping his stick with the
other, he plunged among the bushes in the direction of the path, and
gaining it, passed onward, lightly and hurriedly, with his charge: the old
man followed more heavily behind; and in somewhat less than an hour after
they were all seated beside a hearth of the latter, in the farm-house of
It is now more than forty years since the last stone of the
very foundation has disappeared; but the little grassy eminence on which
the house stood may still be seen. There is a deep wooded ravine
behind, which, after winding through the table-land of the parish, like a
huge crooked furrow, the bed, evidently, of some antediluvian stream,
opens far below to the sea; an undulating tract of field and moor, with
here and there a thicket of bushes and here and there a heap of stone,
spreads in front. When I last looked on the scene, 'twas in the
evening of a pleasant day in June. One half the eminence was bathed
the red light of the setting sun; the other lay brown and dark in the
shadow. A flock of sheep were scattered over the sunny side.
The herd-boy sat on the top, solacing his leisure with a music famous in
the pastoral history of Scotland, but well-nigh exploded, that of the
stock and horn; and the air seemed filled with its echoes.
I stood picturing to myself the appearance of the place ere all the
inmates of this evening, young and old, had gone to the churchyard, and
left no successors behind them; and, as I sighed over the vanity of human
hopes, I could almost fancy I saw an apparition of the cottage rising on
the knoll. I could see the dark turf-walls; the little square
windows, barred below and glazed above; the straw roof, embossed with moss
and stone-crop; and, high over head, the row of venerable elms, with their
gnarled trunks and twisted branches, that rose out of the garden-wall.
Fancy gives an interest to all her pictures,—yes, even when the subject is
but an humble cottage; and when we think of human enjoyment, of the pride
of strength and the light of beauty, in connection with a few mouldering
and nameless bones hidden deep from the sun, there is a sad poetry in the
contrast which rarely fails to affect the heart. It is now two
thousand years since Horace sung of the security of the lowly, and the
unfluctuating nature of their enjoyments; and every year of the two
thousand has been adding proof to proof that the poet, when he chose his
theme, must have thrown aside his philosophy. But the inmates of the
farm-house thought little this evening of coming misfortune. Nor
would it have been well if they had; their sorrow was neither heightened
nor hastened by their joy.
Old William Stewart, the farmer, was one of a class well-nigh
worn out in the southern Lowlands, even at this period, but which still
comprised, in the northern districts, no inconsiderable portion of the
people, and which must always obtain in countries only partially civilized
and little amenable to the laws. Man is a fighting animal from very
instinct; and his second nature, custom, mightily improves the propensity.
A person naturally courageous, who has defended himself successfully in
half a dozen different frays, will very probably begin the seventh
himself; and there are few who have fought often and well for safety and
the right who have not at length learned to love fighting for its own
sake. The old farmer had been a man of war from his youth. He
had fought at fairs and trysts and weddings and funerals; and, without one
ill-natured or malignant element in his composition, had broken more heads
than any two men in the country-side. His late quarrel at the tryst,
and the much more serious affair among the bushes, had arisen out of this
disposition; for though well-nigh in his sixtieth year, he was still as
warlike in his habits as ever. Thomson sat fronting him beside the
fire, admiring his muscular frame, huge limbs, and immense structure of
bone. Age had grizzled his hair and furrowed his cheeks and
forehead; but all the great strength, and well-nigh all the activity of
his youth, it had left him still. His wife, a sharp-featured little
woman, seemed little interested in either the details of his adventure or
his guest, whom he described as the "brave, hardy chield, wha had beaten
twasome at the cudgel,—the vera littlest o' them as big as himsel'."
"Och, gudeman," was her concluding remark, "ye aye stick to
the auld trade, bad though it be; an' I'm feared that or ye mend ye maun
be aulder yet. I'm sure ye ne'er made your ain money o't."
"Nane o' yer nonsense," rejoined the farmer. "Bring
butt the bottle an' your best cheese."
"The gudewife an' I dinna aye agree," continued the old man,
turning to Thomson. "She's baith near-gaun an' new-fangled; an' I
like aye to hae routh o' a' things, an' to live just as my faithers did
afore me. Why sould I bother my head wi' improvidments, as
they ca' them? The country's gane clean gite wi' pride, Thomson!
Naething less sairs folk noo, forsooth, than carts wi' wheels to them; an'
it's no a fortnight syne sin' little Sandy Martin, the trifling cat,
jeered me for yoking my owson to the plough by the tail. What ither
did they get tails for?"
Thomson had not sufficiently studied the grand argument of
design, in this special instance, to hazard a reply.
"The times hae gane clean oot o' joint," continued the man.
"The law has come a' the length o' Cromarty noo; au' for breaking the head
o' an impudent fallow, ane runs the risk o' being sent aff the
plantations. Faith, I wish oor Parliamenters had mair sense.
What do they ken aboot us or oor country? Deil haet difference doo
they mak' atween the shire o' Cromarty an' the shire o' Lunnon; just as if
we could be as quiet beside the red-wud Hielan-man here, as they can be
beside the queen. Na, na,—naething like a guid cudgel; little wad
their law hae dune for me at the Burn o' Newhall the nicht."
Thomson found the character of the old man quite a study in
its way; and that of his wife—a very different, and, in the main, inferior
sort of person, for she was mean-spirited and a niggard—quite a study too.
But by far the most interesting inmate of the cottage was the old man's
daughter, the child of a former marriage. She was a pale, delicate,
blue-eyed girl, who, without possessing much positive beauty of feature,
had that expression of mingled thought and tenderness which attracts more
powerfully than beauty itself. She spoke but little. That
little, however, was expressive of gratitude and kindness to the deliverer
of her father; sentiments which, in the breast of a girl so gentle, so
timid, so disposed to shrink from the roughnesses of active courage, and
yet so conscious of her need of a protector, must have mingled with a
feeling of admiration at finding in the powerful champion of the recent
fray a modest, sensible young man, of manners nearly as quiet and
unobtrusive as her own. She dreamed that night of Thomson; and her
first thought, as she awakened next morning, was, whether, as her father
had urged, he was to be a frequent visitor at Meikle Farness. But an
entire week passed away, and she saw no more of him.
He was sitting one evening in his cottage, poring over a
book. A huge fire of brushwood was blazing against the earthen wall,
filling the upper part of the single rude chamber of which the cottage
consisted with a dense cloud of smoke, and glancing brightly on the few
rude implements which occupied the lower, when the door suddenly opened,
and the farmer of Meikle Farness entered, accompanied by his daughter.
"Ha! Allan, man," he said, extending his large hand, and
grasping that of the fisherman; "if you winna come an' see us, we maun
just come and see you. Lillias an' mysel' were afraid the gudewife
had frichtened you awa, for she's a near-gaun sort o' body, an' maybe no
owre kind-spoken; but ye maun just come an' see us whiles, an' no mind
her. Except at counting-time, I never mind her mysel'."
Thomson accommodated his visitors with seats. "Yer life maun be a
gay lonely ane here, in this eerie bit o' a glen," remarked the old man,
after they had conversed for some time on different subjects; I' but I see
ye dinna want company a'thegither, such as it is,"—his eye glancing as as
he spoke, over a set of deal shelves, occupied by some sixty or seventy
volumes. "Lillias there has a liking for that kind o' company too,
an' spends some days mair o' her time amang her books than the gudewife or
mysel' would wish."
Lillias blushed at the charge, and hung down her head.
It gave, however, a new turn to the conversation; and Thomson was
gratified to find that the quiet, gentle girl, who seemed so much
interested in him, and whose gratitude to him, expressed in a language
less equivocal than any spoken one, he felt to be so delicious a
compliment, possessed a cultivated mind and a superior understanding.
She had lived under the roof of her father in a little paradise of
thoughts and imaginations, the spontaneous growth of her own mind; and as
she grew up to womanhood, she had recourse to the companionship of books;
for in books only could she find thoughts and imaginations of a kindred
It is rarely that the female mind educates itself. The
genius of the sex is rather fine than robust; it partakes rather of the
delicacy of the myrtle than the strength of the oak; and care and culture
seem essential to its full development. Who ever heard of a female
Burns or Bloomfield? And yet there have been instances, though rare,
of women working their way from the lower levels of intellect to well-nigh
the highest,—not wholly unassisted, 'tis true; the age must be a
cultivated one, and there must be opportunities of observation; but, if
not wholly unassisted, with helps so slender, that the second order of
masculine minds would find them wholly inefficient. There is a
quickness of perception and facility of adaptation in the better class of
female minds—an ability of catching the tone of whatever is good from the
sounding of a single note, if I may so express myself—which we almost
never meet with in the mind of man. Lillias was a favourable
specimen of the better and more intellectual order of women; but she was
yet very young, and the process of self-cultivation carrying on in her
mind was still incomplete; and Thomson found that the charm of her society
arose scarcely more from her partial knowledge than from her partial
ignorance. The following night saw him seated by her side in the
farm-house of Meikle Farness; and scarcely a week passed during the winter
in which he did not spend at least one evening in her company.
Who is it that has not experienced the charm of female
conversation,—that poetry of feeling which develops all of tenderness and
all of imagination that lies hidden in our nature? When following
the ordinary concerns of life, or engaged in its more active businesses,
many of the better faculties of our minds seem overlaid: there is little
of feeling, and nothing of fancy; and those sympathies which should bind
us to the good and fair of nature lie repressed and inactive. But in
the society of an intelligent and virtuous female there is a charm that
removes the pressure. Through the force of sympathy, we throw our
intellects for a time into the female mould; our tastes assimilate to the
tastes of our companion; our feelings keep pace with hers; our
sensibilities become nicer and our imaginations more expansive; and,
though the powers of our mind may not mutch excel, in kind or degree,
those of the great bulk of mankind, we are sensible that for the time we
experience some of the feelings of genius. How many common men have
not through female society and the fervour of youthful passion sublimed
into poets? I am convinced the Greeks displayed as much sound
philosophy as good taste in representing their muses as beautiful women.
Thomson had formerly been but an admirer of the poets.
He now became a poet. And had his fate been a kindlier one, he might
perhaps have attained a middle place among at least the minor professors
of the incommunicable art. He was walking with Lillias one evening
through the wooded ravine. It was early in April, and the day had
combined the loveliest smiles of spring with the fiercer blasts of winter.
There was snow in the hollows; but here the sweeping sides of the dell
reclined to the south, the violet and the primrose were opening to the
sun. The drops of a recent shower were still hanging on the
half-expanded buds, and the streamlet was yet red and turbid; but the sun,
nigh at his setting, was streaming in golden glory along the field, and a
lark was carolling in the air as if its day were but begun. Lillias
pointed to the bird, diminished almost to a speck, but relieved by the red
light against a minute cloudlet.
"Happy little creature!" she exclaimed; "does it not seem
rather a thing of heaven than of earth? Does not its song frae the
clouds mind you of the hymn heard by the shepherds? The blast is but
just owre, an' a few minutes syne it lay cowering and chittering in its
nest; but its sorrows are a' gane, an' its heart rejoices in the bonny
blink, without a'e thought o' the storm that has passed or the night that
comes on. Were you a poet, Allan, like ony o' your twa namesakes,—he
o' 'The Seasons,' or he o' 'The Gentle Shepherd,'—I would ask you for a
song on that bonnie burdie." Next time the friends met, Thomson
produced the following verses:—
TO THE LARK.
Sweet minstrel of the April cloud,
Dweller the flowers among,
Would that my heart were formed like thine,
And tuned like thine my song!
Not to the earth, like earth's low gifts,
Thy soothing strain is given:
It comes a voice from middle sky,—
A solace breathed from heaven.
Thine is the morn; and when the sun
Sinks peaceful in the west,
The mild light of departing day
Purples thy happy breast.
And ah! though all beneath that sun
Dire pains and sorrows dwell,
Rarely they visit, short they stay,
Where thou hast built thy cell.
When wild winds rave, and snows descend,
And dark clouds gather fast,
And on the surf-encircled shore
The seaman's barque is cast,
Long human grief survives the storm;
But thou, thrice happy bird!
No sooner has it passed away,
Than, lo! thy voice is heard.
When ill is present, grief is thine;
It flies, and thou art free;
But ah! can aught achieve for man
What nature does for thee?
Man grieves amid the bursting storm;
When smiles the calm he grieves;
Nor cease his woes, nor sinks his plaint,
Till dust his dust receives.
AS the latter month of spring came on the fisherman
again betook himself to his wears, and nearly a fortnight passed in which
he saw none of the inmates of the farmhouse. Nothing is so efficient
as absence, whether self-imposed or the result of circumstances, in
convincing a lover that he is truly such, and in teaching him how to
estimate the strength of his attachment. Thomson had sat night after
night beside Lillias Stewart, delighted with the delicacy of her taste and
the originality and beauty of her ideas; delighted, too, to watch the
still partially-developed faculties of her mind shooting forth and
expanding into bud and blossom under the fostering influence of his own
more matured powers. But the pleasure which arises from the
interchange of ideas and the contemplation of mental beauty, or the
interest which every thinking mind must feel in marking the aspirations of
a superior intellect towards its proper destiny, is not love; and it was
only now that Thomson ascertained the true scope of his feelings.
"She is already my friend," thought he. "If my schemes
prosper, I shall be in a few years what her father is now; and may then
ask her whether she will not be more. Till then, however, she shall
be my friend, and my friend only. I find I love her too well to make
her the wife of either a poor unsettled speculator, or still poorer
He renewed his visits to the farm-house, and saw, with a
discernment quickened by his feelings, that his mistress had made a
discovery with regard to her own affections somewhat similar to his, and
at a somewhat earlier period. She herself could have perhaps fixed
the date of it by referring to that of their acquaintance. He
imparted to her his scheme, and the uncertainties which attended it, with
his determination, were he unsuccessful in his designs, to do battle with
the evils of penury and dependence without a companion; and, though she
felt that she could deem it a happiness to make common cause with him even
in such a contest, she knew how to appreciate his motives, and loved him
all the more for them. Never, perhaps, in the whole history of the
passion, were there two lovers happier in their hopes and each other.
But there was a cloud gathering over them.
Thomson had never been an especial favourite with the
step-mother of Lillias. She had formed plans of her own for the
settlement of her daughter with which the attentions of the salmon-fisher
threatened materially to interfere; and there was a total want of sympathy
between them besides. Even William, though he still retained a sort
of rough regard for him, had begun to look askance on his intimacy with
Lillias. His avowed love, too, for the modern, gave no little
offence. The farm of Meikle Farness was obsolete enough in its
usages and mode of tillage to have formed no uninteresting study to the
antiquary. Towards autumn, when the fields vary most in colour, it
resembled a rudely-executed chart of some large island,—so irregular were
the patches which composed it, and so broken on every side by a
surrounding sea of moor that here and there went winding into the interior
in long river-like strips, or expanded within into friths and lakes.
In one corner there stood a heap of stones, in another a thicket of furze;
here a piece of bog, there a broken bank of clay. The implements
with which the old man laboured in his fields were as primitive in their
appearance as the fields themselves: there was the one-stilted plough, the
wooden-toothed harrow, and the basket-woven cart with its rollers of wood.
With these, too, there was the usual misproportion on the farm, to its
extent, of lean, inefficient cattle,—four half-starved animals performing
with incredible effort the work of one. Thomson would fain have
induced the old man, who was evidently sinking in the world, to have
recourse to a better system, but he gained wondrous little by his advice.
And there was another cause which operated still more decidedly against
him. A wealthy young farmer in the neighbourhood had been for the
last few months not a little diligent in his attentions to Lillias.
He had lent the old man, at the preceding term, a considerable sum of
money; and had ingratiated himself with the step-mother by chiming in on
all occasions with her humour, and by a present or two besides.
Under the auspices of both parents, therefore, he had paid his addresses
to Lillias; and, on meeting with a repulse, had stirred them both up
The fisherman was engaged one evening in fishing his nets.
The ebb was that of a stream tide, and the bottom of almost the entire bay
lay exposed to the light of the setting sun, save that a river-like strip
of water wound through the midst. He had brought his gun with him,
in the hope of finding a seal or otter asleep on the outer banks; but
there were none this evening; and, laying down his piece against one of
the poles of the wear, he was employed in capturing a fine salmon, that
went darting like a bird from side to side of the inner enclosure, when he
heard some one hailing him by name from out side the nets. He looked
up, and saw three men—one of whom he recognized as the young farmer who
was paying his addresses to Lillias—approaching from the opposite side of
the bay. They were apparently much in liquor, and came staggering
towards him in a zigzag track along the sands. A suspicion crossed
his mind that he might find them other than friendly; and, coming out of
the enclosure, where, from the narrowness of the space and the depth of
the water, he would have lain much at their mercy, he employed himself in
picking off the patches of sea-weed that adhered to the nets, when they
came up to him, and assailed him with a torrent of threats and reproaches.
He pursued his occupation with the utmost coolness, turning round, from
time to time, to repay their abuse by some cutting repartee. His
assailants discovered they were to gain little in this sort of contest;
and Thomson found, in turn, that they were much less disguised in liquor
than he at first supposed, or than they seemed desirous to make it appear.
In reply to one of his more cutting sarcasms, the tallest of the three, a
ruffian-looking fellow, leaped forward and struck him on the face; and in
a moment he had returned the blow with such hearty good-will that the
fellow was dashed against one of the poles. The other two rushed in
to close with him. He seized his gun, and, springing out from beside
the nets to the open bank, dealt the farmer, with the butt-end, a
tremendous blow on the face, which prostrated him in an instant; and then,
cocking the piece and presenting it, he commanded the ether two, on peril
of their lives, to stand aloof. Odds of weapons, when there is
courage to avail one's self of them, forms a thorough counterbalance to
odds of number. After an engagement of a brief half-minute,
Thomson's assailants left him in quiet possession of the field; and he
found, on his way home, that he could trace their route by the blood of
the young farmer. There went abroad an exaggerated and very
erroneous edition of the story, highly unfavourable to the salmon-fisher;
and he received an intimation shortly after that his visits at the
farm-house were no longer expected. But the intimation came not from
The second year of his speculation had well-nigh come to a
close, and, in calculating on the quantum of his shipments and the state
of the markets, he could deem it a more successful one than even the
first. But his agent seemed to be assuming a new and worse
character. He rather substituted promises and apologies for his
usual remittances, or neglected writing altogether; and, as the fisherman
was employed one day in dismantling his wears for the season, his worst
fears were realized by the astounding intelligence that the embarrassments
of the merchant had at length terminated in a final suspension of
"There," said he, with a coolness which partook in its nature
in no slight degree of that insensibility of pain and injury which follows
a violent blow, there go well-nigh all my hard-earned savings of twelve
years, and all my hopes of happiness with Lillias!" He gathered up
his utensils with an automaton-like carefulness, and, throwing them over
his shoulders, struck across the sands in the direction of the cottage.
"I must see her," he said, "once, more, and bid her farewell." His
heart swelled to his throat at the thought; but, as if ashamed of his
weakness, he struck his foot firmly against the sand, and, proudly raising
himself to his full height, quickened his pace. He reached the door,
and, looking wistfully, as he raised the latch, in the direction of the
farm-house, his eye caught a female figure coming towards the cottage
through the bushes of the ravine. "'Tis poor Lillias!" he exclaimed.
"Can she already have heard that I am unfortunate, and that we must part?"
He went up to her, and, as he pressed her hand between both his, she burst
It was a sad meeting. Meetings must ever be such when
the parties that compose them bring each a separate grief, which becomes
common when imparted.
"I cannot tell you," said Lillias to her lover, "how unhappy
I am. My step-mother has not much love to bestow on any one; and so,
though it be in her power to deprive me of the quiet I value so much, I
care comparatively little for her resentment. Why should I?
She is interested in no one but herself. As for Simpson, I can
despise without hating him. Wasps sting just because it is their
nature; and some people seem born, in the same way, to be mean-spirited
and despicable. But my poor father, who has been so kind to me, and
who has so much heart about him, his displeasure has the bitterness of
death to me. And then he is so wildly and unjustly angry with you.
Simpson has got him, by some means, into his power, I know not how.
My step-mother annoys him continually; and from the state of irritation in
which he is kept, he is saying and doing the most violent things
imaginable, and making me so unhappy by his threats." And she again
burst into tears.
Thomson had but little of comfort to impart to her.
Indeed, he could afterwards wonder at the indifference with which he
beheld her tears, and the coolness with which he communicated to her the
story of his disaster. But he had yet recovered his natural tone of
feeling. Who has not observed that, while in men of an inferior and
weaker cast, any sudden and overwhelming misfortune unsettles their whole
minds, and all is storm and uproar, in minds a superior order, when
subjected to the same ordeal, there takes place a kind of freezing,
hardening process, under which they maintain at least apparent coolness
and if possession? Grief acts as a powerful solvent to the one
class; to the other it is as the waters of a petrifying spring.
"Alas, my Lillias!" said the fisherman, "we have not been
born for happiness and each other. We must part, each of us to
struggle with our respective evils. Call up all your strength of
mind, the much in your character that has as yet lain unemployed, and so
despicable a thing as Simpson will not dare to annoy you. You may
yet meet with a man worthy of you; some one who will love you as well
as—as one who can at least appreciate your value, and who will deserve you
better." As he spoke, and his mistress listened in silence and in
tears, William Stewart burst in upon them through the bushes; and, with a
countenance flushed, and a frame tremulous with passion, assailed the
fisherman with a torrent of threats and reproaches. He even raised
his hand. The prudence of Thomson gave way under the provocation.
Ere the blow had descended, he had locked the farmer in his grasp, and,
with an exertion of strength which scarcely a giant would be capable of in
a moment of less excitement, he raised him from the earth, and forced him
against the grassy side of the ravine, where he held him despite of his
efforts. A shriek from Lillias recalled him to the command of
himself. "William Stewart," he said, quitting his hold and stepping
back, "you are an old man, and the father of Lillias." The farmer
rose slowly and collectedly, with a flushed cheek but a quiet eye, as if
all his anger had evaporated in the struggle, and, turning to his
"Come, Lillias, my lassie," he said, laying hold of her arm,
"I have been too hasty; I have been in the wrong." And so they
Winter came on, and Thomson was again left to the solitude of
his cottage, with only his books and his own thoughts to employ him.
He found little amusement or comfort in either. He could think only
of Lillias, that she loved and yet was lost to him.
"Generous and affectionate and confiding," he has said, when
thinking of her, "I know she would willingly share with me in my poverty;
but ill would I repay her kindness in demanding of her such a sacrifice.
Besides, how could I endure to see her subjected to the privations of a
destiny so humble as mine? The same heaven that seems to have
ordained me to labour, and to be unsuccessful, has given me a mind not to
be broken by either toil or disappointment; but keenly and bitterly would
I feel the evils of both were she to be equally exposed. I must
strive to forget her, or think of her only as my friend." And,
indulging in such thoughts as these, and repeating and repeating similar
resolutions,—only however to find them unavailing,—winter, with its long,
dreary nights, and its days of languor and inactivity, passed heavily
away. But it passed. '
He was sitting beside his fire, one evening late in February,
when a gentle knock was heard at the door. He started up, and,
drawing back the bar, William Stewart entered the apartment.
"Allan," said the old man, "I have come to have some
conversation with you, and would have come sooner, but pride and shame
kept me back. I fear I have been much to blame."
Thomson motioned him to a seat, and sat down beside him.
"Farmer," he said, "since we cannot recall the past, we had
perhaps better forget it."
The old man bent forward his head till it rested almost on
his knee, and for a few moments remained silent.
"I fear, Allan, I have been much to blame," he at length
reiterated. "Ye maun come an' see Lillias. She is ill, very
ill, an' I fear no very like to get better. Thomson was stunned by
the intelligence, and answered he scarcely knew what. "She has never
been richt hersel'," continued the old man, "sin' the unlucky day when you
an' I met in the burn here; but for the last month she has been little out
o' her bed. Since mornin' there has been a, great change on her, an'
she wishes to see you. I fear we havena meikle time to spare, an'
had better gang." Thomson followed him in silence.
They reached the farm-house of Meikle Farness, and entered
the chamber where the maiden lay. A bright fire of brushwood threw a
flickering gloom on the floor and rafters; and their shadows, as they
advanced, seemed dancing on the walls. Close beside the bed there
was a small table, bearing a lighted candle, and with a Bible lying open
upon it at that chapter of Corinthians in which the apostle assures us
that the dead shall rise, and the mortal put on immortality. Lillias
half sat, half reclined, in the upper part of the bed. Her thin and
wasted features had already the stiff rigidity of death; her cheeks and
lips were colourless; and though the blaze seemed to dance and flicker on
her half-closed eyes, they served no longer to intimate to the departing
spirit the existence of external things.
"Ah, my Lillias!" exclaimed Thomson, as he bent over her, his
heart swelling with an intense agony. "Alas! has it come to this!"
His well-known voice served to recall her as from the
precincts of another world. A faint melancholy smile passed over her
features, and she held out her hand.
"I was afraid," she said, in a voice sweet and gentle as
ever, though scarcely audible, through extreme weakness,—"I was afraid
that I was never to see you more. Draw nearer; there is a darkness
coming over me, and I hear but imperfectly. I may now say with a
propriety which no one will challenge, what I durst not have said before.
Need I tell you that you were the dearest of all my friends, the only man
I have ever loved, the man whose lot, however low and unprosperous, I
would have deemed it a happiness to be invited to share? I do not,
however, I cannot reproach you. I depart, and forever; but oh! let
not a single thought of me render you unhappy. My few years of life
have not been without their pleasures, and I go to a better and brighter
world. I am weak, and cannot say more; but let me hear you speak.
Read to me the eighth chapter of Romans."
Thomson, with a voice tremulous and faltering through
emotion, read the chapter. Ere he had made an end, the maiden had
again sunk into the state of apparent insensibility out of which she had
been so lately awakened; though occasionally a faint pressure of his hand,
which she still retained, showed him that she was not unconscious of his
presence. At length, however, there was a total relaxation of the
grasp; the cold damp of the stiffening palm struck a chill to his heart;
there was a fluttering of the pulse, a glazing of the eye; the breast
ceased to heave, the heart to beat; the silver cord parted in twain, and
the golden bowl was broken. Thomson contemplated for a moment the
body of his mistress, and, striking his hand against his forehead, rushed
out of the apartment.
He attended her funeral; he heard the earth falling heavy and
hollow on the coffin-lid; he saw the green sod laced over her grave; he
witnessed the irrepressible anguish of her father, and the sad regret of
her friends; and all this without shedding a tear. He was turning to
depart, when some one thrust a letter into his hand. He opened it
almost mechanically. It contained a considerable sum of money, and a
few lines from his agent, stating that, in consequence of a favourable
change in his circumstances, he had been enabled to satisfy all his
creditors. Thomson crumpled up the bills in his hand. He felt
as if his heart stood still in his breast; a noise seemed ringing his
ears; a mist-cloud appeared, as if rising out of the earth and darkening
around him. He was caught, when falling, by old William Stewart;
and, on awakening to consciousness and the memory of the past, found
himself in his arms. He lived for about ten years after, a laborious
and speculative man, ready to oblige, and successful in all his designs;
and no one deemed him unhappy. It was observed, however, that his
dark brown hair was soon mingled with masses of gray, and that his tread
became heavy and his frame bent. It was remarked, too, that when
attacked by a lingering epidemic, which passed over well nigh the whole
country, he of all the people was the only one that sunk under it.