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of miles distant from his former residence. Here he removed his wife and children, and here he toiled with all his natural energy and indomitable perseverance for a period of eleven long toilsome years, only to find that the farm was a barren and unprofitable subject.
An interesting and graphic delineation of William Burness's personality is furnished to us by Mr. Murdoch, who acted as teacher to the Poet and his younger brother Gilbert, and who was a frequent inmate of William Burness's household, both at the cottage near Ayr and at Mount Oliphant. He thus relates his experiences of the Burns family, after he himself had removed to Ayr and his visits had necessarily become more brief and occasional. “I was a frequent visitant at his (the Poet's) father's house when I had my half-holiday, and very often went accompanied with one or two persons more intelligent than myself, that good William Burness might enjoy a mental feast. Then the labouring oar was shifted to some other hand. The father and son sat down with us, when we enjoyed a conversation wherein solid reasoning, sensible remark, and a moderate seasoning of jocularity, were so nicely blended as to render it palatable to all parties. Robert had a hundred questions to ask me about the French language, &c., and the father, who had always rational information in view, had still some question to propose to my more learned friends upon moral or natural philosophy, or some such interesting subject. Mrs Burness, too, was of the party as much as possible,
“But still the house affairs would draw her hence,
and particularly that of her husband. At all times and in all companies she listened to him with more marked attention than to anybody else. When under the necessity of being absent while he was speaking she seemed to regret as a real loss that she had missed what 'the guid-man' had said. This worthy woman, Agnes Brown, had the most thorough esteem for her husband of any woman I ever knew. I can by no means wonder that she highly esteemed him, for I myself have always considered William Burness as by far the best of the human race that ever I had the pleasure of being acquainted
with, and many a worthy character I have known. I can cheerfully join with Robert in the last line of his epitaph, borrowed from Goldsmith
' And even his failings leaned to virtue's side.' He was an excellent husband if I may judge from his assiduous attention to the care and comfort of his worthy partner, and from her affectionate behaviour to him, as well as her unwearied attention to the duties of a mother. a tender and affectionate father; he took pleasure in leading his children in the path of virtue; not in driving them, as some parents do, to the performance of duties to which they themselves are averse. He took care to find fault but very seldom, and, therefore, when he did rebuke, he was listened to with a kind of reverential awe.”
According to Dr. Currie, William Burness is described by one who knew him personally in the later years of his life, as above the common stature, thin and bent with labour. His countenance was serious and composed, and the scanty locks on his head were grey. He was of a religious turn of mind, and, as is usual among the Scottish peasantry, he was a good deal conversant with speculative theology. As evidence of these facts, reference may here be made to the “Manual of Religious Belief,” which he composed for the use of his family, and which was published some years ago as a contribution towards the ever-increasing mass of Burns Bibliography. The Manual is in the form of a dialogue between a father and son, and it displays not only great ease, dignity, and lucidity of expression, but also a marvellous faculty for logical reasoning. It exhibits, too, in the benevolence of spirit in which the then generally accepted Calvinistic tenets are softened down in their rigidity, a liberality of sentiment far in advance of the age in which he lived.
Owing to the failure of the farm of Mount Oliphant, William Burness, at Whitsunday, 1777, removed to a somewhat more promising farm, situated in the parish of Tarbolton, and called Lochlea. By this time the family had been still further increased by the birth of two additional sons, William and John, and of his youngest daughter, Isobel, afterwards Mrs. Begg, who within the last forty years occupied along with her two daughters a picturesque cottage on the Banks of the Doon, and whose dignified form, and calm, self-possessed bearing must still be in the recollection of not a few of
The farm of Lochlea was larger than that of Mount Oliphant, and the lease seems to have been adjusted on terms apparently favourable to the tenant. Burns himself says of it, “that the bargain was such as to throw a little ready money into my father's hand at the commencement, otherwise the affair would have been impracticable.” For four years William Burness and his household enjoyed at Lochlea comparative comfort. Their life, it is true, continued to be one of hard and unremitting toil, but it was undergone in a spirit of thorough contentment and of single-hearted devotion to the common family interest. Dr. Chambers in his biography of Burns, in treating of the Lochlea experiences, says,—“It was a time of comparative comfort for the Burness family, although marked not less than any other by extreme application to labour. The family was a remarkable one in the district. They kept more by themselves than is common in their class. Their superior intelligence and refinement, and a certain air of self-respect which they bore amid all the common drudgeries of their situation, caused them to be looked upon as people of a superior sort. Country neighbours who happened to enter their family room at the dinner hour, were surprised to find them all-father, brothers, and sisters—sitting with a book in one hand, while they used their spoons with the other.”
William Burness himself was now verging on sixty years of age, and his health was beginning to fail, but he was ably aided in his industrious efforts by his loving and devoted wife and children. Robert, then in his nineteenth year, and Gilbert, aged seventeen, were a great assistance to him in his agricultural labours, and although the Poet in after life graphically characterises his experiences at this period “as the cheerless gloom of a hermit, with the unceasing moil of a galley slave,” it is clear that there was mingled with their care and toil a considerable amount of genuine domestic comfort and happiness. Even the younger members of the household had each his or her appropriate and suitable part to bear in the family industry, and Mrs. Begg, then a mere child of ten years, had her special duty assigned to her, and after a lapse of fully four-score years, she used to recall with delight the happy experiences of her youthful days at Lochlea. One of these reminiscences as related by her to the late Dr. Robert Chambers, presents the Poet's father in an exceedingly pleasing light. “Her main occupation,” Mrs. Begg said, “was one suited to her tender years, that of herding’ the cattle in the field. Her father would often visit her, sit down by her side, and tell her the names of the various grasses and wild flowers, as if to lose no opportunity of imparting instruction. When it thundered she was sure he would come to her, because he knew that on such occasions she was apt to suffer much from terror."
Graphic sketches of the family life at Lochlea are to be found scattered over the pages of the various editions of the Poet's Life and Works, and not the least interesting of these is furnished by the following characteristic letter addressed by William Burness himself, within three years of his death, to his nephew, James Burness, Montrose.
"DEAR NEPHEW,- I received your affectionate letter by the bearer, who came five miles with it to my house. I received it with the same warmth you wrote it, and I am extremely glad you express yourself with so warm regard for your parents and friends. I wish you much joy of your wife and child. I would have been glad had you sent me their names, with the name of your brother-in-law.
I have a family of four sons and three daughters; two of my sons and two of my daughters are men and women, and all with me in the farm way. I have the happiness to hope they are virtuously inclined. My youngest daughter is ten years of age. My eldest son is named Robert; my second, Gilbert; the third, John; the fourth, William. My eldest daughter is named Agnes; the second, Anabella; the third, Isobel.
My brother lives at Stewarton, by Kilmarnock. He has two sons and one daughter, named John, William, and Fanny. Their circumstances are very indifferent.
I shall be happy to hear from you when it is convenient, when I shall write to you from time to time. Please give my respects to your brother and sister in the kindest manner, and to your wife, which will greatly oblige your affectionate uncle,
WILLIAM BURNESS. Lochlea, 14th April, 1791."
The reminiscences of Mrs Begg, the youngest member of William Burness' household, of the early period of her life which she passed at Lochlea, continued to be a never-failing source of deep and genuine happiness to her during her lengthened existence of nearly fourscore and ten years. These were of too sacred a character to be alluded to except within
the limits of her own family circle, or to some specially favoured and sympathetic listener; but when she was induced to speak of her father she never failed to express the profoundest reverence for, and devotion to his memory. Proud as she naturally was of her illustrious eldest brother, and fondly as she clung all her life through to her every recollection of him, she was still prouder of, and clung more fondly and tenderly to, her memories of her father. Him she regarded as a far higher object of admiration, and her favourite delineation of his personality was to point to him as the veritable original of the saint, the father, and the husband," so reverently depicted by her brother in “The Cottar's Saturday Night."
From Mrs. Begg's reminiscences we derive the deeply interesting information that her father had, from a very early period of the Poet's childhood, discerned the exceptional gifts of his eldest son, and had expressed to his wife the solemn prediction—“Whoever may live to see it, something extraordinary will come from that boy.” From the same source, too, we have the information that the Poet's father actually lived to realize in some measure, and probably not without a mysterious blending of parental pride with parental anxiety, the truth of his own prediction. Some of the earliest effusions of his son's marvellous genius he actually lived to read and to appreciate very highly, and among these he especially admired the exquisite simplicity and tenderness of sentiment in the matchless pastoral song “My Nanny, O!” Mrs. Begg, too, used to relate with much enjoyment, a domestic incident at Lochlea, which revealed her austere father and his gifted son in a very real and characteristic light. In the winter of 1781-2, while Burns was paying court to the first of his innumerable successive divinities -Ellison Begbie, a sweet and interesting girl, who dwelt on the banks of the Cessnock, about two miles from Lochlea—his father naturally became much concerned at the lateness of the hour at which his son occasionally returned to the parental roof, and in order to administer a fitting rebuke to the “rover,” he one night insisted on sitting up to await his return. When, therefore, the youthful bard arrived at Lochlea, he found his father awaiting him in his severest admonitory mood. On being asked the reason for his detention to such a late hour, the son, at once in his gayest and happiest strain, began to give his