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REMINISCENCES OF ROBERT BURNS,
WITH SOME ACCOUNT OF HIS PORTRAITS.
HE interesting article on the “Portraits of Burns” in
your first number, by D. W. Stevenson, R.S.A., the
well-known sculptor in Edinburgh, prompts me to send you my father's recollections of Burns, as well as his opinion of the Taylor Portrait when first made public, a portrait which he and others then living in Edinburgh, who had often seen Burns, refused to accept as at all like the poet. It is only in recent years that I have realised how important his testimony might be considered, and as there are so few contemporary reminiscences of Burns I gladly avail myself of your publication to lay them before your readers.
It was my good fortune to be one of the younger members of a family where the genius and poetry of Burns were greatly appreciated. My father in his younger days had several times seen Burns himself, and knowing his poems and songs off by heart he aptly quoted them on all suitable occasions. Often during the last twenty years of his life have I heard his vivid description of the time and place when and where he first saw Robert Burns, and it was always a treat to hear him recite his poems, or sing his songs, both of which he did with a broad Scots accent, and with great enthusiasm, as well as dramatic effect. He was a native of Kelso, on the romantic banks of the Tweed, where he spent all his early years, being educated at the Kelso Grammar School. He remembered Scott's younger brother being at the school at the same time, and often saw Walter Scott at Kelso, and afterwards in Edinburgh. As my
father grew up he would no doubt hear a great deal about Burns's poems, as they were well known on the Borders long before their fame reached the general public. At any rate he soon became familiar with them, for when on a visit, early in May, 1787, to his uncle, Mr William Gladstaines, who lived in the neighbouring town of Duns, he found a copy of the Edinburgh edition which had just been published along with the first engraved portrait of the Poet. One afternoon as he was sitting on the sill in the recess of the window in the parlour of his uncle's house reading this new edition of Burns's poems, who should be shown in but Burns himself! He had come in with the father of his young Edinburgh friend, Robert Ainslie, with whom he was staying in the immediate neighbourhood of Duns, and who had brought him in to see my father's uncle who was one of the principal residents in the town. One or two others had also come in with them, and as they sat round the table talking and sipping their toddy—the usual hospitality when a call was made in those days—my father sat quietly listening to their conversation. He closely watched the Poet and compared him with the portrait in the book, delighted to have this chance of seeing the author and the portrait at the same time. His description of Burns was that he was tall, and not stoutly but strongly built, of very dark complexion, and with large brilliant black eyes that sparkled as he spoke in a wonderful manner. When I once asked my father about their conversation he said that he did not remember much about it, except that it was mostly about farming and the people of the neighbourhood, and that he was content to sit and look at Burns as the author of the wonderful poems he had just been reading. The next morning being Sunday, my father again saw him as he was entering the Parish church-yard with the Ainslies, and as their pew in the church was next to his uncle's, he managed to sit on the side nearest them, and when they stood up to pray—there being only the division of the pew between him and Burns-he contrived to let his elbow touch Burns's that he might be able to say that "he had touched the poet !” In confirmation of this I may mention that I have still the piece of paper on which I copied a paragraph from the “ Glasgow Citizen” of the roth August, 1844, in reference to the Burns Festival of that date, in which it was stated that " The following interesting reminiscence was appended to the signature of a gentleman in Liverpool ordering a copy of to-day's Citizen :
-Ane wha rubbed shoulders wi' the poet i’ the Auld Kirk o' Dunse, in 1787, o'whilk he is no’a little proud.'” My father was much amused that the editor had thought it worth while to put this into his paper.
It may be also interesting to state that my father noticed an incident in the church on this occasion, of Burns, when the sermon was being preached, pulling a piece of paper out of his pocket, and after writing something on it, passing it to Miss Ainslie, who was sitting next to him. The meaning of this only came out in after years, when Robert Ainslie told the story of his sister being alarmed at the violent words of the preacher (old Dr. Bowmaker, to whom Burns alludes in his diary of this time) denouncing “obstinate sinners," upon which Burns, noticing Miss Ainslie hunting up the text, wrote on the paper the following epigram :
“Fair maid, you need not take the hint,
Nor idle texts pursue,
Not angels such as you !” As Burns was in Duns and the neighbourhood for some time, my father had other opportunities of seeing him. One of these I well remember hearing thus described:-One bright May morning my father was tempted to go out about six o'clock, his object being to ascend to the top of Duns Law, from which is a splendid view of the Cheviot Hills and the whole "valley of the Merse," with the tall steeple and high arched bridge of Berwick-on-Tweed on the horizon. When he reached the top, he saw Burns lying down on the grass, a little way off, with his elbows on the ground and his chin and head supported by his hands, evidently lost in a reverie, as he gazed at the lovely scene before him. Burns, evidently observing some one approaching, suddenly sprang to his feet, and walked away as if he did not wish his thoughts to be disturbed.
There are still some of my father's old friends living who remember what I have related above, and especially the earnest way in which he used to relate how Burns, in one of his walks with Robert Ainslie, crossed the Border, and when he first trod on English ground, he doffed his hat, and then kneeling, reverently repeated the last two verses from his “Cottars' Saturday Night,” which my father, in telling the story would repeat as earnestly as if he himself were inspired with the noble words in which Burns has apostrophised his native land.
Among his other recollections of Burns, he used to speak of the appearance in Edinburgh, long after the Poet's death, of a supposed portrait of Burns, by Peter Taylor. Fortunately, in addition to my own recollection of this, I have a record of it in my father's hand-writing, written at the time, as well as a long letter written in 1851, to his old friend Alexander Ireland of Manchester, who had often heard my father tell the story of his seeing Burns; and at his request he wrote out his account of the Taylor Portrait in order that Mr. Ireland mlynt send it to Mr. Robert Chambers in Edinburgh. About ten years ago the son of Mr. Chambers in looking over his father's papers relating to Burns, found this letter, and noticing that it was addressed to Mr. Ireland (who was a great friend of the Chambers), he returned it to him, thinking he would like to re-possess it. Mr. Ireland then kindly sent it on to me, knowing that I would be greatly pleased to read it, as it would revive and confirm all my own recollections of the familiar story it contained. Mr. Ireland is still well and hearty, though over 80 years of age, and is able to confirm all I have written. We have been life-long friends, as our fathers were before us, when they both lived in Edinburgh. The letter is rather long, but so interesting in itself that I make no apology for quoting it in full, especially as it gives quite a different opinion of this picture as a likeness of Burns, from those quoted by Mr. Stevenson from the Edinburgh Literary Journal of 1829 :
THE ELMS, TOXTETH PARK,
LIVERPOOL, 27TH APRIL, 1851. “Mr Alexander Ireland,
“MY DEAR SIR,-In obedience to your request I herewith send you a few lines on the subject of the supposed, or as I should rather say spurious, likeness of our great poet, intended to be palmed on the public as an original and correct likeness. That Mr. Aitkin, the partner of Constable, believed it to be what the painter or possessor of it represented I have no doubt; but that he was imposed on I am equally sure, and for the following reasons:
“When living in Edinburgh in 1829, my friend, Mr. John Aitkin, called and requested me to go with him and see a portrait of a personage that I should soon recognise. I accompanied him to the back office in Waterloo Place, where hung a painting of a person. I looked at it, but I did not recognise any resemblance to anyone I had ever seen, and told him so, when he said,
You don't perceive any resemblance to Robert Burns ?'
"No,' I repeated, not the smallest.' That is very odd,' he said in a tone of surprise and disappointment, adding, 'I was in hopes of having your testimonial to its correctness, and had made up my inind to present you with a copy of it framed in the manner of the one before you.'
“My reply to that was that I would never hang it up in my house as a picture of Burns. Indeed, I told him I feared he had been imposed upon.
He then asked ine if I knew Dr. John M‘Kenzie, surgeon, an old acquaintance of Burns ? I told him I did, and intimately, on which he asked me if I would get him to call and see the picture. I replied that I would be glad to do so, and that I should not mention a
syllable of it to him, or influence his opinion in any way on the subject -a subject which I considered, so to speak, all but a sacred one.
“I sent for the Doctor, who soon made his appearance. I then introduced him to Mr. Aitkin, and left them together. The former returned in few minutes, my office being close to Constable's. Like myself, he not only could trace no resemblance, but added that it could never have been intended for Burns, and this he told to Mr. Aitkin. I then begged Dr. M‘Kenzie to see Mr. William Tennant, who married the daughter of Dr. Dalrymple (“Dalrymple mild '), and whose opinion would go far to confirm ours, should we be correct. Mr. Tennant's testimony in all respects coincided with my own and Dr. M‘Kenzie's. As with the Doctor, not a hint of the subject was given to Mr. Tennant; indeed, he considered it a joke, and could not speak of it for laughing.
“I then proposed that we three should take the liberty to call on Mr. Nasnyth, who resided in Queen Street. We did so, and on mentioning our errand we were most cordially received by the venerable artist. He ran through the whole history of his engagement with Creech to take Burns's likeness with a view to embellish the title page of the Edinburgh edition, which he then was preparing for publication. Mr. Nasmyth further told us he felt unwilling to undertake the task, he not being a portrait but a landscape painter. There being at that time no good hand at that in Edinburgh, on Mr. Creech pressing him earnestly, he consented, and with a view to becoming acquainted with the phiz of the bard, as he expressed it, the two were engaged to meet next morning at Creech's at breakfast. They then set out on a pilgriinage to the Pentlands, and down the Esk to Roslin, Hawthornden, anil Lasswade, and returned with the publisher to supper. Having progressed thus far, next morning the artist commenced his work, which, by the way, as he informed us, never was entirely finished; for having got so far in the sketching of the picture, and being himself (Mr N.) so much pleased with it, he was afraid to proceed any further, lest he should spoil it, and nothing more was done to it. Such is the true history of the only likeness ever made of the poet, as Mr. Nasmyth informed us he had never heard of any other; and as to the one in the possession of Constable's house, on the artist's name being mentionedI think it was a Mr. Taylor, of Leith-he said he knew him, and that he never pretended to be otherwise than a coach painter.
“I might mention that Dr. M.Kenzie and Mr. William Tennant were Ayrshire men, and knew the poet well, especially the former. Being in Dunse in 1787, just after the publication of the first Edinburgh edition, Burns himself being there at the time on a visit to the family of his friend Robert Ainslie, of Berrywell, near Dunse, the writer often saw the poet, and sitting on the sill of a window in the same room at a friend's, where Burns, with several other respectable inhabitants of the town, were conversing, and having the volume in my hand, I occasionally looked at the picture and then at the poet, and wondered at the resemblance. Mr Ainslie told me, on mentioning our proceedings anent the Constable picture, that he knew of no such picture; that Nasmyth’s was