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SOME OBSERVATIONS ON THE CHARACTER AND CONDITION
OF THE SCOTTISH PEASANTRY.
BY JAMES CURRIE, M. D.
EXTRACTED FROM THE LATE EDITION EDITED
BY ALLAN CUNNINGHAM.
ROBERT Burns was born on the 29th day of It was between the fifteenth and sixteenth January, 1759, in a small house about two year of his age, that Robert first “committed miles from the town of Ayr in Scotland. The the sin of rhyme.” Having formed a boyish Family name, which the poet modernized into affection for a female who was his companion Burris
, was originally Burnes or Burness. His in the toils of the field, he composed a song, father, Williain, appears to have been early which, however extraordinary from one at his inured to poverty and hardships, which he age, and in his circumstances, is fas inferior bore with pious resignation, and endeavoured to any of his subsequent performances. He to alleviate by industry and economy. After was at this time " an ungainly, awkward various attempts to gain a livelihood, he took boy," unacquainted with the world, but who a lease of seven acres of land, with a view of occasionally had picked up some notions of commencing nurseryman and public gardener; history, literature, and criticism, from the few and having built a house upon it with his own books within his reach. These he informs us, hands (an instance of patient ingenuity by no were Salmon's and Guthrie's Geographical means uncommon among his countrymen in Grammars, the Spectator, Pope's Works, some humble life,) he married, December 1757, plays of Shakspeare, Tull and Dickson on Agnes Brown.* The first fruit of his marriage Agriculture, the Pantheon, Locke's Essay on was Robert, the subject of the present sketch. the Human Understanding, Stackhouse's His
tory of the Bible, Justice's British Gardener's In his sixth year, Robert was sent to a Works, Taylor's Scripture Doctrine of Ori
Directory, Boyle's Lectures, Allan Ramsay's school, where he made considerable proficiency ginal Sin, a select Collection of English in reading and writing, and where he dis- Songs, and Hervey's Meditations. Of this covered an inclination for books not very com- motley assemblage, it may readily be supmon at so early an agė. About the age of posed, that some would be studied, and some thirteen or fourteen, he was sent to the parish read superficially. There is reason to think, school of Dalrymple, where he increased his however, that he perused the works of the acquaintance with English Grammar, and poets with such attention as, assisted by his nagained some knowledge of the French. Latin turally vigorous capacity, soon directed his was also recommended to him; but he did not taste, and enabled him to discriminate ten, make any great progress in it.
derness and sublimity from affectation and
bombast. The far greater part of his time, however, was employed on his father's farm, which, in It appears that from the seventeenth to the fpite of much industry, became so unproduc- twenty-fourth year of Robert's age, he mado tive as to involve the family in great distress. no considerable literary improvement. His acHis father having taken another farm, the cessions of knowledge, or opportunities of speculation was yet more fatal, and involved reading, could not be frequent, but no exterhis affairs in complete ruin. He died, Feb. 13, nal circumstances could prevent the innate 1784, leaving behind him the character of a peculiarites of his character from displaying good and wise man, and an affectionate father, themselves. He was distinguished by a vigorwho, under all his misfortunes, struggled to ous understanding, and an untameable spirit. procure his children an excellent education ; His resentments were quick, and, although and endeavoured, both by precept and example not durable, expressed with a volubility of to form their minds to religion and virtue.
indignation which could not but silence and
overwhelm his hamble and illiterate assoThis excellent woman is still living in the family ciates; while the occasional effusions of his of lier son Gilbert. (May, 1813.)
muse on temporary subjects, which were hand
FRENCH BK 8 OCT36
ed about in manuscript, raised him to a local was now encouraged to go to Edinburgh superiority that seemed the earnest of a more and superintend the publication of a second extended fame. His first motive to compose edition. verses, as has been already noticed, was his early and warm attachment to the fair sex. In the metropolis, he was soon introduced His favourites were in the humblest walks of into the company and received the homage of life; but during his passion, he elevated them men of literature, rank, and taste; and his apto Saaras and Saccharissas. His attach- pearance and behaviour at this time, as they ments, however, were of the purer kind, and exceeded all expectation, heightened and kept his constant theme the happiness of the mar- up the curiosity which his works had excited. ried state; to obtain a suitable provision for He became the object of universal admiration which, he engaged in partnership with a fiax. and was feasted, and flattered, as if it had been dresser, hoping, probably, to attain by degrees impossible to reward his merit too highly, the rank of a manufacturer. But this specu- But what contributed principally to extend lation was attended with very little success, his fame into the sister kingdom, was his and was finally ended by an accidental fire. fortunate introduction to Mr. Mackenzie, who,
in the 97th paper of the Lounger, recommendOn his father's death he took a farm in con- ed his poems by judicious specimens, and junction with his brother, with the honourable generous and elegant criticism. From this view of providing for their large and orphan time, whether present or absent, Burns and family. But here, too, he was doomed to be his genius were the objects which engrossed unfortunate, although, in his brother Gilbert, all attention ana all conversation. he had a coadjutor of excellent sense, a man of uncommon powers both of thought and ex- cannot be surprising if this new scene of pression.
life, produced effects on Burns which were
the source of much of the unhappiness of his During his residence on this farm he formed future life: for while he was admitted into a connexion with a young woman, the con- | the company of men of taste, and virtue, he sequences of which could not be long con- was also seduced, by pressing invitations into cealed In this dilemma, the imprudent couple the society of those whose habits are too social agreed to make a legal acknowledgment and inconsiderate. It is to be regretted that he of a private marriage, and projected that she had little resolution to withstand those attenshould remain with her father, while he was tions which flattered his merit, and appeared to go to Jamaica “ to push his fortune.” This to be the just respect due to a degree of supeproceeding, however romantic it may appear, riority, of which he could not avoid being con would have rescued the lady's character, ac- scious. Among his superiors in rank and cording to the laws of Scotland, but it did not merit, his behaviour was in general decorous satisty her father, who insisted on having all and unassuming; but among his more equal the written documents respecting the marriage or inferior associates, he was himself the source cancelled, and by this unfeeling measure, he of the mirth of the evening, and repaid the at intended that it should be rendered void. Di- tention and submission of his hearers by salvorced now from all he held dear in the world, lies of wit, which, from one of his birth and he had no resource but in his projected voyage education, had all the fascination of wonder. to Jamaica, which was prevented by one of His introduction, about the same time, into those circumstances that in common cases, certain convivial clubs of higher rank, was an might pass without observation, but which injudicious mark of respect to one who was eventually laid the foundation of his future destined to return to the plough, and to the fame. For once, his poverly stood his friend. simple and frugal enjoyments of a peasants Had he been provided with money to pay for life. his passage to Jamaica, he might have set sail, and been forgotten. But he was destitute of During his residence at Edinburgh, his every necessary for the voyage, and was there- finances were considerably improved Ly the fore advised to raise a sum of money by pub- new edition of his poems; and this enabled lishing his poems in the way of subscription. him to visit several other parts of his native They were accordingly printed at Kilmarnock, country. He left Edinburgh, May 6, 1787, in the year 1786, in a small volume, which and in the course of his journey was hospitably was encouraged by subscriptions for about 350 received at the houses of many gentlemen of copies.
worth and learning. He afterwards travelled
into England as far as Carlisle. In the beIt is hardly possible to express with what ginning of June he arrived in Ayrshire, after eager admiration these poems were every an absence of six months, during which he had where received. Old and young, high and experienced a change of fortune, to which the low, leamed and ignorant, all were alike de- hopes of few men in his situation could have lighted. Such transports would naturally find aspired. His companion in some of these their way into the bosom of the author, tours was a Mr. Nicol, a man who was enespecially' when he found that, instead of the deared to Burns not only by the warmth of necessity of flying from his native land, he his friendship, but by a certain congeniality of sentiment and agreement in habits. This sym- | usual forms were gone through, he was appathy, in some other instances, made our po- pointed exciseman, or, as it is vulgarly called, et capriciously fond of companions, who, in gauger of the district in which he lived. the eyes of men of more regular conduct, were insufferable.
“ His farm was now abandoned to his ser
vants, while he betook himself to the duties During the greater part of the winter 1787-8, of his new appointment. He might still
, inBurns ayain resided in Edinburgh, and enter- deed, be seen in the spring, directing his ed with beculiar relish into its gayeties. But plough, a labour in which he excelled, or strias the singularities of his manner displayed ding with measured steps, along his turned-up themserves more openly, and as the novelty of furrows, and scattering the grain in the earth. his appearance wore off, he became less an ob- But his farm no longer occupied the principal ject of general attention. He lingered long part of his care or his thoughts. Mounted on in this place, in hopes that some situation horseback, he was found pursuing the defaulwould have been offered which might place ters of the revenue, among the hills and vales him in independence : but as it did not seem of Nithsdale." probable that any thing of that kind would occur soon, he began seriously to reflect that About this time (1792) he was solicited, to tours of pleasure and praise would not pro- give his aid to Mr. Thomson's Collection of vide for the wants of a family. Influenced by Scottish Songs. He wrote, with attention and these considerations he quitted Edinburgh in without delay, for this work, all the songs the month of February, 1788. Finding him- which appear in this volume; to which we self master of nearly 5001. from the sale of his have added those he contributed to Johnson's poems, he took the farm of Ellisland, near Musical Museum. Dumfries, and stocked it with part of this money, besides generously advancing 2001. to Burns also found leisure to form a society his brother Gilbert, who was struggling with for purchasing and circulating books among Difficulties. He was now also legally united the farmers of the neighbourhood; but these, to Mrs. Burns, who joined him with their chil- however praiseworthy employments, still in dren about the end of this year.
terrupted the attention he ought to have be
stowed on his farm, which became so unproQuitting now speculations for more active ductive that he found it convenient to resign pursuits, he rebuilt the dwelling-house on his it, and, disposing of his stock and crop, refarm ; and during his engagement in this ob- moved to a small house which he had taken ject, and while the regulations of the farm had in Dumfries, a short time previous to his lyric the charm of novelty, he passed his time in engagement with Mr. Thomson. He had now more tranquillity than he had lately experi. received from the Board of Excise, an appointenced. But unfortunately, his old habits were ment to a new district, the emoluments of rather interrupted than broken. He was again which amounted to about seventy pounds sterinvited into social parties, with the additional ling per annum. recommendation of a man who had seen the world, and lived with the great; and again
While at Dumfries, his temptations to is. partook of those irregularities for which men of regularity, recurred so frequently as nearly 10 warm imaginations, and conversation-talents, overpower his resolutions, and which he apfind too many apologies. But a circumstance pears to have formed with a perfect knowledge now occurred which threw many obstacles in of what is right and prudent. During his his way as a farmor.
quiet momer,ts, however, he was enlarging his
fame by those admirable compositions he sent Burns very fondly cherished those notions to Mr. Thomson: and his temporary sallies of independence, which are dear to the young and flashes of imagination, in the merriment of ind ingenuous. But he had not matured these the social table, still bespoke a genius of wonby reflection ; and he was now to learn, that derful strength and captivations. It has been a little knowledge of the world will overturn said, indeed, that, extraordinary as his poems mar.y such airy fabrics. If we may form any are, they afford but inadequate proof of the judyinent, however, from his correspondence, powers of their author, or of that acuteness his expectations were not very extravagant, of observation, and expression, he displayed since he expected only that some of his illus-on common topics in conversation. In the sotrious patrons would have placed him, on ciety of persons of taste, he could refrain from whom they bestowed the honours of genius, in those indulgences, which, among his more cona situation where his exertions might have stant companions, probably formed his chief been uninterrupted by the fatigues of labour, recommendation. and the calls of want. Disappointed in this, he now formed a design of applying for the
The emoluments of his office, 'which now office of exciseman, as a kind of resource in composed bis whole fortune, soon appeared case his expectations from the farm should be insutscient for the maintenance of his family, baffled. By the interest of one of his friends He did not, indeed, from the first, expect that this object was accomplished ; and after the they could ; but he had hopes of promotion