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'HE parentage of genius is a subject which can never fail to interest ordinary common-place humanity. It excites within us an insatiable curiosity somewhat akin to that which impels us to investigate the origin of some brilliant luminary, or to trace to its source a mighty flowing river. Probably there is no instance in which this interest has become more pronounced, at least in Scotland, than in regard to the parentage of our National Poet, Robert Burns. Nor is this exceptional interest in his parentage at all difficult to account for. His characteristics, both as a man and as a poet, are in themselves so extremely phenomenal, considering the lowly and uncultured life in which his lot was cast, that we are compelled to look rather to the principle of heredity than to the mould of worldly circumstances for the raison d'etre of his striking and exceptional individuality.
There is apparently an assumption that mental gifts and graces are more generally transmitted through the mother than through the father, and in Burns's case it may be that he inherited from the gentle, practical, womanly nature of his mother, Agnes Brown, his impulsive generosity of heart and tender sympathy of feeling, his exquisite sense of humour, and his love for the romantic and poetic. There can scarcely be a doubt, however, that it was to his worthy old father, William Burness, that he was indebted for his sturdy integrity of soul, his sound practical common-sense, and his inherent conception of true propriety and fitness. Burns himself, in the autobiographical notes which he furnished to Dr Moore, recognises his father as the true source of that inherent principle of integrity which enabled him to weather storms, which, at the very outset, would otherwise have made shipwreck of his career. "My father," he says, "was of the North of Scotland, the son of a farmer, and was thrown by early misfortunes on the world at large, where, after many years' wanderings and sojournings, he picked up a fairly large quantity of observation and experience to which I am indebted for most of my little pretensions to wisdom. I
have met with few who understood men-their manners and their ways-equal to him; but stubborn ungainly integrity and headlong ungovernable irascibility are disqualifying circumstances, consequently I was born a very poor man's son."
William Burness was undoubtedly a man of very exceptional worth, and of decided and marked superiority to the sphere of society in which he moved. His humble lot in life was one of unremitting ill-rewarded toil, and of constant mental anxiety and care; and when in his sixty-third year he felt himself after a lingering illness called upon to lay aside his earthly burden, it was amid the gloom and anguish of impending poverty. Of the many anxious thoughts and cares which darkened the close of his life, not the least depressing was the knowledge that he was leaving his widow and children not only unprovided for, but actually involved in a vexatious and expensive litigation with his landlord. Hard as his fate was, and sad as the closing days of his life must have been, William Burness never seems to have swerved or faltered. He went on the even tenor of his way in spite of obstacles and difficulties which would have crushed any man of less sturdy moral fibre, rigidly rendering unto Cæsar the things that were Cæsar's, and unto God the things that were God's; and he resigned his weary toilsome life as he had borne it throughout, in a spirit of unshrinking faith, and unmurmuring resignation and contentment. Upright and consistent in his character, rigidly strict in his principles, deeply devotional in his every thought, and acutely conscientious in the discharge of his every duty and responsibility, he presents to us a noble instance of genuine Scottish individuality of the truly good old stamp.
He was the third son of Robert Burness, tenant of the farm of Clochnahill, a farm of about sixty acres, situated in Kincardineshire, and belonging to the Keith-Marischals of Dunottar. By his wife, Isabella Keith, of the family of Keith of Craig, Robert Burness had four sons and six daughters. The family were in fair circumstances, but the disastrous winter of 1740 seems to have reduced them to considerable pecuniary straits, and the father was obliged to give up his farm and retire with his three unmarried daughters to a cottage in the Parish of Dunottar. In consequence of the family reverses, William (the Poet's father), along with his elder brother Robert, felt them
selves compelled to leave their paternal home in search of a livelihood elsewhere, and they turned their faces southwards. The parting of the two brothers took place on a rising ground overlooking the home of their childhood-Robert setting out in one direction, and finding his way ultimately into England: while William, after varied wanderings and experiences, settled in Edinburgh, and found employment there for some years as an ordinary out-door labourer. He must have been in Edinburgh during the time of the young Chevalier's residence in Holyrood in 1745, and, considering the political leanings of the family, and that they had for generations been associated as tenants under the Earl Marischal who was attainted for his share in the Jacobite rising of 1715, it is not improbable that William Burness may have more or less identified himself with Prince Charlie's ill-fated attempt to regain the throne of his ancestors. Be that as it may, we lose all trace of William Burness for fully ten years, and when he at length settles in the quiet, law-abiding neighbourhood of Ayr, it is somewhat suggestive that he takes the precaution to provide himself with a parochial certificate testifying "that he had no concern in the late wicked rebellion."
His occupation in Ayrshire seems to have been in the capacity of gardener, first to the Laird of Fairlie, and afterwards to Mr. Crawford of Doonside. Shortly thereafter he feued seven acres of land near to the town of Ayr, converting the land into a nursery, and erecting with his own hands the "auld clay biggin'," which has since become an object of such deep and powerful interest to every Scottish heart. Here, in the end of 1757, he brought his young bride, Agnes Brown, from her grandmother's house in Maybole; and here, on the ever-memorable 25th of January, 1759, was ushered into the world their illustrious first-born, Robert Burns.
William Burness continued to reside in his cottage on the banks of the Doon for fully seven years after the Poet's birth, and in the interval his family was increased by the birth of his second son, Gilbert, born in 1760; his eldest daughter, Agnes, born in 1762; and his second daughter, Annabella, born in 1764. At Whitsunday, 1766, he was induced to take on lease the farm of Mount Oliphant, extending to about 60 acres, and forming part of the estate of Doonholm, situated about a couple
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,
Which ever as she could with haste dispatch,
She'd come again, and, with a greedy ear,
At all times and in all
and particularly that of her husband. 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. He was 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,