Articles - Heritage
On two hessian covered tables in Castlehill Heritage Centre there is a display of tools that were used by workmen employed locally in the Caithness flagstone industry. Visitors are encouraged to pick up the hammers, to feel their weight. The handles are not overly long or thick, but the head is a heavy lump of metal. Swinging such a hammer accurately to thump short, stubby iron wedges into place over the course of a day must have been physically gruelling.
Despite the tough working conditions the Caithness flagstone industry gave many local men a living. Other men given jobs came from further afield. They had been cleared from their crofts and smallholdings by agents of the landowners in the west of Scotland. Initially these men had been heading to the east coast, to the town of Wick, to work in the herring industry but decided, perhaps by the offer of jobs, to stop in Castletown, the centre of the flagstone industry at the time. Others got work on the estate of James Traill of Rattar, Sheriff of Caithness. However, many of these men remained unemployed.
Sheriff Traill had great compassion for these ‘Highlanders’ as he called them and gave large numbers a place to stay and a piece of land to work. When they could not pay rent, he did not press them, but took instead an I.O.U. or promissory note until times improved.
James Traill had inherited the Castlehill Estate in 1788. His agricultural improvements included the combining of small farms into much larger units which allowed modern husbandry to flourish. He planted trees and experimented with new fertilising methods. By introducing a dairy herd from Dunlop in Ayrshire into his cattle breeding programme he improved Caithness cattle which until then had been seen as inferior to herds in the rest of the country.
Traill did not stop there. Having erected a lint-mill, a barley mill and a corn mill he soon realised that with greater yields, new markets were also needed. Alongside all of these improvements he was also the driving force behind the expansion of the Caithness flagstone industry.
The origins of this industry extend back millions of years when layers of sediment were laid down in Lake Orcadi, a vast shallow sea which once covered much of northern Scotland and Orkney. Through geological time the layers of sediment eventually hardened to sandstone which would be quarried much later for use as a building material.
Over thousands of years Caithness men have had an affinity with this material and evidence of their skilled use of stone is easily found. The remains of brochs, hut circles, cairns and standing stones still mark the landscape. When these structures were left behind some of the stone was carried away by later generations and reused for other purposes.
Closer to our own times there are many buildings on farms and in villages and towns that have been cleverly constructed in stone including the fine public buildings of Wick and Thurso. Much more humble, yet still in use and common across the county are the stock proof fences of single upright flagstones fitted together to make lines of field boundary markers.
Though the business of producing flagstones and exporting them had gone on in a small way for a number of years, it was Sheriff James Traill who had the harbour built at Castlehill to get his products, especially flagstones, to a much wider market. Until then stones were ‘lightered’ in small craft to larger ships anchored in the bay. The cut stone was taken to the harbour from the cutting yards by pony and cart or on a horse drawn bogey pulled along a rail track. Then it was loaded by hand aboard small schooners.
Traill’s harbour builder was James Bremner who was born locally in 1784 near Keiss, a village north of Wick. After an apprenticeship at Steel’s shipbuilding yard in Greenock, Bremner returned to work in Caithness as a shipbuilder, harbour builder and wreck raiser. As well as Castlehill Harbour, Bremner built five other local harbours. In total he planned, built or improved nineteen harbours in the north of Scotland which were much needed for the booming herring and flagstone industries. When the building of Castlehill Harbour was complete, the first cargo was shipped out in 1825.
By 1840, one hundred people worked at Castlehill. By the turn of the century, the work force had increased to five hundred.
There were various specialisms in the workplace. To separate two or more thinner slices from a large piece of sandstone the Splitter would select a line. Then using hammers to knock in chisels the Hammermen would follow the line round the outside of the slab. When a chisel stuck, it would be left poking out of the stone – then a fresh chisel was used. When the complete circumference of the slab had been worked round, water was then poured on and the stone left until the next day. The separated layers of stone could then be lifted.
The Dresser was responsible for cutting the stone slabs into squares or rectangles at the cutting bed using a rough toothed, iron saw blade hung from a frame.
The Sand Boy’s job was to fill a V-shaped box above the cutting saws with abrasive sand for aiding the cutting process. He would also add sand to wooden polishing plates. For this process, each lot of grit added was less coarse than the previous one until the required finish of the stone was reached.
In the early days at Castlehill, power was supplied by a waterwheel. This was succeeded by steam engines and eventually oil engines. The Engineer’s job was to operate, maintain and repair this equipment. He also had to care for the wind pump at Castlehill. Its turning action helped drain the surrounding land and turn grinding wheels on which the engineer would sharpen tools.
The Manager was the owner’s right hand man. As well as striving to get maximum effort from the work force, the manager spoke with customers and searched for business all over the world.
So that ships could be loaded whatever the state of the tide, a derrick was built at the harbour mouth to operate boom gates. In this way, water could be kept in the basin. By keeping the heavily laden ships afloat and so prevented from resting on the harbour bottom, loading could continue and no damage would result. From this small harbour, records show that 7000,000 - 8000,000 feet of stone was shipped out annually.
If the weather was too wet or freezing cold, flagstone work could not continue. If there was no work - there was no pay!
On such days, some stone workers might be given farm work. This change of roles was not always welcomed by the stone workers or the farm workers. But since Sheriff Traill owned the flagstone works and the farms there was little say in the matter. Sharpening tools at a grinder at Castlehill windmill may have been a marginally better alternative.
While employment was high, quarry workers were encouraged to live in Castletown and Mr.Traill offered feus of land or plots for sale. Workers were also allowed to take free off cuts of partially dressed stone so they could build their own homes on the main street and in the ‘backies’.
Though stone workers’ wages compared favourably with those of agricultural workers, life was not easy. Working days were long and holidays were few. Lateness for work was punished – even arriving five minutes late meant the loss of an hours pay. There was no sick pay, no national social security payments and workers were forced to buy provisions and coal from the company store on the Traill estate at fixed prices.
Despite the hardships, when there was time off, the quarrymen competed with each other in feats of strength and in athletic pursuits including long jump and throwing.
Kite flying, singing, storytelling and keeping ferrets for poaching rabbits were also popular pastimes as were the dances which would go on for most of a night, leaving no time to go home before setting off for work in the morning.
Unfortunately, from around 1902, the industry began to decline as manufacturers made similar products in concrete which was cheaper. In the next few years trade at the Castlehill works continued to fall before finally closing in 1912. Increased transport costs, higher wage demands and the continuing competition all affected demand and by the 1920s most of the other Caithness quarries had closed.
The workers had to look for jobs elsewhere and many ended up emigrating. For some of them the streets of Boston were not ‘paved with gold’ as they were led to believe, but were paved with flagstones from Caithness.
The flagstones produced at Castlehill Quarry had been sold for use in towns and cities all over the U.K. Supplies also went to Europe, Australia, North America and South America.
However, recently the flagstone industry has had a change of fortune and a range of high quality flagstone goods including paving, roof slates, fireplace finishes and kitchen surfaces are produced locally using state of the art equipment.
The village of Castletown lies on the coastal road, the A836 which runs across the north of Scotland between Thurso and John O’ Groats. The Castlehill Heritage Centre can be found easily within a few minutes of the village.
The Centre, an updated, refurbished farm steading of local stone and floored with flags is a treasure trove of information about the people and local industries which went on in the immediate area.
Various hands-on classes which take place throughout the year give an insight into traditional crafts that were once commonplace. Beautiful baskets of flowers have been hung from the outside walls and the garden fronting the Centre is stunning.
On leaving the Centre and garden, visitors can cross the road to the start of a signposted trail and walk in the footsteps of the stone workers who made this same short journey from the nearby quarry to Castlehill Harbour.
First published in The Highlander
The Magazine of Scottish Heritage
Further information: WWW.castletownheritage.co.uk
Whisky has been made in Scotland for a very long time though the earliest written records date back only to 1494 when it was noted that Friar John Corr was commissioned to buy 8 bolls of malt (a quantity of grain) to make aqua vitae for King James 1V.
In those days, whisky making was very much a cottage industry. In wintertime, when sodden fields kept farmers off the land, they would turn to other work, making use of any excess barley, to produce Uisge Beatha, the so-called ‘water of life’.
When taxation was introduced by the Scottish Government in 1644 the whisky distillers were distraught but did pay up grudgingly. The tax system seems to have been fairly complicated with farmers being taxed at different rates – the size of the farm, or the size of the still on the farm determining how much money had to be paid.
That system lasted until 1707. On the 16th January in that momentous year Scotland signed the Treaty of Union.
By 1713, the power of government had moved from Edinburgh to London and when finance was needed to keep British soldiers fighting wars all over the world, it was decided the best way to do this was to raise the tax on Scotch whisky. However, taxes were raised too high and whisky makers refused to pay them.
As if this hardship was imposed only yesterday, the tour guides at Aberlour Whisky Distillery on Speyside tell groups of visitors, “at that(taxes being raised too high) we were driven into the hills, forcing us to make our whisky illegally!’’
There were many bloody battles in these hills between the gaugers, (customs and excise men) and the illicit distillers. It got so bad that the Red Coats, soldiers of the English Army were ordered to rid the hills of illicit stills, of which there were hundreds.
“But we fought back to save our amber nectar,” the guide relates as if he had been there, personally wielding a sword.
This battle raged on for over 100 years.
In 1822 King George 1V visited Edinburgh. He came dressed in full highland regalia – kilt and sporran with a Tam o’ Shanter bonnet on his head. He demanded Glenlivet whisky knowing full well that the output was illegal. Of course, this caused the Government great embarrassment – even though they knew where to find a supply.
“Everybody,’’ an observer noted, ‘‘including lords and lairds, members of parliament and ministers of the gospel, drink what is in reality, illicit whisky. It is far superior to that made under the eye of the Excise’’.
But now the matter was out in the open and everyone was aware of it. The Government now offered a reward to anyone who would give them information on the whereabouts of illicit stills. The reward offered was £5.00.
With this chance of easy money the illicit distillers would keep working on their product until their whisky stills had burnt out. When that happened, they would report the whereabouts of their burnt out still to the government officers and claim £5.00 reward. A government agent would come and inspect the burnt out evidence before handing over the money that enabled the distillers to buy new equipment and carry on making more whisky.
It wasn’t always so easy. The smugglers’ bothies (secreted dens) were dark, smoky, unhygienic places. Camouflaging a site was crucial as the work places had to be difficult to find. A story is told of how one smuggler was shocked at finding a local gamekeeper reclining on the heather topped roof of his still house! Another smuggler constructed his chimney in such a way so the issuing smoke blended with the spray of a nearby waterfall.
Great ingenuity was shown, not only in carrying out the various distilling processes, but in warning other whisky makers of the approach of the excisemen.
Even as late as 1904 it was written, ‘In Strathspey and neighbouring localities where a mutual bond of protection exists, it is the practice, when the exciseman is seen approaching, to display immediately from the house top, or a conspicuous eminence, a white sheet which, being seen by the people in the next ‘town’ or farm steading, would indicate a similar signal should be hoisted. Thus, the alarm passes rapidly up the glen. Before the officer can reach the transgressor of the law, everything will have been carefully removed and so well concealed that even when positive information has been given, it frequently happens that no trace of the work can be found.’
Because the actual still represented an expensive item of equipment, much trouble was taken to hide it when the distilling operations were completed. Some distillers would tie a cord and a float to their equipment then throw the lot into the waters of a nearby loch. Others would hide their equipment in the pulpit of the Kirk. For his help in this skulduggery the church officer would expect a good dram.
These nefarious activities were commonplace until the Duke of Gordon, owner of the Glenlivet Estate at the time and a powerful man in government circles, decided to do something about this illegal activity. He knew there were hundreds of men and women on his land making whisky illicitly, but he didn’t want to stop this work completely. Otherwise, how would his tenants be able to pay the rent he demanded?
The Duke went to the Government and made a case for his tenants for the reduction of their taxes. He also asked for a reduction in the cost of a licence and in the legal size of a still. At that time, the legal size of a still was 400 gallons.
After much deliberation, the cost of a licence was set at £10.00. The legal size of a still was reduced to 40 gallons and taxes were cut in half. This was a much more viable proposition. The bootleggers could now consider making their product legally. .
The Duke went back to his Glenlivet estate and tried to persuade his tenants that whisky making within the law was best.
The very first tenant the Duke managed to convince was a man called George Smith from Upper Drumin Farm. Mr. Smith was granted a licence to make whisky legally on 1st November 1824. He could now produce and sell his whisky openly. However, at the same time, to those yet to be convinced, he became the most hated man in the glen.
George Smith had a ready made customer base – King James 1V had made sure of that.
“The rest of us,” the guide at Aberlour Distillery will tell you, “kept on making our whisky by dead of night and we felt that George Smith was a threat to our livelihood!”
“So much so, we tried to get rid of him, to burn his premises down with George Smith inside.”
“On a number of occasions, we even tried to stop him as he delivered whisky to his customers.”
But Smith was made of stern stuff. With the help of a pair of pistols he had received from his great friend, the Laird of Aberlour, Smith used the weapons to great effect – not only to save his whisky still, but also his own skin.
As Smith began to prosper, more and more of the illicit distillers came to realise he had made the right decision. Eventually they began to make the trip to Elgin and pay for this new licence which allowed them to produce whisky legally.
By the 1840’s, it was believed there were no illicit stills left in the glens. Whisky was still sold in casks holding eight and a half imperial gallons and as yet there was no bottling. When the bottling process did appear in the 1850’s, George Smith took an interest. His agent, Andrew Usher from Edinburgh, was the first to brand and bottle Old Vatted Glenlivet.
This was the beginnings of the huge Scottish whisky industry that reaches round the world today.
Glenlivet lies between the Ladder and Cromdale Hills in the Cairngorm National Park in North East Scotland. Nowhere in Glenlivet is lower than 600 feet and winter snows can last into the spring. The estate is managed to provide opportunities for sustained employment in agriculture, farming, sporting and tourism.
As part of the annual Spirit of Speyside Whisky Festival in May, there are a number of guided walks. One of the walks follows tracks taken by the whisky smugglers who made their way with their precious cargo, perhaps being harassed by excise men, to customers as far away as Edinburgh or Aberdeen.
Wildlife watching from the comfort of an all-terrain vehicle also gives an insight into the lives of the whisky smugglers. An estate tour guide will drive to the best places where visitors may spot roe deer, red deer, brown hares, red and black grouse as well as smaller birds. These creatures were a necessary food source for the smugglers.
Knowledge of grasses and other plants, such as heather, was also important. As well as camouflage, heather could be made into ropes or a belt to sling a couple of small kegs of whisky over each side of a pack horse.
Close up, smuggling was hardly a romantic lifestyle. It was more of a necessity, as was the ability to make use of whatever materials were available.
First published in The Highlander
The Magazine of Scottish Heritage
In Scotland’s capital, the Old Town thoroughfare running from Edinburgh Castle down to Holyrood Palace is often referred to as the Royal Mile. Castlehill leads down to the Lawnmarket which continues into the High Street. A short walk past John Knox’s House this becomes the Canongate leading to Horse Wynd which turns past the front of the new Scottish Parliament building. From the Royal Mile, a series of roads, narrow lanes and tight alleyways fall away to either side. These alleyways, or ‘wynds’ and ‘closes’, once had gates that could be locked at night to protect the inhabitants from thieves and vagabonds.
During much of the year the Royal Mile is busy, thronged with visitors. Some come to wave at the occasional parades of passing royalty. Others delight in spotting politicians or celebrities, busking musicians or street theatre performances. Treading in famous footsteps where dramatic events in Scottish history took place is also an attraction. Then there are those visitors who are prepared to venture below present day street level to learn about the lives of the ordinary people who once lived in the tenements.
Standing up to eight stories high, these buildings were known as the world’s first skyscrapers. Densely populated, they each housed up to 600 people of all classes and trades. Society was then organised vertically. The wealthy lived at the top of a building and the poor lived amongst the filth at the bottom. As there was a general lack of sanitation throughout the town, everybody suffered.
The entrances, or closes off the main street, were often named with a simple description of the businesses or activities carried on there. In Bakehouse Close you would smell baking bread. Fleshmarket Close and Skinner’s Close were less savoury. This was where the slaughtermen, butchers and tanners carried on their trades. A lawyer could be consulted in Advocate’s Close or a ship’s chandler in Anchor Close.
Other closes were named after prominent citizens who dwelt there. For example, Pearson’s Close was named after Alexander Pearson, 17th century merchant, while Stewart’s Close, was probably named after William Stewart, merchant, magistrate and resident in 1710. These names would change over time. Thus, Mary King’s Close came to be named after a comparatively wealthy business lady.
Night time in the Old Town could be dark and dangerous with robbers lurking to waylay the unwary. To help lessen the dangers, the Burgh Council, in the winter of 1554, issued a regulation requiring trades people to light a lantern each evening in front of their booths. It had to be lit between the hours of 5 o’clock in the evening and 9 o’clock the next morning. Failure to comply could incur a fine. Without this early form of street lighting, a walk through these crowded warrens of interlinked passages in falling darkness must have been a frightening prospect.
An apocryphal story that has been retold many times would have us believe that Mary King’s Close was sealed tight with the inhabitants trapped inside at the time of the plague in the 1600’s. This drastic action was supposedly taken to stop the disease spreading further.
The sealing of the building didn’t happen, but what is true is that in 1753, the Burgh Council decided to develop a new building on the site. The houses at the top of Mary King’s Close were knocked down and part of the lower sections were kept and used as foundations for the Royal Exhange Building, now known as Edinburgh City Chambers, on the High Street.The remnants of the houses that remain below have been re-opened, studied in detail and it’s now possible to wander through Mary King’s Close (with a guide) to gain an insight into the lives and times and ghosts of some of the past residents.
From documentary evidence a fair amount is known about Mary King’s life. She owned a market stall selling fine lace collars and dresses. Business was so good that she could afford to raise her four children in relative luxury. Her wood panelled home was higher than ground level and away from the waste and rubbish that would have run down the alleyways. Though her furniture was sparse, she did own a ‘long wooden settle’, the equivalent of a modern day couch or sofa.
Mary was also the proud owner of a ‘tappit hen’ and a quaich. From such fine silver drinking vessels, she enjoyed many a measure of wine or ale. This indulgence was another indication of Mary’s wealth. In her testament she left a number of belongings to her children including gold rings, silver spoons, gowns, considerable quantities of fabric ruffs, tin chamber pots and a velvet doublet.
Her house was lit by lamps called ‘crusies’ in which fish oil or animal fat was burned. Adding to the aromas from these fuels would have been the smells emanating from the contents of a bucket which stood in a corner of a room. This was the early form of Edinburgh’s sanitation system!As well as being used as a toilet, this was a sick bucket and a receptacle for food waste. It was the job of the youngest able member of the family to take this bucket and empty it out – once in the morning and once at night! The waste eventually ran down through the alleyways to the Nor’ Loch – now better known as Princess Street Gardens. Death by drowning in the foetid water of the Nor’ Loch was a punishment handed down to those committing serious crimes such as murder.
On a present day tour of Mary King’s Close, your guide, dressed in period costume will give you more colourful details and ask you to imagine that you have stepped back in time to the year 1645 when the plague was at its worst. You are now standing in the Craig family home near the foot of Mary King’s Close.
You will learn that Mr. John Craig, head of the household, has died of pneumonic plague that very morning. His body lies on the floor, bound in a sheet, awaiting collection. John had been a gravedigger at Greyfriars churchyard and unfortunately, he infected the rest of his family. His wife Janet and three children, young John, Robert and Thomas will be taken into quarantine at Sciennes, a district outside the Old Town.
Pneumonic plague was the worst of the two forms of the disease, the other being bubonic plague. Symptoms were similar to modern day influenza – feelings of lethargy and nausea went with being sick every few minutes into that small bucket now placed by the side of a sufferer’s bed.
As well as internal bleeding, a victim’s skin would turn black. This discolouration gave rise to the common name of the plague - the Black Death.A high percentage of those who caught the plague didn’t survive. There was no cure for the worst form though there was a partial cure for the lesser bubonic plague. In many instances, the illness could be a slow death sentence.
Outbreaks of this ‘contagion’ were common place during the 16th and 17th centuries and over the course of many years, the Scottish authorities put great effort into attempts at protecting the country’s ports against infection. But though ships required a bill of health declaring them to be plague-free, the captains of some vessels were frequently fined for trying to sidestep the regulations.
Many people, particularly the wealthy fled the town, so a careful watch was kept on the remaining inhabitants who were threatened with fines and imprisonment if caught trying to leave. Certain everyday activities were banned such as wakes, penny weddings and the wearing of a plaid. It was thought that a person wearing a plaid, a length of tartan material wrapped round the body and often over the head, might be attempting to hide their sickness.
The Craig’s house, like those of other victims, would have been cleaned by specially appointed plague cleaners who wore grey tunics marked with a white saltire, the cross of St. Andrew, patron saint of Scotland. Goods, bedding and clothing were usually burned. The billowing smoke from the flowering shrub, Broom was thought to ‘cleanse the air’.
Whilst in their homes during the plague, families like the Craigs received charitable donations which included ale, wine, bread and coal. These provisions were delivered on a daily basis from residents who were still healthy enough but who went in fear. This practice was considered better for all concerned and ensured that the infected people stayed in their homes. Thus, the well enough members of the community had good reason to give generously.
If a household could afford treatment, they would send for Dr. George Rae. The good doctor would lance the buboes (abscesses) then cauterize and seal the wounds with a red hot poker. This entire operation was carried out without any form of anaesthetics – that particular process had yet to be discovered. The pain inflicted during this treatment must have been awful. On the other hand, there was a half chance that a life might be saved.
At the time, it was believed that the plague was spread by miasmas – foul smelling poisons in the air. To prevent these smells affecting him while attending to his patients, Dr. Rae wore a floor length, thick, black leather coat type of garment. Over his head and face he wore an equally thick, black leather mask with a long, beak shaped protuberance. The ’beak’ was filled with sweet smelling herbs and spices that acted as a crude filter.
As strange as his costume appears, it did work for Dr. Rae since he lived for another thirty years after the plague left the city. It is known that he was the second plague doctor to take up the job after John Paulitious, the first official plague doctor, who died, in June 1645.
Dr. George Rae was employed by the council on June 13th of that year and given the sizeable salary of £100 Scots a month. By November, incredibly, he had negotiated a further £10 Scots per month – he was not expected to live long!
Though it took longer elsewhere, the worst of the plague was over in Edinburgh by the autumn of 1646. By then, the Council had second thoughts regarding the Doctor’s payment. George Rae was still chasing his money almost 10 years later. He won eventually and claimed an unprecedented yearly pension of £1200 Scots.
The Black Death, as we now know, was not spread by miasmas, but by fleas brought in on the backs of rats. The rats probably arrived from Europe on the ships that sailed into Leith harbour. The fleas would jump from the rats and bite into their human victims.
Some of the original passageways off the Royal Mile, as well as now having restaurants and bars, are still used as short cuts between streets. They have long been made safe with modern paving, lighting, and handrails where necessary. No longer will you hear the cry, “Gardyloo,” (from the French ‘regarde l’eau’) as some householder pours the contents of a bucket of filthy waste water from the height of an upstairs window opening. But it’s still possible to get a sense of the conditions that prevailed and the people who lived there hundreds of years ago.
First published in The Highlander
The Magazine of Scottish Heritage
Further Information: www.realmarykingsclose.com
The road from Kilmarnock to Dumfries is often busy with trucks, coaches, caravans and cars. Yet, if you turn down a side road, some six miles west of Dumfries, where a signpost points to Ellisland Farm, you can leave the traffic and most of the rackety 21st century behind, for a while at least.
In the quiet, you might even be tempted to try your hand at writing poetry. Robert Burns did. He had travelled the same route a few times, on horseback, from the family farm of Mossgiel, near Mauchline, in Ayrshire, before taking up the tenancy of Ellisland Farm in 1788.
When he finally flitted, he took the best part of four days. Burns could only travel at the speed of his few cows. With a horse pulling a cart stuffed with farm implements, household goods and cooped chickens, he might even have walked much of the way.
The actual farmhouse we see today wasn’t yet ready for him, so he had to stay with the outgoing tenant couple about half a mile away. It seems Robert wasn’t impressed.
‘This hovel that I shelter in is pervious to every blast that blows, and every shower that falls, and I am only preserved from being chilled to death by being suffocated with smoke,’ he wrote.
Eventually he moved into the single story L- shaped farmhouse. Many of his possessions are still there. Adding to the ambience, ‘smoked hams’ hang from the meat hooks fixed in the ceiling above the kitchen range where Robert’s wife, Jean Armour would have cooked numerous meals.
From his front door, Robbie need walk only a few steps to be on the banks of the River Nith. Thickly tree-lined and sweet-smelling with wild flowers, he found its nearness and beauty inspiring. This was the poet’s reason for choosing this particular farm and not either of the others on offer. Let’s stroll there in Rabbie’s footsteps.
The caretaker of Ellisland has created a grass pathway now named Tam O’ Shanter Walk. It runs parallel to the river alongside an old, stone wall. The story goes that hereabouts, Jean Armour Burns heard her husband talking excitedly to himself as he made his way homewards of an evening. It seems he was absorbed in the process of composing his famous narrative poem, Tam O’ Shanter, a tale of drink being taken, ghosts, a certain ‘winsome wench’ and advice ignored.
“O Tam, had’st thou but been sae wise,
As taen thy ain wife Kate’s advice!
She tauld thee weel thou was a skellum,
A blethering, blustering, drunken blellum…”
At the end of the path, a barred gate allows wide views down the River Nith and across the field where the poet was moved to compose his famous poem, ‘On seeing a wounded hare limp by which a fellow had just shot.’ Here’s the last verse,
“Oft as by winding Nith I musing, wait
The sober eve, or hail the cheerful dawn,
I’ll miss thee sporting o’er the dewy lawn,
And curse the ruffian’s aim, and mourn thy hapless fate”.
Robert Burns struggled here as a farmer, sold up, and moved with his family to a rented, first floor flat in a tenement in Bank Street, Dumfries. They were still close to the River Nith but their surroundings were far less picturesque. The cow that was brought along with their other possessions from Ellisland Farm had to be sold since there was nowhere for the beast to graze.
A plaque high up on the wall of the building states, ‘here in the Sanghoose o’ Scotland between November 1791 and May 1793, Robert Burns completed over sixty songs including, Ae fond Kiss, Bonnie Wee Thing, The Lea Rig, Duncan Gray and The Dei’ls Awa Wi’ the Excise Man.’
I wonder what he would have made of the present day businesses at street level that make use of his name - a café, a newsagents and a barber shop.
It’s no distance to Burns’ favourite howff, The Globe Inn, up a narrow alley off the High Street. Farmers would gather there for refreshment, but also to do business, so it was natural for Burns to call in on market days from his farm at Ellisland. His move into Dumfries, to a job as an exciseman, meant even more opportunities for convivial nights.
The hitching posts for visitors’ horses are long gone and other properties have since been built round about, yet the Globe Inn, a three-storey building, is still pretty much as it was in Burns’ day. The ‘howff’ proper, the room the poet mostly frequented, is a little snuggery on the ground floor. Let’s go in through the dining room. The poet’s favourite chair is still there. Could you resist a chance to sit in it? Well, be warned. Should you get comfortably settled and be unable to recite a Burns’ poem or sing one of his songs when asked, you’ll be expected to pay for a round of drinks for the company.
Upstairs, visitors can look around a small bedroom with a fireplace and writing desk. On two of the window - panes there are poems Burns scratched on the glass using a diamond tipped pen, not a diamond ring as is sometimes thought. One of the poems – no surprise there - praises a young lady.
‘O lovely Polly Stewart
O charming Polly Stewart
There’s not a flower that blooms in May
That’s half so fair as thou art.’
Like locals and visiting Burns enthusiasts from all over the world, I felt it would be remiss to leave The Globe without sampling haggis, praised by the poet, as the ‘great chieftain o’ the puddin-race’. With neeps and tatties, the dish was well worthy, as the great man said, ‘of a grace as lang’s my arm.’
In May 1793, Burns flitted for the last time to Millbrae Vennel. He would still recognise the house today. In one of the upstairs rooms you can see his writing desk. The box bed looks very small.
An opening at the side of the house leads to the entrance of an adult learning centre. There is a small garden off to the side. This would have been Mrs Jean Armour Burns’s plot. Seemingly she grew all sorts of unusual plants. Not far away, the River Nith flows past Dock Park, so-called since the time when sailing ships reached there to tie up. Jean Armour would walk down to the riverside to meet returning sailors who brought her plant seeds from distant lands.
A few years ago a statue was erected to her about midway between the Burns’ house and St Michael’s Church where the family came to worship. Some people think this commemoration to Jean Armour Burns was long overdue after her trials and tribulations of life with Robert.
In the south – east corner of the cemetery in St. Michael’s churchyard stands the elaborate Burns mausoleum, erected by public subscription 18 years after the poet’s death. His remains were taken from the original grave in another corner of the graveyard and re-interred in the mausoleum with great ceremony. The inscription on the gravestone from his first grave reads, “In memory of Robert Burns, who died the 21st July, 1796 in the 37th year of his age.”
Scotland’s National Bard is remembered throughout the world as a man of exceptional abilities as well as everyday human failings. He penned works of genius, but I also like to think of him deliberating over another of his verses,
‘To make a happy fireside clime
To weans and wife
That’s the true pathos and sublime
of human life’. First published in The People’s Friend 26.01.08