A Niece of Robert Burns

From A Literary Pilgrimage among the Haunts of Famous British Authors, by Theodore F. Wolfe

Her Burnsland Cottage--Reminiscences of Burns--Relics--Portraits--Letters--Recitations--Account of his Death--Memories of his Home--Of Bonnie Jean--Other Heroines

In the course of a summer ramble in Burnsland we had sought out the homes, the haunts, the tomb of the ploughman poet, and had bent at many a shrine hallowed by his memory or his song. From the cottage of "Bonnie Jean" and the tomb of "Holy Willie," the field of the "Mountain Daisy" and the church of the "Holy Fair," the birthplace of "Highland Mary" and the grave of "Mary Morison," we came to the shrines of auld Ayr, beside the sea. Here we find the "Twa Brigs" of his poem; the graves of the ministers satirized in "The Kirk's Alarm;" the old inn of "Tam O'Shanter," and the very room, with its ingle, where Tam and Souter Johnny "got fou thegither," and where we may sip the nappy from the wooden caup which Tam often drained. From Ayr a delightful stroll along the highway where Tam made his memorable ride, and where William Burns carried the howdie upon the pillion behind him on another stormy winter's night when the poet was born, brought us to the hamlet of Alloway and the place of Burns's early life. Here are the auld clay biggin, with its rude stone floor and roof of thatch, erected by the unskilled hands of his father, where the poet first saw the light, and where he laid the scene of the immortal "Cotter's Saturday Night;" the fields where his young hands toiled to aid his burdened sire; the kirk-yard where his kindred lie buried, some of their epitaphs written by him; the "auld haunted kirk,"--where Tam interrupted the witches' dance,--unknown save for the genius of the lad born by its roofless walls; the Burns monument, with its priceless relics; the ivy-grown bridge, four centuries old, whose arch spans the songful stream and across which Tam galloped in such sore peril, and its "key-stane," where Meg lost "her ain grey tail" to Nannie, fleetest of the pursuers; the enchanting "banks and braes of bonnie Doon," where Burns wandered a brown-eyed boy, and later found the inspiration of many of his exquisite strains. We have known few scenes more lovely than this in which his young life was passed: long and delightful is our lingering here, for interwoven with the many natural beauties are winsome memories of the bard whose spirit and genius pervade all the scene.

Miss Burns Begg--Bridgeside Cot--Recitations--Bonnie Jean

Returning thence past the "thorn aboon the well" (the well is closed now) and the "meikle-stane" to the ancient ford "where in the snaw the chapman smoor'd," we made a détour southward, and came by a pleasant way--having in view on the right the picturesque ruin of Greenan Castle upon a cliff overhanging the sea--to Bridgeside cottage, the home of Miss Isabella Burns Begg, niece of the poet and long his only surviving near relative. We found a cottage of stone, from whose thatched roof a dormer-window, brilliant with flowers, peeped out through the foliage which half concealed the tiny homelet. The trimmest of little maids admitted us at the gate and led along a path bordered with flowers to the cottage door, where stood Miss Begg beaming a welcome upon the pilgrims from America. We were ushered into a prettily furnished little room, upon whose walls hung a portrait of Burns, one of his sister Mrs. Begg, and some framed autograph letters of the bard, which the niece "knew by heart." She was the daughter and namesake of Burns's youngest and favourite sister, who married John Begg. We found her a singularly active and vivacious old lady, cheery and intelligent, and more than pleased to have secured appreciative auditors for her reminiscences of her gifted uncle. She was of slender habit, had a bright and winning face, soft grey hair partially concealed by a cap, and when she was seated beneath the Burns portrait we could see that her large dark eyes--now sparkling with merriment or misty with emotion, and again literally glowing with feeling--were like those on the canvas. Among the treasures of this room was a worn copy of Thomson's "Seasons," a favourite book of Burns, which he had freely annotated; his name in it is written "Burnes," as the family spelled it down to the publication of the bard's first volume. In the course of a long and pleasant chat we learned that Miss Begg had lived many years in the cottage, first with her mother and later with her sister Agnes,--named for Burns's mother,--who died before our visit and was laid beside her parents and the father of Burns in the kirk-yard of auld Alloway, where Miss Begg expected "soom day, please God an it be soon," to go to await the resurrection, thinking it an "ill hap" that she survived her sister. She innocently inquired if we "kenned her nephew Robert in America," and then explained that he and a niece of hers had formerly lived with her, but she had discovered that "they were sweetheartin' and wantin' to marry, which she wouldna allow, so they went to America," leaving her alone with her handmaiden. Most of her visitors had been Americans. She remembered the visits of Hawthorne, Grant, Stanley, and Helen Hunt Jackson,--the last with greatest pleasure,--and thought that "Americans care most about Burns." She mentioned the visit of a Virginian maid, who by rapturous praise of the uncle completely won the heart of the niece. The fair enthusiast had most of Burns's poems at her tongue's end, but insisted upon having them repeated by Miss Begg, and at parting exclaimed, after much kissing, "Oh, but I always pray God that when he takes me to heaven he will give me the place next to Burns." Apparently, Robin still has power to disturb the peace of "the lasses O." Yet we can well excuse the effusiveness of our compatriot: to have listened to the old lady as she sat under his portrait, her eyes twinkling or softening like his own, her voice thrilling with sympathetic feeling as she repeated in his own sweet dialect the tender stanzas, "But pleasures are like poppies spread," "My Mary! dear departed shade!" and "Oh, happy love, when love like this is found," and others of like pathos and beauty, is a rapture not to be forgotten. She spoke quickly, and the Scottish accent kept one's ears on the alert, but it rendered the lines doubly effective and melodious. Many of the poems were inspired by special events of which Miss Begg had knowledge from her mother, which she recalled with evident relish. She distinctly remembered the bard's widow, "Bonnie Jean," and often visited her in the poor home where he died. Jean had a sunny temper, a kind heart, a handsome figure, a fine voice, and lustrous eyes, but her brunette face was never bonnie. While she lacked intellectual appreciation of his genius, she was proud of and idolized him, finding ready excuse and forgiveness for his failings. When the frail "Anna with the Gowden Locks" bore him an illegitimate child, Jean cradled it with her own, and loyally averred to all visitors, "It's only a neebor's bairn I'm bringin' up." ("Ay, she must 'a' lo'ed him," was Miss Begg's comment on this part of her narrative.) Jean had told that in his last years the poet habitually wore a blue coat, with nankeen trousers (when the weather would allow), and his coat-collar was so high that his hat turned up at the back. Her account of the manner of his death is startling, and differs from that given by the biographers. He lay apparently asleep when "sweet Jessy"--to whom his last poem was written--approached, and, to remind him of his medicine, touched the cup to his lips; he started, drained the cup, then sprang headlong to the foot of the bed, threw his hands forward like one about to swim, and, falling on his face, expired with a groan. Jean saw him for the last time on the evening before his funeral, when his wasted body lay in a cheap coffin covered with flowers, his care-worn face framed by the wavy masses of his sable hair, then sprinkled with grey. At his death he left MSS. in the garret of his abode, which were scattered and lost because Jean was unable to take care of them,--a loss which must ever be deplored.

Reminiscences--Burns' Youth--Mossgiel--Recollections

One of the delights of Miss Begg's girlhood was the converse of Burns's mother concerning her first-born and favourite child, the poet, a theme of which she never tired. Miss Begg remembered her as a "chirk" old lady with snapping black eyes and an abundant stock of legends and ballads. She used to declare that Bobbie had often heard her sing "Auld Lang Syne" in his boyhood; hence it would appear that, at most, he only revised that precious old song. Miss Begg more than once heard the mother tell, with manifest gusto, this incident of their residence at Lochlea. Robert was already inclined to be wild, and between visiting his sweetheart Ellison Begbie--"the lass of the twa sparkling, roguish een"--and attending the Tarbolton club and Masonic lodge was abroad until an unseemly hour every night, and his mother or Isabella sat up to let him in. His anxious sire, the priest-like father of the "Cotter's Saturday Night," determined to administer an effectual rebuke to the son's misconduct, and one night startled the mother by announcing significantly that he would wait to admit the lad. She lay for hours (Robert was later than ever that night), dreading the encounter between the two, till she heard the boy whistling "Tibbie Fowler" as he approached. Then the door opened: the father grimly demanded what had kept him so late; the son, for reply, gave a comical description of his meeting auld Hornie on the way home,--an adventure narrated in the "Address to the De'il,"--and next the mother heard the pair seat themselves by the fire, where for two hours the father roared with laughter at Robert's ludicrous account of the evening's doings at the club,--she, meanwhile, nearly choking with her efforts to restrain the laughter which might remind her husband of his intended reproof. Thereafter the lad stayed out as late as he pleased without rebuke. The niece had been told by her mother that Burns was deeply distressed at his father's death-bed by the old man's fears for the future of his wayward son; and when his father's death made Robert the head of the family, he every morning led the household in "the most beautiful prayers ever heard;" later, at Ellisland and elsewhere, he continued this practice, and on the Sabbath instructed them in the Catechism and Confession. Mrs. Begg's most pleasing recollections of her brother were associated with the farm-life at Mossgiel, where he so far gave her his confidence that she was allowed to see his poems in the course of their composition. He would ponder his stanzas during his labours afield, and when he came to the house for a meal he would go to the little garret where he and his brother Gilbert slept and hastily pen them upon a table which stood under the one little window. Here Isabella would find them, and, after repeated perusals, would arrange them in the drawer; and so it passed that her bright eyes were the first, besides his own, to see "The Twa Dogs," "Winter's Night," "The Bard's Epitaph," "The Cotter's Saturday Night," the satirical poems, and most of the productions which were published in his Kilmarnock volume. His sister testified that he was always affectionate to the family, and that after his removal to a home of his own he invariably brought a present for each when he revisited the farm, the present for his mother being always, despite his poverty, a costly pound of tea. Most of the receipts from his publishers were given to the family at Mossgiel. Miss Begg intimated that Burns's mother did not at first like his wife, because of the circumstances of the marriage, but Jean's stanch devotion to her husband won the heart of the doting mother, and they became warm friends and spent much time together after Burns's death. The niece believed that the accounts of his intemperance are mostly untrue. Her mother, who was twenty-five years old at the time of his decease, always asserted that she "never saw him fou," and believed it was his antagonism to the "unco' guid" that made them ready to believe and circulate any idle report to his discredit.

Mrs. Begg saw and liked "Highland Mary" at the house of Gavin Hamilton, and knew Miss Dunlop, the blooming Keith of Burns's "New-Year Day." Another of his heroines the niece had herself visited with her mother; this was Mrs. Jessy Thompson, née Lewars, who was a ministering angel in his final illness, and was repaid by the only thing he could bestow,--a song of exquisite sweetness, "Here's a health to ane I lo'e dear." Our informant had seen in that lady's hands the lines beginning "Thine be the volumes, Jessy fair," which the poet gave her with a present of books within a month of his death. Many other reminiscences related by the niece are to be found in the biographies of the bard, and need not be repeated. The letters which hung upon her walls are not included in any published collection. She assisted us in copying the following to Burns's youngest brother:

A Letter of Burns

 

"ISLE, Tuesday Evening.

"DEAR WILLIAM,--In my last I recommended that valuable apothegm, Learn taciturnity. It is certain that nobody can know our thoughts, and yet, from a slight observation of mankind, one would not think so. What mischiefs daily arise from silly garrulity and foolish confidence! There is an excellent Scots saying that a man's mind is his kingdom. It is certainly so, but how few can govern that kingdom with propriety! The serious mischiefs in Business which this Flux of language occasions do not come immediately to your situation, but in another point of view--the dignity of man--now is the time that will make or mar. Yours is the time of life for laying in habits. You cannot avoid it, tho' you will choose, and these habits will stick to your last end. At after-periods, even at so little advance as my years, 'tis true that one may still be very sharp-sighted to one's habitual failings and weaknesses, but to eradicate them, or even to amend them, is quite a different matter. Acquired at first by accident, they by-and-by begin to be, as it were, a necessary part of our existence. I have not time for more. Whatever you read, whatever you hear of that strange creature man, look into the living world about you, look to yourself, for the evidences of the fact or the application of the doctrine. I am ever yours,

"Robert Burns

"Mr. William Burns, Saddler, Longtown"

The sentiment and style of this epistle are suggestive of the stilted conversations of Burns, recorded in Hugh Miller's "Recollections." Miss Begg was pleased by some account we could give her of American Burns monuments and festivals; she seemed reluctant to have us leave, called to us a cheery "God keep ye!" when we were without the gate, and stood looking after us until the intervening foliage hid her from our sight. As we walked Ayr-ward, while the sun was setting in a golden haze behind the hills of Arran, we felt that we had been very near to Burns that day,--had almost felt the thrill of his presence, the charm of his voice, and had in some measure made a personal acquaintance with him which would evermore move us to a tenderer regard for the man and a truer appreciation of his verse, as well as a fuller charity for his faults:

We know in part what he has done,
  God knows what he resisted.

Death of Burns's Niece

For some months after our visit to Bridgeside, quaint letters--one of them containing a portrait of the worthy occupant of the cottage--followed us thence across the sea. These came at increasing intervals and then stopped; the kindly heart of the niece of Burns had ceased to beat on her eightieth birthday.

A recent pilgrim in Burnsland found an added line on the gravestone in the old kirk-yard, to tell that Isabella Burns Begg rests there in eternal peace. At Bridgeside, her once cherished garden is a waste and her tiny cottage has wholly disappeared. "So do things pass away like a tale that is told."

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