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Nithsdale Rambles

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

Scott--Hogg--Wordsworth--Carlyle's Birthplace--Homes--Grave--Burns's Haunts--Tomb--Jeanie Deans--Old Mortality, etc.--Annie Laurie's Birthplace--Habitation--Poet-Lover--Descendants

Carlyle's Birthplace--Grave

From the "Heart of Mid-Lothian" and the many shrines of picturesque Edinburgh, once the literary capital of Britain, our saunterings bring us to other haunts of the "Wizard of the North:" to his oft described Abbotsford,--that baronial "romance in stone and lime,"--with its libraries and armouries, its precious relics and more precious memories of its illustrious builder and occupant, who here literally "wrote himself to death;" to the dream-like, ivy-grown ruins of holy Melrose, whose beauties he sang and within whose crumbling walls he lingered and mused; to his tomb fittingly placed amid the ruined arches and mouldering pillars of Dryburgh Abbey, embowered by venerable trees and mantled by clinging vines. Strolling thence among the "Braes of Yarrow," the Yarrow of Wordsworth and Hamilton, through the haunts of Hogg the Ettrick Shepherd, and passing the Hartfell, we come into the dale of Annan, and follow that winsome water past Moffat, where lived Burns's daughter, to historic Applegarth, and thence by Lockerby approach Ecclefechan, the hamlet of Carlyle's birth and sepulture. Among the lowly stone cottages on the straggling street of the rude village is a double dwelling with an arched passage-way through the middle of its lower story; this humble structure was erected by the stone-mason James Carlyle, and the northern end of it was his home when his illustrious son was born. Opening from the street is a narrow door; beside it is a diminutive window, with a similar one above and another over the arch. The exterior is now smartened somewhat,--the shillings of pilgrims would pay for that,--but the abode is pathetically small, bare, and poor. The one lower room is so contracted that the Carlyles could not all sit at the table, and Thomas used to eat his porridge outside the door. Some Carlyle relics from Cheyne Row--letters, portraits, pieces of china, study-lamp, tea-caddy, and other articles--are preserved in the room above, and adjoining it is the narrow chamber above the archway where the great historian, essayist, and cynic was born. In this comfortless home, and amid the dreary surroundings of this hard and rough village, which is little improved since the days of border war and pillage, he was reared. The stern savagery of the physical horizon of his boyhood here, and the hateful and uncongenial character of his environment at the most impressionable period of his life, may account to us for much of the morose cynicism of his later years. Further excuse for his petulance and his acerbities of tongue and temper is found in his dyspepsia, and a very limited experience of Ecclefechan cookery suffices to convince us that his indigestion was another unhappy sequence of his early life in this border hamlet. In "Sartor Resartus" he has vivaciously recorded some of the incidents and impressions of his childhood here,--notably the passage of the Carlisle coach, like "some terrestrial moon, coming from he knew not where, going he knew not whither." A shabby cross-street leads to the village graveyard, which was old a thousand years ago, and there, within a few rods of the spot of his birth, the great Carlyle is forever laid, with his parents and kindred. The yard is a forlorn enclosure, huddled with hundreds of unmarked graves, and with other hundreds of crumbling memorials drooping aslant among the brambles which infest the place. The tombstone of Carlyle, within an iron railing, is a little more pretentious than those about it, but his grave seems neglected; daisies and coarse grass grow about it, and the only tokens of reverent memory it bears are placed by Americans, who constitute the majority of the pilgrims to this place. Not far from the kirk-yard is a lowly cottage, hardly better than a hut, in which dwelt Burns's "Lass of Ecclefechan."

Dumfries--Burns's Dwelling

By a transverse road from Lockerby we come to the ruined Lochmaben Castle of Bruce, and thence into Nithsdale and to Dumfries, the ancient capital of southwestern Scotland. Here lived Edward Irving, and here Allan Cunningham toiled as a common mason; but the grey town is interesting to us chiefly because of its associations with Burns. Here are the tavern, familiar to us as the "howff," which he frequented, and where he made love to the bar-maid, "Anna of the Gowden Locks;" the parlour where his wit kept the table in a roar; the heavy chair in the "ingle neuk" where he habitually sat, and, in the room above, the lines to "Lovely Polly Stewart" graven by his hand upon the pane. From the inn a malodorous lane, named Burns Street, and oft threaded by the bard when he "wasna fou but just had plenty," leads to the poor dwelling where lived and died the poet of his country and of mankind. An environment more repulsive and depressing, a spot more unworthy to be the home of a poet of nature, can scarcely be imagined. Here not a flower nor a green bough, not even a grass-blade, met his vision, not one beautiful object appeased his poetic taste; he saw only the squalid street infested by unwashed bairns and bordered by rows of mean cottages. How shall we extol the genius which in such an uncongenial atmosphere produced those exquisite poems which for a century have been read and loved in every clime? His own dwelling, a bare two-storied cottage, is hardly more decent than its neighbours. Within, we find a kitchen and sitting-room, small and low-ceiled; above, a windowed closet,--sometimes used by the poet as a study,--and the poor little chamber where he died, only thirty-seven years after he first saw the light in the clay biggin by his bonnie Doon.


The interior of St. Michael's Church has been refitted, and the sacristan can show us now only the site of Burns's seat, behind a great pillar which hid him from the preacher, and that of the Jenny on whose bonnet he saw the "crowlin'" pediculus. Through the crowded church-yard a path beaten by countless pilgrims from every quarter of the globe conducts to the place where he lies with "Bonnie Jean" and some of their children. The costly mausoleum which now covers his tomb--erected by those who had neglected or shunned him in his life--is to us less impressive than the poor little gravestone which the faithful Jean first placed above him, which now forms part of the pavement. The ambitious statue, designed to represent Genius throwing her mantle over Burns at the plough, suggests, as some one has said, that a bath-woman bringing a wet sheet to an unwilling patient had served as a model. Oddly enough, the grave of John Bushby, an attorney oft lampooned in Burns's verse, lies but a few feet from that of the poet.

Jeanie Deans--Carlyle's Craigenputtock

Our ramble along the wimpling Nith lies for the most part in a second Burnsland, so closely is it associated with his personality and poetry. The beauties of the stream itself are celebrated in half a score of his songs. Every seat and scene are sung in his verse; every neighbourhood and almost every house preserve some priceless relic or some touching reminiscence of the ploughman-bard. A short way above Dumfries we come to the picturesque ruin of Lincluden Abbey, at the meeting of the waters of Cluden and Nith. The crumbling walls are enshrouded in ivy and surrounded by giant trees, among which Burns loved to loiter. His "Evening View" and "Vision" commemorate this ruin, and the poem "Lincluden" was written here. In a tasteful cottage not far from the Abbey sojourned the Mrs. Goldie who communicated to Scott the incidents which he wrought into his "Heart of Mid-Lothian," and it was in the little kitchen of this cottage that the lady talked with Helen Walker, the original Jeanie Deans. In a poor little low-eaved dwelling, a mile or two up the valley, that heroine lived, keeping a dame's school and rearing chickens; and our course along the tuneful stream brings us to the ancient and sequestered kirk-yard of Irongrey, where, among the grass-grown graves of the Covenanters, her ashes repose beneath a tombstone erected by Scott himself and marked by an inscription from his hand: "Respect the Grave of Poverty when associated with love of Truth and dear Affection." Farther in this lovely region we come to ancient Dunscore and the monument of Scott's "Old Mortality;" and beyond Moniaive we find, near the source of the Cairn, Craigenputtock--the abode where "Thomas the Thunderer prepared his bolts" before he removed to London. This dreary place, "the loneliest in Britain," had been the abode of many generations of Mrs. Carlyle's ancestors,--among whom were "several black-guards but not one blockhead,"--and Carlyle rebuilt and furnished the house here to which he brought the bride he had wedded after his repulsion by his fair Rose-goddess, the Blumine of his "Romance." It is a severely plain and substantial two-storied structure of stone with steep gables. The entrance is under a little porch in the middle of the front; on either side is a single window, with another above it in the second story. There are comfortable and commodious rooms at each side of the entrance, and a large kitchen is joined at the back. Carlyle's study, a rather sombre apartment, with a dispiriting outlook, is at the left; a fireplace which the sage especially loved is in one wall, his writing-table stood near it, and here he sat and clothed in virile diction the brilliant thoughts which had come to him as he paced among his trees or loitered on the near hill-tops. The dining-room and parlour are on the other side, looking out upon wild and gloomy crags. Mrs. Carlyle's pen long ago introduced us to this interior, and, although all her furniture, except perhaps the kitchen "dresser," has been removed, we recognize the household nooks she has mentioned. The kitchen, which was the scene of her tearful housekeeping trials, seems most familiar; its chimney retains its abominable habits, but a recent incumbent, instead of crying as did Mrs. Carlyle, declared the "chimla made her feel like sweerin'." Great ash-trees, which were old when the sage dwelt beneath them, overtop the house; many beautiful flowers--some survivors of those planted by Carlyle and his wife--bloom in the yard. In front a wide field slopes away to a tributary of the Cairn, but sombre moorland hills rise at the back and cluster close about the house on either side, imparting to the place an indescribably depressing aspect: as we contemplate the desolate savagery of this wilderness, we can understand why one of Carlyle's predecessors here killed himself and others "took to drink."

The bare summit behind the house overlooks Carlyle's estate of a thousand acres and, beyond it, an expanse of bleak hills and black morasses. From the craggy brow on the left, the spot where Carlyle and Emerson sat and talked of the immortality of the soul, we see Dunscore and a superb vista of the valley towards Dumfries and the Wordsworth country. The isolation of this place--so complete that at one time not even a beggar came here for three months--was an advantage to Carlyle at this period. He speaks of it as a place of plain living and high thinking: life here appeared to him "an humble russet-coated epic," and long afterward he referred to the years of their stay in this waste as being "perhaps the happiest of their lives." This expresses his own feeling rather than that of his wife, whose discontent finds expression in many ways, notably in her poem "To a Swallow." Carlyle produced here some of his best work, including the matchless "Sartor Resartus," the essay on Burns, and several scintillant articles for the various reviews which denoted the rise of a new star of genius; but the period of his stay here was essentially one of study and thought, and, plenteous as it was in production, it was more prolific in preparation for the great work he had to do. To Carlyle in this solitude Jeffrey was a visitor, as well as "Christopher North," Hazlitt, and Edward Irving: hither, "like an angel from heaven," came Emerson to greet the new genius on the threshold of its career and to enjoy the "quiet night of clear, fine talk." Carlyle bequeathed this estate to the University of Edinburgh.

Friars Carse--Burns's Ellisland

Another day, our ramble follows the winding Nith northward from Lincluden. As we proceed, the lovely and opulent dale, once the scene of clannish strife, presents an appearance of peaceful beauty, pervaded everywhere with the sentiment of Burns. In one enchanting spot the stream circles about the grounds of ancient Friars Carse, now a tasteful and pretty seat. It was erstwhile the residence of Burns's friend Riddel, to which the poet was warmly welcomed: here he composed the poem "Thou whom Chance may hither lead," and here he presided at the famous drinking-match which he told to future ages in "The Whistle." It is noteworthy that the first Scotch winner of the Whistle was father of Annie Laurie of the popular song, and that the contest here was between two of her grandnephews and her grandson,--the latter being victorious. Burns celebrated his friend of this old hermitage in seven of his poems; and the present proprietor carefully cherishes the window upon whose pane the bard inscribed "Lines written in Friars Carse." A little way beyond lies Druidical Holywood, where once dwelt the author of "De Sphæra," and next we find the Nith curving among the acres which Burns tilled in his happiest years, at Ellisland. Embowered in roses and perched upon an eminence overhanging the stream is the plain little dwelling which he erected with his own hands for the reception of his bonnie Jean. It is little changed since the time he lived under its lowly roof. We think the rooms dingy and bare, but they are better than those of his abode at Alloway and Mossgiel, much better than those in which he died at Dumfries. In the largest of the apartments, by a window which looks down the dreamful valley, Burns had a rude table, and here he penned some of the most touchingly beautiful poetry of our language,--poems which he had pondered as he worked or walked afield. Adjoining the house is the yard where he produced the exquisite lines "To Mary in Heaven;" in this near-by field he met "The Wounded Hare" of his verse; in yonder path along the murmuring Nith he composed the immortal "Tam O'Shanter," laughing aloud the while at the pictures his fancy conjured; and all about us are reminders of the bard and of the idyllic life which here inspired his muse: it would repay a longer journey to see the spot where the one song "John Anderson, my Jo" was pondered and written.

Annie Laurie--Early Home--Annie Laurie and her Lover

A further jaunt amid varied beauties of woodland shade and meadow sunshine, of gentle dale and savage scaur, brings us past historic Closeburn to the neighbourhood of Thornhill. Here at the Buccleuch Arms the illegitimate daughter of Burns was for thirty years a servant, and boasted of having had a chat with Scott among the burnished utensils of her kitchen. Two miles eastward Scott found the Balfour's Cave and Leap described in "Old Mortality." Middle Nithsdale expands into a broad valley, commanded by lofty Queensberry and lower green hills and diversified with upland brae, shadowy copse, sunny mead, and opulent plantation. This lovely region, dotted with pretty hamlets, embowered villas, and moss-grown ruins, and teeming with the charming associations of history and sentiment, holds for us a crowning interest which has drawn our steps into its romantic haunts: it was the birthplace and life-long home of Annie Laurie. On the right of the Nith, among the bonnie braes of the song, we find the ancient manor-house of Maxwelton, where the heroine was born. The first of her race to reside here was her great-grandfather, who in 1611 built additions to the old tower already existing. The marriage-stone of Annie Laurie's grandparents, John Laurie and Agnes Grierson, is set in the massive walls and graven with their initials, crest, and date. This Agnes was daughter of the bloody persecutor who figures in "Redgauntlet," and whose ashes lie in Dunscore kirk-yard, not far distant. Another stone in the Maxwelton house commemorates the marriage of Robert Laurie and Jean Riddel, the parents of the heroine of the song,--this Robert being the champion of Bacchus who won the Whistle from the noble Danish toper. In this ancient abode, according to a record made by her father, "At the pleasure of the Almighty God, my daughter Anna Laurie was born upon the 16th day of Decr., 1682 years, about six o'clock in the morning;" here the bonnie maiden grew to womanhood; here occurred the episode to which the world is indebted for the sweet song; from here she married and went to her future home, but a few miles away. In the last century much of the venerable edifice was destroyed, but the older portion, which had been part of a stronghold in the time of the border wars, remains intact since Annie dwelt within. This part is still called The Tower, and consists of a large rectangular structure, with a ponderous semi-circular fabric abutting it at one end, its fortress-like walls being five feet in thickness and clothed by a luxuriant growth of ivy. Newer portions have been added in varying styles, and the mansion is now an elegant and substantial seat. All about it lie terraced lawns, with parterres of flowers, noble trees, and banks of shrubbery: lovely grounds slope away from the house and command an enchanting view which must often have delighted the vision of the fair Annie. Her boudoir is in the second story of The Tower; it is a corner room, forming now an alcove of the drawing-room; it has a vaulted ceiling of stone, and its windows, pierced in the ponderous walls, look out through the ivy and across an expanse of sward, flower, and foliage to the wooded braes where she kept tryst with her lover. Among the treasures of the old house is a portrait of the bonnie heroine which shows her as an impressively beautiful woman, of lissome figure, large and tender eyes, long oval face with Grecian features, wide forehead framed by a profusion of dark-brown hair. Her hands, like her "fairy feet," were of exceptional smallness and beauty. The present owner of Maxwelton, to whom the writer is indebted for many courtesies, is Sir Emilius Laurie; from him and from the lineal descendants of the widely-sung Annie who still inhabit Nithsdale are derived the materials for this account of that winsome lady. The lover who immortalized her was William Douglas of Fingland, and she requited him by breaking "her promise true" and marrying another man. Douglas is said to have been the hero of the song "Willie was a Wanton Wag;" he was one of the best swordsmen of his time, and his personal qualities gained him the patronage of the Queensberry family and secured him social advantages to which his lower rank and poverty constituted no claim. He and Annie met at an Edinburgh ball, and seem to have promptly become enamoured of each other. To separate them, Sir Robert quickly carried his family back to Nithsdale, but Douglas as quickly followed, and lurked in the vicinage for some months, clandestinely meeting his love among "Maxwelton's bonnie braes." Here the pair plighted troth, and when Douglas returned to Edinburgh, to assist in a projected Stuart uprising, he took with him the promise which he celebrated in the tender melody. The song was published in an Edinburgh paper and attracted much notice. Douglas's devotion to the Jacobites cost him his sweetheart; his political intrigues being suspected, he was forced to fly the country, and when, after some years passed in France, he secured pardon and returned, she was the wife of another. After giving "her promise true" to some other lovers, she married in 1709 Alexander Fergusson, a neighbouring laird, who could not write poetry but had "muckle siller an' lan'" and a genealogy as long as Leviticus. Douglas and Annie never met again, and she makes but a single reference to him in her letters: being told of his return, she wrote to her sister, Mrs. Riddel, grandmother of Burns's friend, "I trust he has forsaken his treasonable opinions and is content."

Her Later Home

A stroll of but a few miles along a delightful way, fanned by the sweet summer winds, brings us to Craigdarrock, Annie Laurie's home for more than half a century. It is a spacious and handsome edifice of three stories, with dormer-windows in the hip-roof; a conservatory is connected at one end, bow-windows project from either side, and clambering vines cover the walls of the lower stories.

Home of Annie Laurie

It is beautifully placed in a vale overlooking the winding stream, with the rugged Craigdarrock looming steeply in the background. Most of the mansion was built under the direction of Annie Laurie, and the gardens were laid out by her in their formal style: a delightful walk beneath the trees on the margin of the water was her favourite resort, and is still known by her name. Within the spacious rooms are preserved many of her belongings: curious furniture and hangings, quaint fineries of dress, her porcelain snuff-box, her will, a package of her letters written in the prim fashion of her time and signed "Anna." Through these epistles we look in vain for indications of the wit and genius which one naturally attributes to the possessor of the bright face which inspired a deathless song. In this house she lived happily with her husband, and was at once the Lady Bountiful and the matchmaker-in-ordinary for the whole countryside; here she died, aged seventy-nine. This estate has been handed down from father to son for fifteen generations, the present urbane laird, Captain Cutlar Fergusson, being a great-great-grandson of Annie Laurie and grandson of the hero of Burns's "Whistle." This famous trophy--a plain object in dark wood--is preserved here at Craigdarrock, and has not been challenged for since the bout which Burns witnessed.


In the now ruined church of Glencairn, hardly a mile from her birthplace, and not far from her later home, Annie Laurie worshipped, and in its yard, which has been a place of burial for a thousand years, she was laid with her husband, among the many generations of his kindred, by the gable-end of the ancient church. Her sepulchre was not marked, and it is to be feared the bones of the erst beauteous lady have been more than once disturbed in excavating for later interments in the crowded plot. From the summit of Craigdarrock we look upon the wilder beauty of the upper Nith, a region of moorland hills and dusky glens, where we may find the birthplace of "the Admirable Crichton," and beyond it the bleak domain where the poet Allan Ramsay first saw the light. Beyond this, again, the sweet Afton "flows amang its green braes," and we come to the Ayrshire shrines of Burns.

A few miles westward from Craigdarrock, and not so far from Carlyle's lonely den, is Fingland farm, the birthplace and home of Annie's poet-lover. It lies among sterile hills in the wild Glenkens of ancient Galloway, near the source of Ken water. From neighbouring elevations we see Craigenputtock and the swelling Solway, and westward we look, across the dark fens and heathery hills of the region "blest with the smell of bog-myrtle and peat," almost to the Irish Sea. In this region Crockett was reared, and he pictures it in his charming tales "The Raiders" and "The Lilac Sunbonnet."

No trace of the peel-tower in which Douglas dwelt remains, but we know that it stood within an enclosing wall twenty yards square and one yard in thickness. The tower had projecting battlements; its apartments, placed above each other, were reached by a narrow, easily defended stair. In such a home and amid this most dismal environment Douglas grew to manhood, his poetic power unsuspected until it was called forth by the love and beauty of Annie Laurie. Later he wrote many poems, but diligent inquiry among the families of Buccleuch and Queensberry shows that few of his productions are now extant save the famous love-song. It is notable that he did not "lay doun his head and die" for the faithless Annie; instead, he made a runaway marriage with Elizabeth Clerk, of Glenborg, in his native Galloway, subsided into prosy country life, and reared a family of six children, of whom one, Archibald, rose to the rank of lieutenant-general in Brittany.

Annie Laurie--The Singer and the Song

Douglas's song was revised by Lady Scott, sister of the late Duke of Buccleuch, and published by her for the benefit of the widows and orphans made by the Crimean War. Lines of the original, for which the writer is indebted to a descendant of Annie Laurie, are hereto appended, that the reader may appreciate how much of the tender beauty of the popular version of the song is attributable to the poetic talent of Lady Scott.

"Maxwelton banks are bonnie,
  Where early fa's the dew,
Where me and Annie Laurie
  Made up the promise true:
Made up the promise true,
  And ne'er forget will I:
And for bonnie Annie Laurie
  I'd lay doun my head and die.

"She's backit like a peacock;
  She's breastit like a swan;
She's jimp about the middle;
  Her waist ye weel may span:
Her waist ye weel may span,--
  She has a rolling eye;
And for bonnie Annie Laurie
  I'd lay doun my head and die."

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