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Issue 75 - The Promised Verses

Scotland Magazine Issue 75
June 2014


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The Promised Verses

John Hannavy explores the Englishman's request which led to the writing of a Scottish masterpiece

The English antiquarian Francis Grose was fascinated by architectural heritage, and spent much of his time visiting ancient monuments and sketching what he found, but he can never have imagined the legacy which would result from a chance encounter – leading to an enduring friendship –which he made during his travels.

Persuaded to publish his illustrated descriptions of ancient buildings, his first books, The Antiquities of England and Wales appeared as a four-volume set in the 1770s to some considerable acclaim. Sixteen years later, in 1788, he embarked on the first of three journeys to Scotland, gathering information and making sketches for his planned two-volumes of The Antiquities of Scotland.

Volume one was published in 1789 – opening with a chapter on ‘Edinburghshire’ – while Grose was on his second tour north of the border, visiting and sketching locations from Galloway to Glasgow. He visited, amongst other places, Maybole Collegiate Church, Dunure Castle, Crossraguel Abbey and Culzean Castle, and it was while he was in Scotland that he was introduced to Robert Burns, recently returned from Edinburgh. The two men are believed to have met at Friar’s Carse in Nithsdale near Dumfries, the seat of Burns’ friend Captain Robert Riddell, and just a short distance from Burns’ own home at Ellisland Farm, to where he had moved just a year earlier.

The two men developed an immediate rapport, becoming good friends, and perhaps it was even on that first meeting, in conversation around Riddell’s dining table, that Grose outlined his Antiquities of Scotland project to Burns. At some point during the meal, the poet used his persuasive powers to get Grose to agree to the inclusion of Alloway Kirk in Ayrshire – where Burns’ parents lie buried – in the second volume on which he was currently working. Grose proved equally persuasive, agreeing to do so only if Burns wrote a short verse to accompany the illustration of the ruined kirk – and requesting that the verse should be about the witches who, according to tradition, worked their magic inside the shell of the building. It seems somewhat incongruous that a poem about witches should appear in a serious study of architectural heritage, but that is exactly what happened. Little can either man have imagined the enduring impact of that verse, chosen by Grose, the second of three synopses offered by Burns.

Burns sketched out his plans for the poem, and wrote to Grose in June 1790 seeking his approval. The proposal began “On a market-day, in the town of Ayr, a farmer from Carrick and consequently whose way lay by the very gate of Alloway kirk-yard, in order to cross the River Doon, at the old bridge, which is almost two or three hundred yards farther on than the said old gate, had been detained by his business till by the time he reached Alloway it was the wizard hour, between night and morning. Though he was terrified with a blaze streaming from the kirk, yet as it is a well-known fact, that to turn back on these occasions is running by far the greatest risk of mischief, he prudently advanced on his road. When he had reached the gate of the kirk-yard, he was surprised and entertained, through the ribs and arches of an old gothic window which still faces the highway, to see a dance of witches merrily footing it round their old sooty black-guard master, who was keeping them all alive with the power of his bagpipe.”

What was Grose expecting to receive from Burns? Perhaps a single verse; perhaps a short stanza. What he got was so long that his publishers had to resort to printing it in a very small type size to fit it into the space allotted for it in the book.

The poem, of course, was Tam o’ Shanter, and over the two centuries since it was written, it has been recognised as an absolute classic, its recital an essential component of any self-respecting Burns’ Night celebration. It is widely agreed that it the first narrative poem written in Scots dialect and, indeed, one of the first ever written in English.

Legend has it that Burns sat down and wrote it from start to finish in a single day, putting it aside for a while and then refining it before sending it to Grose later in the autumn. It arrived just before Grose delivered volume two of The Antiquities of Scotland to his London publisher, Samuel Hooper.

Despite the fact that he was living near Dumfries at the time, Burns’ enthusiasm for the inclusion of Alloway Kirk is understandable, for Alloway was where he had been born – as Robert Burnes, named after his grandfather – and where he had lived until the age of seven. The kirkyard was also where his father had been laid to rest in 1784. Interestingly, when his parents’ gravestone had to be replaced –the original having been either vandalized or stolen – his father’s name was inscribed as ‘William Burns’ without the ‘e’.

The poem he wrote for Grose drew on places he had known and people he had known, perhaps including a smattering of his own personal encounters in Tam’s adventures.

‘Souter Johnnie’ – a ‘souter’ was a cobbler – is reputed to have been based on John Davidson, a friend of Burns, a shoemaker, and a well-known wit. When Burns imortalised him as ‘Johnnie’ he was already in his early sixties, and he later moved to the village of Kirkoswald where the celebrated ‘Souter Johnnie’s Cottage’ still stands. When he died in 1806, he was buried in Kirkoswald churchyard.

Jean Kennedy, who with her sister Anne were the landladies of the village inn in Kirkoswald, became Kirkton Jean, landlady of The Lord’s House in the poem – one of Burns’ little jokes. The Kennedys were known locally as ‘the Leddies’ – the ladies – and their inn as The Leddies’ House. Burns knew Kirkoswald well, having joined Hugh Rodger’s school in the village in 1775 to study mathematics.

That leaves Tam o’ Shanter himself – said to have been based on Douglas Graham, tenant of Shanter Farm, whom Burns had met while visiting John Davidson at Glenfoot of Ardlochan. Davidson liked his liquor, and he is said to have done a fair bit of smuggling along the Maidens coast. The boat he used to land his contraband is said to have been called the Tam o’ Shanter. When he died in 1811, he too was buried at Kirkoswald.

And as for the little verse Burns promised to Francis Grose, well things did not quite go according to plan. Tam o’ Shanter’s first appearance in print was not in book form but in
The Edinburgh Magazine in March 1791, a month before Grose’s book appeared.