Robert Burns arrived at Mossgiel in 1785 aged 26 and
during 1785 he wrote:-
- Epistle to Davie, a brother Poet
Davie was David Sillar, one year younger than Burns and,
like him, the son of a small farmer in the Tarbolton area.
His ‘Poems’ published in 1789 prove him to
be no poet. Davie lived in Irvine from the end of 1783,
first as a grocer and then as a schoolmaster. He was an
Irvine Councillor and eventually a Baillie and died in
Irvine - much respected - in 1830.
- Epistle to John Goudie, Kilmarnock
To give him his correct name, John Goldie
was a busy-brained old tradesman in Kilmarnock who moved
from being a strict anti-burgher into free-thinking opinions,
through study of Dr Taylor of Norwich’s work of
‘Original Sin’. John Goldie became an author
himself, and in 1780 he published a volume of ‘Essays
on various subjects, Moral and Divine‘. Goldie was
about 70 years of age when he was friendly with Burns
and Goldie was at that time also interested in Astronomy.
Goldie's book of Essays saw a second edition of six volumes
in 1785 and this became known locally as ‘Goldie's
poem was handed around in manuscript form during the Poet’s
lifetime but first appeared in print in 1799 in a Stewart
and Meikle twopenny tract. Holy Willie was Willie Fisher,
an elder of the Parish Kirk of Mauchline, who had been
mainly instrumental in prompting Mr (Daddy) Auld, the
Minister, and his Session, to raise proceedings against
sundry of the Parishioners for ‘habitual neglect
of public ordinance’.- In other words for staying
away from Church. Among the victims of this prosecution
was Gavin Hamilton, the Poet’s laird and very good
friend who not only was absent from Kirk meetings, but
was even known to dig potatoes from his garden on the
Lord’s Day. One of the indictments against Gavin
Hamilton was for setting off on a journey to Carrick one
Sunday, having been warned not to by the Minister. However,
Gavin Hamilton appealed to the Presbytery where, due to
the eloquence of his Lawyer, he obtained an order for
erasure of the obnoxious minutes of Mauchline Kirk Session.
When Holy Willie’s Prayer made it’s appearance
in print, it alarmed the Kirk Session so much that they
held several meetings to look over their spiritual artillery
to see if any of it might be used against profane rhymers.
The fact that the Poet did not misrepresent the man, against
whom the ‘Prayer’ was written, is proved by
events. Holy Willie, was afterwards found guilty of stealing
money from the Church offerings and his life ended in
a ditch, into which he had fallen while going home after
a ‘debauch’. ‘Holy Willie’s
Epitaph’ which normally follows Holy Willie’s
Prayer, was not printed until 1801. Daddy Auld was born
in 1709 and died in 1791 and is buried in Mauchline Churchyard
where his grave can be seen. Gavin Hamilton’s grave
can also be seen in Mauchline Churchyard.
- Death and Doctor Hornbook
This was composed in the Spring of 1785. ‘Doctor
Hornbook’ was John Wilson, the Parish Schoolteacher
in Tarbolton. Burns, then resident at Mossgiel, Mauchline,
had been attending a Meeting
of St James Lodge of Freemasons at Tarbolton and John
Wilson was a ‘Brother’ there. Wilson eked
out his small teacher’s salary by running a grocery
shop in which he sold medicines as well as foods and he
had a card in his window which offered free ‘medical
advice’. Wilson took every opportunity to talk about
his self-acquired skill as a practitioner, and so disgusted
Burns on the night referred to with the rubbish he was
speaking, that Burns conceived the poem Death and Doctor
Hornbook on the way home from the Masonic Meeting. Next
day he recited a Poem very like the published version
to his brother in the fields. Not long after the poem
became public, John Wilson had a dispute over his salary
at Tarbolton and moved to Glasgow. He was very successful
there firstly as a teacher and then as Session Clerk of
Gorbals Parish and he, himself, attributed that success
in great measure to the interest in him as the subject
of Death and Doctor Hornbook. John Wilson died in 1839.
- Epistle to J Lapraik was dated 1st April 1785
Lapraik was known as ‘The Bard of Muirkirk’,
born in 1727, and would be 58 when Burns wrote the ‘Epistle’.
Burns was known to have improved some of Lapraik’s
- Second Epistle to J Lapraik was dated 21st April
The reply to Burns’ first Epistle has not been
preserved but this Epistle is in reply to that.
Also written in 1785, this song is sung at Burns Suppers
all over the world. The Tune the Poet intended to be used
is called ‘Dainty Davie’ and it is not known
who composed the tune or who adapted Burns words slightly
to fit it. An old music book calls the song ‘There
was a lad was born in Kyle’, attributes the words
to Burns and uses a tune called ‘O Gin ye were deid
guidman’. This is the version, we sing today.
This is a song sung to the tune of ‘The Northern
Lass’. The subject of the song is Jean Armour and
contemplates a lasting separation with howling deserts
and roaring oceans between Burns and Jean Armour.
- Epitaph on Robert Ruisseaux
Ruisseaux is the French for rivulets and it is thought
that it is a play on the poet’s own name Burns.
It has been suggested that these three verses were originally
intended by Burns to take the place of his composition
‘The Bard’s Epitaph’, which so fitly
closed his Kilmarnock volume.
- Epistle to William Simpson, Ochiltree
This was written in May 1785 to William Simpson, who
was then schoolmaster at Ochiltree. Simpson was another
poet who, from talent as well as education, seemed to
have better merited the Burns’ designation ‘my
rhyme-composing brither’ than either Sillar or Lapraik,
although he was never, like them, induced to give his
effusions to the public. In 1788 William Simpson moved
to Cumnock where he carried out the duties of Parish Teacher
with great efficiency. He died, much respected, in 1815.
- Third Epistle to J Lapraik
This Epistle was dated 13th September 1785 and comes
about five months after the two prior ones. The last verse
records that the harvest of 1785 was late and stormy.
- Epistle to Rev John McMath
This was dated 17th September 1785 and enclosed a copy
of ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’, which John
McMath had requested. Rev McMath was assistant to Dr Peter
Wodrow, Parish Minister of Tarbolton. He is said to have
been an excellent preacher until he resigned his charge
and enlisted as a soldier.
- Young Peggy blooms our boniest lass
Peggy was Miss Peggy Kennedy, the daughter of a landowner
in Carrick, and Burns was introduced to her while she
was on a visit to a friend in Mauchline during the Autumn
of 1785. She was then a girl of 17 and appeared to be
the future bride of Captain Maxwell, who was a young member
of the oldest and richest family in Galloway. Burns, in
the warmth of his admiration, sent a respectful letter
to her enclosing this song ‘as a small though grateful
tribute for the honour of her acquaintance’. However,
Peggy fell for McDouall of Logan. Robert Burns heard about
this in the Autumn of 1786 when he was about to leave
Ayrshire for Edinburgh and it is said that, before he
reached Edinburgh, he had written the lyric to ‘Ye
Banks and Braes o’ Bonie Doon’ about what
had happened to Peggy.
This is a dirge. Some of these verses contain Burns’
feelings between what he felt was his own intellectual
strength and his own actual circumstances. The idea for
this writing is said to come from an old Scots dirge called
‘The Life and Age of Man’.
This World Famous poem was dated November 1785 and the
inspiration came from Burns turning up a mouse in her
nest with the plough at Mossgiel. Part of the poem –
‘The best laid schemes o’ Mice and Men, gang
aft agley’ has passed into History as an often-used
David Sillar published his own Poems in 1789 and prefixed,
by way of introduction, this Epistle addressed to him
by Burns. The date of this epistle has not been ascertained
but it is thought to be 1785. Burns, like Davie, played
the fiddle having started to teach himself when he was
22 years old. His family were not appreciative of his
efforts on the violin when he rose early on Winter mornings
‘to scrape away’ and he was reduced to playing
it when bad weather drove him in from the fields. Burns
never attained any great musical proficiency but he could
manage to read from music any simple tune he desired and
play it on the violin or the flute.
This is a song where Burns wrote on the manuscript ‘I
composed these verses on the amiable and excellent family
of Whitefoord leaving Ballochmyle, when Sir John’s
misfortunes obliged him to sell his estates’. It
is thought that it was written in the Autumn of 1785,
about a year before its counterpart ‘The Lass o’
Ballochmyle’. The tune was composed by Burns’
friend, Allan Masterson, who was a Gaelic-speaking Highlander.
The song starts with a mention of Catrine, which was an
estate adjoining Ballochmyle. Ballochmyle Estate changed
hands at the end of 1783 when it was bought by Mr Claud
Alexander, who had amassed a fortune in the East Indies.
Claud’s sister Wilhelmina was the beauty who struck
the fancy of Burns in July 1786.
Gilbert Burns gave the Winter of 1784-85 as the date
of this famous poem.