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Introduction17851786ExcerptsPublishing

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 Bible’.

  • Holy Willie’s Prayer

Mauchline ChurchyardThis 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 work.

  • Second Epistle to J Lapraik was dated 21st April 1785

The reply to Burns’ first Epistle has not been preserved but this Epistle is in reply to that.

  • Rantin’ Rovin’ Robin

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.

  • Though Cruel Fate

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.

  • Man was Made to Mourn

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’.

  • To a Mouse

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 proverb.

  • Second Epistle to Davie

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.

  • The Braes o’ Ballochmyle

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.

  • Address to the Deil

Gilbert Burns gave the Winter of 1784-85 as the date of this famous poem.

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