Dumfries And Its Vicinity
( Originally Published 1912 )
THE chauffeur shivered and turned up his coat-collar. The mist was clinging to his rough fur coat and his hair was heavy with it. Even those shut inside the automobile felt cold and uncomfortable enough, for it was a raw day with a sharp wind blowing the heavy Scotch mist.
" Wish it would rain and be done with it ! " grumbled John, rising to put on a sweater under his coat, while Philip inquired whether he should not close a window which had been left open a crack.
The party had set off bright and early from the Station Hotel at Dumfries, and it had required considerable courage to start at all on such a morning. Even the boots, who of course had the interest of the garage-keeper at heart, could not promise them a good day; but Mrs. Pitt cheerily advised that they collect all their warmest wraps and set forth.
The country looked very dreary; speeding along the hard road, they met few people, and even the gray farmhouses, standing in the wide fields, had a deserted look.
It's about the lonesomest place I ever saw ! " Betty was saying, when the motor car suddenly came to a standstill.
" Hello ! where are we? " John had put his head out of the window and was holding a rather labored conversation with the grave faced chauffeur. " Can't understand him except something about ' Iron Rust Church.' There's a church up that road. Do we get out? "
" Dear me, yes! I'd quite forgotten it was so near ! You mean ` Iron Gray Church,' John. We'll walk up and see it. The grass is disgustingly wet, but we can keep out of that."
A lonelier little church could hardly exist. It stands at some distance from the road; only a few houses are visible in the surrounding fields, and it is difficult to believe that there can be enough devout Scotch people to wend their way towards this kirk on a Sabbath. There was no sign of a caretaker, so Mrs. Pitt her-self found the grave of Helen Walker.
" When Scott drew the character of Jeanie Deans in ` The Heart of Midlothian,' this girl was his model," she explained, as they paused by the simple stone for which Walter Scott wrote the inscription. " Very brave and beautiful, she must have been to have deserved to be thus immortalized."
Passing by a spot where the Covenanters fought one of their last battles, they skirted the tiny village of Dunscore, and at length slowed down near Maxwelton House.
" Where Annie Laurie lived ! " murmured Betty, looking beyond some fields to an old-fashioned, white house, set back among the large trees.
" Yes, Annie Laurie was born here, but, when she married James Ferguson, she lived at Craigclarroch House, only a short distance beyond this next town of Moniaive."
Soon they were making their way through the town, very Scotch and very quaint with its narrow, straggling street lined with one-story cottages, most of them proudly possessing scraps of bright-colored gardens. Now and then a barefooted child appeared at a doorway, or a woman, with a shawl drawn over her head, hurried from one cottage to the next;—and all the while the mist drifted steadily down.
Set low by the side of a stream, amid beautiful lawns, trees, and flowers, Craigdarroch House would have been very lovely on a fine day. It is stately and hospitable-looking in all weathers, this old house, the home of the Fergusons since the thirteenth century, with its many windows and broad entrance steps. As John rang the bell, they had a glimpse through the open door of a fine old hall, much disordered by housecleaning; then they were turned away by a housemaid, far from cordial, who crisply informed them that visitors were not admitted as the Misses Ferguson were away from home. Perhaps the " turning-out " of the rooms had spoiled her usually even temper.
" They're very nice, both of these places," said Betty, as they passed through the gates of Craigdarroch House once more, " but I surely thought Annie Laurie lived in a tiny cottage with a thatched roof. I never knew she was a grand lady, and I'm just a little disappointed, somehow."
" Many people have that same idea, Betty, but they are very wrong in thinking of Annie as a poor peasant girl; she was far from that. Her father was Sir Robert Laurie of Maxwelton, and Annie was the oldest of his three daughters. She was married in 1709 to James Ferguson, and their son, Alexander, was the hero of a poem by Burns called ` The Whistle.' That famous whistle is usually kept at Craigdarroch House, but it's now at the Glasgow Exhibition. Oh, you saw it there, John? And you want to know its story? "
So, while they sat in a back room at the Dunscore inn to which the landlord had ushered them, promising to cook some bacon and eggs immediately, Mrs. Pitt told them all about the Whistle o' Worth."
" Well then, once when James VI came to Scotland, his queen, Anne of Denmark, accompanied him, and in her train was a giant Dane, noted for his capacity for drink. He carried with him a whistle made of ebony which he al-ways placed on the table near him to be sounded by the last sober man at the feast. Until he went to Scotland, the Dane had never been beaten in this strange contest; he even claimed to have been victorious at many foreign courts, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Moscow, Warsaw, and some of the German provinces. The Scots were always able to cope with the best on the point of drink, but the Dane worsted every one till he met Sir Robert Laurie of Maxwelton; at the end of a famous banquet, the whistle was in possession of that clear-headed baronet. The son of Sir Robert, Sir Walter, also won the whistle, but it then went out of the family until Alexander Ferguson, Annie Laurie's son, carried it off for the last time."
John's delight at this queer tale was only exceeded by his interest in the platter of bacon and eggs, the tea, bread and butter, and jam, which the landlord was placing before them. There seemed to be no servant at this tiny inn; but it was pleasant to be served by the tall landlord himself, and the food tasted as good as it only can when one has ridden many miles across country in a Scotch mist.
A short run brought them to Lag Tower, merely a fragment of an old keep, almost hid-den away behind some trees on a little elevation, but interesting as the original of Scott's " Redgauntlet." Friars Carse, the house where the contest of the whistle took place, is not far distant. The chauffeur seemed very doubtful about their being permitted to enter these private premises, but, leaving the motor car at the gate, they gayly proceeded on foot.
" The estate once belonged to a friend of Burns," said Mrs. Pitt, " and the poet came here often. It was here that he met a gentleman, named Grose, who was then writing a book on the ` Antiquities of Scotland.' Burns tried to persuade him to include a description of the auld Alloway kirk, which Grose finally agreed to do if Burns would write him a poem about it. A few days later Burns composed ` Tam o' Shanter.' "
Their long walk up the pretty drive ended in a disappointment. As they came in sight of what was apparently a modern mansion instead of the picturesque old Friars Carse they were in search of, they were so resentful at the many additions and remodelings that they promptly turned their backs upon it.
Burns's home at Ellisland Farm they found altogether as it should be, a long, low farm-house with a tiny garden full of beautiful white iris. The place looked deserted and their knocks at the kitchen door met with no response.
" What is there to see inside, Mother? Are we missing very much? "
" Oh, no, Barbara ; there's the kitchen with a stone floor and wide hearth, a few bare little rooms, and, I believe, a pane of glass on which Burns cut his initials. He built this home, you know, and I've read about some of the strange customs here when he and Jean Armour first took possession. There were certain things to be done to insure good luck for the young couple which, I'm afraid, they didn't get, after all. With their friends all dressed in their best, they solemnly approached; a servant entered the door first, carrying the family Bible on which rested a bowl of salt. After this Burns stepped in with his bride upon his arm and, as they crossed the threshold, a neighbor broke an oatcake over the bride's head. In the evening there was probably a dance on the bright, smooth, new floors, and all the neighbors helped them to make merry. Now, come around back of the house a moment. I think it was on this path, above the little stream, that Burns wrote his poem about Tam. He was walking there when the idea came to him, and so much amused was he and so uproariously did he laugh that his wife thought he must be losing his head."
As they came down the lane from the farmhouse to the road, a handsome dog met them and then skulked off sheepishly into a field, behind the hedge.
" He looks awfully guilty! " Betty declared; " I think his family have gone to market and left him to take care of the house, but he forgot and went off somewhere."
The country north of Dumfries, in the valley of the Nith, is so lovely as to have been frequently and favorably compared with the famed valley of the Wye. Even on this day of rain and cloud which hid all distant views, they realized the beauty of it. The woodland was all green and silver, the fields rich in yellow grain, and along the roadsides were quantities of wild roses, white and pink. It seemed a pity to enter dingy Dumfries with its dark buildings, narrow streets, and throngs of poor children who wear heavy copper-toed shoes which have neither buttons nor lacings and make a loud clattering on the rough pavements.
Leaving the motor car and starting on foot in search of the little house in which Burns died, they were surrounded by swarms of these dirty children; they could not have missed the house with so many small guides eagerly pointing the way. The building has a bust and an inscription, and another residence of the poet, in Bank Street, is marked by a tablet; both are very humble, testifying to the poverty of the last days of Burns's life. They saw the Globe Inn on High Street, a favorite resort of Burns, which still has his chair. They also noticed the tablet in Castle Street, showing the site of the altar of the ancient church of Greyfriars Monastery, before which Bruce murdered the Red Comyn. They had just time before dark to visit the Burns Mausoleum in the churchyard of St. Michael's; they thought it very ugly, however, its one redeeming feature being the familiar bas-relief of Burns at the plow, with the angel hovering overhead.
During their wanderings through the newer part of town, they came upon the " Moat Hostel," charmingly situated near the river. Originally a private house, the place is now a dormitory for forty-seven girls who are junior pupils at Dumfries Academy. Betty had not been to boarding-school, but she meant to go some day, so she eagerly accepted the matron's offer to show them about, even though the pupils were all away for their long holiday. It was interesting to see the basement dining-room and, close by, a room with square partitions to hold the girls ' " boxes," or trunks, and the boot room " where the pupils clean their own boots; it was strange to see how many cotbeds are placed in one large room, each being inclosed by thick curtains. They saw rows of wardrobes, far too small to hold an American girl's belongings. The pupils get up very early in summer, and their long day ends with the regular study hour from seven to eight in the evening.
I'm glad I won't have to get up so awfully early ! Betty confided to Mrs. Pitt; " and I should hate to have to sleep in the room with so many others, and not to have any place to put my things ! It doesn't seem as if they had much fun. But there's a big room where they can play the piano for dancing, they have tennis courts, and of course they can always row on that pretty river ! "
The following day they took train to Mauch-line, where they found many more associations with Burns. As soon as they had turned into the quaint village street, Betty exclaimed, " There's Poosie Nansie's, that low brown building with the thatched roof. No, John, it is an inn, of course. Don't you love it? "
Around the corner, in the " Coogate," Jean Armour was born. Near by was the village women's common drying ground, and here Burns first saw Jean, his dog mischievously carrying off the clothes she had spread out to bleach.
" That's no kind of a castle ! " cried John, surveying an ancient keep to which a much more modern building has been attached. " If I'd been Burns and had wanted to be married in a castle, I'd have chosen a better one than that ! "
Here, presumably, lived Gavin Hamilton, Burns's friend, in whose parlor he and Jean were married. A queer little walled-in walk leads around the castle domain, and in Castle Street is the thatched cottage in which Burns and Jean set up housekeeping.
An old woman in the doorway was rather communicative.
" Burns lived here, didn't he? " she was asked.
" Ay, a' think so. But," shaking her gray head, " a' wasna here then."
They walked out to see Mossgiel Farm, a typical farm of the district, now as in Burns's time owned by the Alexander family. The house sets back from the road and is surrounded by fields which are tilled just as when Burns, in plowing, turned up the daisy and the field-mouse.
" There are lots of ` wee crimson-tipped flowers ' in the tall grass, remarked Betty, " but I don't see any ` beastie.' "
That afternoon it actually rained again, and, instead of taking a drive, they all partook of tea at an attractive shop. As a result, no one was hungry when dinner-time came, and the tiny drawing-room grate, its pile of coal hedged in with neat white paper, was at length induced to burst into a blaze. It was most discouraging at first. So damp was it that when a waiter held a match against the paper, it flickered and immediately went out. Once more he struck a light and laid the match on the bar of the iron grate, its burning end against the paper. After a long pause, during which Mrs. Pitt and the others sat breathless, the paper did catch and a cheerful blaze finally broke forth.
Here they were comfortably reading and chatting, having almost forgotten their guilty attempts to escape the tiresome table d'hote, when the door opened and the tall, imperious headwaiter entered. Straightway taking in the whole situation, he scowled and announced sternly, " Dinner, when you are ready, Madam." They were all afraid of him, even Mrs. Pitt. They said nothing, but they went; and when they came back to the drawing-room, their fire had gone out. Such are the trials of travelers !