The Burns Festival
( Originally Published 1889 )
We passed a glorious summer morning on the bank of Loch Katrine. The air was pure, fresh and balmy, and the warm sunshine glowed upon forest and lake, upon dark crag and purple mountain-top. The lake was a scene in fairyland. Returning over the rugged battle-plain in the jaws of the Trosachs, we passed the wild, lonely valley of Glenfinlas and Lanric Mead, at the head of Loch Vennachar, rounding the foot of Ben Ledi, to Coilantogle Ford. We saw the desolate hills of Uam-var over which the stag fled from his lair in Glenartney, and keeping on through Callander, stopped for the night at a little inn on the banks of the Teith. The next day we walked through Donne, over the low-lands to Stirling. Crossing Allan Water and the Forth, we climbed Stirling Castle and looked on the purple peaks of the ()chill Mountains, the far Grampians, and the battlefields of Bannock-burn and Sheriff Muir. Our German comrade, feeling little interest in the memory of the poet-ploughman, left in the steamboat for Edinburgh we mounted an English coach and rode to Falkirk, where we took the cars for Glasgow in order to attend the Burns Festival, on the 6th of August.
This was a great day for Scotland-the assembling of all classes to do honor to the memory of her peasant-bard. And right fitting was it, too, that such a meeting should be held on the banks of the Doon, the stream of which he has sung so sweetly, within sight of the cot where he was born, the beautiful monument erected by his countrymen, and more than all, beside "Alloway's witch-haunted wall!" One would think old Albyn would rise up at the call, and that from the wild hunters of the northern hills to the shepherds of the Cheviots, half her honest yeomanry would be there, to render gratitude to the memory of the sweet bard who was one of them, and who gave their wants and their woes such eloquent utterance.
For months before had the proposition been made to hold a meeting on the Doon, similar to the Shakespeare Festival on the Avon, and the 10th of July was first appointed for the day; but owing to the necessity of further time for preparation, it was postponed until the 6th of August. The Earl of Egglintoun was chosen Chairman, and Professor Wilson Vice-Chairman ; in addition to this, all the most eminent British authors were invited to attend. A pavilion, capable of containing two thousand persons, had been erected near the monument, in a large field, which was, thrown open to the public. Other preparations were made and the meeting was expected to be of the most interesting character.
When we arose it was raining, and I feared that the weather might dampen somewhat the pleasures of the day, as it had done to the celebrated tournament at Eglintoun Castle. We reached the station in time for the first train, and sped in the face of the wind over the plains of Ayrshire, which, under such a gloomy sky, looked most desolate. We ran some distance along the coast, having a view of the Hills of Arran, and reached Ayr about nine o'clock. We came first to the New Bridge, which had a triumphal arch in the middle, and, the lines, from the "Twa Brigs of Ayr":
"Will your poor narrow foot-path of a street,
As we advanced into the town, the decorations became more frequent. The streets were crowded with people carrying banners and wreaths, many of the houses were adorned with green boughs and the vessels in the harbor hung out all their flags. We saw the Wallace tower, a high Gothic building, having in front a statue" of Wallace leaning on his sword, by Thom, a native of Ayr, and on our way to the green, where the procession was to assemble, passed under the triumphal arch thrown across the street opposite the mn where Tam O'Shanter caroused so long with Souter Johnny. Leaving the companies to form on the long meadow bordering the shore, we stout for the Doon, three miles distant. Beggars were seated at regular distances along the road, uttering the most dolorous whinings. Both bridges were decorated the same manlier, with miserable looking objects, keeping up, during the whole day, a continual lamentation. Persons are prohibited from begging in England and Scotland, but I suppose, this being an extraordinary day, license was given them as a favor, to beg free. I noticed that the women, with their usual kindness of heart, bestowed nearly all the alms which these unfortunate objects received. The night before, as I was walking through the streets of Glasgow, a young. man of the poorer class, very scantily dressed, stepped up to me and begged me to listen to him for a moment. He spoke hurriedly, and agitatedly begging me, in God's name, to give him something, however little. I gave him what few pence I had with me, when he grasped my hand with a quick motion, saying: "Sir, you little think how much you have done for me." I was about to inquire more particularly into his situation, but he had disappeared among the crowd.
We passed the "cairn where hunters found the murdered bairn," along a pleasant road to the Burns cottage, where it was spanned, by a magnificent triumphal arch of evergreens and flowers. To the disgrace of Scotland, this neat little thatched cot, where Burns passed the first seven years of his life, is now occupied by some-body, who has stuck up a sign over the door, "licensed to retail spirits, to be drunk on the premises;'' and accordingly the rooms were crowded full of people, all drinking. There was a fine original portrait of Burns in one room, and in the old fashioned kitchen we saw the recess where he was born. The hostess looked to-wards us as if to inquire what we would drink, and I hastened away-there was profauity in the thought. But by this time, the bell of Old Alloway, which still hangs in its accustomed place, though the walls only are left, began tolling, and we obeyed the call. The attachment of the people for this bell, is so great, that a short time ago, when it was ordered to be removed, the inhabitants rose en masse, and prevented it. The ruin, which is close by the road, stands in the middle of the churchyard, and the first thing I saw, on going in the gate, was the tomb of the father of Burns. I looked in the old window, but the interior was filled with rank weeds, and overshadowed by a young tree, which had grown nearly, to the eaves.
The crowd was now fast gathering in the large field, in the midst of which the pavilion was situated. We 'went down by the beautiful monument to Burns, to the "Auld Brig o' Doon,'which was spanned by an arch of evergreens, containing a representation of Tam O'Shauter and his gray mare, pursued by the witches. It had been arranged that the procession was to pass over the old and new bridges, and from thence by a temporary bridge over the hedge into the field. At this latter place a stand was erected for the sons of Burns; the officers of the day, and distinguished guests. Here was a beautiful specimen of English exclusiveness. The space adjoining the pavilion was fenced. around, and admittance denied at first to any, except those who had tickets for the dinner, which, the price being fifteen shillings, entirely prevented the humble laborers, who, more than all, should participate on the occasion, from witnessing the review of the procession by the sons of Burns, and hearing the eloquent speeches of Professor Wilson and Lord Eglintoun. Thus, of the many thousands who were in the field, but a few hundred who were crowded between the bridge and a railing around the pavilion, enjoyed the interesting spectacle. By good fortune, I obtained a stand, where I had an excellent view of the scene. The sons of Burns were in the middle of the platform, with Eglintoun on the right, and Wilson on their left. Mrs. Begg, sister of the Poet, with her daughters, stood by the Countess of Eglintoun. She was a plain, benevolent looking woman, dressed in black, and appearing still active and vigorous, though she is upwards of eighty years old. She bears some likeness, especially in the expression of her eye, to the Poet. Robert Burns, the oldest son, appeared to me to have a strong resemblance of his father, and it is said he is the only one who remembers his face. He has for a long time had an office under Government, in London. The others have but lately returned from a residence of twenty years in India. Professor Wilson appeared to enter into the spirit of the scene better than any of them. He shouted and waved his hat, and, with his fine, broad forehead, his long brown locks already mixed with gray, streaming over his shoulders, and that eagle eye glancing over the vast assemblage, seemed a real Christopher North, yet full of` the fire and vigor of youth-"a gray-haired, happy boy!"
About half of the procession consisted of lodges of masons, all of whom turned out on the occasion, as Burns was one of the fraternity. I was most interested in several companies of shepherds, from the hills, with their crooks and plaids; a body of archers in Lincoln green, with a handsome chief at their head, and some Highlanders in their most picturesque' of costumes. As one of the companies, which carried a mammoth thistle in a box, came near the platform, Wilson snatched a branch, regardless of its pricks, and placed it on his coat. After this pageant, which could not have been much less than three miles long, had passed, a band was stationed on the platform in the centre of the field, around which it formed iii a circle, and the whole company sang, "Ye Banks and Braes o' Bonnie Doon." Just at this time, a person dressed to represent Tam O'Shanter, mounted on a gray mare, issued from a field near the Burns Monument and rode along towards Alloway Kirk, from which, when he approached it, a whole legion of witches sallied out and commenced a hot pursuit. They turned back, however, at the' keystone of the bridge, the witch with the "cutty sark" holding up in triumph the abstracted tail of Maggie.
Soon after this the company entered the pavilion, and the thousands outside were enter-tamed, as an especial favor, by the band of the 87th Regiment, while from the many liquor booths around the field, they could enjoy them-selves in another way.
We went up to the Monument, which was of more particular interest to us, from the relics within, but admission was denied to all. Many persons were collected .around the gate, some of whom, having come from a great distance, were anxious to see it; but the keeper only said, such were the orders and he could not disobey them. Among the crowd, a grandson of the original Tam O'Shanter was shown to us. He was a raw-looking boy of nineteen or twenty, wearing a shepherds cap and jacket, and muttered his disapprobation very decidedly, at not being able to visit the Monument.
There were one or two showers during the day, and the sky, all the time, was dark and lowering, which was unfavorable for the celebration; but all were glad enough that the rain kept aloof till the ceremonies were nearly over. The speeches delivered at the dinner, which appeared in the papers next morning, are undoubtedly very eloquent. I noticed in the re-marks of Robert Burns, in reply to Professor Wilson, an acknowledgment which the other speakers forgot. He said, The Sons of Burns have grateful hearts, and to the last hour of their existence, they will remember the honor that has been paid them this day, by the noble, the lovely and the talented, of their native land -by men of genius and kindred spirit from our sister land-and lastly, they owe their thanks to the inhabitants of the far distant west, a country of a great, free, and kindred people! (loud cheers). In connexion with this subject, I saw an anecdote of the Poet, yesterday, which is not generally known. During his connexion with the Excise, he was one day at a party, where the health of Pitt, then minister, was proposed, as "his master and theirs." He immediately turned down his glass and said, "I will give you the health of a far greater and better man-GEORGE WASHINGTON !"
We left the field early and went back, through the muddy streets of Ayr. The street before the railway office was crowded, and there was so dense a mass of people on the steps, that it seemed almost impossible to get near. Seem% no other chance, I managed to take my stand on the lowest steps, where the pressure of the crowd behind and the working of the throng on the steps, raised me off my feet, and in about a quarter of an hour carried me, compressed into the smallest possible space, up the steps to the door, where the crowd burst in by fits, like water rushing out of a bottle. We esteemed ourselves fortunate in getting room to stand in an open car, where, after a two hours' ride through the wind and pelting rain, we arrived at Glasgow.