Left: James Currie. Right: a portrait of Burns by Archibald Skirving, published in The Works of Robert Burns, by Blackie and Son, Glasgow, 1854.
Date : 23-11-1798
Correspondent : Robert CouperCorrespondent Location : Fochabers
Recipient : James Currie Recipient Location : Liverpool
Subject : Couper regrets Burns’s career in the Excise and recalls Burns at Gordon Castle.

My dear Sir
      you see by this alacrity – for as the beggar said you do not know how lazy I am – that I wish to anticipate the shutting of your mouth about poor Burns though I find I have little to say to keep it open. One thing however never fails to strike me about this unhappy Bard _ Had his great Patrons left him to his obscurity and to the [?flowing] allowance of a willing bookseller the Bard might have been at this day a growing honour to his country but a mistaken courtesy of the great which cost them little but which he knew not how to bear and the harmful interference of Harry Dundas in whose hands even blessings dwindle into a curse brought him forward at the expence of his talents and reputation. He was addicted I find to low company or when he could play the first fiddle and [MS torn] George the third should his great munificence and to soften something like a credit to his [?reign] made a gauger of him which whatever his Majesty or Mr Dundas may think of being [?] connection with the State renders him unfit for any Gentlemans Society.
      I happened to be in the South in Autumn 1787 when Burns came to Gordon Castle. It was unlucky for me and perhaps so for him as Nicol his companion ↑and I might have prevented what after happened↓ was an old and intimate acquaintance of mine while in Edinburgh. They arrived I think in [?Oct↑r↓.] at Fochabers and Burns who I believe by means of Creech was known to the Duchess went down to the Castle leaving Nicol at the Inn. This was about the dinner hour at the Castle, Burns [?staid] dinner and after a few glasses of wine proposed to withdraw. On being pressed to stay he for the first time mentioned Nicol who I suppose had him in due subordination and the Duke offering to find a servant for Nicol Burns insisted on going himself and a Gentleman a particular acquaintance of the Dukes accompanied ?him?. Nicol I suppose had taken one of his hot fits and was parading it up and down the street swearing at the Postilion who had not his horses at the Chaise. No intreaties could carry Nicol to the Castle and poor Burns was obliged to leave the Castle where I suppose he had laid his account with a few days of happiness and where I am sure he would have met with it. The Duchess [?was] from home. I find his manners were just as might be expected _ He was loquacious and was unable to discriminate between easiness of manner and something bordering too much on forwardness and coarse familiarity To this he added a ↑disposition↓ <[?]> of [?] at things accustomed to respect but on fo[MS torn] [?simply] a manner that his intention even among the well bred profligates could only meet with disgust. What a pity that a man who could think so well and express himself so purely should think so grossly and express himself so coarsely! The Duchess has a high idea of his poetical talents and had no opportunity of patronizing him but by encouraging the sale of his productions and within this twelve month [MS torn] has been exerting herself in procuring subscriptions for ↑a↓ splendid edition of his works for the benefit of his family whither your one I know not but many a big name had she at it. I am sorry this is all I can say of Burns and I hope in no shape to your purpose._ Of the Peasantry of this Country there is an ample [?]. Though we have our Lowlanders [?] him yet I think our “Bodies” have some kind of general superiority to those of the South. In their condition they are perhaps inferior but they have a [?general] open [?lightness] of mind very different from I had [?] said the designing shrewdness of those of that class in the South of Scotland and to which I fear the [?] and brutal laborious exertion of John Bull in the farm class will allow no affinity. The ordinary run of education is accessible to every one and so great is their desire of early education that the Catholics bigotted as they are crowd the established charity schools. Their language has both an ideal and musical expressiveness which captivates and it is destitute of that disgusting petulant boorishness of the South. Their music is chiefly the music of the South and every [?] [?] is an [?] [?]. [?] numbers of the highland tunes have with little variation been brought into the same stile and naturalized They are fond of dancing from the highest to the lowest and their dancing is in a very superior stile. The women seem to fly like fairies and the men under the most powerful variations of strength and activity [?][?] with every appearance of ease and elegance. In polemical affairs they are no ways busy and he will be a profligate Parson indeed they will [?] from nay all the different prejudices even the unsocial Catholics live in harmony together. This seems to me to be the Character of the people along the Coast. A few miles back we call it the highlands where we see even the favourable character I have given heightened. I noticed in Galloway and I suppose it is the same in every hill Country that what we called the moor men are superior in intellect to those of the dale. It is the same here if possible though the definitions in land or people except in Language is scarcely discernible. Of the character of the highlanders I can add little now - but I cannot help reprobating the unfeeling plan of the Landlords there. You hear of Clanship but the name is basely perverted. A chieftain could not raise a Company of Soldiers. He sets his Lands to a sort of Gentleman who subjects these subtenants [?] from year to year and so much in the power of the first tenant that when his son is 14 and he wishes to bring [?] for an Ensigncy the poor devils must turn out or go to beggary. It is thus Regiments are raised in the Highlands _ The Chieftain gives commissions to the Sons of these gentle tenants on condition along with the kings bounty of bringing the regulated number of men and formations [they?] do it on less than the bounty by which both put something in their pockets At the end of the war these half Gentry [MS torn] [?] halfway and with their [?] off the subtenants maintain a tollerable sort of gentlemanny character. One thing peculiar to these Gentlemen is that most of them though they were to acquire the rank of L?t?. Colonels and the manners of complete Gentlemen which many of them do generally return to marry some highland Dowdy little different from a byre maid wither in looks or accomplishments. Indeed the highland women are woefully inferior to the men except if you go to the highest ranks. This is very different from the Irish [?Adventurers]. Another peculiarity I may mention especially as I believe it has not been mentioned before. Of all the inhabitants of Scotland where I have been and I have been over most of it the pronunciation or rather peculiar mode of speaking of the lower Classes in the low lands of Moray and what is called the Machars or low lands (indeed it is the [?] for it) in Galloway approach nearest each other. The Th is always sounded hard – instead of this that they both say dis dat – instead of ‘in the’ they say e according to the Scottish as ‘the man’s e barn’ instead of ‘the man is in the barn’ – instead of bake cake they say biack [ciack with a very open and Scottish – They also have in use a greater number of the genuine old Scottish words than are usually to be met with and I have heard Shakespeare here when his Commentators were on a very different scent – I should have related when speaking of the affinity between the Moray and Galloway dialects (but I am first putting down things as they occur as of [?] [?] one) that it is countenanced by an historical anecdoter – the Moravians about the 11th or 12th Century were very turbulent and felled a King or two for which many of them were slaughtered and many sent to other Counties particularly to Galloway. In one thing however they differ naturally the epsilon of the Greeks is the shibboleth of the Moravians – they <[?]> pronounce it like like the english ee as <[?]> teen for tune and the same ee is used instead of the double o as for moon spoon it is mun spun and often the double o is sounded as the english wi as gwid for good. - But I suspect I am giving you little sense on this head - and I am sorry I had so little to say of Burns. If however there is any thing farther you wish give me a little time and I shall be as useful to you as I can._ I am writing a kind of [?mock] Tour through Scotland but rather as a vehicle for little fugitive pieces of poetry &c I hope it will be out in the Spring and I shall send a Copy of it to my Nephew for you as an [?] laugh.

      My good Sir Adieu
      Robert Couper


Notes :

Robert Couper (1750-1812): son of a farmer, destined for ministry but withdrew from studies at Glasgow University owing to parents’ death. Tutor in Virginia; returned to Scotland in 1776. Studied medicine at Glasgow University and in 1788 became physician to the Duke of Gordon at Fochabers. Published (1804) Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Language, dedicated to the Duchess of Gordon.

poor Burns: Burns was at Castle Gordon, Fochabers, Friday 7 September 1787, during his Highland tour with Nicol. He had met the Duchess of Gordon in Edinburgh in the previous winter.

Henry Dundas (1742-1811): Lawyer and Tory politician; Lord Advocate, 1775; Secretary of State for the Home Department, 1791; Treasurer of the Navy at this time. Essentially Pitt’s right-hand man in Scotland. Became Viscount Melville, 1802; impeached but acquitted after commission into finacial mismanagement, 1806. Arrived at Blair Atholl the day after Burns left, at the urging of Nicol, having spent 31 August and 1 Sept. 1787 there.

George the third…made of him: Burns was commissioned as exciseman, 14 July 1788.

William Nicol (1744-97): Studied first for ministry, then medicine, at Edinburgh University. Won public competition to become Classics master at Edinburgh High School, 1774, remaining there until quarrel with the rector, Dr Alexander Adam, 1795; thereafter established own academy. Proved to be a feisty travelling companion, and Burns wrote (Letters I, 163) enclosing ‘Castle Gordon’ and explaining their departure. Burns wrote of Nicol in a headnote in Glenriddell MS: ‘though one of the worthiest, & positively the cleverest fellow I ever knew, yet no man, in his humours [has] gone greater lengths in imprudence, unholiness, &c. than he’ (Letters, II, 183).

in Octr Couper errs: Burns and Nicol were back in Edinburgh, Sunday 16 September.

William Creech (1745-1815): Tutor to Lord Kilmaurs, later 14th Earl of Glencairn, who probably introduced him to Burns. Friend of Hugh Blair and Dugald Stewart and publisher of Beattie, Campbell, and Mackenzie. Burns wrote, 16 December 1786 to Robert Aiken, ‘I have found in Mr Creech, who is my agent forsooth, and Mr Smellie who is to be my printer, that honor and goodness of heart which I always expect in Mr Aiken’s friends’ (Letters, I, 72). Enlarged edition of Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect appeared, 17 April 1787, with list of 1,300 subscribers. Burns sold the copyright to Creech, 23 April 1787, for 100 guineas, the sum suggested by Henry Mackenzie.In an unpublished fragment in the Lochryan MS, Burns described Creech as a ‘little, upright, pert, tart, tripping wight’.

Jane Gordon (nee Maxwell) (1748/9-1812): married Alexander Gordon, 4th duke, 23 October 1767. Celebrated socialite in both Edinburgh and London and friend of William Pitt and Henry Dundas. Burns met her in Edinburgh in winter 1786-7.

the Duke Alexander Gordon (1743-1827): 4th duke of Gordon, politician and army officer, elected one of the sixteen representatives of Scotland, 1767; also year of marriage, often troubled, to Jane Maxwell. Author of the comic song, ‘There is Cauld Kail in Aberdeen’.

Moravians: natives of the old province of Moray or the modern county.

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