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 : 14-07-1799
Correspondent : John Ramsay of OchtertyreCorrespondent Location : Ochtertyre
Recipient : James Currie Recipient Location : Liverpool
Subject : John Ramsay of Ochtertyre responds to Currie's requests to publish his correspondence with Burns. He describes Burns's genius.
Last night I was favoured with yours of the 25↑th↓ which was transmitted me by your nephew Mr. Duncan together with a copy of my correspondence with Burns the poet. You have acted towards me with great delicacy; and as I do not see any thing in my letters of which I need be ashamed I would think myself unreasonably [MS torn]ditor of Burns’s poems & to any extraordinary expence or trouble. I do not altogether approve of your distinction between the letters of living and dead men. Before those of the latter be published, their nearest relations or known friends should be apprised. When I published Dr Sharp’s letter to me about Bamburgh castle (which is a most beautiful one) I applied to the Bsp.. of Durham, as the natural guardian of that excellent mans fame. You’ll see it & my effusion in Gentlemen’s Magazine May 1793 and Jan↑ry↓ 1794. Though not dead but much better than I once ever expected, I confess myself buried in a sweet retirement & may say with Cowley that I am defunctus humani laboris sorte super [?] [?] &c. At the same time, there are few idle men (in the mercantile style) whose time hangs less heavily on their heads being constantly employed in one occupation or another, or in super intending my farm & garden now the 40↑th↓. crop. I return you many thanks for the account you gave me of the splendid edition of the poor Bards’s works in which you had acted a very generous & charitable part. Obscure as I am, I am no stranger to the name of Dr. Currie, or the fame of his literary talents; at the same time, I had a good deal of conversation lately with Mrs Blacklock with regard to your nephew who has got the charge of my young neighbour Mr Drummond Home, in which you were mentioned.
Poor Burns! We shall hardly ever see his like again. He was in truth a sort of comet in [life’s elements] [MS faded] in its motions, which did not do all [MS torn] been expected from the blaze of light he displayed. I have been in the company of many men of genius, some of them poets, but never witnessed such flashes of intellectual lightning as from him, the impulse of the moment, sparks of celestial fire. I never was more delighted therefore, than with his company here for two days tete a tete; for in a mixed company I should have made little of him, for he did not in the gamester phrase always know when to play off & when to play on. I asked him if he could remember the first impulses of the man, he answered, “that when a boy he was remarkable for nothing but obstincacy & early piety”. He then told me his 1↑st↓. effusion was a song made when 16 or 17, on a pretty girl of 14, his fellow reaper who wanted words to a favourite air; that as a lad in the next farm had made a song for his mistress, he had tried it. The words were simple in the extreme; but the 1↑st↓. ray of genius ought not to pass unheeded. I not only proposed to him the writing of a play similar to the gentle shepherd, qualem decet esses sororem, but Scottish Georgics, a subject which Thomson had by no means exhausted in his seasons. What beautiful landscapes of rural life & manners might not have been expected from a pencil so faithful & forcible as his, which would have exhibited scenes as familiar & interesting as those in the gentle shepherd, which every one who knows our swains in their unadulterated state, instantly recognizes as true to nature. But to have executed either of these plans, the steadiness & abstraction from company, not talents, were wanting. When I asked him if the Ed↑r↓. literati had mended his poems by their criticisms “Sir, said he, These gentlemen remind me of some spinsters in our country who spin their thread so fine that it is not fit for [?] or [MS torn]I changed a word, except Damnation [MS torn]ent D.D. I had an adventure with him in the year 90 when making a tour with Dr. Stuart of Luss. Seeing him pass quickly near Closeburn, I said to my companion, that is Burns. On coming to the inn, the ostler told us he would be back by 5 to grant permits: that where any thing came in his way, he was no better than any other guager: In every thing else he was perfectly a gentleman. After leaving a note for him I proceeded to his house, very curious to see Jean &c. I was much pleased with his [?] [?] [?], & the poet’s modest manner so unlike the habitat of ordinary rustics. In the evening he popt in & said, “I come [?] as Shakespeare says, slewed in haste,” having ridden incredibly quick after getting my note. We then got into the mare magnum of poetry, & he told me he had now got a story for his drama which he was to call Rob Macquechans elshon, from a popular story of Robert Bruce being defeated on the water of Carse; & the heel of his boot having loosened in his flight, Rob ran his Awl 9 inches up the King’s heel. We were going on at a great rate when Mr Tho. Stothard popped in his head, which put a stop to our discourse which was becoming very interesting. Yet such was the versatility of the bard’s genius that he made the tears come down Mr S.’s cheeks, albeit unused to the poetic charm. Asking him which strange building of [ms faded] we passed near the town, he answered: That building is a faithful transcript of the man’s mind that founded it, being both Gothic & little – from that time we met no more; & I was grieved with the reports I heard of him from that country. Nor [?] [?] else [?]; but I also know that little characteristic anecdotes are grateful food to a biographer. - The story of Omerin Cameron, which literally made the bard shed tears of admiration, I had from Dr Stuart of Luss, being a fragment of a Sgialagh on highland life; I know not if I spell it aright. Of [MS torn] of [?Ossean] as Johnson calls him, [MS torn]lieve the acc<↑t↓. given of them by Dr. Stuart & his father, the minister of Killin, both excellent men, deeply learned in highland antiquities, some of them were exceedingly interesting but wearing faster out of date than even their poetry; both of them being incompatible with high [?] & other modern improvements.
- Let me correct the word [luenics?] in my letter to Dr Young of Erskine, which should be written [luiniqs], 1. C. harp tunes. Were I not to explain it, it would be explaining ignotum per ignotos: But as Burns wrote a number of songs which are published I believe in a collection of music by one Johnson, it is proper to say a little of the highland music of which Burns was so much enamoured. In the year 1769 when upon a jaunt to a part of the highlands aloof from military roads and mongrel manners, I was struck with seeing poetry & music enter into the business & diversions of the highland nymphs & swains. I discovered by means of Dr. Stuart a collection of primitive highland music by a Joseph Macdonald, as original a genius as Burns himself, & like him short-lived. His brother a master & a musician put the M.S. into the hands of Dr. Young of Erskine a capital musician, who tho’ an amateur of Italian, was delighted with those simple effusions of nature. A great subscription was got which enabled the poor minister (an improvident man) to pay his debts. Dr. Young wrote the preface in which there is an admirable letter of Jos. Macdonalds; & a dissertation upon the influence of poetry & music upon the highlanders. In it you will see an account of what I saw & felt, as also some incline on the two kinds of highland music which are as different as the poetry of the Celts & the Goths, to, one or other of which the music was compared. It will not be difficult for you to get the book, published in [MS torn] [?] “a collection of highland [MS torn]donald minister of Kilmore” [MS torn] editor to know these facts. I am unacquainted with his songs; but the highland tunes have a deeper cast of melancholy than what are called Scottish ones which have at least a ray of hope, amidst their melancholy. I wish an investigation into the origin of the words which be the airs never so ancient, are seemingly not older than the reign of James the 6↑th↓. when the borderers ceased to be hussbandmen from necessity & warriors from choice, & men converted into shepherds retaining a few fragments of the spirit of chivalry which had humanized them amidst the horrors of war: See [?] & BP Leslie’s acc↑t↓. of the borderers. But most of our songs, some worthy of Tibullus himself, were written or new moulded by Allan Ramsay the Scottish Theocritus, of whom as far as I know, there is not even a life – I hope you will not think those things totally extraneous as they have some connection with your subject & are at least connected with the history of private life a very [?] but neglected part of history. In the year 1775 I became acquainted with good Dr Blacklock at the house of a mutual friend, from which time we took very much to one another. It is true our modes of life were very different: I was very little in Ed↑r↓. and he was very seldom in this country. We had him however one year in this neighbourhood when he was in very indifferent health & spirits being got, as he said himself, into the prose of life. As he was one of Burns’s patrons, it was to him I wrote a letter suggesting the expediency of his writing a play some what on the plan of the Andriae which, [MS faded] [MS torn] both in point of character & [MS torn] turn is certain from some of his pieces and only] wanted the tutorages of some dramatic play-wright well seen in Aristotles poetics &c. &c. It was this letter made the poet pay me a visit. A worthier or pleasanter man than Dr Blacklock I have never known. One day that we were walking in the meadow, he stopped and said he had a favour to request which was that I should write his epitaph, than which he desired no better monument of his fame. I told him that however partial he had been to some essays in that way written by me, no man could promise to do these things when called on so as to please himself. Ready though my effusions might meet his ideas, they might not suit the taste of his friends, there being no composition about which learned men are more divided than monumental inscriptions; and if there be sorry epitaph-mongers, they often meet with injudicious critics. I should however think of it when I should be in the proper mood. In Feb↑ry↓ 90 when in a very indifferent state of health & very uncertain of my fate, I bethought me of writing an icon or portrait of this good man which I sent him saying, why should not good men be praised in inscriptive lines in their own lifetime? It met with the good man’s approbation, under protestation that I had been overpartial to him. When Mrs. Bl. sometime after the Doctors death, showed me Dr. Beatties epitaph for him, I said it was a very proper one, except two words which I thought rather strong Poetae sublemi & [?] omnigenii; but she said they had the approbation of the Ed↑r↓. literati. Beattie had a propensity to hyperbole in those compositions [ms torn] epitaph, after praising his virtues [&?] [MS torn]humanum supra “which <[?]> was [MS torn] from a disconsolate father. I send you a copy of my effusion which endeavours to paint that good man as he really was. My making the conclusion more Christian than usual was owing to Boswells petulant assertions on that head which hurt the Doctor exceedingly. The many pictures I have drawn in the last 30 years, I consider as a sort of gallery where some faint resemblance is preserved of friends & neighbours who have contributed to sweeten my life – Restat sequi; nescio qua hora!
As Mr Duncan undertakes to forward this packet to you I have taken a wider scope than I would otherwise have done, had I written by post; but I wished to give you all the information in my power. I have tired myself & wish you may be able to read my scrawl which has not improved in the course of 12 years. It is amazing how few [?] a have been made. You may mention me as in the land of the living in what terms you please. I have the honour to be, Sir, Your most obedient humble servant Jo. Ramsay

When I say [luiniqs] are harp music, I do not say that is the precise meaning of the word; but it is contrasted with Pibrochs i.e. bagpipe music. In the dissertation.

Multos et felices traducat[annos Thomas Blacklock S. J. J.

[poem in Latin]

among my letters to Dr. Blacklock returned after his death I found the enclosed one of Burns to him, sent me by mistake. I send it to you as being a very good one. Happy for himself had he [?] always persevered in those sentiments!

Notes :

Andria [‘the woman of Andros’]: comedy by Terence [Publius Terentius Afer (195 or 185-159 BC)] adapted from 2 plays by the Attic poet, Menander (c.342-292 BC); produced 166 BC. Terence, a Carthage-born slave later freed by his owner, became, with Plautus, the leading writers of comic drama in ancient Rome.

Bamborough Castle: ancient fortress on Northumberland coast dating from 6th century. Bought by Lord Crewe, Bishop of Durham, and bequeathed by him in 1721 to trustees for charitable purposes.

Mrs. Blacklock: Sarah Johnston (1732-1808), daughter of a Dumfries surgeon, married Thomas Blacklock, 4 April 1762.

Thomas Blacklock (1721-91): though blind from infancy, studied for ministry; rejected by his Kirkcudbright parishioners, 1762, he demitted office, 1765, and set up a boarding establishment for young scholars in Edinburgh. On 4 Sept. 1786 he wrote to Rev. George Lawrie commending the Kilmarnock edition and urging a second. Burns wrote, ‘’…a letter from Dr Blacklock to a friend of mine overthrew all my schemes by rousing my poetic ambition…His idea that I would meet with every encouragement for a second edition fired me so much that away I posted to Edinburgh’ (Letters I, 145). The first volume of Blacklock’s own poems appeared in 1746; collected edition, 1793.

Omeron Cameron: Highlander who hid John, Earl of Mar (1675-1732), Jacobite leader, from his enemies; forced into exile, he was later rewarded by the Earl with a grant of land.

Cowley: Abraham Cowley ((1618-67): court poet and essayist best known for an epic poem, Davideis, Pindarique Odes, and The Mistress, a series of love poems.

Mr Duncan: Thomas Tudor Duncan (1776-1858), younger brother of George Duncan (1771-1831) who married Currie’s sister, Christian,, 1796; hence Currie’s brother-in-law’s brother. Studied medicine at Edinburgh from 1798, then divinity, later becoming minister at St. Michael’s, Dumfries, 1806. Low (Burns: The Critical Heritage, 114-16) attributes to him a letter of 10 Oct. 1796, lacking signature and addressee, in the Cowie Collection, Mitchell Library, Glasgow; it offers a response to Burns’s poems just after his death.

[Dr Beattie’s epitaph]: James Beattie (1735-1803): poet and essayist; Professor of Moral Philosophy, Marischal College, Aberdeen, 1760. Essay on Truth (1770) was an attack on Hume; also wrote Dissertations Moral and Critical (1783) and, his greatest poem, The Minstrel (1771; 1774). His epitaph for Blacklock (died 7 July 1791) reads:

Viro reverendo THOMAE BLACKLOCK,D.D. Probo, Pio, Benevolo, Omnigena Doctrina erudito, Poetae sublimi; Ab incunabulis usque Oculis capto, At hilari faceto, Amicisque semper carissimo; Qui Natus xxi. Novemb. MDCCXXI Obiit vii. Julii MDCCXXI Hoc Monumentum Vidua eius SARA JOHNSTON Moerens P.

There follow ll.63-4 of Homer, Odyssey, viii.

B.P. Leslie, account of the Borderers: Not identified.

Joseph Macdonald (1739-63): younger son of musician and Gaelic scholar, Rev. Murdo Macdonald (b.1696); a singer who also played violin, flute, oboe, and bagpipes and was an accomplished painter; studied music in Edinburgh with Nicolo Pasquali. Contributed the Sutherland section, ‘North Highland Airs’ to his brother Patrick’s Collection of Highland Vocal Airs (1784). In India with East India Company from 1760, he died of a fever in May 1763. Patrick published in 1803 his brother’s A Compleat Theory of the Scots Highland Bagpipe.

Patrick Macdonald (1729-1824): musician, music collector, publisher, and clergyman; elder son of Rev. Murdo Macdonald; attended University of Aberdeen. Known as ‘Macdonald of Kilmore’ because of his lengthy ministry in that parish. His Collection of Highland Vocal Airs (1784), containing the earliest printed versions of many Scottish and Gaelic airs, went into 5 editions and influenced Burns who composed words for some of its melodies.

Rob MacQuechan’s Elshon: This letter is the only source of the information that Burns contemplated dramatising this alleged episode in the life of MacQuechan, Bruce’s cobbler. Dr Sharp: Dr John Sharpe undertook the restoration of Bamborough Castle and its conversion to charitable purposes, in 1792 bequeathing his library to it. Dr Stuart of Luss (1743-1821):Rev. Dr. John Stuart (Stewart) of Luss. Church of Scotland Minister and Gaelic Scholar. Minister at Luss from 1777-1821. He wrote down many of Donnchadh Ban Mac-an-t-Saoir’s (Duncan Ban Macintyre, 1724-1812) poems from the poet’s dictation and published them in 1768. He was also the principal translator of the Old Testament into Gaelic, in four parts from 1783-1801. His father, James Stuart, had translated the New Testament into Gaelic in 1767.

Thomas Stothard (1755-1834): painter and illustrator; accompanied Robert Cromek on his tour of the Burns country, 1809, for illustrated edition of Burns which never materialised. Produced sketch of Jean Armour Burns, probably from memory.

Theocritus (3rd century BC): pre-eminent pastoral poet of ancient Greece.

Thomson: James Thomson (1700-48); poet renowned for the Seasons (1726-30) and The Castle of Indolence (1748). Burns makes various references to his work in his letters. Dr Young of Erskine (1745-1814): minister of Erskine, 1771-1814, and talented musician; wrote preface to Patrick Macdonald’s collection. Ramsay gave Burns a letter of introduction to Young as an authority on Highland airs. [a song made when 16 or 17]: ‘O Once I Lov’d a Bonny Lass’, written autumn 1774; first printed in Johnson’s Scots Musical Museum (1803). Burns wrote to Moore, 2nd August 1787: In my fifteenth autumn, my Partner was a bewitching creature who just counted an autumn less…’twas her favourite reel to which I attempted giving an embodied vehicle in rhyme…Thus with me began Love and Poesy’ (Burns Letters I, 137-8). Most commentators since Chambers (1851) accept the testimony of Mrs. Begg, Burns’s sister, and identify ‘handsome Nell’ as Nell Kilpatrick (1760-1820). Mackay (1992) argues for Nellie Blair, following Cunningham (1834), Chambers (1838) and Wilson (1846).

[Scottish Georgics]: Burns wrote to Mrs. Dunlop, 4 May 1788: ‘…the Georgics are to me by far the best of Virgil’ (Burns Letters I, 278).

[Burns…songs…collection of music by one Johnson]: In late October 1787, after the Borders and Highland tours, Burns revised in Edinburgh songs for the second volume of James Johnson’s (c.1750-1811) Scots Musical Museum. Published 14 Feb. 1788, it included 32 songs by Burns who contributed, in total, over 200 songs to the 6 volumes.

[not even a life [of Ramsay]: An edition of the works of Allan Ramsay (1684-1758), with a biography, by George Chalmers was printed by A. Strahan for Cadell & Davies, 1800.

[the poet pay me a visit]: With a letter of introduction from Blacklock, Burns with Dr. James Adair called on Ramsay, 5 Oct. 1787; he returned two weeks later for a two-day visit.

[enclosed one of Burns]: Extant letters of Burns to Blacklock are those of 15 Nov. 1788 (Letters I, 338) and 21 Oct. 1789, which is the ‘Epistle to Dr Blacklock’ beginning ‘Wow, but your letter made me vauntie’ (Burns Letters, I, 445). Burns was responding to Blacklock’s epistle of 24 Aug. 1789, which Currie also published.

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