Meeting Report: Robert Burns in England

Date: 
16 March 2012
Speaker(s): 
Chris Rollie

Chris Rollie, RSPB Area Manager for Dumfries and Galloway and Robert Burns enthusiast, was invited to address the Society on Robert Burns in England, the subject of his book, published in 2009 by New Cumnock Burns Club to mark the 250th anniversary of the poet's birth.

The poet paid two brief earlier visits across the border into England. On the third occasion he kept a journal, which is in the private hands of John Murray (Publishers) London. Chris arranged to see it, by dint of sheer persistence, and was amazed to discover that only three scholars had consulted it in 200 years: James Currie, Allan Cunningham and himself. Other scholars had slavishly used Cunningham's reportage and in the process had perpetuated his mistakes.

Following the publication of the Kilmarnock edition and the Edinburgh edition of his poems, Burns set off in mid-April 1787 from Edinburgh. He and his Border's friend, Robert Ainslie, made for the latter's parental home in Duns and toured around various sites in the Borders. An attack of rheumatic fever delayed Burns' departure into England.

Coldstream Bridge now bears a plaque commemorating Burns' crossing. On Friday 18th May he rode into Berwick, that town which had changed hands many times, but which finally came to be regarded as in England. There he walked the walls.

He proceeded southwards by way of Cornhill. Nearby is Flodden Field and, although it was his professed aim to see scenes of Scottish battles and those mentioned in Scottish songs, he omits to record whether he visited Flodden Field. On then he journeyed to Wooler and thence to Alnwick, whose ancient stronghold was the seat of the Percys. He made a bee-line from there for the coast to Warkworth, which is also dominated by its castle, owned, too, by the Percy family. From Morpeth he made his way to Newcastle, which he entered by the Pilgrim Gate.

Hexham and Wardrew were the next places on his itinerary. Significantly the inn at Wardrew, where he stayed overnight on 30th May, had an important connection ten years later with another important Scottish literary figure, Sir Walter Scott. It was there that he met Charlotte Charpentier, later to be his wife.

Burns proceeded along the route of Hadrian's Wall to Lanercost and Longtown and yet failed to mention in his journal what he thought of Hadrian's Wall and Lanercost Priory. He reached Carlisle on 31st May. There he met James Mitchell who acted as his guide. He visited the Sands, important scene of the droving trade, and stayed at the Malt Shovel Inn in Rickergate, where the pair dined. The landlord broke the unwelcome news that Burns' horse, Jenny Geddes, had escaped and was impounded in the pinfold. Burns had to pay a fee for her return.

It was fine weather as he rode back north by way of the coast and crossed the River Esk at the Boat House, which was the main crossing place at the time until the Metal Bridge was built. At Annan the journal ceases to have further entries. However, it is known that he made for Dumfries and thence to Ellisland.

This talk proved to be a most interesting canter through history, in which an excellent researcher and speaker had followed in the footsteps of our national bard. In the process he has unearthed a vast body of interesting information and superb illustrations. The book is vital recommended reading in order to meet many of Burns' companions, encountered on the journey, and to obtain much of the detail given in the presentation — and more besides!