Robert Burns in Edinburgh’ Walk
7th and 9th July 2009
Old Edinburgh Club members were treated to a unique event.
After his success last summer in conducting a walk around Edinburgh’s walls (exactly 100 years after the Old Edinburgh Club had organised a similar outing), Graeme D.R. Cruikshank, of Edinburgh Historical Enterprises and OEC council member, volunteered to organise a trip around sites associated with the poet Robert Burns who was born 250 years ago.
Graeme shared the talk with Ian Chisholm, President of the Edinburgh & District Burns Clubs Association, who was complete with that Association’s regalia.
Burns first came to Edinburgh in November of 1786, it is thought, to publish a second edition of his successful ‘Kilmarnock Edition’ of his poetry.
We assembled in Lady Stairs Close – the very location of James Johnstone’s engraving business. Johnstone published 213 Scots songs in his Scots Musical Museum with the unpaid help of Robert Burns. Later, George Thompson published 114 songs with Burn’s help in his Scottish Airs. Ian Chisholm suggested that nowadays Burns is as well known for his songs as his poetry but that both Sir Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson shared the incredible ‘elitist literary view’ that his songs were inferior to his poems.
Our party stopped outside Deacon Brodie’s Bar and Ian pointed out the position of Libberton’s Wynd in which stood Dowie’s Tavern, a favourite haunt of Burns. Mention was made of Sciennes Hill House, in the South Side, home of Adam Ferguson, meeting place of Burns and Scott.
Our next stop was at Anchor Close where William Smellie had his printing work and where the second edition of Burn’s poems was printed. Dawnie Douglas’s tavern, meeting place of the convivial drinking club, the ‘Crochallen Fencibles’ (founded by Smellie in 1778 until 1795), was also in Anchor Close. Many of the members were Freemasons, as was Burns. At the east end of the Luckenbooths which fronted St Giles High Kirk, William Creech, publisher of 3,000 copies of Burns’ Edinburgh Edition, had his bookshop.
Through St John’s Close stands the Canongate Kilwinning Lodge which still houses the painting by Stewart Watson of Burns’ inauguration as Poet Laureate before lodge members.
Graeme Cruikshank took over the commentary in Canongate Kirkyard stopping first at Prof Adam Smith’s grave (although contemporaries, Smith never met Burns). Adjacent to Smith’s grave is that of James Gregory, Professor of the Practice of Physic in 1776 aged 23, and inventor of the purgative, ‘Gregory’s Mixture’, who Burns met at Kilwinning Lodge during his visit to Edinburgh in 1787. Next visited was the grave of Robert Fergusson (1750-1774), the poet who had a great influence on Burns. Ian Chisholm broke the news that the grave, erected by Burns and now in dire need of attention, is to be restored by the Edinburgh Burns’ Society which will be fundraising for the £2,000 it is estimated it will cost. Graeme drew our attention to the magnificent northern skyline, pointing out the mausoleum of Prof Dugald Stewart (1753-1828, Mathematics and Moral Philosophy) on the Calton Hill and the Burns Monument designed by Thomas Hamilton (the architect of the nearby High School). The neo-classical Burns Monument is currently being restored at a cost of £300,000 and will re-open in September this year. It originally was a museum within which stood a marble statue of Robert Burns (one of hundreds all over the world) by John Flaxman which is now in the National Portrait Gallery.
The final grave visited was that of Agnes ‘Nancy’ McLehose – ‘Clarinda’ to Burns’s ‘Sylvander’ in their love-letters. Erected in 1922 the tablet shows a fine bronze relief portrait with the simple title ‘Clarinda’. Graeme drew our attention to its similarity to the silhouette by John Miers. In a final tour de force, Jim Shields, Director of the Robert Burns World Federation Limited, red rose in hand, sang the wonderful song which burns wrote for Clarinda, ‘Ae Fond Kiss’ - surely a first - and a truly memorable experience.
We then adjourned to the Canongate Kirk for a welcome glass of wine.
Due to its popularity the event was oversubscribed so there was a repeat performance two days later on Thursday 9th July.
Our grateful thanks are extended to the Rev. Neil Gardner, Jim Shields, and of course Graeme Cruikshank and Ian Chisholm.