THE river Doon traverses Ayrshire, and during the whole of its course in that county, forms the boundary-line between the districts of Carrick and Kyle. It is popularly said to originate in Loch-Doon, but really rises in two mountain-streams from which that lake receives its principal surplus waters. One of these streams, called Gallow-lane, wells up among the broad boundary mountain-ridge of Kirkcudbrightshire, within half-a-mile of the remote source of the Galloway Dee; the other, called Eagton-lane, issues from Loch-Enoch, at the boundary between Kirkcudbrightshire and Ayrshire; and both pursue a northerly course of about seven miles, till, at its southern extremity, they fall into Loch-Doon. At the northern extremity, whence the united streams now called the Doon emerge, two tunnels, cut out of the solid rock, receive the river, and pour it impetuously down into a deep gorge 300 feet deep, only about 30 feet wide, and a mile in length. A lofty ridge of hills seems here to have been rent asunder to afford an exit to the waters of the lake; and the rocky walls which enclose this singular hollow, yet exhibit marks on either side of their former proximity. A walk has been constructed along the edge of the river, throughout the whole length of this ravine, by which an easy opportunity is given to strangers of viewing its romantic and picturesque scenery. On either hand, the rocks rise to a great height, almost perpendicular, but rugged and broken, and having their sides and their summits magnificently festooned and ornamented with a great variety of copse and trees. The scenery is all of a close character, but varied and interesting, changing with every turn of the walk; now presenting a rude vista of rock and wood, and again a mural precipice which seems to bar farther progress; while the effect of the whole is heightened by the music of the river rushing along its broken channel. For two miles from the loch, the river flows due north; and it then bends gradually round, and, for about seven miles, flows to the north-west. Over all this distance, with the exception of the fine vale of Dalmellington on its northern bank, the grounds which press upon its verge are, for the most part, heathy or unwooded knolls and hills of chilly and uninviting aspect. About two miles below Patna it again bends, and, over a distance of five miles, flows westward; and then, a little below Cassilis-house, flows northward and to the north of west, till it falls, three miles south of Ayr, into the frith of Clyde. But, over its whole course from below Patna to its embouchure, it describes numerous curvatures, sinuously wending round many a sylvan knoll, and rioting at will among the beauties of a delly and undulating landscape. Here its channel is, for the most part, ploughed into a huge furrow from 10 to 200 feet, and, at the top, from 30 to 150 yards, wide, the sides of which are richly clothed in natural wood and plantation. Such especially is its appearance both above and below the point where the river is spanned by ‘the Auld Brig o’ Doon,’ and flows past ‘the haunted kirk of Alloway,’ and over all the space which was most familiar to the eye of the Ayrshire bard.
‘Alloway’s auld haunted kirk,’ – a little roofless ruin, – long known only as marking the obscure resting-place of the rustic dead, is now an object of veneration, and many an enthusiastic pilgrimage, on account of its having been chosen by Burns as the scene of the grotesque demon revelry, at once ludicrous and horrible, described with such graphic and tremendous power in his tale of Tam o’ Shanter, – for it would seem that imagination is not restricted in her flight here by the actual and real. It is situated on the east bank of the Doon, a little below the point where the road from Ayr to Maybole is carried across that river by the new bridge, and a quarter of a mile from the cottage on Doon side in which the peasant-bard was born on the 25th of January, 1759. The poet’s father was interred here at his own request; and the bard himself expressed a wish to be laid in the same grave, which would have been complied with had not the citizens of Dumfries claimed the honour of the guardianship of his ashes. It is now – such is the interest which the genius of the bard has thrown over the spot – a crowded and fashionable place of sepulture. Betwixt the kirk and the ‘Auld brig o’ Doune,’ by which a road now disused is carried over ‘Doon’s classic stream,’ about 100 yards south-east of the kirk, and on the summit of the eastern bank, which here rises boldly from the river, stands a splendid monument to the poet, designed by Hamilton of Edinburgh, and consisting of a triangular base, supporting nine Corinthian columns, which are surrounded by a cupola terminating in a gilt tripod. It is upwards of 60 feet in height; and cost above £2,000. The whole is enclosed, and ornamented with shrubbery; and the clever figures of Tam o’ Shanter and Souter Johnny, executed by the ingenious self-taught sculptor, Thom,* are placed in a small building within the enclosure. Mr. Cathcart of Blairston, one of the lords of session, on his promotion to the bench, took the title of Lord Alloway from this place. He died in 1829, and was interred within the ruins of the kirk.
In the field immediately behind the Monument was erected the pavilion in which the great festival in commemoration of Scotland’s national bard was held, on the 6th of August, 1844. The interior formed nearly a square, and, filled with lines of narrow tables, afforded accommodation to above 1,800 persons. This great fête excited intense interest throughout the whole of Scotland, and it is supposed that the proceedings of the day brought together above fifty thousand enthusiastic admirers of Scotia’s peasant-bard.
Burns may indeed have been estimated too rapturously by some of those to whose mother-tongue he framed his “wood-notes wild;” but, there can be no question, that he is The Poet par excellence of his countrymen, – “the representative of the genius of his country,” – the minstrel whose verses seem most accordant with the sympathies and the imagination of Scotsmen; that the homage now paid to his genius, throughout the entire length and breadth of “the Land o’ Cakes,” is sincere and spontaneous; and that unborn generations of Scotsmen will receive delight from his poetry.
One obvious cause of Burns’s success with his countrymen is that his path of poetry is eminently – nay, almost exclusively – national. He loved “auld Scotia” with an enthusiasm at once affectionate and ardent. Her history furnished his heroic themes; the living manners of her peasantry his domestic pictures; it was the music of her streams, the gleam of her “bonny braes,” the dim rolling mists of her heathy uplands, that came back upon his heart, in his hours of song, and gave to them that colouring so familiar to the ear and eye of Scotsmen; while her Doric dialect – so dear in its breadth and amplitude of sound, and peculiar idiomatic combinations, to every Scottish ear – became, in his master-hands, a vehicle of thought at once terse and vigorous, and capable of conveying every shade of emotion. No one, besides, has shown a quicker and juster perception of the various elements of the Scottish character; its sagacity, cunning, breadth of humour, fervour for love or hatred when roused into action by the passions; its indomitable perseverance; its reverence for rank, and strong hereditary associations; its prevailing leaning to ties of “kith and kin;” its intense nationality, its strong and marked individuality; its combination, in a word, of many of the best and some of the worst features of national character: all of which we find portrayed to the life, by a master-hand, in Burns’s vigorous pages.
Another principal secret of his sway, not only over the universal mind of his countrymen, but over all who can read and understand his poetry, is that in his delineation of human feelings, he ever read from the living tablet of his own large and passionate heart. Whatever he sings is from the man’s heart not less than the poet’s; and his lyrical outpourings go to the heart, therefore, of all who read them. Unaffected language, addressed to the great and simple feelings of our common nature, will always command loving and reverential audience for the bard, whether he touch his lyre by the side of “bonny Doon,” or on the banks of the mighty Orinocco. Let him but address the general heart, or the elemental properties of mankind, with obvious and natural sentiment, and his strains, however rugged and artless, will have free acceptance with old and young, learned and unlearned, the civilized and the savage. With Burns, writing after his own nature and from his own impulses, nothing is laboured, nothing forced; he affects not to deal with the infinite and the incomprehensible, or the mystical and unintelligible; there is no whining and whimpering, no morbid expressions of ‘a-weary of this life’ feelings, to be met with in his pages; he never affects that sickness of all mortal joy which some seem to have confounded with the fair gift of poesy itself; his are fireside-sympathies; his relish is quick and keen for the customary enjoyments of daily life, and the unconventional aspects of human nature; and he satisfies himself with having given clear and intelligible expression in his verses to the every-day passions of living men, – the simplest and most universal feelings which the rudest hearts echo back. Hence we think Burns is secure of the homage of every coming age, as long as human hearts can feel or understand the delineation of themselves in the poet’s verse.
Another grand charm of the Scottish ploughman’s poetry is its simplicity, – its perfect freedom from mere prettinesses or impertinences of style. His language has nothing of the icy glitter, the frigid refinement, and heartless antithetical fripperies and verbal nothingnesses of the school which preceded him; equally destitute is it of the tumid, convulsive, agonistical strain which has marked the lesser bards of that which followed him. He is no empty dealer in mere verbiage. Whatever we may think of the refinement of his execution, we cannot charge him, for a moment, with weakness or incertitude of touch. He never fritters away the force of a thought by diffuseness; while his clear judgment and natural taste, – his original, unborrowed power and verve, – generally enable him to seize the most forcible and appropriate form of expression. There is always enough of power and passionate vehemence in what he wrote, to rouse the multitude, and of clear common sense for the most ordinary matter-of-fact taste; while many nicer shades of beauty, the more delicate and subtle conceptions of the poet’s genius, remain behind to delight minds of a finer order of susceptibility and a higher range of perceptions. Hence, as a song-writer, he is without a rival perhaps in the entire compass of European literature. Certainly no popular lyrist ever had a truer perception of those qualities wherein the beauty and merit, the grace and lyrical effect, of a song consists, – that union of manly force and exquisite tenderness, with the most easy, artless, unforced versification, which go to constitute a truly genuine song of love or sentiment. It must be confessed, however, that those only can relish thoroughly and with richest zest the songs of Burns, to whom the wealth and powers of the genuine Scottish Doric are familiar. How thoroughly they who possess this qualification for appreciating him do so, let the hearts and memories of Scotsmen tell. For ourselves, without pretending to know all the capabilities of the Scottish dialect, as a vehicle of poetry, we can only say that we know nothing in English poetry excelling in touching beauty, chaste simplicity, and unsullied sentiment, Burns’s well-known ‘Address to the Daisy;’ or the exquisite expression of affectionate remembrance and sorrowing tenderness in his ‘Lines to Mary in Heaven;’ or the union of purity and delicacy of feeling, with deep sentiment, in his ‘Gala Water,’ or ‘Castle o’ Montgomerie.’
When from strains such as these we turn to the heated enthusiasm of his ‘Auld Langsyne;’ the burst of passion and fiery verse of his ‘Scots wha hae wi’ Wallace bled;’ the graphic force, the happy ease, and drolelry of his ‘Duncan Grey;’ the gusto, verisimilitude, and force of execution of his ‘Halloween;’ and from these again to the creative imagination, the mixture of the ludicrous and the terrible, of broad farce, sublimity, and terror in his ‘Tam O’Shanter;’ the graphic, free, and happy ease, and nice touches of absolute truth in his ‘Twa Dogs;’ the vein of chaste and sacred feeling of his ‘Cottar’s Saturday Night;’ – we feel that Burns was a poet of the highest rank and order, – to use the words of Professor Wilson, “by far the greatest poet that ever sprang from the bosom of the people.”