THE following is part of a narrative taken from the lips of the late Mr. Thomas Borland, of Kilmarnock, who once lived at Tarbolton.
John Wilson kept a school at Tarbolton, and was one of a club of young men who met for the purpose of reading essays for their mutual improvement. Burns belonged to this club, and Thomas Borland was also one of its members. On a certain occasion, when it had come to his turn, John Wilson intimated that his subject would be “Medicine.” … He read his essay, and it so happened that Burns was to follow him at the next meeting of the club. Wilson was standing up with a small leaf of paper in his hand, from which he was reading his discourse. Borland stood beside him. Wilson had been worried, in a jocular way, by a few of the members. Burns thought the essayist should have been listened to, the more especially as he was anxious to get home, and he smilingly remarked to Borland –
“I think that creature is gaun to keep us under the influence o’ his physic a’ nicht.”
This reached other ears, and raised a laugh.
It was on the road home that the picture embodied in “Death and Dr. Hornbook” first rose in Burns’s mind. The idea set him a-laughing, and he literally staggered at his own pictorial pleasantry as it grew into form.
Next club night he was back at Tarbolton with the poem of “Death and Dr. Hornbook” finished, and there was some yill going then. One of the members of the little society, with whom Burns was on extra terms of intimacy, requested the loan of the poem for a night. Burns, with some reluctance, complied, saying, “Remember you are not to take a copy of it.”
The friend promised that he would not; but he had another young friend, who kept an opposition school to Wilson’s in the village, to whom he that same night showed the poem, and whom he allowed to take a copy of it. This educational rival of Wilson’s set his writing class in the school to work on the following day, and every boy who could write was copying “Death and Dr. Hornbook.” In a twinkling there was not a house in the parish but had a copy.
The fun was universal – at all events, everybody roared with laughter save the young schoolmaster; and he, failing to join in the laugh, left the place.