Being out in the countryside with my dogs gives me time to think. I’ve learnt the pleasure of solitude without being lonely, and that’s a good feeling for me.

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This is my countryside diary which appears each Saturday in the Dundee Courier newspaper.

The Man for All Seasons: What if Robert Burns’ father William had stayed in the Howe of the Mearns instead of going to Alloway in Ayr? – The Scottish Banner

March 31st, 2012

GLENESK IS almost unique now as a living, working Scottish glen with an active, resident population supporting farming, sporting estates, local businesses, a thriving primary school (almost unheard of in a glen these days), three churches, Masonic Lodge, curling club, community centre and Folk Museum and more.

But it was the ladies of the Glenesk branch of the WRI (Scottish Women’s Rural Institute) who invited me to propose the toast to the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns at their annual Burns Dinner. It’s an onerous undertaking if you’ve never done such a thing before and it set me thinking how a simple change of direction could have changed the direction of history.

It is the most easterly of the Glens of Angus and its northern border is the march with Kincardineshire, or Howe of the Mearns as it was better known in the eighteenth century, and the Mearns is where my story began.

With so much attention focused on the man himself and his poetry, it is often forgotten what close connections Robert Burns had with the Mearns. His father William Burnes (old spelling) farmed the lands of Clochnahill in Dunnottar parish, at the eastern fringes of the Howe of the Mearns. He fell on hard times and was forced to give up the tenancy of the farm and seek a new life.

William turned the key in the latch and his back on the Mearns and we know that he initially headed south to Edinburgh. But – and it’s tantalising to contemplate – what would have happened if William’s ambitions had been closer to home and his destination had been Glenesk? Instead of stepping away from the Angus hills, which had so long been his familiar horizon as he toiled in Clochnahill’s red clay, each step would have taken him westwards – closer and closer to the slap (gap) between the hills that form the gateway to the glen.

As everyone knows William settled eventually in Alloway in Ayrshire. With his own hands he built a clay biggin for himself and his bride Agnes, and they awaited the arrival of their first child on 25th January 1759 who they christened Robert.

Robert was an enquiring child and William was determined his son should have all the benefits that 18th century education could offer. Under the tutelage of the celebrated scholar and poet, Alexander Ross (1699-1784), dominie at Lochlee at the head of Glenesk, Robbie would have received as fine schooling as anywhere in Scotland. As a historical aside, Burns greatly admired Ross’s poetry.

By the time he was fifteen Robbie was helping his father on the family farm of Mount Oliphant, near Alloway, which was described as ‘half-way up a stark hillside’. Glenesk is described by many as the most beautiful of the Glens of Angus and the grandeur of its stark hillsides enhances rather than detracts from its appeal.

Burns had a countryman’s eye for nature and wildlife.

“Wee, modest, crimson-tipp’d flower”; he wrote, and “Wee, sleekit, cow’rin’, tim’rous, beastie” – he could walk Glenesk today and find an abundance of mountain daisies and mice. Publisher David Buchanan who, in 1776 set up the first print shop in Montrose, some fifteen miles from Glenesk as the crow flies, would have welcomed Burns’ business and today we might be celebrating the Montrose Edition of “Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect”, instead of the Kilmarnock Edition.

When 18th century farmers wanted to know if the spring earth was warm enough to start ploughing they dropped their breeks and tested it with their bare doup – or buttocks, as we should more genteelly say these days.

Burns clearly preferred to avoid such close contact with the land and he became an Exciseman. He’d have had his work cut out in Glenesk chasing the number of illicit stills that operated then, and keeping watch on the Whisky Road for illicit whisky being driven over from Deeside.

He was a freemason and member of the Tarbolton Lodge in Ayrshire. Who can doubt the welcome he would have got if he had been admitted to Lodge St Andrew Lochlee in Tarfside, the principal village of Glenesk.

Generations on, the Glenesk WRI members maintain the tradition of home-made haggis, using the lights and stomachs of deer brought down from the hill, and served at their Burns Dinner. In his day Robbie would have shared in this honest fare and it’s inconceivable that he wouldn’t have found the inspiration to write his “Address to a Haggis”.

Some things never change – wenching is one of them. Burns discovered the pleasures of whisky and took to seducing young women – he fathered three love children that we know of. The strong Presbyterian influence throughout Scotland at the time never stopped young people seeking comfort in each others arms, and why should we think that the young men and women of Glenesk were any less or more susceptible to their natural urges than those of Ayrshire.

Like his father and his grandfather, Burns was a staunch Jacobite -1746 and the Battle of Culloden were well within living memory and he would have heard, first hand, stories of the battle and the brutal suppression of the Highlands by the Government forces that followed.

Glenesk at the time was a hotbed of Jacobitism. The rebel laird of Bonnymoon, James Carnegy of Balnamoon, an estate near Brechin, who fought for the Prince and survived the battle, was sheltered by the kindly Glenners. Bonnymoon’s Cave, in the far recesses of the glen, was a last refuge if ever he was betrayed. Glenesk would have been a spiritual home for Burns.

“O wad some power the giftie gie us
To see oorsels as ithers see us”

Famous lines that everyone knows but many are uncertain where they come from. Of course they are from “To a Louse”, written after the poet watched a louse crawling over the hat of the lady sitting in the pew in front of him in church. Attitudes to personal hygiene were more robust in the 18th century, so it’s not insensitive to suggest there would have been no shortage of lice in Glenesk for Burns to celebrate in verse.

What an asset he’d have been at social gatherings, when “drouthy neibors, neibors meet”. I’ve had enough fun up Glenesk to know what cheery ‘neibors’ Rabbie would have encountered. And there would always have been a sufficiency of whisky – he would have been very much at home in Glenesk.

So you see Robert Burns would have had all the seed corn of ideas for his poetry on his doorstep in Glenesk.

But father William chose the road south.

Written on Saturday, March 31st, 2012 at 9:08 am for Claivers.