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.

Go west, young man

January 28th, 2012

IT’S TANTALISING to contemplate – had it not been for a hasty decision by his father, Robert Burns might have grown up in Glenesk.

When Robert’s father William Burnes fell on hard times he gave up the tenancy of the farm of Clochnahill in Dunnottar parish, at the eastern fringe of the Mearns, and sought a new life.

He bade farewell to the Angus hills which would have been a familiar horizon as he toiled in the Clochnahill fields. If his ambitions had been closer to home he might have turned west before he reached the River North Esk and headed for the slap between the hills that form the entrance to the glen.

Instead he headed south, settling eventually in Alloway in Ayrshire. With his own hands he built himself a clay biggin, and he and newly-wed wife Agnes welcomed the arrival of their first child on 25th January 1759.

Robert was an enquiring child and William was determined his son should have all the benefits that 18th century education could offer. Under the guidance of the celebrated Alexander Ross, dominie at Lochlee at the head of Glenesk, Robbie would have received as fine a schooling as anywhere in Scotland

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’. Many think Glenesk the most beautiful of the Angus glens 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 set up the first print shop in Montrose in 1776, would have welcomed his business and we might be celebrating the Montrose Edition instead of the Kilmarnock Edition.

When 18th century farmers wanted to know if spring earth was warm enough to start ploughing they dropped their breeks and testing it with their bare doup – or backside, as we would 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 received at Lodge St Andrew Lochlee in Tarfside?

They still make haggis in Glenesk. Having tasted it, I know Robbie would have still 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, 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 bolthole if ever he was betrayed. Glenesk would have been a spiritual home for Burns.

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.

There’s one other poem I have to mention – “The Twa Dogs” of course, in which Luath, a ploughman’s collie dog, and Caesar, the laird’s mongrel pet discuss their social differences and the diverse lives they lead. I can’t help thinking how much more charming the story would have been if Burns had thought to call the dogs Inka and Macbeth!

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

But father William chose the road south.

Written on Saturday, January 28th, 2012 at 11:16 pm for Weekly.