Scarboro's First Burns Supper
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Scarboro’s First Burns Supper
Jan. 25 1834

A Ninety Minute Re-Enactment
First "Performed" at
The Village Tea Room, Scarborough
Jan. 25 2005

(Copyright: D.B. McCowan)


"Unofficial" Welcome and
Some Introductory Background Information

Bruce McCowan 

I am Bruce McCowan and this is my wife, Beatriz. Many thanks to Kathy, Kathleen and Muriel at the Village Tea Room and to Melanie of But’nBen Bakery for sharing this vision of a rather unique celebration of Robert Burns. Thanks also to TFB and Associates for donating McCowan’s Highland Toffee and Fudge for our fundraising purposes. And thanks to Bob Stobie and Brian Hutchison of Scarborough Red Hackle Pipes and Drums for expertly performing the Haggis formalities at our 7:00 pm sitting. And thank all of you for your curiosity and for supporting local business. Burns would be pleased indeed!

I’m pretty certain that this evening will be quite unlike any other Burns Supper you’ve attended. Tonight you will each play a small role in re-living the first Burns Supper in Scarborough, held, for argument’s sake, in 1834. The characters in this re-enactment were all real people. Almost half of them lived less than one mile from here [Kingston / McCowan Roads].

Of course, the script is fictitious but the general format of our gathering is reasonably accurate as far as I can tell from my research. What I mean is, the many various toasts, other short speeches and the periodic songs and poems made up the typical Burns Supper agenda at that time. We hope that this Burns Night will spark an interest in Robert Burns and his legacy. I’m personally looking forward to a surprise twist at the end.

We also hope that you will purchase a copy of "The Lowland Clearances: Scotland’s Silent Revolution". Chapter 8 is the story of a Scarborough couple that you will meet tonight. We also have a local history book for sale "Neigh the Front: Exploring Scarboro Heights". This book has more information about a few of the Scots that you will meet tonight -- or, rather, you will become these people tonight. "Fairs and Frolics: Scottish Communities at Work and Play" explores the connections between the social and economic activities of rural Scots, both in Scotland and Scarborough.

Just a few words about how the program will work. Each of you have a sheet with your character’s name and the short script that you will read. Some of you will have two or three short pieces to read. You also have the program so that you can tell exactly when it is your turn to speak. First we will have the address to the Haggis. Then there will be a round of Introductions as printed on your name/script-sheets. Some of you will be introduced by one of the other characters. These introductions are intended to provide some historical context -- just who these pioneers were as well as some notable aspects of their lives here.

Some of the events mentioned in the Introductions actually happened after January 25 1834. These "flash forwards" are important as they add to the overall picture of life in Scarborough at that time. In particular, the year 1834 was to bring a great measure of pain to the township. Four of our pioneer characters will die of cholera within a few weeks of each other in August 1834. So, when you see "FLASH FORWARD" in your script, please read it out. Please speak loudly and, of course the toasts and short speeches should be given standing.

So, now, just imagine, close your eyes. It is January 25 1834, the 75th anniversary of Robert Burns birth. You’re taking an evening away from the spinning wheel and the barn to celebrate the legacy of Scotland’s National Poet. You’ve asked the young bairns to keep the fire going in your cabin. John Muir’s William Wallace Inn was a few miles away on the old line of the Kingston Road near Washington Church. But the long cold walk past the new fields and through stretches of thick standing forest would be worth it.

The year 1834 would be an important turning point for the Scots in Scarborough. They would establish several new institutions as their community clearly graduated from a state of self-sufficient isolation to bustling commerce and economic prosperity. These new institutions are mentioned in the script.

The Burns Supper begins when a plain and mundane food -- but very important to the Scottish lower class -- is presented.

The Haggis please.


Address To The Haggis

Pipe in the Haggis: Brian Hutchison
Address To the Haggis: Bob Stobie

3:00 Sitting (and if in Class):

  • While one student carries in the "haggis", another will play a short Burns Song or poem, since there is no piper -- "A Man’s a Man for a’ That" perhaps or "Highland Laddy"
  • Take the haggis to four students who will each hold the utensil in turn and recite two verses from "An Address to the Haggis".

Volunteer #1

Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great Chieftan o' the Puddin-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy of a grace
As lang's my arm.

The groaning trencher there ye fill,
Your hurdies like a distant hill,
Your pin wad help to mend a mill
In time o' need,
While thro' your pores the dews distil (--- run fingers along the haggis and savour the aroma)
Like amber bead.

Volunteer #2

His knife see Rustic-labour dight,
An' cut you up wi' ready slight, (--cut haggis open)
Trenching your gushing entrails bright
Like onie ditch;
And then, O what a glorious sight,
Warm-reekin, rich! (--inhale the steam)

Then, horn for horn they stretch an' strive,
Deil tak the hindmost, on they drive,
Till a' their weel-swall'd kytes belyve
Are bent like drums;
Then auld Guidman, maist like to rive,
Bethankit hums.

Volunteer #3

Is there that owre his French ragout,
Or olio that wad staw a sow,
Or fricassee wad mak her spew
Wi' perfect sconner,
Looks down wi' sneering, scronful' view
On sic a dinner?

Poor devil! see him owre his trash,
As feckless as a wither'd rash,
His spindle shank a guid whip-lash,
His nieve a nit;
Thro' bluidy flood or field to dash,
O how unfit!

Volunteer #4

But mark the Rustic, haggis-fed,
The trembling earth resounds his tread,
Clap in his walie nieve a blade,
He'll mak it whissle;
An' legs, an' arms, an' heads will sned, (--- imaginary cutting of those parts of the anatomy)
Like taps o' thrissle.

Ye Pow's wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o' fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae shinking ware
That jaups in luggies;
But, if you wish her gratefu' pray'r,
Gie her a Haggis!

1 Henry Cowan, Chair:

To the Haggis!
(All toast the Haggis.)

The Haggis will be served to the guests immediately.



Rev. James George will say the Selkirk Grace after all are served.

2 Rev. James George

Some hae meat, and canna eat,
And some wad eat that want it;
But we hae meat, and we can eat,
And sae the Lord be thankit.


The Introductions

3 John Muir: Host (Kathy of the Village Tea Room)

I am John Muir, your host tonight here at the William Wallace Inn on Kingston Road. Don’t tell anyone yet, but I have applied to the officials in Muddy York for my official "tavern" licence. You can come back any time, but it is certainly my pleasure to have you here tonight. And, by the way, I am also a teacher here by the Scarborough Bluffs. I only teach your children the finer points in life, in case you are wondering. I came here from Lanarkshire less than a year ago.

FLASH "EAST"and FORWARD: The William Wallace Inn was actually on the pre-1837 line of the Kingston Road, basically Hill Crescent near Scarboro Golf Club Road a few miles east of here. The Tavern Licence was indeed obtained by John Muir, the teacher, in July 1834.

4 Archibald Glendinning (Melanie of But’n Ben Bakery)

My name is Archibald Glendinning. Like my Aunt Mary and Uncle David Thomson, I came from Dumfriesshire, but only about 14 years ago. My wife and I opened one of the first stores in Scarborough a few years ago.

5 Margaret Porteous McCowan (With James McCowan) (Beatriz McCowan)

I am Margaret Porteous McCowan. My husband, James, was born in Old Cumnock, Ayrshire, in 1773. He moved to Lesmahagow, Lanarkshire to be the Coalmaster of the Auchanbeg Coalworks, very near my father’s house. James and I brought our 8 children to the Scarborough Bluffs just last spring in 1833.

FLASH FORWARD: Almost exactly seven months from tonight James and our third son will die during the cholera epidemic of 1834.

6 Henry Cowan: Chair

My name is Henry Cowan. I used to live fairly close to Burns’ birthplace in Ayrshire. My wife and I brought our family here from Maybole in 1831. Our farm is actually just a mile outside Scarborough at the mouth of the Rouge River. But much of our social life, including our church, is here in your township.

(Softly, but clearly) Psst: As the Chairman, my job tonight is is to prompt you to cheer and make lots of noise like in the old days of Burns clubs.

7 David Thomson (Sitting with his wife, Mary Glendinning)

We are David and Mary Thomson from Westerkirk, Dumfriesshire. We were the first Scots to live in Scarborough. In fact I think we were the first Europeans to live here. Our farm and mills are near St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church.

8 John Torrance

My name is John Torrance. I am a land surveyor. I move back and forth between my home in Lanarkshire and my several farms just about a mile north of here. As a group, land surveyors were key implementors of agricultural improvement in Scotland. As all of you know, your land in Scarborough is of the richest quality anywhere.

9 Lady Gibson (Sitting with Captain James Gibson)

I am Marion Somerville. Captain James Gibson beside me is my husband and we are from Carstairs Parish in Lanarkshire. We came to Canada on the same ship as the McCowan, Weir, Tacket and John Muir families.

10 Archibald Muir and Mary Burns Muir

I am Archibald Muir and this is my wife Mary. We came to Scarborough from Strathaven, Lanarkshire, in 1830. Our farm is beside the Stobos at Kingston Road and Bellamy.

FLASH FORWARD: Unfortunately Mary will die of cholera on Aug. 12 this year. Our good neighbours Elizabeth and Robert Stobo will die of cholera too, 3 days apart, also in mid August this year. Three years from now their son Robert will perish at sea with all aboard.

11 Mary Weir

I am Mary Weir. I was widowed in Lesmahagow, Lanarkshire, some years ago. Rest his soul. Last spring my four sons and four daughters reached a decision that we should all move to Canada with our friends.

12 Agnes Hamilton Rae (Sitting with daughter, Jenny, and future son-in-law, Will Purdie)

I am Agnes Hamilton Rae. My husband and I came from Lesmahagow, Lanarkshire, in 1832. I was widowed 3 weeks later. Robert was killed by a falling tree. (Pointing to William Purdie beside her) Will Purdie here has been a big a help to us on our little 15 acre farm just up the road. Will is 26 years old and is from Lanarkshire too.

FLASH FORWARD: Will doesn’t know it yet, but in five years he will marry my daughter, Jenny. She is now 9 years old.

13 Jenny Rae (9 Years old) (Hands clasped under her chin and batting her eyelids at the dashing Will Purdie across the table).
(With a sigh):
My hero!

14 Catherine Bowes

My name is Catherine Bowes and I am only fourteen. I was born in Lanarkshire too. (Shaking finger at the host) I don’t think you should get a tavern licence! (Shaking finger at Purdie) And don’t you marry that young girl!

15 Janet Hamilton, her husband John Martin, and brother, Robert Hamilton

I am Janet Hamilton and this is my husband John Martin. I am from Lanarkshire and John is from Dumfriesshire. My brother here, Robert Hamilton, was a weaver in Scotland. Robert had to work in an awful factory in Glasgow for a few years. He continues in the weaving trade in Scarborough but he farms as well.

FLASH FORWARD: We went to Jenny and Will Purdie’s wedding. I noticed that Maggie was crying and Lizzie was crying and others were crying. But there stood little Jenny, lookin’ up into Wull’s face and laughing!!

16 Thomas Paterson

I am Thomas Paterson. I’ve been farming up Kennedy Road for 14 years. I came from Roxboroughshire in Scotland.

17 Elizabeth Hamilton with her husband, Robert Stobo

I am Elizabeth Hamilton Stobo and this is my husband Robert. We are both from Lanarkshire. Our son, Robert, has been quite successful as a timber merchant here. He has helped us buy several farms right here in Scarborough Heights.

18 William Proudfoot

I am William Proudfoot, President of the Bank of Upper Canada, in the Town of York. I’ve been invited to this Burns Supper as a good friend of the Stobo family. (1)

19 John Elliot

My name is John Elliot. My father came here from Dumfriesshire over 30 years ago. I was born here in the forest in 1807.

20 John Thom: ViceChair

My name is John Thom. I brought my family from Coylton, Ayrshire, oh, about ten years ago. We bought the 200 acre farm just on the other side of McCowan Road (pointing to the northwest).

(Softly, but clearly) Psst: My job tonight is is to "gong" you if you bring up any controversial political subject. Mr. Cowan and I will maintain "order" in this Club Meeting.

21 Dr. Robert Douglas Hamilton

I am Dr. Robert Douglas Hamilton. John Torrance is my brother-in-law. It was his suggestion that I become Scarborough’s first doctor. I have been here for 5 years. I am from Lanarkshire too.

22 Rev. James George

I am Rev. James George from Perthshire, Scotland. I have been Minister of the Scots Kirk in Scarborough for the past five months.



23 Henry Cowan, Chair
(Toast to King William and the Royal Family)

Welcome friends of Robert Burns.

Thank you all for coming on such a cold stormy night. Mr. Muir has promised to keep the fire stoked and the refreshments, well, refreshing.

Mr. and Mrs. Thomson will know better, but I think this is the first Burns Supper to be celebrated in Scarborough. There are only a few folk in Scarborough who lived in Ayrshire near Burns’ birthplace. Mr. Thom from Coylton was only 4 years old when the bard expired, but it was his idea that we should form a Burns Club here in Scarborough. I never met the bard myself, as I was young and off carousing and having fun when his writing was getting popular -- just like Burns I suppose. As a young fellow, I had little interest in poetry. I regret now that I missed out on having an association with such an important Ayrshire Scot. So Mr. Thom and I consulted with our neighbours and friends with a view to organizing a proper celebration of Burns and his poetry. Mr. McCowan seems to be the only one in Scarborough who ever met the bard. I imagine Mr. McCowan will tell us later tonight about his curious encounters with Burns in Old Cumnock parish. In any event, Mr. Thom, Mr. McCowan and myself have conspired to bring you this first Burns supper in Scarborough on the anniversary of the bard’s birth. We will follow the unofficial format which, we’re told, seems to prevail at Burns Clubs in the Scottish lowlands. We will, quite simply, spend an agreeable evening drinking the health of our esteemed leaders and heroes and enjoy the songs and poetry of Burns.

Please raise your glasses to the health of His Majesty King William and the Royal Family.

(Cheers etc.)

Song / Poem: eg The Twa Dogs

24 John Torrance
(Toast to Army and Navy and those who helped build the empire)

I propose a toast to the Army and Navy who have re-established order in Europe. And further, they have strengthened the British Empire so that people like us can enjoy a new start in this bountiful land.

Please join me in a toast to the Army, Navy and all others who have built the British Empire.

(Cheers etc.)

25 Mary Thomson offers Remarks on the Previous Toast and Proposes another Toast

(Staring sternly at Mr. Torrance) I just want to point out that as the empire expands we seem to forget that others are getting pushed aside. My first friend in the forest here 35 years ago was an Indian woman. But where is she now I ask you? I know that some of your parents and maybe even some of you were cleared from your small plots of land in Scotland. We should not do the same here.

Please join me in recognizing and respecting those peoples who lived here before us.

(Cheers etc.)

Song / Poem: eg Holy Willie’s Prayer

26 Captain James Gibson
(Toast to the Reformed Parliament in Britain and the Government in Upper Canada)

Thank you Mrs. Thomson for keeping us mindful of the rights of others. And yes indeed, some of you had very few rights in Scotland. It is up to the Government to distribute the wealth of the empire fairly and to give more people a meaningful voice in those decisions. It is, I feel, getting better in Britain. The Great Reform Bill of 1832 has extended the vote to the best class of tenants. (Suddenly very sternly) Mind that this reform of Parliament was not furthered by the revolt of 1820. Reform and change must be through sensible dialogue between honest men and women. Let us remember this here in our new country.

Please raise your glasses out of respect for our government leaders in Britain and Upper Canada.

(Some cheers etc, some booing and grumbling)

27 John Thom:

Order please!!

28 Captain James Gibson

Please raise your glasses out of respect for our government leaders in Britain and Upper Canada.

(Finally, the toast is completed.)

29 Archibald Muir offers Remarks on the Previous Toast...

(With vigour) We cannot deny that there is discontent in Upper Canada and no one can be certain that there won’t be violence, as in my native Parish of Strathaven. The Government here should learn from the revolt of 1820 in Scotland!

(Some cheers etc, some booing and grumbling. After all, the Rebellion of 1837 was brewing by this time.)

30 Henry Cowan:

Order please!!

31 Mary Weir offers further Remarks and Additional Toast

(Quiet tone, thoughtful demeanor) Yes, we know that the government can do good things. For instance, slavery was abolished in the British colonies last year. In Britain there should be a commission on working conditions in the factories. We in Canada should not forget that we have left many in Scotland who still toil in those unhealthy factories. (2)

I propose a toast to the hard working weavers and those who still toil in the factories and mines of Scotland.

(Cheers etc.)

Song / Poem: eg To a Mouse

32 Agnes Hamilton Rae
(Toast to the Young Members)

My four children lost their father only 3 weeks after we arrived in Scarborough two years ago. Even though they are all under the age of ten, they all come with me to my small field and help me any way they can. They help make the meals and keep our small cabin clean and comfortable. Robert and Jenny look after the younger ones as well their animals. I can’t afford to have Robert and Jenny go to school. Even during the winter we are too busy clearing brush and chopping firewood to keep warm.

Please salute the hard working young people of Scarborough.

(Cheers etc.)

33 Catherine Bowes jumps up and offers a Response... of sorts...

(Indignant, scolding tone) I am fourteen years old. My parents don’t know I’m here. Or, I should really say (shouting) "I have absolutely no idea where my parents are tonight". (Jabbing her finger at the older people around the room.) Sometimes you older folk don’t set a good example. (Hands on hips) I hope this Burns frolic isn’t just another excuse to get drunk! My friends and I would like you parents to stop drinking so much at barn raisings and other bees. We should form a temperance society in Scarborough as soon as possible to make sure we all stay sober and industrious. (3)

Some booing ... but shouted down... finally cheering and agreement in the crowd ...

34 Mary Burns Muir

(With enthusiastic emotion) That is a very good idea. Too many Scots here have been accidentally killed when they were drunk. (Thoughtfully) Just last fall, that young father of two, Hamblin, died at a logging bee when he was crushed by a log.

35 Robert Hamilton

At my barn raising last year I absolutely refused to allow any whiskey. (Angrily) But practically everyone absolutely refused to work! The boss carpenter was clear that if I wanted my barn built, I had to let them drink. Against my better judgement, I gave in. (Raising voice further) But that is the last time! I resolve to start a Temperance Society in Scarborough within the month!


36 Thomas Paterson

I second the resolution! I will gather members from the northwest part of the Township.

Song / Poem: eg Address to the Unco Guid

37 William Purdie
(Toast to Our Deceased Fathers and Mothers)

I think the greatest legacy left to us by our departed parents is a strong value system -- for example our faith in the Lord, honest toil and our love for learning and education. Their value system matured very quickly during the great changes in agriculture when so many of them were removed from their small farms in Scotland.

Please raise your glass with me in memory of Our Deceased Fathers and Mothers.

(Cheers etc.)

38 John Elliot offers Remarks on the Previous Toast

Yes, farming was finally modernizing in Scotland when our fathers and mothers emigrated. They took a risk when they came here to the thick forest in Canada. They had to start all over again at a subsistence level. They were isolated from one another. No stores, no church, no post office, no doctors.

39 Robert Stobo offers further remarks and an Additional Toast

Our farming community here has now matured to the point where most of us do have neighbours nearby. We have built our place of worship and we receive mail once a week. But to prosper, we must continue to improve. An Agricultural Society was formed in Lesmahagow, Scotland, 30 years ago. We need such a society in Scarborough now so that we can improve our farming techniques. At least last year we held a ploughing match on our farm. All the competitors were Scots. That is a very good start.

I now propose a toast to our new Doctors for doing their best to keep us alive and well. We hope that the terrible cholera of 1832 does not come back again. (4)

(Cheers etc.)

Song / Poem: eg Corn Rigs

40 Archibald Glendinning
(To The Poets of Scotland)

Robert Burns was inspired by the intelligent poets who went before him. Many of the poets and authors at the time of Burns who spoke out -- like Burns did -- against social injustices risked being charged with sedition. For all of their valour and enlightening work, we should be grateful.  And it is important to keep the legacy of Burns alive through verse and song. I propose a toast to the Poets of Scotland, both the living and the dead.

(Cheers etc.)

41 Dr. Robert D. Hamilton offers Remarks on the Previous Toast

Yes, we need to cherish, not only the legacy of Burns, but also the times in which he lived. I am encouraged by the strong interest in Scottish History. There are now History Clubs in Scotland that are getting quite popular through the efforts of the poets and historians. This should be fostered here as well. Our first action should be to establish a library in Scarborough for the furtherance of knowledge, education and respect for our heritage.

42 John Martin (Proposes a Resolution)

(With enthusiasm) And I propose a Resolution to that purpose right now! All those in favour, please raise your glass with me. (5)

(Cheers etc.)

Song / Poem:

43 James McCowan
(To the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns)

Bruce McCowan, great-great-great grandson of James, will speak for 15 minutes about Burns and his legacy, as is customary at Burns Suppers. The theme will be "Burns and the Lowland Clearances".


Immortal Memory of Robert Burns
Burns and the Lowland Clearances
By D. B. McCowan
An 1834 Celebration of Robbie Burns
Jan. 25 2005

James McCowan (1773-1834) is Speaking

Robert Burns was fourteen years my senior. We were born about 15 miles apart in Ayrshire, Burns near Alloway and myself near Cumnock in the year 1773. Burns was a frequent visitor in Cumnock. I was well-acquainted with some of Burns’ very close friends in that Parish.

The Bard certainly made an impression on me as I shall try to explain.

I first met Robert Burns toward the end of my thirteenth year. At the time we were living on the farm of Milzeoch, a few hundred paces south of Garrallan House, the property of Mr. Patrick Douglas in Old Cumnock Parish (6). My younger brother, David, and I had been told to clean up the rubble from an old cottar’s cottage beside the road between Milzeoch and Garrallan House. As was his custom at that time of day, Mr. Douglas was out for his morning walk. But this particular summer’s day he was not alone. I did not recognize his companion. I could tell he was a young man, yet he looked far too troubled for his years.

I could hear this visitor loudly complaining to Mr. Douglas of some unfair treatment by a man of the name, Armour. But then when his eyes met with our task near the roadside, this young man abruptly stopped talking. But more importantly, it seemed to me, he stopped walking and simply stared for a good minute at the pile of rocks in which I stood. And David and I stood there too, silently waiting for them to move on. But no, they did not move and neither did we, quite mesmerized by his somber countenance. The young man then slowly came toward us and leaned on the new stone dyke that my uncle had just built for the Earl of Dumfries.

He then spoke in our direction. It hardly seemed that he was speaking to us, but rather to the ruins of the cottar’s cottage at our feet, or even perhaps to the unfortunate family who had once lived there.

"Thy wee bit housie, too, in ruin" he said, just loudly enough for me to hear.

Raising his voice and his eyes, he said to me, "Laddie, ye ken wha’ you’ve doon?"

My surprise at his question and a creeping guilt for the task in which I was engaged held me silent.

"Lad, do you know what you’ve done?" he asked again. "Auch, I ken ye didna dae it. T’was the Laird who daed it."

I knew what he meant. By accident, certainly not by my design, I had become somewhat of an unwitting accessory to removing a poor family from their home -- from their humble yet comfortable nest.

By this time Mr. Douglas had come to rest a-top the stone dyke. The young man turned to him and inquired, "Sa yer brither will gi’ me a sitiation as book-keeper on yer estate in Jamaica"? Mr. Douglas replied with a nod of his head, "Aye Robert, he will. I ken ye’ve been stidiying the improved arithmitic of Mr. Halbert."

"Aye" and turning to us, this Robert smiled, "Ye see lads, keep on lairnin’ an’ stay in school and ye’ll be able to gae onywhare. Di ye ken Jamaica?" With a bit of a chuckle they both walked off.

At the time, David and I did not realize that we had just met Robert Burns, the subject of our gathering tonight. But Burns’ advice to keep on lairnin’ we would take very seriously indeed.

For over a week, brother David spoke of nothing but Jamaica and read as much as he could about the British Empire. He soon became determined to make his fortune in the West Indies. In the year 1800 David took his mason’s tools to Trinidad and he is now a successful architect. As for me, I stayed in school longer than most. I wanted to learn about that improved arithmetic that Mr. Douglas had mentioned. I knew I would need it soon enough in business.

A few weeks later, I was cutting some oats by the roadside. On his afternoon walk, Mr. Douglas came by reading a book. "Laddie", he shouted. "De ye remember this line ‘Thy wee bit housie, too, in ruin’"?

"Aye, Mr. Douglas, I dae indeed mind that line".

"Here, ye can barra this new buik" and he passed it to me, opened at a poem called "To a Mouse".

The book was by Robert Burns and called "Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect". Over the next few nights, David and I both read it at least twice, from cover to cover.

My second encounter with Robert Burns was a week or so later. I know for certain that it was August 16 in the year ’86. It was the day that Mr. Kennedy turned out another of our neighbours. Mr. John Kennedy was Estate Manager or Factor to the Earl of Dumfries (7). It was his job to make sure the estate and its farms made money for the Earl. So he consolidated small farms into larger ones as the leases expired. Of course the rents went much higher. Many people had to leave their small holdings, although a good few did find work somewhere in the Parish as labourers.

My father had been asked by Mr. Kennedy to help at the roup of our neighbour’s goods. This auction of the tenant’s belongings would pay some of his arrears in rent. Father took all four of us boys that day. The steady rain added to the despair of the affair. As we approached, I couldn’t tell if the tenant’s children were crying or just wet.

Father told us that they were our distant cousins. That family had been in that wee farm for generations. I think father’s point in taking us to the auction was just to say goodbye.

At any rate, brother David poked me. "That’s him" he said, "that’s Robert Burns". And there he was indeed, talking to Mr. Kennedy, the estate Factor. The Poet clearly looked disturbed. We shuffled toward them to listen.

"Jock, do ye really hae’ to dae’ this tae these poor folk?"

Head down, Mr. Kennedy just turned and walked away.

At that point the Poet seemed to recognize David and I. He walked over to us and slowly spoke some now-familiar lines:

I’ve notic’d on our Lairds rent-day
An’ mony a time my heart’s been sad
Poor tenant bodies, scant o’ cash
How they endure a factor’s wrath
He’ll stamp an’ threaten, curse an’ swear
He’ll apprehend them, seize their gear
While they maun stan’ wi’ aspect humble
An’ hear it a’,an’ fear an’ tremble
I see how folk live that hae riches,
But surely poor-folk maun by wretches.

There was a short silence -- dumbfounded we were again -- until both David and I chimed quietly in unison: "The Twa Dogs".

"Aye lads, guid fer you." As he turned to walk away I heard him say, "I’m nae gain’ tae Jamaica. My Scots folk need me richt here -- I canna stan' seein' the Factors dae this tae my kind".

I only saw Robert Burns one other time, about two years later. It was in the first year of Mr. Simson as teacher at the Parish School in Cumnock, 1788 (8). Mr. Simson was a good friend of Robert Burns, himself a great scholar. I was still attending school in the winter, mainly to further my appreciation of Scottish history and my understanding of the improved arithmetic. In class that day I was reading a manuscript of "The Practical Figurer" by Mr. William Halbert. Mr. Halbert had been my father’s teacher thirty years before and they had remained friends, although separated by some distance. Hearing of my interest in calculations, he had entrusted father with this copy of his manuscript.

In my ear, I heard a familiar voice, "I’ll be buyin’ that buik too, ye ken. We must both keep on lairnin’."

Mr. Burns gave me a tap on the shoulder and then greeted Mr. Simson. They had a discussion outside the school for a few minutes.

Sure enough when Mr. Halbert’s book about his Improved System of Arithmetic was published a year later, both my father and Robert Burns were subscribers.

Robert Burns made a profound impression on me personally and his legacy will soon be appreciated and respected around the world.

It strikes me that the young man whom I had briefly met to my great fortune held an ideal notion of brotherhood and a profound love of mankind.

Please raise your glass to the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns.

(Cheers etc.)

Responses: Anyone from the floor is welcome to add comments or propose another toast.

Closing Remarks

Last Song: Typically Auld Lang Syne


Sales of:

  • McCowans Highland Toffee and Fudge
  • Fairs and Frolics: Scottish Communities at Work and Play
  • Neigh the Front: Exploring Scarboro Heights
  • The Lowland Clearances: Scotland’s Silent Revolution
  • And other publications


 Some Other Historical Notes

1) It was customary at Township gatherings such as this to invite a few special guests or dignitaries from the city. Robert Stobo mentioned his good friend William Proudfoot in his will. William Proudfoot is believed to have come from Lanarkshire.

2) The Poor Law of 1834 in Britain tried to standardize workhouses. But this seemed to make things even worse for the poor.

3) Scarborough’s first Temperance Society was formed later that year (1834) largely by the Scots at St. Andrew’s Church. Catherine Bowes and her future husband, Teasdale Hall, were founding members. Her husband would be killed by a stump remover two decades later.

4) Cholera did return to Scarborough a few months later and took many lives including at least five within a half mile of Kingston Road and Bellamy. Four of these were "characters" in our Burns Supper.

5) The Scarborough Subscription Library was formally constituted on April 7 1834. The roll of founding members was almost entirely Scottish. This was the first library in the Township.

6)  Patrick Douglas of Garallan was apparently present at that first meeting, in 1801, to celebrate Burns' birth.

7)  John Kennedy (1757-1812) was Factor on the Earl of Dumfries' Cumnock estate from 1783 to 1793.  Burns wrote to this close friend in early August 1786 shortly before his intended departure for Jamaica -- "Your truly facetious epistle of the 3rd inst. gave me much entertainment. I was only sorry I had not the pleasure of seeing you as I passed your way, but we shall bring up all our leeway on Wednesday, the 16th current, when I hope to have it in my power to call on you and take a kind, very probably a last adieu, before I go to Jamaica." As you all know, Burns did not go to Jamaica ... for some reason ... which you now all know ... if you believe our story! Burns became increasingly left-wing in his politics as the injustices of landuse and other socio-economic changes gained momentum.

8)   William Simson (1758-1815) was born in Ochiltree Parish, immediately west of Old Cumnock Parish. He was the schoolmaster in Ochiltree from 1780 to 1788 and in Cumnock from 1788 until his death. He is Burns' "Winsome Willie".

9) It seems that the early Burns Clubs in Scotland were for men only. Since the membership of the first Temperance Society in Scarborough (formed in 1834) was about half female, we can suppose that women might be invited to the Burns gatherings in Scarborough at about that time. Indeed, for our fictitious 1834 Burns Supper, we could even pretend that it had actually been planned by the women of Scarborough to "temper" one rather notorious aspect of Burns' legacy -- drinking!

The Scarboro Heights Record V13 #1