Stories behind the Songs

Robert Burns
The Stories
Behind the Songs

A Rosebud by my Early Walk

MacPherson's Farewell

The Farewell

Up in the Morning Early

Miss Burns

A Rosebud by my Early Walk

The rosebud was Miss Jenny Cruikshank, only child to Mr Cruikshank of the High School, Edinburgh ( see also Beautious Rosebud, Young and Gay.) The air was written by David Sillar, merchant and schoolmaster at Irvine ( Epistle to Davie, a brother poet)

On returning from his Highland tour Burns resided with with Mr Cruikshank in St James Square. It was in this room that Burns was confined through the winter of 1787-88 with a bruised (broken) leg. The rosebud, although only 12 years of age was proficient in music. Jenny would play the harpsichord and sing Burns own songs to him adjusting them after repeated trials.

Mr Cruikshank died in 1792 and the rosebud became the wife of Mr Henderson, a lawyer in Jedburgh.

The word bawk in the first verse means a thorn-fringed footpath through a cultivated field.

MacPhersons Farewell

James MacPherson, a Highland freebooter, who was executed at Banff in Nov 1700, is said to have been an excellent violinist and composer of the air to which these words are set.

Midi sequence by John Renfrew Davis

He played this tune on his favourite violin when he came to the fatal tree and holding up the instrument, offered it to any one of his clan who would undertake to play the tune over his dead body.

As none answered, he dashed it upon the executioner's head and flung himself from the ladder.

Tradition exerts that the magistrates hurried on the execution early in the morning and that MacPherson suffered several hours before the specified time. The motive for this indecent haste is said to have been a desire to defeat a reprieve, then on the way.

An anonymous article in the first volume of the New Monthly Magazine, supplies some particulars of MacP's lineage and exploits.

James Macpherson was born of a beautiful gypsy who, at a great wedding, attracted the notice of a half intoxicated Highland gentleman.

He acknowledged the child, and had him reared in his house, until he lost his life in bravely pursuing a hostile clan, to recover a spread of cattle taken from Badenoch.

The gypsy woman hearing of this disaster in her rambles, the following summer came and took away her boy, but she often returned with him, to wait upon his relations and clansmen, who never failed to clothe him well, besides giving money to his mother.

He grew up in beauty, strength and stature, rarely equalled. His sword is still preserved at Duff House, a residence of the Earl of Fife, and few men of our day could carry, far less wield it as a weapon of war; and if it must be said that his prowess was debased by his exploits of a free-booter, it is certain that no act of cruelty, no robbery of the widow, the fatherless, or the distressed, and no murder, was ever perpetrated under his command.

He often gave the spoils of the rich to relieve the poor and all his tribe were restrained from many atrocities of rape by the awe of his mighty arm. Indeed it is said that a dispute with an aspiring and savage man of his tribe, who wished to rob a gentleman's house, while his wife and two children lay on the bier for interment, was the cause of his being betrayed to the vengeance of the law.

He was betrayed by a man of his own tribe, and was the last person executed at Banff, previous to the abolition of heritable jurisdiction.

Who, except Burns, could have given words to such a soul, words that we never listen to without a strange, half-barbarous, half-poetic fellow-feeling.

Jim Watt who now resides in Nova Scotia has emailed with the following additional information. The Doune Kirk on Macduff has clocks on three sides only. The one facing Banff is blank. A show of disrespect and protest for the people of Banff setting their clocks forward to hasten MacPherson's execution. Thank you, Jim.

The Farewell

This touching poem tells its own tale and written before 3rd September 1786 when the darkening prospects of the poet pointed to the West Indies as the only means of escape. Within its small compass the poet makes affectionate reference to, and takes fond farewell of his "dear bought Bess," of his mother, his brothers and sisters, his Jean, his best friend and crony Smith, his kind friends and steady patrons - Gavin Hamilton and Robert Aiken. This poem was first published in the Ayr Edition 1819.

Up in the Morning Early

The air to which this is sung is one of Scotland's oldest. It was a great favourite with Mary Stuart, wife of William 3rd, who after listening to Purcell's music on one occasion till it made her yawn with fatigue, asked Mrs Hunt the vocalist then present to sing her the old Scots Ballad with this tune. Purcell felt so chagrined at this preference, that in the next Royal Birthday song for the year 1692 he composed an air and the bass part of the harmony is, note for note, this very Scots tune.

Miss Burns

Cease ye prudes, your envious railing
Lovely Burns has charms, confess!
True it is she had ae failing
Had a woman ever less?

A most interesting lady of the night. Probably the day as well!!
Burns makes reference to her in a letter to Peter Hill dated Feb 1790, in which he chastises mankind for their selfish appetites which may have stopped her becoming the lovely and faithfull wife and the affectionate mother. The portrait under which Burns wrote the lines is understood to be an etching by Kay dated 1785.

Margaret Burns was a native of Durham and came to Edinburgh 2 yrs before Burns arrived in the capital where she became the reigning beauty of the pavement. Because of her beauty and her education her clients were among the more respected gentlemen and nobility.
She disappeared suddenly in 1787, (back to England) and reappeared in 1789 setting the whole city agog.

She became the subject of oppressive magisterial proceedings and Bailie Creech ( the same Creech of publishing fame ) banished her from the city.
She filed a reclaiming petition in which Hon. Henry Erskine was her counsel. Lord Braxfield was the judge and in a turn around Creech was Black-balled. (Creech had a notorious disregard of women)

Miss Burns died of decline in 1792 at Roslin. A headstone records her name and date of death.

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