Stories behind the Songs

Robert Burns
The Stories behind
the Songs and Poems

A Parcel of Rogues in a Nation

Epistle to James Tennant of Glenconner

Flow Gently Sweet Afton

Such a Parcel of Rogues in a Nation

Fareweel to a' our Scottish fame

This was written in reference to the Union of Scotland with England, in which many of the Scottish Nobility, to their eternal disgrace, absolutely sold their country for paltry bribes.

The Union with Ireland was brought about in much the same manner, only Ireland claimed and received infinitely higher sweeteners. Burns, though living to witness in some measure the benefits resulting from the Union, could never contemplate with complacency the loss of his country's independence.

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Epistle to James Tennant of Glenconner

This rhyming epistle, written from Ellisland in 1789, is addressed to an old friend of the poet and his family, whose father's advice he had taken before fixing on the farm at Ellisland.

This epistle is proof, if any is needed, of the ease with which Burns could wind verse round any topic and conduct the duties and courtesies of life in song.

The persons to whom the letter allude are of Glenconner's household or his neighbours.

The reference to gude auld Glen is James's father. It was he who accompanied the poet to Nithsdale at the end of February to inspect and judge of Mr Miller's farm. On 3rd March following, Burns wrote to Ainslie "The friend whom I told you I would take with me was highly pleased with the farm and he is, without exception, the most intelligent farmer in the country. He has staggered me a good deal." He became factor to the Countess of Glencairn and rented the farm of Glenconner but prior to that he was Wm Burnes's neighbour and one of the witnesses at Robert's baptism. He had 5 sons and a daughter.

James to whom the letter is written was the eldest son, familiarly known as "The miller" because he had Ochiltree Mill. He was a dungeon of wit.

William was the eldest son to Auld Glen's 2nd wife. He is described as preacher Willie as he was chaplain to the forces in India.

John was the second son ( to Auld Glen's second wife ) and was Burns fellow boarder for 3 weeks in 1773 with John Murdoch, the master at the English School at Ayr. After unsuccessful attempts at Shipbuilding and distilling he turned to farming, rented Auchenbay and prospered.

David the 3rd son is the manly tar of the poem as he became a sailor in the merchant service.

Charles the 4th son learned weaving at Kilbarchan and is the "wabster Charlie" in the epistle.

Robert, the youngest son, is the "Singing Sannock."

Agnes, the daughter, is Burns auld acquaintance Nancy. She married George Reid who loaned Burns the pony on which to ride to Edinburgh in 1786.

Katherine, the daughter of Alexander, a younger brother of Auld Glen was, of course, cousin Kate in the epistle.

Flow Gently Sweet Afton

Composed before 5th Feb 1789 when Burns sent these lines to Mrs Dunlop with the comment There is a small river, Afton, that falls into the Nith, near New Cumnock which has some charming, wild, romantic scenery on it's banks

This truly ecstatic lyric, so sweetly pastoral, and so tender in its devotion towards the theme of his lays, undoubtedly is one of the most noteworthy of all the productions of Burns. It has had the good fortune to become wedded to one of the most heavenly melodies that ever emanated from musical taste and genius.

The air was composed for it by the late Alexander Hume of Edinburgh. The words and melody together, really seem to combine as one. In this piece, perhaps more than any other of his compositions, we see the youthful poet, with his garland and singing robes about him, as he has portrayed himself in his own Vision, listening to the words of Coila
Those accents, grateful to thy tongue th’adored name,
I taught thee how to pour in Song, to soothe thy flame.

Who is the Mary of the song? There appear to be two accounts of this. The first is by Gilbert Burns, the poet's brother, who recounted that Mary was Highland Mary

The second is by Dr. Currie, Burns first biographer, who gives us a different account. Afton Water is the stream upon which stands Afton Lodge, to which Mrs Stewart removed from Stair. Afton Lodge was Mrs. Stewart’s property from her father, the song was presented to her in return for her notice, the first he received from any person in her rank of life.

According to the recollection of a surviving friend of the lady, the medium through which Burns and Lady Stair became acquainted was a certain Peggy Orr, who had the charge of Mrs Stewart's children. It is said that seeing some letters and poems of Burns in that girl's possession, and being struck by their superior style, Mrs Stewart expressed a desire to see the poet, and he consequently waited upon her. Of the treatment he experienced on this occasion from Mrs Stewart, he thus speaks in a letter addressed to her about the time he intended to go abroad "One feature of your character," he says, "I shall ever with grateful pleasure remember, the reception I met with when I had the honour of waiting upon you. I am little acquainted with politeness, but I know a good deal of benevolence of temper and goodness of heart."

Does this mean then, that Burns composed his exquisitely melodious song entitled, Afton Water, in which he imagined the proprietress of a large estate, as a simple cottage maiden, and himself as her lover. A mode of compliment to ladies of high station in life, like the Lass of Ballochmyle, which he sometimes used, but which, I suspect, must have been in general much more pleasant to himself than to them.

There was, then, and still is a great controversy over the statements of Gilbert and Currie. Chambers remarked, it is interesting to find Gilbert Burns alluding, as from personal knowledge, to the mysterious Mary Campbell, he, undoubtedly, could have thrown much light on that matter. That careful biographer and editor of Burns, in his subsequent edition (1851-52), refers to the foregoing remarks of Gilbert Burns regarding Afton Water, and dismisses the difficulty thus. It may be doubted if Mr. Gilbert Burns was rightly informed on the subject. In another passage, however, Chambers pays more regard to Gilbert’s opinion for he says, The averment of the brother and bosom friend of Burns must be next, in a case of this kind, to his own.

In order to test this little affair, Chambers wrote to William Allason Cuningham, Esq., of Afton and Logan House, the grandson of Mrs. Stewart of Stair and Afton, enclosing a copy of the foregoing memorandum of Gilbert Burns, and begging to be favoured with his reply to a few queries concerning the subject of it. That gentleman, by a letter dated 24th June, 1870, furnished the following particulars.

Afton Lodge is in the parish of Tarbolton, and was built by my grandmother, Mrs. General Stewart, on parting with Stair. Her paternal estate of Afton is in the parish of New Cumnock, and has no residence on it, so she built Afton Lodge near Tarbolton, and named it after the Afton estate. It does not appear that the song called Afton Water is among the poems sent to her by Burns. Before her marriage, her name was Katherine Gordon, heiress of Afton, which estate I now possess.

Here, then, we have the most direct testimony tending to confirm the above statement of Gilbert Burns, and, after a lapse of seventy years, revealing the fact that the poet’s first biographer, either knowingly or innocently, dished up to his readers misleading information concerning this most interesting and sacred of all his love attachments. It may, indeed, have been the case, that the literary executors of the poet imagined that by so doing they but followed the example and carried out the wishes of the deceased, in suppressing and distorting facts regarding the date of his passion for the living Mary, for even amid his confidential unbosomings to Clarinda (little more than a year after Mary’s death) he seems to have set a seal upon his heart, at a time when he must, in thought, if not in words, have been referring to her. Those who have perused the Clarinda Correspondence will recollect his strangely, blabbing letter, written to her one night when in his cups. He had sent her a copy of his famous autobiographical letter to Moore, and he thus writes
I am flattered by the entertainment you tell me you have found in my packet. You see me as I have been, you know me as I am, and may guess at what I am likely to be. I too may say, Talk not of love, for indeed he has plunged me deep in woe! Not that I ever saw a woman who pleased unexceptionably, as my Clarinda elegantly says, in the companion, the friend and the mistress. One indeed I could except, One, before passion threw its mists over my discernment, I knew the first of women!
The only other of his early loves to whom this passage could possibly apply, is Elison Begbie, before he went to Irvine. She, like Mary is never referred to in the poet's autobiography. But why the heart's core and the agony and why the poisoning of his peace.
Her name is indelibly written in my heart’s core, but I dare not look in on it, a degree of agony would be the consequence. Oh! thou perfidious, cruel, mischief making, demon, who presidest over that frantic passion, thou may’st, thou dost poison my peace, but thou shalt not taint my honour! Don’t guess at these ravings.

Clarinda tried hard to guess at these ravings, but failed, and Sylvander never satisfied her. There cannot now be a reasonable doubt that MARY was the subject of Afton Water, and that it was composed while she was yet alive.

Midi sequence by Barry Taylor

Flow gently, sweet Afton, among thy green braes,
Flow gently, I’ll sing thee a song in thy praise
My Mary’s asleep by thy murmuring stream
Flow gently, sweet Afton, disturb not her dream

Thou stock-dove whose echo resounds thro’ the glen
Ye wild whistling blackbirds in yon thorny den
Thou green-crested lapwing thy screaming forbear
I charge you disturb not my slumbering fair

How lofty, sweet Afton, thy neighbouring hills
Far mark’d with the courses of clear, winding rills
There daily I wander as noon rises high
My flocks and my Mary’s sweet cot in my eye

How pleasant thy banks and green valleys below
Where wild in the woodlands the primroses blow
There oft as mild ev’ning weeps over the lea
The sweet scented birk shades my Mary and me

Thy crystal stream, Afton, how lovely it glides
And winds by the cot where my Mary resides
How wanton thy waters her snowy feet lave
As gathering sweet flowerets she stems thy clear wave

Flow gently, sweet Afton, among thy green braes
Flow gently, sweet river, the theme of my lays
My Mary’s asleep by thy murmuring stream
Flow gently, sweet Afton, disturb not her dream.

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