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Burns's First Bosom Friend:
A FORGOTTEN WORTHY.
BY ROBERT BUCHANAN.
We all know the sort of life Burns lived at Lochlea; how hard he worked, and made love, and drank, and what sort of inspiration he found among his filettes and boon-companions; how his flax-shop was burned down, and he was reduced to comparative beggary; how soon after he had to sit on the cutty stool of the parish church, and to what the agreeable train of meditations, in Scots verse, his situations afterwards gave rise. What between the Freemasons' Lodge and the Torbolton Bachelors' Club, he had plenty to do in the cold nights. The Torbolton Bachelors, as may not be generally known, were debaters-“a few young men," says a biographer of the poet, "of active and inquiring intellect;" and these meetings took place periodically in a public house. From the circumstance that the expenditure of each bachelor was limited to threepence a night, Burns doubtless considered the discussions somewhat dry; but he was consoled by the presence of at least one choice spirit-young Davie Sillar. Daintie Davie could take his glass, was fond of the lassies, and played finely on the fiddle; and what more was necessary to render him acceptable to Burns, beyond the fact that he too was an ardent votary of the Muses? The two young bloods embraced each other as flame does flame. Davie, as he himself says, had long admired the kindred spirit from far, and by curious tokens. “He wore the only tied hair in the parish," Davie avers; " and in the church, his plaid, which was of a peculiar colour (I think fillemot), he wrapt in a peculiar manner around his shoulders. These surmises and his exterior made me solicitous of his acquaintance. I was introduced by Gilbert not only to his brother, but to the whole of that family, where in a short time I became a frequent, and I believe not unwelcome, visitant. After the commencement of my acquaintance with the bard, we frequently met upon Sundays at church, where, between sermons, instead of going with our friends or lassies to the vin, we often took a walk in the fields. In these walks I have often been struck with his facility in addressing the fair sex; and many times when I have been bashfully anxious how to express myself, and he would have entered into conversation with them with the greatest ease and freedom; and it was generally a deathblow to our conversation, however agreeable,
to meet a female acquaintance. Some of the few opportunities of a noontide walk that a country life allows her labouring sons, he spent on the banks of the river, or in the walks in the neighbourhood of Stair. Some book or other he always carried, to read when not otherwise employed; it was likewise his custom to read at table."
Allan Cunningham, in the course of a brief allusion to Sillar, dubs him a "scholar." But we have Davie's own direct assertion to the contrary, unless the common branches of education-reading, writing, and arithmetic-constitute scholarship. He was a Dominie, forsooth, Dominie for a time of the parish school; but to be such, required few gifts indeed. He was bred among the brutes, at the plough-tail; he had read a book or two; but, as he says in his "Epistle to Critics," "Latin an' Greek I never knew sic,
And sae how can my works be classic?"
Classic his works are not, widely read they will never be, nor do they deserve that honour; but his name is nevertheless immortal, as that of the first bosom-cronie and boon-companion of Burns. If the two epistles to Davie are to be trusted, Burns held him right dear as a friend, and seems moreover to have held his poesy in some estimation. He was in his companion's close confidence. He knew all about the Armour business, long ere the storm broke, and could sympathize thoroughly with the state of affairs, being himself engaged at that time in saying sweet things to Maggie Orr, a nursery maid at Stair House. Many a romp had the two in company! Many a night did they kiss the moon-dew off the rosy lips of their darlings! Many a tune did Davie play on his fiddle at the "rockings" and other country gatherings!
"Lang may your elbow jink and diddle!"
cried Burns enthusiastically, in his famous epistle. Well might he so exclaim; for Davie's music was just the sort of inspiration by which Burns throve. Let fools say what they please, the fiddle is a divine instrument, and none can discourse the tunes of Scotland so eloquently. These tunes, deftly given forth under his friend's able hand, doubtless sank deep into the great poet's soul—remained there, and echoed there -haunted the poet at the plough-tail and in the ingleside mingled with the sweet and sad thoughts that the simple life about him was ever producing—and, finally, when the fine frenzy was on, were re-born in those immortal songs which are the glory of the North. Never was finer apprenticeship to song-writing! What the plump white fingers
of elegant Tom Moore could not tap out of the pretty keys of a piano, Burns found issuing from the greasy strings of the old fiddle. At birth and wedding, at feast and fair, at funeral and wedding, went Music, tucked under Davie's arm, prisoned in a quaint bit of mahogany, and covered with an old green bag. How could Burns hear unmoved? "Even then, a wish (I mind its power)
A wish that to my latest hour
Shall strongly heave my breast—
That I, for poor auld Scotland's sake,
Poor old Scotland had at least this one glorious gift to bestow-that of those wondrous melodies, woven of the echoes of her hills, the singing of her brooks, and the heart-beats of her sons and daughters; and she bestowed it through the music-loving Dominie.
By all existing tokens, Davie was a cannier, quieter lad than his friend, and though he had an eye for the fine colours of love and song he gradually became fonder and fonder of the sombre greys of respectability. Farewell, the country merry-makings; farewell, Venus, rising from a sea of whiskey. Daintie Davie laid down the "taws," and assumed an apron. He actually had a shop right under the Tolbooth in Irvine, and on it the inscription, "David Sillar, Grocer." He was hard at work there when the Kilmarnock edition of Burns appeared, and the success of the work quite took away his breath, when all at once, there flashed upon him the conviction that he too was a genius, and the awful thought that the immortal outpourings of his muse might have been used to wrap up the tea and sugar. He, too, would be famous. Three years after the Kilmarnock publication, there was issued, from the same press, "Poems by David Sillar," and prefixed thereto appeared a prose introduction after the manner of Burns. But Scotland frowned upon the daring grocer, which is not to be wondered at, if we merely take into consideration that he was rash and villanous enough to answer Burns's poem in praise of whiskey with a similar effusion (alike, but oh! how different) in praise of water! Very watery too, were the verses, in spite of a few decent oaths. The outrage was enough to blast a hundred reputations. Scotland wanted but little here below, and wanted that little strong. So Davie gained no fame, and lost some money. If the reader wishes any other reason for the failure, besides the reason given, 'twill be found in the grocer's own preface. "Natural genius alone is sufficient to constitute a poet;
for the imperfections in the works of many poetical writers, which are ascribed to want of education, may, he believes, with more justice, be ascribed to want of genius." Genius, forsooth! Imagine a Scottish genius singing the praises of water, and abusing poor courage-inspiring John Barleycorn in terms as savage as those of Hector Macneil himself. This, too, from a man whom Burns had called "ace of hearts!" If Davie be forgiven at all, 'tis only for his fiddle's sake.
Sillar's volume, though sufficiently deficient in signs of poetical power, contains one highly interesting effusion-"The Auld-farrant Frien❜ly Letter," which called forth Burns's "Second Epistle to Davie, a Brother Poet." So exceedingly little known, yet so pregnant with an extraneous interest, is the poem, that we shall transcribe it for the benefit of our readers. Its literary merit is very small, but the ideas are clearly and lustily expressed. The tenth verse shows that Davie was quietly looking forward to be honoured himself as a shining and an untaught genius.
"While Reekie's bards your muse commen',
And praise the numbers of your pen,
Accept this kin'ly frae a frien',
Your Dainty Davie,
Wha ace o' hearts does still remain,
"I ne'er was muckle gien to praisin',
Plays sweet as Robin Fergusson,
"Your Luath Cæsar bites right sair;
An' when ye paint the Holy Fair,
Or when ye turn,
And sing the follies o' the fair,
How sweet ye mourn!
"Let Coila's plains wi' me rejoice,
And praise the worthy Bard, whose lays,
Their worth and beauty high doth raise
His works, bis worth, will ever praise
And crown his name.
* Allan Ramsay.
"Brave Ramsay now and Fergusson,
Wha hae sae lang time fill'd the Throne
Quiet i' their urns,
Since Fame, in justice, gies the crown
'Hail, happy Bard! ye're now confest The king o' singers i' the west; Edina hath the same exprest;
Wi' joy they fin'
That ye're, when tried by Nature's test,
Sing on, my frien', your fame's secured,
To blast your name; mair just reward
"For tho' the tent o' Fame may please you,
When ye write weel, will always praise you Out o' gude will.
"Great numbers in this earthly ba',
As soon as death gies them the ca',
An' straught forgot
Forbid that this should ever fa',
To be your lot!
"I ever had an anxious wish,
Forgive me, Heaven! if 'twas amiss,
It from the cruel tyrant's crush
Beyond the grave.
"Tho' the fastest liver soonest dies,
An' length o' days'sud mak' ane wise;
An' spur your horse,
They're shortest aye wha gain the praise