Robert Burns and Newington

IT is a great pity that Robert Burns never took up his pen to write us a poem about Newington, for during his stay in Edinburgh (Nov., 1786, to March, 1788) he knew our district well, and we possess as a result several Burns associations which deserve to be better known. 

The first houses of George Square had been built just twenty years before Burns arrived in the town, and already the tide of fashion had moved from the High Street to these new southern suburbs. Indeed, many years before, his father William Burness had helped to make the gardens on the Meadows when the Boroughloch was drained. Very soon society was to move north to the New Town on the other side of the old city - but that was not yet, and Robert found many of the important folk of the day living in the streets south of Bristo. Some of these, such as Buccleugh Place (as it was always spelled), Chaple Street (now West Nicolson Street), Windmill Street and others were quite new; others, like Bristo, Potterrow, Crosscauseway were older places which had once been part of the hamlet of Easter Portsburgh but were now swallowed up in the expanding town. 

So to these streets the Ayrshire Bard found his way - in West Nicolson Street lived the blind poet, Dr. Blacklock, who had been largely the means of Burns coming to Edinburgh, and there Burns met Blacklock's niece, Peggy Chalmers, one of the most gifted and worthy of his ladies, and one who insisted on remaining only a friend. 

If Burns was on his best behaviour when he visited West Nicolson Street, he was not so careful when he went, of nights, round the corner to Buccleugh Pend (now unfortunately demolished), where dwelt Willie Nicol, master at the High School, hard drinker and bawdie companion. The rollicking nights there did not enhance the poet's reputation with the higher society of George Square. For in that beautiful square (shortly to be demolished) lived Jane, Duchess of Gordon. The two danced together at the fashionable Assembly Rooms in Buccleuch Place (now 15 Buccleuch Place); had Burns' star not waned so swiftly in Edinburgh society, the acquaintanceship might have become much closer. But just a stone's throwaway was the house which seemed to promise to play a much greater part in his life; at the gushet of the south end of Potterrow, in General's Entry, lived Mrs. Agnes McLehose - to Burns, "Clarinda." The correspondence which passed between them and their relationship are a constant source of interest to students of Burns, and the whole affair is wrapped in mystery. She was about his own age, deserted of her husband, a gifted woman if rather trauchled by a family; in days of easier divorce she would probably have freed herself of her former ties and married the poet; it might have been a tragedy or it might have been the making of him. 

One evening in the spring of 1787 the poet betook his way into our district dressed for one of the literary dinners of Professor Adam Ferguson at his home at Sciennes Hill House, and there and then took place the only meeting between the Ayrshire Bard and the young Walter Scott. The story has been doubted, but Mr. Forbes Gray, the late antiquarian, believed it. The house still stands, now sadly changed. Its back forms No.7 Braid Place, but if you go through the pend into the green you may still see the outline of the mansion, which Gray calls " one of the most famous houses in Edinburgh." 

After Burns' death the manuscripts of his poems were much sought after and their value rose until to-day they are almost priceless. Concerning some of these valuable scraps of paper there is a story connected with our parish which is almost unknown. Rankeillor Street is usually a windy place, with pieces of paper whirling about in the breeze and dust; had we walked down that street a century ago it might have been worth while to examine these waste-papers, for some of them were probably pages from Burns' excise books, written on one side with his own hand, but scribbled on the other with childish drawings. James Adams, whose father was a South Side doctor, records how as a boy he played in the Rankeillor Street home of Duff Findlater, whose mother was the widow of the son or nephew of Burns' fellow-exciseman and companion. The lady kept "a large number of Burns' writings lying with little care in a large table desk, probably an old office desk . . . we frequently used the unwritten sides of the sheets for delineating houses, beasts and boats . . . we were told they had been taken from old excise ledgers." Some of the papers with which the two little boys had played in the street were later traced and preserved, but most of them must have been lost for ever. 

The greatest Burns' figure connected with our district is, of course, the unhappy Chloris - this was the poetic name given to Jean or Jane Lorimer. "Whistle and I'll come tae ye " and " The Lassie wi' the Lint-White Locks," one of the very finest of love lyrics, and some twenty other poems, concern her. Her father moved with his family from Moffat district to Kemishall, near Dumfries, where he was a prosperous farmer with a tea and wine business into the bargain. Burns had to visit here in the cause of his duties as exciseman, but he also became very friendly with the whole family. His colleague, John Gillespie, was enamoured of the daughter Jean, and Robbie tried to further his cause by providing poetic material. Unfortunately Jean took another consort, one Whelpdale, a Cumbrian who took a farm near Moffat. The match was not happy, they separated, he fell heavily into debt and escaped to England. Much later, Jean visited him in Carlisle Jail, and so changed was he that she could hardly recognise him. 

Thus deserted, Miss Lorimer returned home to her parents, and soon Burns was writing poems not on behalf of his friends but of himself. How close was Burns' association with Jean, who was to him Chloris, is again a mystery; most critics imagine it to be fairly close, too much so for the good reputation of either. His wife, Jean Armour, however, liked Chloris and describes her as “perfectly virtuous," Her father's success soon turned to failure; he lost his money and Chloris had to go into service; in the meantime, the poet's affections had cooled and she passes out of his life. 

Mrs. Whelpdale, now known as Mrs. Lorimer, sank lower; there are references to some "indiscretion" and again the critics disagree; eventually, however, she returned to Scotland and became a housekeeper to a family in Blacket Place or Blacket Avenue. When her health gave way and she became unfit for housekeeping duties her employer pensioned her off in a little “but and ben” up a stair in Middleton's Entry - " a wide pend or archway through the building that formed the west side of Nicolson Square and through which access was given to the Potterrow." Dr. Adams, who has been mentioned above, in his book " Chloris," gives an account of how he visited her when he was a boy, and how she was proud to tell him of her friendship with the now famous poet. She died in September, 1831, aged 56 years, and was buried in East Preston Street, where now a handsome stone marks her grave.