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(As in the Original LimUed Edition,) 

In thus providing for the perusal of 
the relatives of Bums the following 
Memoir of his youngest si§ter, I feel 
that little is required of me in the 
shape of a preface, and still less in 
the shape of an apology. To those 
who were privileged to know her, the 
many admirable traits of her character 
must have become a deeply pleasing 
remembrance, while to those who were 
not so privileged, they can scarcely fail 
to prove an equally pleasing revelation. 


I have left her life's story to speak for 
itself, without the slightest attempt on 
my part in the way either of embel- 
lishment or of modification, and if in 
this .little volume I have in ^any 
measure succeeded in conveying a just 
conception of her, and of her large- 
hearted, loving nature, I shall' feel that; 
my effort has not been altogether 
" love'a labour . lost/' 
• R B. B. 

Kinross, , ^ 

2bth January, 1891. 



npHE subject of the following brief 
Memoir presents in the incidents 
of her chequered life, as weU as in the 
traits of her disposition and character, 
a personality sufficiently noteworthy to 
justify the hope that these pages may 
not be without interest to the many 
admirers of the genius and personality 
of her distinguished brother, Robert 
Burns. Of Mrs. Begg's life's experi- 
ence it has been both well and justly 

remarked that "it has all the charm 


which a tale of humble and honourable 
independence can possess/' while of her 
mental characteristics it may with 
equal truth be said that they were 
eminently fitted to adorn almost any 
sphere of society. 

In her picturesque cottage on the 
banks of the Doon, she was for the last 
sixteen years of her existence regarded 
with much public interest and venera- 
tion, simply because she was the 
youngest sister of Burns, and the last 
survivor of that domestic group, which, 
alike within " the auld clay biggin' " at 
Ayr and in the farm homesteads of 
Mount Oliphant and Lochlea, has for 
more than a century concentrated so 
much of the kindly scrutiny of the 


Scottish people. Independently, how- 
ever, of the lustre shed around her by 
her brother's fame, Mrs. Begg possessed 
a personal claim to special regard, 
which none of the many who were pri- 
vileged to come in contact with her 
found it possible to ignore. To them 
her natural dignity and refinement, her 
acute and vigorous intellect, and her 
cultivated taste, especially in literary 
matters, never failed to convey an in- 
teresting and lasting impression. This 
is gracefully and truthfully referred to 
in the following extract from a tribute 
to her memory, which appeared in the 
public press on the occasion of her 
death towards the close of the year 
1858 :— 


"At her house she received visitors of all 
grades and from all parts, and with all she was 
perfectly at her ease. Hundreds upon hundreds 
from every corner of the United Kingdom and 
from the Continent and America came every 
year to the little cottage at Belleisle to see the 
sister of the poet, and none went away without 
a higher respect for him and all belonging to 
him. They saw in her and in her two daughters 
very much of what they could well fancy the 
poet in his happier hours would have — ^frank 
openness, tempered with that dignified self- 
respect which repelled and checked vulgarity, no 
matter whether it assumed the air of patronising 
self-importance or of rude impertinence. Hers 
was the natural manner which art cannot com- 
municate, and which is beyond convention. Mrs. 
Begg was quite a lady without attempting it, 
just because she was every inch a woman ; and 
the propriety of carriage, which in the case of 
her brother astonished the refined circles of 
Edinburgh three-quarters of a century ago, was 
not less remarkable in her." 

Mrs. Begg s life was a humble one, 

and with the exception of its closing 


Sixteen years, which were passed in 
well-earned peace and comfort, it was 
a struggling one as well. Throughout 
the greater part of its lengthened dura- 
tion of fourscore and six years, her 
every aspiration and thought was fet- 
tered by the sordid details of a life of 
privation and trial. Her education, 
too, was exceedingly meagre, for with 
the exception of the intellectual culture 
imparted to her by her father and her 
brother Robert, and a brief period of 
systematic tuition under John Wilson, 
schoolmaster of Tarbolton, immortalised 
by Burns as " Dr. Hornbook," her 
mental development, like the mental 
development of the other members of 
her family, was entirely self-acquired. 


In spite of this serious disadvantage, 
she seems in her youth to have attained 
to remarkable discrimination of thought 
and considerable cultivation of intel- 
lect ; and in her more mature years she 
displayed traits of elevated sentiment, 
and of native force and felicity of ex- 
pression, which may almost be regarded 
as akin to that with which her poet 
brother was so prodigally endowed. 
This formed a strongly-marked feature, 
not in her conversation alone, but also, 
and more especially, in her epistolary 
correspondence ; and keeping in view 
the limited culture of the period, it is 
scarce possible to peruse the few ex- 
tracts from her letters which are em- 
bodied in these pages without being 


forcibly struck by her peculiar natural 
gift as a letter- writer. In this respect, 
as well as in the unwavering independ- 
ence of spirit and undaunted energy 
which she displayed, her life and char- 
acter form a not uninteresting psycho- 
logical study, illustrating as it does the 
principle of heredity, and the fact that 
the brilliant ray of genius transmitted 
through old William Burness and his 
helpmate Agnes Brown, was not alto- 
gether absorbed by their illustrious 
first-born, but was to a certain extent 
reflected even in the very youngest of 
their numerous offspring. 

Nor was Mrs. Begg the only member 
of the family, in addition to the poet, 
who was gifted with this fertility of 


fancy combined with remarkable felicity 
of expression. It seems indeed to have 
been more or less common to the whole 
of William Burness's children, for we 
find the poet himself, rather a critical 
judge, complimenting his youngest 
brother William very highly on his 
ability as a letter-writer. Writing to 
William in March 1789, the poet 
says :-r 

"I am indebted to you for one of the best 
letters that has been written by any mechanic 
lad in Nithsdale or Annandale or any dale on 
either side of the Border this twelvemonth." 

We also know from the existing 
biographies of the poet that his bro- 
ther Gilbert was similarly gifted, and 
the following extracts from a letter 


addressed to Mrs. Begg by Agnes 
Burns, the eldest daughter of the 
family, show that Agnes likewise 
participated in this family trait. 
Agnes's letter is dated 30th January, 
with the year illegible, but from as- 
certained facts it falls to be assigned 
to one or other of the opening years of 
the present century : — 

"Dear Sister, — ^I received yours of the 18th, 
which affected me very much. I was indeed 
accusing you of neglect; but, short-sighted 
creatures as we are, I did not suspect the cause 
nor ever once thought (amid all this season of 
wishing, which always brings to my mind my 
absent friends) that you were suffering so much 
from pain and depression of spirits; but I am 
happy to see you make such good use of 
affliction. The mind that looks up to heaven 
through the mist of affliction can never want 


" For friend or happy life, who looks not higher, 
Of neither will he find the shadow here. 

"I have been trying to recollect the verses 
you mentioned, but I do not remember them all ; 
but here is what I have : — 

** Sick of this world and all its joy, 
My soul in pining sadness mourns ; 
Dark scenes of woe my thoughts employ, 
The past and present in their turns. 

'* I see, I feel vain life's a dream. 
And never will be cheated more ; 
Vain hopes, fond wishes, I disclaim. 
And fly what I pursued before. 

" Fool that I was to dream of peace 
In such a stormy land as this ! — 
To think to hold in firm embrace 
The fleeting, airy shade of bliss. 

'* The blasts that meet us in the way — 
The ills by which our life's oppressed — 
The clouds that hang upon our day 
Declare that this is not our rest 


'* How kindly are they sent by heaven : 
Misfortunes serve to make us wise. 
By joy misled, by folly driven. 
How many lose the heavenly prize ! 

" Far better to be plagued each morn 
Than slain by blandishments of sense : 
Oh ! rather hedge my way with thorn 
And guard my steps with rugged fence. 

" But oh ! what fickle hearts we have — 
We rush into the world again ; 
We never rest but in the grave, 
But court new vanity — new pain. 

*' While here below we shift and turn — 
The sport of every gale that blows ; 
Now soar, now sink, now joy, now mourn : 
A puflF exalts — sl pufF overthrows. 

*' Oh happy they who ever dwell 
Beyond mortality's dull scene, 
Where radiant rays of light dispel 
This cloud of sorrow and of pain. 


"... If you be writing to Morham, send 
them my best wishes, although they seem to 
have forgot me. I hope you will write me soon. 
Give my best wishes to my mother ; and with 
wishing you all many happy years, I shall con- 
clude. — ^Your affectionate sister, 

"Agnes Burns." 

The family gift of literary expression 
above referred to has not passed un- 
noticed by the numerous biographers 
of the poet. Dr. Chambers, in his 
edition of Bums's Life and Works has 
the following allusion to the subject. 
In speaking of the family of William 
Bumess he says : — 

**It was not alone with the wondrous elder- 
born that literary feeling resided. Agnes, as she 
sat with her two sisters, Anabella and Isabella, 
mi l king the cows, would delight them by reciting 
the poetry with which her mind was stored — as 


the ballad of * Sir James the Eoss/ ' The Flowers 
of the Forest,' or the second version of the 145th 
Psalm in the Scottish translation ; while Gilbert 
was nearly as noted as Eobert for his studies in 
English literature, limited as these were." 

This community of taste was no 
doubt well fostered in the minds of 
William Burness' children by old 
" Betty Davidson," a dependant of 
their father's, who resided in the 
family, and to whom the poet in his 
Autobiography acknowledges his in- 
debtedness, — her inexhaustible collec- 
tion of tales and songs, concerning 
devils, ghosts, fairies, etc., having . 
tended to cultivate in his mind the 
latent seeds of poesy. 

The household of the poet's father, 
William Burness, even although we 


wholly eliminate from the family group 
its great central feature and attraction 
—Burns himself— forms a deeply inter- 
esting and characteristic study of Scot- 
tish domestic life during the last cen- 
tury. The sterling worth, unswerving 
integrity, and plodding, indomitable 
perseverance of the patriarchal father — 
the unquestioning allegiance of his 
prudent and gentle helpmate, Agnes 
Brown, and the loyalty, reverence, and 
devotion of the children, present a type 
of Scottish family community of in- 
terest which, alas ! — ^like many of the 
best of our national characteristics — is 
now in some measure becoming a mere 
relic of the past. Alike at Mount 
Oliphant and Lochlea, this " family de- 


votion " is found in full and active ex- 
istence, toiling on from day to day in 
an unquestioning spirit of loyalty and 
self-abnegation, each member of the 
household feeling the family tie only 
becoming closer and more firmly knit 
amid the calamity and disaster which 
enshrouded them all in common. 

The privation and struggle which 
had to be endured within the "auld 
clay biggin' '' at Ayr, the children of 
William Burness could know little of; 
for in .1766, when the family removed 
thence to Mount Oliphant, Robert, the 

eldest son, was barely seven years of 


age. He and his younger brother Gil- 
bert, and his two younger sisters, 
Agnes and Anabella, were therefore 

i I 


still in that happily inconsiderate stage 
of their existence when worldly cares 
are unknown and undreamed of. When, 
however, the unprofitableness of Mount 
Oliphant compelled a second migration, 
eleven years afterwards, to the farm of 
Lochlea, in the parish of Tarbolton, the 
cares and trials of life must have be- 
come painfully real to at least the elder 
children of the household. The poet 
himself, then in his eighteenth year, 
graphically characterises his life at this 
period as "the cheerless gloom of a 
hermit, with the unceasing moil of a 
galley slave." By this time his brother 
Gilbert was seventeen years of age, and 
his sister Agnes fifteen ; while the 
younger children consisted of Anabella, 


aged thirteen ; William, ten ; John, 
eight ; and Isobel — the subject of this 
Memoir — ^six. 

Such was the household which 
entered into possession of Lochlea in 
1777 ; and for several years William 
Burness, with the assistance of his 
gentle but practical and energetic wife 
and their devoted children, bravely- 
toiled on there, amid many difficulties 
and disadvantages. 

The poet, in his Autobiography, 
after stating that the farm of Loch- 
lea was larger than that of Mount 
Oliphant, goes on to say : — 

''The nature of the bargain was such as to 
throw a little ready money in my father's hand 
at the commencement; otherwise, the affair 


would have been impracticable. For four years 
we lived comfortably here ; but a lawsuit be- 
tween him and his landlord, commencing after 
three years' tossing and whirling in the vortex of 
litigation, my father was just saved from absorp- 
tion in a jail by a phthisical consumption, which, 
after two years' promises, kindly stept in, and 
snatched him away to * where the wicked cease 
from troubling and where the weary are at rest."' 

The poet's younger brother Gilbert, 
in more practical but much less graphic 
form, tells us that Lochlea extended 
to 130 acres, and that the rent was 
twenty shillings an acre ; and he 
adds : — 

" No writing had ever been made out of the 
conditions of the lease ; a misunderstanding took 
place respecting them. The subjects in dispute 
were submitted to arbitration, and the decision 
involved my father's affairs in ruin. He lived to 
know the decision, but not to see any execution 
in consequence of it.*' 


Graphic sketches of the family life at 
Lochlea are to be found scattered over 
the pages of the various editions of the 
poet's Life and Works ; and not the 
least interesting of these is furnished 
by the^ following characteristic letter, 
written by William Bumess himself 
within three years of his death, and 
addressed to his nephew, James Bur- 
ness, Montrose. The letter forms part 
of the interesting collection of Burns's 
relics, now preserved within the Bums's 
Monument in Edinburgh : — 

"Dear Nephew, — I received your affection- 
ate letter by the bearer, who came five miles 
with it to my house. I received it with the 
same warmth you wrote it, and I am extremely 
glad you express yourself with so warm regard 
for your parents and friends. I wish you much 


joy in your wife and child. I would have been 
glad had you sent me their names, with the 
name of your brother-in-law. 

"I have a family of four sons and three 
daughters; two of my sons and two of my 
daughters are men and women, and all with me 
in the farm way. I have the happiness to hope 
they are virtuously inclined. My youngest 
daughter is ten years of age. My eldest son is 
named Robert; my second, Gilbert; the third, 
John ; the fourth, William. My eldest daughter 
is named Agnes; the second, Annabella; the 
third, Isobel. 

" My brother lives at Stewarton, by Kilmar- 
nock. He has two sons and one daughter — 
named John, William, and Fanny. Their cir- 
cumstances are very indifferent. 

" I shall be happy to hear from you when it 
is convenient, when I shall write to you from 
time to time. Please give my respects to your 
brother and sister in the kindest manner, and 
to your wife, which will greatly oblige your 
affectionate uncle, 

"William Burness. 
"LocHLEA, Uth April, 1781.'' 


Dr. Chambers, in his interesting 
biography of the poet, affords us a still 
more realistic view of the family life at 
Lochlea. He says : — 

'* It was a time of comparative comfort for the 
Burness family, although marked not less than 
any other by extreme application to labour. 
The family was a remarkable one in the district. 
They kept more by themselves than is common 
in their class. Their superior intelligence and 
refinement, and a certain air of self-respect which 
they bore amidst all the common drudgeries of 
their situation, caused them to be looked upon 
as people of a superior sort. Country neighbours 
who happened to enter their family room at the 
dinner hour were surprised to find them all — 
father, brothers, and sisters — sitting with a book 
in one hand, while they used their spoons with 
the other.'' 

Of the sterling merits, the head of 
the household, William Burness, alike 


as a man and as a husband and father^ 
little need here be said. These have 
been so often and so forcibly depicted 
by the poet's numerous biographers, 
that his character has already become 
almost typical in its sturdy rigidity of 
principle and conscientious devotion to 
duty. Isobers reverence for and de- 
votion to the memory of her father 
formed a prominent and striking char- 
acteristic of her " mental tone.'' Proud 
as she was of her illustrious brother, 
and fondly as she clung to her every re- 
collection of him, she was still prouder 
of, and clung still more fondly and 
tenderly to her memories of her father. 
Him she regarded as a far higher ob- 
ject of admiration, and her favourite 


delineation of him was to point to him 
as the veritable original of "the saint, 
the father, and the husband,'' so rever- 
ently depicted by her brother in his 
" Cottar's Saturday Night." 

Nor can it be doubted that William 
Burness was a man of rare and excep- 
tional merit. The Manual of Religious 
Belief, which he compiled for the in- 
struction of his children, and which 
occupies a prominent place in the more 
recent biographies of his gifted son, 
clearly shows that he was not only 
deeply imbued with strong rehgious 
feelings, but that he was possessed also 
of considerable intellectual power, ac- 
companied by a remarkable faculty for 
logical philosophic reasoning. He ap- 


pears likewise to have had a facility in 
expressing his ideas in clear, concise, 
and expressibly appropriate language, 
such as seldom forms the mode of ex- 
pression of persons of his education and 
moving in his position in life. It 
seems, too, that in addition to being 
a man of some mental culture, he was 
also an acute and efficient man of busi- 
ness. Among the few precious relics of 
her father which Mrs. Begg fondly 
treasured, there is a small "Memor- 
andum Book," the entries in which 
clearly stamp him as a methodical and 
competent "man of affairs," possessing 
considerable aptitude for matters of 
accounting and finance. This interest- 
ing record of the past is now cut up 


into shreds, owing, it is supposed, to 
the frequent applications made to his 
daughter for a scrap of her father's hand- 
writing — applications which her good 
nature was quite unable to withstand. 
Enough still remains, however, to con- 
nect the entries with the " Lochlea 
period," and one of the pages contains 
a carefully prepared state of Charge 
and Discharge as between his landlord, 
Mr. M^Clure, and himself, which seems 
to indicate that the dispute between 
them, which resulted in the " vortex 
of litigation '' referred to by the poet, 
consisted of a claim which is thus 
stated in the handwriting of William 
Burness : "To damages for want of the 
loch drained @ £21 7s. per year, for 


five years, £106 15s/' From otlier 
memoranda occurring elsewhere in the 
same note-book, it would seem that 
the state referred to was intended by- 
William Burness to show the balanc- 
ing of accounts between him and his 
landlord as at Martinmas 1784 — a 
term which he did not live to see ; and 
probably the complicated accounting, 
not less than four times anxiously 
repeated in a tentative way, and in 
different shapes, formed the old man's 
occupation during the winter of 1783- 
84, when the gradual but steady in- 
roads of his fatal illness occasioned him 
no doubt the deepest anxiety for the 
future welfare of those dependent upon 


Such were the circumstances and 
influences which surrounded Mrs. Begg 
during the years of her girlhood. Bom 
at Mount Oliphant in the year 1771, 
only a few years before her father 
abandoned that farm, she may be said 
to have gathered her earliest experi- 
ence of life on the farm of Lochlea, 
where she passed the seven ypars of 
her existence extending from her sixth 
to her thirteenth year. 

Her reminiscences of this period of 
her life were of too sacred a character 
to be alluded to except within the 
limits of her own family circle, or to 
some specially favoured and sympa- 
thetic listener ; and the light which 
these shed on the early years of the 


poet was alike fascinating and instruc- 
tive. From this reliable source is de- 
rived the deeply interesting informa- 
tion that her father had from a very 
early period of the poet's childhood 
discerned the exceptional talents of his 
eldest son, and had solemnly predicted 
to his wife that, "whoever may live 
to see it, something extraordinary will 
come from that boy." From her, too, 
comes the information that the aged 
father actually lived to realise in some 
measure, and probably not without a 
mysterious blending of parental pride 
with parental anxiety, the truth of his 
own prediction. Some of the early 
effusions of his son's genius he lived to 
read and to appreciate very highly, and 


among these he especially admired the 
exquisite tenderness of sentiment in 
the matchless song, " My Nanny, O ! " 
Mrs. Begg, too, used to relate with 
much enjoyment a domestic incident at 
Lochlea which revealed her father and 
his gifted son in a very real and char- 
acteristic light. In the winter of 1781 - 
82, while Burns was paying court to 
the earliest of his many successive 
divinities, Ellison Begbie, who lived on 
the banks of the Cessnock, about two 
miles from Lochlea, his father became 
naturally alarmed at the lateness of the 
hour at which his son occasionally re- 
turned home. In order to administer 
a fitting rebuke to his son, the father 
one night insisted on sitting up for 


him. When, therefore, the youthful 
bard at length appeared, he found his 
father in waiting for him in his severest 
admonitory mood. On being asked the 
reason for his detention to such a late 
hour, the son began at once to give to 
his father so humorous and fanciful a 
description of his experiences and diffi- 
culties in his journey homewards, that 
the old man became interested and 
amused by the recital, and not only 
forgot entirely the intended rebuke, 
but actually continued sitting at the 
side of the kitchen fire for two hours 
longer enjoying his son's fascinating 

It need scarcely be said that the 
seven years which Mrs Begg spent at 


Lochlea always formed a pleasing and 
happy memory to her, for they were 
hallowed by a father's love and foster- 
ing care. In her own words, as re- 
corded by Dr. Robert Chambers — 

" Her main occupation was one suited to her 
tender years — that of tending the cattle in the 
field. Her father would often visit her, sit down 
by her side, and tell her the names of the 
various grasses and wild flowers, as if to lose no 
opportunity of imparting instruction. When it 
thundered she was sure he would come to her, 
because he knew that on such occasions she was 
apt to suffer much from terror.'* 

These simple and homely remini- 
sconces present to us a touching picture 
of paternal love and protection on the 
one hand, and of childlike confidence 
and trust on the other; and the picture 


becomes still more touching when we 
read her pathetic description of the 
scene around her father's deathbed, on 
13th February 1784. 

" She remembered being at her father's bed- 
side on that morning, with no other company 
besides her brother Kobert. Seeing her cry 
bitterly at the thought of the impending parting, 
her father endeavoured to speak, but could only 
murmur a few words of comfort such as might 
be suitable to a child (she was then only twelve 
years of age) concluding with an injunction * to 
walk in Virtue's paths and to shun every vice.' 
After a pause he said there was one of his family 
for whose future conduct he feared. He re- 
peated the same expression, when the young 
poet came up and said, ' Oh, father, is it me that 
you mean ? ' The old man said it was. Kobert 
turned to the window with the tears streaming 
down his manly cheeks and his bosom heaving 
as if it would burst, from the very restraint he 
put upon himself." 


The saying that the future is merci- 
fully hid from our scrutiny may be 
trite and commonplace, but it is a 
truism of which every succeeding year's 
experience only tends to make the 
triteness more impressive and solemn- 
ising. How merciful it was that, amid 
the fears and anxieties as to the future 
of his illustrious first-born which de- 
pressed the dying father, there was 
mingled no anticipation of the life of 
trial and privation and suffering which, 
by the mysterious decrees of Divine 
Providence, awaited the child of his old 
age as well ! What a pang of anguish 
it would have cost him had he foreseen 
the life of early widowhood, poverty, 

and care which lay before the little 


black-eyed girl who sobbed at his bed- 
side in all the bitterness of a child's 
first real sorrow ! And yet had there 
been vouchsafed to him a glimpse of 
the future life of his youngest and 
favourite child, it would only have re- 
vealed to him a noble instance of trials 
calmly met, of privations bravely en- 
dured, and of difficulties determinedly 
and honourably surmounted. 

Mrs. Begg's recollections of her 
mother were, like those which she 
fondly treasured of her father, fraught 
with the deepest filial reverence and 
affection, although they were of a some- 
what less idealistic character, rlt was 
only natural that they should be so, for 
she was bereft of her father at the very 


stage in her life when her feelings were 
keenest and most impressionable, while 
her mother's death did not occur until 
after she herself had reached the 
shadowy side of life, and had passed 
through many a sad and bitter trial. 
She always spoke of her mother with 
the tenderest love. She described her 
as being neat and small in figure, having 
a fine complexion, pale red hair, and 
beautiful dark eyes, and possessing an 
active, industrious, and cheerful tem- 
perament, although in later life de- 
pressed by anxieties, arising, no doubt, 
from the hardships and difficulties she 
had been called upon to endure. She 
also stated that she sang very sweetly, 
and had an inexhaustible store of 


old ballads and songs. One incident 
illustrative of her mother's devotion as 
a wife, as well as of her natural energy 
of character, she used to relate with 
much feeling. It occuired after her 
father's naturally vigorous constitution 
had begun to be weakened by the 
gradual approach of the illness which 
cut him off. Coming in one day weary 
and exhausted from sowing, he found 
he had used up all his thrashed-out 
grain, and he was desirous to provide 
some for his horses' midday "feed." 
His worthy helpmate, however, insisted 
that he should refresh himself with a 
rest, while she herself proceeded to the 
barn, accompanied by her servant girl, 
Lizzie Paton, and, vigorously wielding 


the flail, thrashed out and winnowed as 
much grain as was required. These 
details, trivial though they are, shed a 
flood of pleasing light over the circum- 
stances which surrounded and influ- 
enced the early years of the poet ; and 
who can estimate the effect they exer- 
cised in developing and. intensifying 
that spirit of consideration for others 
which formed so prominent a feature in 
his large-hearted, generous nature ? 

After the death of William Burness 
in 1784, his widow and children — Ro- 
bert, Gilbert, William, Agnes, Anna- 
bella, and Isobel (John having died 
about a year before his father) — re- 
moved to the farm of Mossgiel, in the 
parish of Mauchline, and there Isobel 


spent a period of fully nine years, dur- 
ing which she was occupied in assisting 
in the ordinary household and other 
duties connected with an Ayrshire 
pastoral farm. Her life at Mossgiel 
seems to have been not less happy than 
it had previously been at Lochlea. It 
is true she had no longer the com- 
panionship and protection of her re- 
vered father, but in her eldest brother 
she had found one who, by his unsel- 
fish, sympathetic nature, was as nearly 
capable as any person could be of filling 
up that irreparable void in her exist* 
ence. A touching proof of this is nar- 
rated by Mr. David Dunlop, solicitor, 
Ayr, who was a much trusted friend of 
Mrs. Begg and her two daughters 


down to the very dates of their deaths. 
In October 1857 he and a friend were 
taking tea with Mrs. Begg and her 
daughters at their cottage at Belleisle, 
and in course of conversation Mr. Dun- 
lop remarked to one of the daughters — 
not anticipating that the old lady, who 
was then in her eighty-sixth year, 
would overhear him — that he presumed 
her mother did not remember much of 
the poet, when she quickly broke into 
the conversation with the earnest ob- 
servation, " I never can forget my 
brother, I was just twelve when my 
father was taken away, and Robert was 
both father and brother to me." 

Mrs. Begg's personal intercourse with 
her gifted brother was chiefly condensed 


within the period of nine years spent 
by her at Mossgiel; or rather within 
the first half of that period, for the 
poet along with his wife took up house 
at EUisland, in Nithsdale, in 1788. 
During the four years which Robert 
spent under the family roof at Mossgiel 
his sister was deeply interested in his 
"poetic flights." She seems to have been 
much in his confidence, and as she was 
gifted with considerable musical taste 
and a sweet voice, he frequently utilised 
her services by causing her to sing over 
to him the songs he was engaged in 
composing. She was also in the habit 
of making herself familiar with the 
other effusions on which he was at this 
period exercising his poetic fancy. In 


her old age she used often to relate 
how the poet was in the habit of hurry- 
ing through his midday meal at Moss- 
giel in order that he might, before re- 
suming his afternoon's work, commit to 
writing, in the privacy of his own and 
his brother Gilbert's sleeping apartment 
— an attic room above the kitchen — 
the verses which his fancy had suggest- 
ed during his outdoor labours in the 
earlier part of the day. These were 
generally written down upon a slate, 
and in his absence his young sister was 
in the habit of stealing up to his room 
and greedily devouring her brother s 
poetic fancies as these were thus 
hurriedly transcribed by him from day 
to day. 


A special interest attaches itself to 
this brief glimpse of the family life at 
Mossgiel which makes one prone to 
linger over it, in the vain attempt 
to realise the bewildering revelation 
which, within that humble attic room, 
must have dawned on the youthful 
bard's still more youthful sister. Hers 
was probably the first eye which dis- 
cerned the glow of the rising luminary. 
Among the poems passing under her 
scrutiny must have been included 
"The Cottar's Saturday Night," "Ad- 
dress to a Mouse," "Address to a 
Mountain Daisy,'' " Epistle to a Young 
Friend," and other early effusions of 
Burns, which, for beauty and depth 
of sentiment, classic purity of expres- 


sion, and genuine tenderness of feel- 
ing, were in his more mature years 
never surpassed. She was then in her 
sixteenth year, and, alike from her own 
poetic temperament and her natural 
discrimination of taste, she was peculi- 
arly fitted to appreciate at their true 
value the richness and beauty of senti- 
ment breathed in her brother's early 
" wood notes wild." She could there- 
fore scarcely fail to foresee that the 
hurriedly-written stanzas, on which she 
thus by stolen glimpses delighted to 
feast her fancy from day to day would 
yet raise to a place among the immor- 
' tals the brother with whom she was 
then so closely and lovingly associated 


amid all the commonplace realities of 
humble, toiling, everyday family life. 

In 1793, six years after the poet had 
left the parental roof, the link which 
had hitherto bound Isobel so closely 
and aflfectionately to the family circle at 
Mossgiel was superseded by the still 
closer tie of matrimony. On the 9th 
December of that year she, in the 
twenty-second year of her age, was 
married to Mr. John Begg, nephew of 
Mr. Campbell, farmer, Roughdyke, in 
the parish of Sorn, by whom he (being 
an orphan) had been brought up and 
educated, and on whose farm he assist- 
ed. The marriage was in every respect 
a suitable one, and held out reasonable 
promise of many years of domestic 


felicity. The young couple took up 
their abode in Mauchline, and passed 
there the first seven years of their 
wedded life, during which period the 
death of the poet occurred at Dumfries 
on 21st July, 1798. In 1800 Mrs. 
Begg and her husband removed to the 
farm of Dinning, in the parish of Close- 
bum, Dumjfriesshire, which three years 
previously had been leased by her elder 
brother, Gilbert. The recent death of 
Bums had awakened anew the public 
interest in his genius, and through the 
kindness of his staunch friend and 
correspondent, Mrs. Dunlop of Dunlop, 
his brother Gilbert had been appointed 
to the management of the farm of Mor- 
ham Muir, near Hadding^ton. As the 


duties of this situation necessitated a 
change of residence on Gilbert's part, 
he induced his brother-in-law, of whom 
he had a very high opinion, to under- 
take the management of Dinning farm 
in his absence. This arrangement con- 
tinued until the expiry of Gilbert 
Burns's lease of Dinning in 1810, when 
Mr. Begg was appointed factor to Mr. 
Hope Vere of Blackwood, in Lanark- 
shire. After being resident there for 
about three years, there occurred the 
great and overshadowing calamity of 
Mrs. Begg's whole life. Her husband 
was in the habit of riding to Lesmaha- 
gow to attend the market there, and 
on the 24th April, 1813, instead of 
using the horse he usually rode, he was 


induced to use one belonging to Mr. 
Hope Yere, which had been showing 
symptoms of fractiousness owing to 
want of exercise. All went well on the 
journey to the market, but when start- 
ing on his return the high-spirited 
animal, fretful at finding its impatience 
checked, reared and fell backwards on 
its rider, crushing him to death. By 
this tragic event Mrs. Begg found her- 
self a widow, with nine children un- 
provided for, and entirely dependent on 
her for their maintenance and support 
— William, aged eighteen ; John, six- 
teen; Robert, fifteen; Agnes, thirteen; 
Gilbert, eleven ; Jane, nine ; Isabella, 
seven : James, four ; and Edward, 


How the earlier years of her widow- 
hood and desolation were surmounted 
is known only to Him who never fails 
to be " the widow's help and the 
orphan's stay/' By dint of opening a 
girl's school in the neighbouring village 
of Kirkmuirhill, the dauntless and 
energetic mother contrived to earn an 
income which, with the help of a small 
annual grant temporarily allowed her 
by Mr. Hope Vere, provided a bare and 
scanty subsistence for her and her 
helpless children, and by this means 
she struggled through the first four 
years of her widowhood. William, her 
eldest son, although verging on man- 
hood, was unable to be of much 
assistance to his mother. He was a 


youth of superior abilities and much 
promise, and at the time of his father's 
sudden and unexpected death he was 
engaged in qualifying himself for the 
medical profession by the requisite 
attendance at Edinburgh University. 
The paramount exigencies of his mother 
and family, however, compelled him to 
abandon this career, and, as an immedi- 
ate means of gaining a livelihood for 
himself and of assisting his mother in 
her time of greatest need, he at once 
devoted himself to teaching. After 
acting for some time as assistant 
teacher in Dalmeny Academy and 
elsewhere, he, in 1817, secured the 
appointment of parish schoolmaster at 

Ormiston, in the county of Edinburgh, 


and he took his mother and his young 
brothers and sisters to reside with him 
in the schoolhouse there. The income 
arising from this appointment, small as 
it was, must have proved a material 
and opportune aid to Mrs. Begg. Com- 
bined with what she herself still con- 
tinued to earn by conducting a female 
school at Ormiston, and the proceeds of 
her own and her daughters' industry 
with their needles, it by frugal and 
economical management provided in a 
way for the simple wants of the 
numerous household. Even yet, how- 
ever, the well-merited haven of peace 
and rest and comfort was far from being 
attained, and many years of anxious and 
harassing cares had still to be endured. 


From letters addressed by Mrs. Begg 
to her third son Robert, who succeeded 
his eldest brother William as assistant 
teacher at Dalmeny Academy, and 
afterwards became schoolmaster of the 
parish of Kinross, it is clear that 
calamities and trials of a new but not 
less depressing and wearing out char- 
acter began to gather thickly around 
her in her new home at Ormiston. 
These letters were written at very 
irregular intervals and embrace a period 
of fully fourteen years, extending from 
the year 1819, soon after she had 
become resident at Ormiston, down to 
the year 1834, when, after the depart- 
ure of her eldest son for America, she 
was located in the village of Tranent 


maintaining herself and family by her 
own honourable industry and that of 
her affectionate and devoted daughters, 
Agnes and Isabella. These letters 
were found in the repositories of her 
son Robert, after his death in the 
schoolhouse at Kinross, on 25th July 
1876, in the eightieth year of his age. 
They had been sacredly treasured 
by him as much valued mementoes of 
one for whom he had all his life through 
cherished the deepest filial affection 
and reverence, and who in return had 
in all her afflictions and misfortunes 
clung to him as her chief earthly 
comfort and hope. The correspondence 
is of a deeply interesting character, 
arising not only from the nature of the 


various incidents and topics to which it 
refers, but also and still more from the 
extremely forcible and almost classic 
elegance of diction which it sometimes 
displays. Indeed, the mere superficial 
appearance of the letters is in itself 
interestingly suggestive. They are 
written in a very plain and distinct but 
utterly unformed hand, showing clearly 
that writing was anything but a fre- 
quent or even a congenial task, and 
yet, notwithstanding this evident fact, 
they are expressed in language which, 
for grace and ease of diction and force 
and appropriateness of expression, 
might almost have flowed from the 
facile pen of the poet himself. The 
phraseology of the letters, elevated as 


it is, is quite unstilted and unstudied, 
and it clearly forms the natural, un- 
affected, and spontaneous utterances of 
a large and loving nature, influenced 
by much fervour of poetic sentiment, 
but governed throughout by a vigorous 
and sagacious intellect, and at the same 
time by acutely discriminating good 

The incidents in Mrs. Begg's life 
during the period embraced by this 
correspondence cannot be better or 
more forcibly depicted than by repro- 
ducing here some extracts from the 
letters themselves, and few, we think, 
too, can read these extracts without re- 
cognising the " family likeness " already 
referred to as traceable between her 


mode of thought and form of expression 
and those of her gifted brother. This 
" strain " of similarity, if the assumption 
of its existence is well founded, becomes 
a not unimportant literary fact, as 
it tends to negative the opinion of 
Lord Jeffrey and other recognised 
authorities on English classic composi- 
tion, that the epistolary diction of 
Burns was an artificial and laboured 
acquisition, altogether alien to his 
character. In the case of his sister no 
such theory can for a moment be main- 
tained by any one who reads her letters 
in the light of her position in life, and 
the circumstances under which they 
were written. They form the unconven- 
tional and confidential communications 


of a mother to her son, for whose perusal 
alone they were intended. It is this 
which imparts the touch of genuine 
originality and thorough naturalness to 
the dignified and cultured form of 
expression adopted by Mrs. Begg ; and 
it is this which seems to indicate that 
her natural gift, such as it was, pro- 
ceeded from none other than the same 
parent source from which the poet him- 
self inherited his more fervid and 
brilliant, but not less natural style of 
diction. Carlyle happily characterizes 
the letters of Burns as ** simple, vigor- 
ous, expressive — sometimes even beauti- 
ful," and in a sense modified to the 
widely differing circumstances and ex- 
periences of the writers, the letters of 


his sister may almost be similarly- 

The first of the letters to which 
reference has been made, is dated 18th 
April, 1819. It contains a graphic and 
pathetic statement by Mrs. Begg of 
the depressing maternal cares and 
anxieties with which she at that time 
had to contend, but a characteristic 
touch of humour is ere long permitted 
to break through the despondent narra- 

" I have talked," she says, " of writing to you 
this fortnight past, but have not been able to 
get the better of indolence so far as to do it. 
, . . We are all got the better of our com- 
plaints now, but it is only within these three 
weeks that I am able to write a letter to any 
one, or to be of any manner of use in my 
family. . . . 


" Our school was examined last Monday, and 
your youngest sister won the two first prizes, 
and Jane got a very pretty psalm-book for the 
catechism ; but poor Edward, though he labour- 
ed sore, was only second of his class ; but Hope, 
the never-failing friend of the unfortunate, 
jQatters him with the promise of a prize next 
year. ... 

"I heard from your uncle [her brother, 
Gilbert] last Friday, and they are all well. We 
have not seen any of them since you were here, 
but I am going to visit them the first good day 
after I have got some bare bottoms clad, which I 
am under the necessity of imploring your help 
to accomplish, as I have been able to do very 
little for myself this winter. Farewell, and may 
the orphan's help be your friend and protector 
is the sincere wish of your affectionate mother." 

A subsequent letter, dated 13th July 
of the same year (1819), is in the same 
8ad tone, relieved here and there by in- 
voluntary indications of that irrepres- 
Blble humour which formed a prominent 


feature in her character, and which no 
doubt helped to sustain her under 
her numerous trials and difficulties. 

" You will blame me very much for being so 
long in writing you, and indeed I am without 
excuse, therefore I shall not attempt to make one, 
but try to answer your kind letter the best way I 
<5an, and I must thank you for your present^ 
which was indeed a seasonable one, for my diffi* 
-culties seem to multiply with my days. Edward, 
too, returns you many thanks for his psalm-book, 
with which he was much delighted ; but you 
would have felt for poor James had you seen 
how disappointed he was; but he bade me thank 
you for your promise of sending him something, 
the choice of which he leaves to yourself, only he 
thinks psalm-books are very dear things, and per- 
haps a pistol would be cheaper; but you will see 
the impropriety of indulging this wish. 

" You bid me write of all my ills, real or ima- 
ginary ; but I have felt and daily feel so many 
of the real ills of life that I have no imaginary 
ones to complain of. But though my cup of life 
has been very bitter for these some years past. 


Still there has been mixed in it a drop of sweet 
now and then, and I dare not nor will not 

There also occurs in this letter the 
following pungent allusion to a dispute 
which had arisen between her eldest 
son as schoolmaster of Ormiston and 
his clerical supervisor : — 

" I am sorry to say that your brother has got 
embroiled with this overbearing priest of ours, 
who is positively the greatest fool that ever 
wore a black coat, and I expect nothing but a 
living plague of him as long as we are within his 
power. Had your brother nothing but himself 
to care for, it would give me no concern ; but 
while he has so broad a mark for misfortune in 
his father's family hanging such a burden upon 
him, it distresses me very much. 

" Your grandmother [the poet's mother, then 
resident with her son Gilbert at Grantsbraes 
near Haddington] is still confined to her bed, 
and I am afraid she will never be able to sit out 


of it again ; but she seems to have no ailment 
but the decay of nature, ... I had a letter 
last week from your auntTGalt [her sister Agnes]. 
She is well, but does not feel comfortable in the 
land of the shamrock. . . ." 

In another letter, dated 2l8t Novem- 
ber 1819, her maternal despondency, 
intensified by weakness arising from 
recent illness, again finds graphic and 
pathetic expression : — 

" I am thankful to God that I am again able 
to write you, though I doubt much if you will 
be able to read what I write, my hand is so un- 
steady from my extreme weakness; but I am 
now quite well in health, and I hope I shall 
soon be able to work "at my needle as usual 
The rest are all well. We had a visit of Gilbert 
[her son] last night, which we have not had 
since that unwelcome one when he left his 
master. He is well, and I never saw him look- 
ing better, and what is still more agreeable, I 
have had repeated intelligence from your uncle 
[her brother Gilbert], who, you know, never 



draws a flattering picture, that he is doing well 
and Mr. Lamb is much pleased with him. I wish 
to heaven it may continue ; and I hope still, for 
all his vagaries, he may be an honour to hi& 
friends and a comfort to his mother. I am much 
afraid all is not well with John [another son) 
from his silence to you, for I have not wrote him 
since I had his last letter, which I received the 
week before I took the fever ; and I had a letter 
from Betty Thomson [an illegitimate daughter of 
**"" tbe-^poet] last week, and she says she had not 
seen him for a long time, and last time she saw 
him he had got warning to leave his master. 
This intelligence has distressed me very much. 
, . . What in the name of goodness will be- 
come of him if he does not get work ? Betty, 
too, draws a picture of horror. Her husband was 
for some time idle, and he is now working as si 
labourer for nine shillings per week, and with 
broken weather he often did not earn half of it. 
God help them ! Poor creatures ! I have not 
filled my mouth once but I have thought of 

The opening days of the succeeding 
year (1820) witnessed the gradual and 


peaceful fulfilment of the foreboding in 
regard to her mother's illness to which 
Mrs. Begg had given expression in her 
letter of the previous summer. On 
14th January the venerable mother of 
the poet, after a prolonged life of 
nearly ninety years, peacefully sank to 
her final rest within her son Gilbert's 
house at Grantsbraes. Mrs. Begg's 
letter to her son announcing this event 
is disappointingly brief, but the reasons 
for its brevity are sufficiently disclosed 
by the letter itself. 

^^ Monday Evening, 

"My Dear Egbert, — ^Your brother has in- 
formed you of the death of your grandmother, 
and though it is an event we have long looked ' 
for, yet I cannot contemplate it without feelings 
of much distress, and it is heightened by the 



fiituation of your aunt Burns [her brother Gil- 
bert's wife], who is very ill. I have not seen her, 
but Nancy was there to-day, and from her ac- 
count she is in a very alarming state. They had 
not called the surgeon until yesterday, and he 
took three teacupful of blood from her yester- 
day, and as much to-day, and she is forbid to 
speak or make the smallest exertion. Your 
uncle will write you when be is determined when 
the funeral is to take place. . . . He is 
thinking of Thursday, and I hope to have the 
pleasure of seeing you on Wednesday evening. 

"I had a letter the week before last from John 
[her elder son, who had recently sustained a 
family bereavement]. He is well and composed, 
and though he must feel his sorrows like a man, 
he also seems to bear them like a man. Good 
night, my dear child. May God bless you, and 
make you good and wise and happy. — ^Your 
AiFectionate mother, 

" Isabella Begg.'* 

The poet's mother was Interred in 
Bolton Churchyard at noon on Thurs- 
day, 20th January 1820, and many is 


the pilgrimage which has since that 
date been made to her lowly grave by 
the enthusiastic admirers of her son's 
genius. During the past half-century 
much has been written, both in prose 
and verse, in honour of ** Agnes 
Brown," but perhaps the most touching 
and eloquent tribute to her memory is 
that contained in a poetic reverie over 
her grave by Mr. John Russell, of 
Chambers's Journal, from which are 
extracted the following six stanzas : — 

^' Here in this alien ground her ashes lie, 

Far from her native haunts on Carrick shore, 
Far from where first she felt a mother's joy 
O'er the brave child she bore. 

*^ Ah, who can tell the thoughts that on her prest 

As o'er his cradle-bed she bent in bliss, 



Or gave from the sweet fountains of her breast 
The life that nourished his ? 

*' Perhaps in prescient vision came to her 
Some shadowings of the glory, yet afar, 
Of that fierce storm whence rose serene and 
His never-setting star. 

" But dreamt she ever, as she sang to still 

His infant heart in slumber sweet and long. 
That he who, silent lay the while, should fill 
Half the round world with song ? 

*Tet so he filled it; and she lived to see 

The singer, chapleted with laurel, stand, 
Upon his lips that wondrous melody 
Which thrilled his native land. 

"She saw, too, when had passed the singer's 
A nation's proud heart throbbing at his 
Forgetting in the pitying light of death 
Whatever was of blame.*' 


During the spring following her 
mother's death, Mrs. Begg's maternal 
anxieties seem chiefly to have been con- 
centrated on the necessity for securing 
higher class education for her daughter 
Jane, a delicate but exceedingly inter- 
esting and promising girl, then in the 
sixteenth year of her age. In a post- 
script to a letter from her eldest son to 
his brother Robert, dated 30th March 
1820, she says : — 

" I would wish to write you, as I do not lik^ 
to see a blank page in your letter ; but as I have 
suffered more than an ordinary share of vexation 
of spirit this some time, I perhaps may not find 
words fit to lay before you. My plan for Jeanie, 
on which my mind was so ardently bent, is 
entirely defeated. When I came to close enquiry 
about the teacher in Tranent of whom I had 
heard so much, I found she taught nothing that 


I wanted ; and what shall I do, or rather what 
can I do, but sit down and cry in vexation, dis- 
appointment, and remorse 1 Your 's people, 

if they were willing, could easily help us without 
injuring themselves much, but I have received 
more obligations at their hands than I have been 
able to swallow. . . ." 

In her next letter (24th April 1820), 
the same engrossing subject is again 
discussed in a shrewd and practical 
manner, and leads in the most natural 
way to an incidental expression of 
political sentiment, which for vigour 
and independence might fitly have 
formed part of one of the poet's own 
trenchant utterances : — 

" I have as desired thought anxiously on your 
proposal for Jane, and most ardently do I wish it 
was in our power to send her, but how shall we be 
able to support such an additional expense) How- 


ever, I wish you would enquire after the terms 
— ^there can be nothing amiss in that — and let 
me know. Jeanie is just at the best time of life 
for leaving with advantage to herself, and she 
has much need of seeing a little more of the 
world beyond her mother's fireside. I regret 
our bewildered situation in this filthy place, as 
much on account of your two little sisters almost 
as anything else. Were we, for instance, within 
the reach of a school such as that you mention 
in Queensferry, what a treasure would it be to 
them ! But 1 must investigate this unpleasant 
subject no further, else I shall grow quite un- 
happy and lose the enjoyment of this delightful 
afternoon, which is as much mine as the king's, 
for all the parade that is making about him to- 
day. By-the-bye, I must tell you that our 
Ormiston gentry are run mad with loyalty. 
They have got a cart of coals lighted at the 
Cross, and are to hold a general meeting at six 
in the evening to drink the King's health. What 
sort of meeting will it be, think you, when there 
is almost as many different parties as individ- 
uals ?. . ." 


In a subsequent paxt of the same 
letter there is conveyed, in all the 
pride of a mother's heart, the intelli- 
gence that her son Edward's hopes of 
the previous year had not proved 
delusive : — 

" Edward got the second best prize for being 
dux in the catechism, and I do not know whether 
his mother or he felt most delighted! . . . 
P.S. — It is now past eleven, and our loyal fools 
are not left the convivial board. Is it not an 
auspicious beginning of a reign 1 Good night I " 

On 28th May 1820, the subject of 
her daughter's education again forms 
the theme of an interesting practical 
letter : — 

"I have read your letter for the twentieth 
time, and I am very grateful to you indeed 
for your kind exertions in favour of your 


sisters, and I am obliged to Mrs. for 

the trouble she has taken for my unfortunate 

daughters. Miss M 's boarding is, as you 

say, by far too high for us to think of in the 
present state of our family. The taking a room 
is certainly the best plan for us, as it will be 
cheaper, for boarding, unless it was in a genteel 
family, is of no use, and we cannot expect board- 
ing very cheap in any family of that description. 
The room, therefore, is the plan to be adopted, 
and your idea of sending them both is surely 
very proper, as they could attend to different 
branches of education at the same time, and im- 
prove one another after their return, and they 
will be much happier together ; but if we think 
of sending them both, it must be deferred till 
the spring, as it would be injuring Isabella very 
much to take her from school just now. She is 
learning arithmetic and French, and, I think, 
with tolerable success, and they are both 
branches of the utmost utility to her, and she 
never can acquire them under an abler teacher. 
Jeanie, too, is attending French. She, poor 
girl, has been much afflicted with that nervous 
headache for this week past, and I am afraid the 
confinement of a school would increase it. So 


from all these considerations, if you have made 
no positive engagement about the room, we had 
better put it oflF for some time. ... I 
earnestly wish it may please God to put it in 
our power to realise this scheme, for I think it 
would be a means of securing independence to 
your sisters — an independence which my heart 
bleeds to tell you . . . renders every day 
more and more necessary.*' 

In a letter dated 1st April, 1821, 
almost exclusively devoted to the ex- 
pression of her maternal fears and 
anxieties occasioned by the roving, un- 
settled habits of two of her sons, who 
had now attained to manhood, she 
adds : — 

'^ My mind is familiar with little else but feel- 
ings of sadness. You can hardly imagine what I 
have suffered for some months past. I have 
dwelt on this disagreeable theme until I am 
almost unable to proceed with my letter. ..." 


There then occurs the following^ 
touching reference to her desire to see her . 
eldest son removed from Ormiston to a 
parish of greater importance, and aflPord- 
ing better scope for his superior educa- 
tional capabilities : — 

" You have opened a new source of action for 
that never-failing friend of man, Hope, in your 
intelligence concerning Dunkeld. I hope William 
will make a spirited push for it, but I shall sit 
as loose to the result as possible, for I was much 
disappointed at the unsuccessful application for 
Dumfries, for I thought if he could have interest 
anywhere it was there." 

In the spring of the following year 
(1822) there is conveyed in a letter, 
dated 19th April, the first intelligence 
of the illness which, by its fatal ter- 
mination in July of the same year. 


broke down all her anxiously matured 
plans for the completion of the educa- 
tion of her daughter Jane, and probably 
a more pathetic wail was never wrung 
frona a mother's sorrow-stricken heart : — 

" I received your letter, and I know you will 
be very angry with me for not answering it 
sooner. Indeed, I have been angry with myself 
a thousand times, but you know it is an Hercu- 
lean labour for me to write a letter, and I have 
wrote two this last week, so you may suppose it 
will cost me a good deal of exertion to write 
another. . . Poor Jane left Edinburgh the 
Tuesday after you saw her, in a very ill state of 
health indeed ; and she is very little better yet, 
if at all, and I am sorely alarmed about her. 
William laughs, or pretends to laugh, at my 
fears ; but I have always thought her mind and 
body too delicate to be long an inhabitant of this 
world. I wish I could say with Eli, * It is the 
Lord : let Him do to me as it seemeth Him 
good ; ' but this is far from being the language 
of my heart. But I must learn submission, and 


I trust the Almighty Author of our being, who 
has implanted those tender feelings in the breast 
of His creatures, will pardon the effects of them 
in the hour of severe trial." 

Referring in the same letter to her 
son Robert's recent appointment to the 
office of schoolmaster of Kinross parish, 
fihe remarks: — 

" Your brother has been busy with his school 
examination, which took place last Monday. 
You must write him soon, and tell us what class 
of people your scholars are mostly composed of 
— ^whether they will call forth the exercise of 
your talents as a classical teacher, or if they will 
lie dormant, like your brother's in Ormiston." 

In a letter dated 14th August, 1822, 
only a month after her daughter's 
death, there are again sad indications 
of impending bereavement. Edward, 
her youngest child, then eleven years 


of age, having three weeks previously 
begun to exhibit symptoms of a linger-^ 
ing illness, under which he gradually 
sank in March, 1824, During thi& 
trying period of nearly two years, Mrs. 
Begg seems to have been engrossed in 
ministering to her dying boy, and thera 
is only one solitary letter from her in 
the interval. It is dated 5th Decem- 
ber, 1823, and it still dwells painfully 
on her fears and anxieties for tha 
wanderer of the family, 

" I received your last letter with much plea- 
sure, as I grew very anxious about your long 
silence, and I had hoped that you would be able 
to give me some intelligence of my poor, lost,, 
deluded Gilbert ; but now these hopes are fled^ 
and what am I to think or what am I to do ? It 
is impossible to describe the painful feelings 
which this sad uncertainty has given me. For 


goodness sake tell me what John supposes. 
What were his motives for going away, what 
society he had (for he would hardly go by him- 
self), and if he never heard of him after he left 
Hamilton. He must have taken some desperate 
«tep, or some dreadful thing has befallen him, or 
we must have heard something of him by this 
time, I am lost in conjecture, and every idea 
that I can form is replete with horror. I hope 
you will write me soon; but you can have no 
comfort to give me, for all my sufferings, painful 
as they have been, fall short of this. I wish you 
«ould advise me what to do with James. He is 
grown very anxious to get away, and I am still 
uncertain what to do. A shopkeeper or baker 
are the only things he makes choice of. The 
former I would prefer from the superior society 
{comparatively) to which it would introduce him, 
but I am afraid the latter will be most easily 
attained. Tell me what you think. Poor 
Edward is much fallen off since you saw him. 
He is walking on crutches, as he can make very 
little use of his limbs. The doctor has been 
teasing him with blisters, seemingly with very 
little hope of success ; but we are willing to do 
what we can, but I fear his delicate constitution 


wQl not be able to stand much. All the rest are 
well You must excuse this short letter ; I will 
write you a longer one next time. God bless 
you, into whose all-sufficient protection I com- 
mend you." 

The death of her youngest child was 
a heavy trial to Mrs. Begg. She had 
already sustained bereavement and 
misfortune greater than that which falls 
to the lot of most women, and nothing 
but her natural energy of character, and 
calm dignified self-possession, enabled 
her to bear up under this bitter accu- 
mulated sorrow. That it created a void 
in her existence as permanent as it was 
painful was evidenced by the frequency 
with which pathetic allusions to "my 
little Edward" dropped casually from 
the aged mother's lips, down even to 


the period of her own death, nearly 
forty years after her boy's brief exis- 
tence had terminated. The toys he 
had amused himself with, the copy- 
books he had written, even the little 
stool on which, during his long period 
of bodily weakness, he had sat leaning 
on his mother's knee, were all fondly 
treasured by her as mementoes of her 
dead child. This stool in particular 
seemed to be regarded with an almost 
sacred feeling. Down to the day of her 
death it regularly stood close to her 
own favourite chair at the fireside of 
her cottage at Belleisle, and if any of 
her juvenile friends were invited to sit 
upon it, they never failed to regard the 


privilege as a mark of exceptional 

The letters of 1824 and subsequent 
years are almost exclusively filled with 
shrewd, house-wifely advices to her son 
in regard to house furnishing, and other 
incidental domestic arrangements con- 
nected with his taking possession of the 
schoolhouse at Kinross, which had been 
erected for his accommodation. These 
are characterised by sound, practical 
common sense and good taste, although, 
when regarded in the light of modem 
ideas and experiences, they occasionally 
suggest an amusing contrast. For 
example, take the following pithy 
observations on that most inexhaustible 
of all topics, the female domestic : — 


*' I am thinking of coming over to Kinross to 
set you all to rights in your new house, for I see 
that if you are entirely left to yourself you are 
likely to go very far wrong. Another thing I 
am quite astonished at is the wages you propose 
for your servant^ if you mean X6 in the half year 
[the wages were yearly — not half-yearly, as 
supposed] ; and I am afraid the lady you speak 
of is far more a friend to the woman than to you. 
I see no need you have for such an expensive 
servant, as a new house is so easy kept clean, and 
your work will be so very small that one of less 
experience will do you well enough, if she is an 
honest, cleanly creature, and has an ordinary 
share of common sense." 

Another of the letters of this period 
is somewhat characteristic. It com- 
mences, " My dear Children/' and is 
evidently intended for the joint benefit 
of her son and his youngest sister, 
Isabella, who was then on a visit to 

him at Kinross schoolhouse : — 


'' Your [eldest] sister is this moment left me, 
and your brother, according to custom, is gone to 
the doctor, and I am left to my solitude. I see 
you are enjoying yourselves well. I am afraid 
Isabella will feel a sad void when she returns to 
the still life we lead in Ormiston after so much 
gaiety, and I fancy she will put her return as far 
off as possible. However, she may make her 
own time for anything that I see ; but I under- 
stand there is a meeting of the schoolmasters in 
Edinburgh on Saturday, which probably you will 
attend, and if she is able to travel the day after 
the ball, to which she seems to look forward with 
BO much delight, she will have a brother's protec- 
tion at both ends of the journey as William is 
going to the meeting. But do as you shall judge 
proper, and let her take care of her health. I 
am very angry at the contemptuous manner 

Isabella speaks of my good friend Laird C . 

I suppose she expected to see a beau like ; 

and though his manners are plain, they are far 

from being rude. So P M is a favourite 

with Isabella. This I can allow, for he is 
certainly one of a thousand ; but talk not to me 

of A C y for the child who can use his 

parent in the unfeeling, disrespectful manner he 


does his old father, shows a heart void of every 
right feeling or principle/* 

As a further quotation from Mrs. 
Begg's letters, the following very- 
characteristic and kindly New Year's 
greeting to her son Robert and his 
young wife, on 4th January, 1829, 
cannot be omitted : — 

"Many happy returns of the season to you, 
my dear children ! May the good things brought 
forth by the sun, and the good things brought 
forth by the moon, be your portion ; and above 
all, may you enjoy the blessing of God, which 
maketh rich and addeth no sorrow thereunto. I 
received your last letter, which I was glad to see, 
for I almost thought that you had forgotten me ; 
and though I allow your fireside is and ought to 
be very dear to you, yet I cannot bear the 
thought of being altogether excluded from a 
share in your remembrance. I am much obliged 
to Grace [her daughter-in-law] for the intelligence 
concerning my young friends [her grandchildren]^ 


Dear little things ! 1 was much disappointed 
indeed that I could not get over to see them in 
autumn, but this saving system which we have 
been obliged to adopt has made me sacrifice much 
of my own gratification for the good of the 

This letter also contains an expression 
of sympathy for an interesting young 
friend who had been left a widow with 
little or no provision for her earthly 
comfort, and the genuine earnestness of 
its terms is pathetically suggestive of 
the still more bitter experiences she 
herself had been called upon to undergo 
fiome twelve years before : — 

** I was very sorry to hear of poor Mrs. 
L ^'s accumulated distresses. What a merci- 
ful dispensation that she has no family ! What 
are one's own wants to the sufferings of a 
widowed mother, surrounded by a number of 


dear little beings that she loves as her own life, 
looking to her for the supply of wants she has 
not the power to gratify? Oh, it is super- 
eminent misery ! " 

This letter also discloses a new 
calamity which had recently added 
additional bitterness to her already 
brimming cup of sorrow. Her youngest 
son, James, a high-spirited lad — ^the 
same who, in his tenth year, had 
expressed so decided a preference for a 
"pistol" as compared with a ** psalm- 
book" — had broken his apprenticeship 
as a baker, and had enlisted as a private 
soldier in the 26th Regiment, then in 
Edinburgh Castle, on the eve of depart 
ture for active service in India. She 
says : — 


"Not a single line from poor James, and I 
know not what to think. Oh, what suffering has 
that thoughtless boy heaped upon his mother, 
and, what is worse, upon himself 1 He will find 
by this time, if he is still in existence, that a 
soldier's life is not to be estimated by their duty 
in Edinburgh Castle. Gilbert says most truly 
that his profession is no disgrace to him, were it 
not that the profession is disgraced by so many 
mean, base scoundrels getting into it that have 
been kicked out of every other society of men." 

In a subsequent letter^ dated 2nd 
August of the same year, there occurs 
the following allusion to the same 
subject : — 

" I have heard nothing of James since his first 
letter after reaching Madras, and anxiously have 
1 been watching the arrival of the ships from 
India, but they have brought me nothing but 

Of this " anxious watching " for news 
of her soldier son, absorbing twelve 


years of her life, the results were only 
disclosed at her death, when there was 
found carefully preserved among her 
domestic treasures a bundle of interest- 
ing letters, dating from 1829 to 1840, 
in which the wanderer detailed his 
experiences during his military career 
in India. Stationed first at Madras, 
and afterwards at Taragonee, Meerut, 
and Ghazeepore, he steadily worked his 
way upward to the rank of sergeant. 
In his last letter, written on board the 
"Emaad," at Penang, on 20th April, 
1840, he informs his mother that he is 
on his way to China with his regiment, 
and he adds, with the true ardour of a 
soldier, " I hope we will have something 
more to do than the last expedition we 


wentron ; not that the Bengal princes 
are more inclined to show the white 
feather, but the Chinese have never 
been tried, and therefore will be more 
conceited." The series of letters closes 
sadly, but not inappropriately, with a 
formal communication from the War 
Office announcing his death at Chuzan 
on the 2nd November, 1840, and en- 
closing a silver medal which had been 
awarded to him for " distinguished 
conduct " in China, 

Mrs. Begg's letter of 1829 closes the 
correspondence from which these ex- 
tracts are made. Alth6ugh still under 
sixty years of age and enjoying active, 
vigorous health, her lack of facility in 
penmanship naturally led her to devolve 


on her youngest daughter, Isabella, who 
had now attained to womanhood, and 
was a very able and fluent letter-writer, 
the duties of "fiimily correspondent,'' 
and from this custom she seems only 
once afterwards to have deviated. 

Immediately after retiuming from a 
visit to her son at Kinross, she had 
occasion to write to him on 6th April, 
1834, in regard to an effort he was then 
making to secure for her in her advanc- 
ing years some fixed and reliable 
provision in the shape of an annuity 
under a Mid-Lothian endowment for 
ladies of straitened means. It may be 
stated that the effort was successful, 
and that Mrs. Begg continued to enjoy 
the small annuity awarded to her for 


several years, when, owing to her 
improved circumstances, she felt herself 
enabled to relinquish it for the benefit 
of some probably more necessitous 
claimant : — 

"I presented your letter to Mr. Henderson, 
and he is most willing to do everything in his 
power to forward your wishes. He understands 
the matter perfectly, and the first thing to be 
done is to get an extract of my age, which he 
wishes to have immediately, so you must write 
to Ayr. I was born in 1771, and remember the 
name is Bumess. Your sisters are very indignant 
at this application, but I am impelled by strong 
necessity's supreme command to conquer these 
feelings, however bitterly they may be felt. I 
reached home that day I left you very much 
fatigued indeed. I was very sick from the time 
I left the North Ferry until I came to Edinburgh, 
when I grew better, and pursued my journey 
with more ease. You will have seen the death 
of your aunt [her sister-in-law, Jean Armour] in 
the newspaper. I had a letter from Sobert [the 


poet's eldest son] on Monday, with the intelli- 
gence of her demise, and, not less distressing 
information to me, that my sister [Agnes, Mrs, 
€ralt] was reduced to a state of insensibility by a 
«hock of paralysis ; but I trust it is not true, as 
he speaks of it as report only. I had a visit from 
your aunt from Grantsbraes [her brother Gilbert's 
widow] on Thursday. Her family are all well, 
but not a word of Robert. Poor fellow ! He 
had the warmest heart in the family, and he 
seems to be cast out and forgotten. . . 

" I hope you will make no delay in writing to 
Ayr, as Mr. H. wishes to have the petition got 
up as soon as possible, that he may have time to 
strengthen it as far as he can before going to 
Edinburgh in May, when he intends putting it 
into the hands of Principal Baird. Farewell, 
and may the blessing of God rest on every mem- 
ber of your family is the sincere wish of your 
Affectionate mother." 

The letter from Robert Burns, the 
eldest son of the poet, announcing the 
death of his mother, to which Mrs. 
Begg refers in the letter above quoted, 


she carefully preserved. It is written 
on the back of a printed card conveying 
formal intimation of the death as fol- 
lows : — 

" Mrs. Eobert Bums died here this evening ai 
half-past eleven o'clock. — ^Burns Street, 26th 
March, 1834." 

Robert's letter is in the following^ 
terms : — 

" Dumfries. 

" My Dear Aunt, — ^You will perceive by the 
other side that my mother is no more. I was at 
Glasgow when I received intelligence of her 
having had another shock of paralysis on Satur- 
day evening last, and I hastened home. I 
arrived in sufficient time to find her in life, and 
to be certain that she knew me, which was a 
great consolation to me. She never spoke again 
after the shock. I received the intelligence on 
Monday last, just when I was preparing to come 
to Edinburgh by the canal to see you and my 


^unt Burns [his uncle Gilbert's widow]. That 
pleasure, however, I shall yet have as early as 
possible. I have addressed the notice to my 
aunt Burns to your care because I do not know 
her direction. I am sorry to have to add that I 
have accidentally heard that your sister Agnes 
in Ireland is reduced to a state of insensibility 
by a paralytic shock. I shall be happy to hear 
from you as early as possible. Give my love to 
my cousins. Pardon the confused style in which 
this letter is written, and believe me, my dear 
aunt, yours a£fectionately, 

"R Burns." 

For the reasons already indicated, 
the experiences of the later period of 
Mrs. Begg's life cannot be gleaned from 
her own vigorous graphic utterances, 
but, fortunately, these can, in a certain 
measure, be supplied from the personal 
recollections of the writer of this 
Memoir. These recollections extend 


from nearly the close of the correspon- 
dence referred to down to the year 
1858, when Mrs. Begg's mortal remains 
were deposited in " Auld AUoway '* 
kirkyard, beside the ashes of her much 
revered father. 

At the commencement of the period 
above referred to, Mrs. Begg had 
already entered on the last decade of 
the scriptural limit of " three-score and 
ten." She was not tall in stature, but 
was decidedly above the average height, 
although beginning to bend under the 
accumulating weight of years. Her 
hair- was still wonderfully abundant, 
and although plentifully tinged with 
grey, its original blackness was dis- 
tinctly recognisable. Her strongly 


marked and expressive features were 
remarkably intelligent and pleasing, 
and her countenance was almost invari- 
ably lighted up by a genial smile. The 
great charm of her face, however, lay 
in her bright, dark, piercing eyes, which 
must have strongly resembled those of 
her brother. The portrait which forms 
the frontispiece to this " Memoir," 
although a very correct likeness, does 
scant justice to her facial expression. 
It is copied from a life-size half length 
painted in oil by the late Mr. Robert 
Taylor of Ayr in 1847, when Mrs. Begg 
had entered on the 77th year of her 
age. The picture is now in the pos- 
session of the writer of this Memoir. 
Another portrait of Mrs. Begg also half 


length, but very much reduced in size, 
was painted several years previously by 
Mr. William Bonnar of Edinburgh, an 
engraving of it dedicated to the late 
** Christopher North" being published 
at the time, and a very imperfect copy 
of this engraving was published in the 
Illustrated London News of August 
1844. The original painting by Bonnar 
is now in the National Portrait Gallery 
in Edinburgh, but whatever may be its 
merits as a work of art it cannot cer- 
tainly be characterised as a likeness. 

Besides resembling the poet in her 
features Mrs. Begg resembled him not 
a little in her mental characteristics. 
Like him, she was endowed with a 
vigour and force of intellect, and an 


acute and active power of perception, 
which enabled her invariably to express 
her sentiments in the most appropriate 
language and at the most opportune 
monlent. She was a large hearted, 
loving woman, domesticated in her 
tastes and habits, intensely interested 
in children, and intensely revered and 
loved by them in return. Her advent 
at Kinross schoolhouse was always 
hailed with boisterous rapture by her 
somewhat numerous grandch ildren there, 
for her mind was amply stored with 
quaint legendary and other lore speci- 
ally suited for their delectation. As a 
narrator of nursery stories and legen- 
dary tales she was unequalled. These 

were always given in the Scottish 



dialect, and her pure Doric accent, 
combined with the dramatic force and 
effect which she never failed to impart 
to the more stirring portions of her 
narrative, gave to her recitals a breath- 
less interest and fascination which no 
one but a member of her youthful 
auditory can now realise. Fully half a 
century has passed since then ; several 
of that juvenile auditory have already 
sunk to their rest, and the lapse of 
years has blurred or obliterated many 
a recollection, but still the pleasing 
memory of those recitals time only 
seems to render more and more vivid 
and real. 

She was gifted with wonderful 
powers of memory, and was able to 


repeat with unerring accuracy not only 
her brothers best known poems, but 
also many favourite selections from 
the other poets. Of her numerous 
stories for children there was none 
in more frequent request than a 
fable which she used to relate illus- 
trative of the multiplied and varitd 
lures which bestrew life's pathway. 
This fable she first learned bj hearing 
it recited by the poet to his younger 
brothers and sisters at the fireside of 
Lochlea during the long winter even- 
ings, and her firm conviction was thnt 
it was composed by Burns for the 
amusement of herself and the other 
juvenile members of her father's house- 
hold. As such the little story is here 



given at full length, as it discloses 
Burns's genius in a novel but not the 
less deeply interesting and fascinating 
aspect. The story has already appeared 
in Chambers's Nursery Rhymes of Scot- 
land, as written down by the genial and 
talented author from Mrs. Begg's 
recital. It was also published many 
years ago as a Christmas story for 
•children, with a series of excellent 
illustrations by " J. B.,'' a then youth- 
ful artist, son of Mrs. Hugh Blackburn ; 
As Burns's authorship has never been 
•disputed, and no trace of the story 
has been found outside the Burns family 
•circle, it may now be safely assumed 
that Mrs. Begg was correct in her 
conviction. Indeed, the very phraseo- 


logy of the story seems of itself to 
indicate its authorship. 


There was an auld gray Poussie Baudrons, and 
she gaed awa' down by a water side, and there 
she saw a wee Robin Redbreast happin' on a 
brier ; and Poussie Baudrons says, " Where's tu 
gaun, wee Robin ? ** And wee Robin says, " I'm 
gaun awa' to the king to sing him a sang this 
guid Yule morning." And Poussie Baudrons 
jays, " Come here, wee Robin, and 111 let you 
see a bonny white ring round my neck." But 
wee Robin says, " Na, na ! gray Poussie Baud- 
tons j na, na ! Ye worry't the wee mousie, but 
ye'se no worry me." So wee Robin flew awa' till 
he came to a fail fauld-dike, and there he saw a 
gray greedy gled sitting. And the gray greedy 
gled says, " Where's tu gaun, wee Robin ? " 
And wee Robin says, " I'm gaun awa' to the king 
to sing him a sang this guid Yule morning." 
And gray greedy gled says, "Come here, wee 
Robin, and I'll let ye see a bonny feather in my 


win^/' But wee Robin says, *'Na,na! gray 
greedy gled ; na, na ! Ye pookit a' the wee 
lintie, but ye'se no pook me." So wee Robin 
flew awa' till he came to the cleuch o' a craig, 
and there he saw slee Tod Lowrie sitting. And 
slee Tod Lowrie says, "Where's tu gaun, wee 
Robin ? *' And wee Robin says, " Fm gaun awa' 
to the king to sing him a sang this guid Yule 
jottorning." And slee Tod Lowrie says, "Come 
here, wee Robin, and 111 let ye see a bonny spot 
on the cap o' my tail." But wee Robin says, 
" Na, na ! slee Tod Lowrie ; na, na ! Ye worry't 
the wee lammie, but ye'se no worry me." So 
wee Robin flew awa' till he came to a bonny 
biirnside, and there he saw a wee callant sitting. 
And the wee callant says, " Where tu gaun, wee 
Robin ? ' And wee Robin says, " I'm gaun awa' 
to the king to sing him a sang this guid Yule 
morning.'' And the wee callant says, "Come 
here, wee Robin, and I'll gie ye a wheen grand 
moolins out o' my pooch." But wee Robin says, 
" Na, na ! wee callant; na, na ! Ye speldert the 
gowdspink, but ye'se no spelder me." So wee 
Robin flew awa' till he came to the king, and 
there he sat on a winnock sole and sang the king 
a bonny sang. And the king says to the queen, 


•* What'll we gie to wee Eobin for singing us this 
bonny sang?" And the queen says to the king, 
*' I think we'll gie him the wee wran to be his 
wife." So wee Eobin and the wee wran were 
married, and the king and the queen and a' the 
court danced at the waddin' ; syne he flew awa' 
hame to his ain water side and happit on a brier. 

With all her love for children, her 
treatment of them never failed to be 
characterised by that sound, practical 
common sense and discrimination which 
she invariably exhibited in other affairs 
of life, and her fondness was never 
allowed to degenerate into anything 
like weak or blinded indulgence. On 
the contrary, she was a strict disciplin- 
arian, and on suitable occasions exer- 
cised her motherly and grandmotherly 
authority with all that rigidity of 


principle and high appreciation of filial 
obedience which formed so striking and 
prominent a feature in the character of 
her worthy father. One instance of her 
practical views in regard to the chastise- 
ment of very young children will suffice. 
When her son Robert's young wife had 
her first child, the old lady, as early as 
possible, paid a lengthened visit to her 
son's house for the purpose of making 
the acquaintance of the highly impor- 
tant " little stranger," and, as usual on 
auch interesting occasions, the bathing 
of the baby formed the great event of 
the day in the eyes of the fond mother 
and not less fond grandmother. One 
morning, while engaged in this interest- 
ing occupation, the conversation natur- 


ally turned to the punishment of young 
children, the young mother expressing 
her wonder how any mother could ever 
have the heart to administer chastise- 
ment for the^r^^ time to her child ; for 
her part, she felt as if she could never 
succeed in convincing herself that the 
proper time had really arrived for such 
treatment. "Oh, my dear,*' said the 
practical old lady, " you need be under 
no diflGiculty as to that. If it's really 
needed, ye canna err in beginning as 
soon as the bottom's as braid's your 
loof." Like many strict but judicious 
disciplinarians, she seldom required in 
her management of young children to 
carry her practical views beyond mere 
words of reproof. These were always 


few and well chosen, and they were 
generally given with a force and eflfect 
which at once arrested attention and 
enforced obedience. Not uncommonly, 
too, they were conveyed in a quaint 
and humorous form of expression, which 
to children proved irresistible. One 
day, coming suddenly on a scene of 
childish riot and disorder, she said, with 
an emphasis which produced immediate 
quietness, ** Bairns 1 bairns ! this will 
never do. I declare it wad tak' a sow 
with a drawn sword to keep order 
amang ye." Her intercourse with chil- 
dren was always conducted in the 
truest sympathy and cordiality, and 
their little weaknesses and follies were 
rebuked or checked in the kindliest 


spirit of humorous banter and affection- 
ate ridicule. One day when she was 
about to go to Edinburgh, her younger 
children were eagerly suggesting vari- 
ous trifles which they wished her to 
bring to them from "the toun." Her 
son Robert, then a young stripling, 
seriously impressed with the importance 
of a budding beard, maintained a 
dignified, not to say contemptuous, 
silence amid the clamours of his more 
juvenile brothers and sisters ; and at 
length his mother turned to him with 
the enquiry, "Is there nothing I can 
bring for you ? " " Well, mother," said 
the blushing lad hesitatingly, " if you 
are near a good cutler s shop, you might 
buy me a razor." " A razor ! '' said his 


mother in astonished accents ; " deed^ 
Robert, my dear, I think I'd better 
buy you the beard first/' 

The incidents of the last twenty-five 
years of Mrs. Begg's life may be briefly 
told. Owing to her eldest son's resig- 
nation of his appointment at Ormiston 
in the year 1832, Mrs. Begg, who till 
then had kept house for him in the 
schoolhouse there, found it necessary 
to look elsewhere for a home, and she 
accordingly took up her abode with her 
two daughters, Agnes and Isabella,, 
who had a few years previously estab- 
lished themselves as dressmakers ia 
the neighbouring village of Tranent. 
Here the undaunted mother, and her 
two daughters, continued to maintain 


themselves by their own unaided 
industry until the year 1842, when, 
by the efforts of Lord Houghton (then 
Mr. Monkton Milnes), Thomas Carlyle, 
Dr. Robert Chambers, and others, a 
fund was provided by the admirers of 
Bums, which, with the addition of a 
pension granted by the Queen at the 
solicitation of Lady Peel, secured for 
Mrs. Begg an income sufficient to pro- 
vide for the comfort of her old age. 
Carlyle's letter to Mrs. Begg, dated 7th 
June, 1842, announcing the successful 
issue of their efforts, is highly charac- 
teristic of the writer, and evinces the 
heartiness with which he had espoused 
the claims of Burns's sister to public 
recognition. •'* Properly, however," he 


says, '^you do not owe this to anybody 
but to your own illustrious brother, 
whose noble life, wasted tragically 
away, pleads now aloud to men of every 
rank and place for some humanity to 
his last surviving sister. May God 
grant you all good of this gift and make 
it really useful to you ! You need not 
answer this letter ; it is a mere luxury 
that I give myself in writing it" 

To a person of Mrs. Begg's frugal 
and practical character, the income now 
secured to her must have been a ground 
for deep thankfulness and unalloyed 
satisfaction. It raised her at once 
above the sordid cares and anxieties 
which for nearly thirty years had so in- 
cessantly harassed her, and galled that 


proud independence of spirit which she, 
in common with the poet, had inherited 
from their sturdy, upright father. In 
the following year a still further im- 
provement took place in her worldly 
comfort, owing to her having been 
accorded the use for her lifetime of a 
picturesque cottage near the banks of 
the Doon, and immediately adjoining 
the public road leading from Ayr to the 
poet's monument. This concession was 
the result of a suggestion by Dr. 
William Chambers to his brother 
Robert, he having found, on the occa- 
sion of a visit he had paid to Ayrshire 
in 1842, ** that there was a great wish 
to have Mrs. Begg planted somewhere 
about the spot of her brother s nati- 


vity." Accordingly, at Whitsunday, 
1843, Mrs. Begg removed from Tranent, 
•and along with her two daughters re- 
turned to Ayrshire, the county of her 
nativity, after an absence of upwards 
of half a century. 

This change of abode, although de- 
cidedly preferable in every way, was 
not made without some little feeling of 
natural regret, for Mis. Begg had, 
during her residence at Ormiston and 
Tranent, gathered around her many 
attached friends, who warmly esteemed 
and respected her on account of her 
many admirable qualities, and the 
dignity and respectability with which 
she had hitherto maintained herself by 
her honourable industry. The kindly 


interest she excited among her friends 

at Ormiston and Tranent was purely 

the result of her own personal merits 

for so averse was she to parade her 

relationship to the poet that few even 

of Burns s admirers in that immediate 

neighbourhood knew until she had 

removed to Ayrshire that they had for 

so many years had a sister of Burns 

resident among them. Indeed, it is 

remarked that " one gentleman who 

had dealt with Mrs. Begg and her 

family for twenty years, never knew of 

the relationship until the family re* 

moved to Ayr, although he was an 

enthusiast about everything relating to 

the Scottish poet/* 

Little more than a year after she had 


established herself in her new abode at 
Ayr, she was called upon to take part 
in the great festival of 6th August, 
1844, organised for the purpose of 
according to the sons of Burns a 
national welcome to the " Banks of the 
Doon." Robert, the eldest son of the 
poet, had some time before retired from 
the Government appointment he held, 
and had located himself in Dumfries ; 
while his two younger brothers, Colonel 
William Nicol Burns and Major James 
Glencairn Burns, had also recently 
returned to their native country after 
lengthened military service in India. 
The demonstration excited an amount 
of interest and enthusiasm far exceed- 
ing the most sanguine expectations of 


its . promoters. Crowds of the poet's 
enthusiastic admirers, not only from all 
parts of Scotland, but even from England 
and Ireland, flocked to the "auld clay, 
biggin' '' to do homage to his genius, 
until, as stated in the newspapers of the 
day, the vast concourse of people could . 
not be estimated at less than 80,000. 
Along with the sons of the poet, Mrs- 
Begg was assigned a prominent place in 
the ceremonial of the day. They occu- 
pied conspicuous positions on a platform 
erected for the purpose close to the now 
famous ** Auld Brig o' Doon," and the 
vast procession, nearly a mile in length, 
passed in front of this platform on its 
way from Burns's cottage to the 
pavilion in which the festival was to be 


held. It must have been a proud and 
gratifying occasion to the sons of Burns ; 
and who can doubt that it was equally, 
if not even more so, to his now aged 
sister ? As she stood there at the side 
of her nephews, surrounded by the Earl 
of Eglinton, the chairman on the occa- 
sion, Professor Wilson (** Christopher 
North "), the croupier, and many other 
noble and distinguished men and 
women from all parts of the United 
Kingdom and the sister isle; and as 
she watched the interminable procession 
slowly file past, each individual doing 
homage to her brother's memory by 
reverently uncovering before his sons, 
she must have had many a deep and 
heart-swelling reflection. It is even 


probable that she may have been able 
to regard the stirring spectacle before 
her as only the practical fulfilment of 
the bright anticipation which had 
dawned upon her under the family roof- 
tree at Mossgiel nearly sixty years 

From the time of her removal to Ayr, 
Mrs. Begg's life became one of well- 
earned ease and peace and comfort; 
and in the companionship of her two 
faithful and devoted daughters, Agnes 
and Isabella, the last fifteen years of 
her life were brightened by much 
domestic happiness and by the pleasing 
society of many very warm and in- 
terested friends in the locality. By the 
later, as well as by the numerous 


visitors from a distance, whom admira^ 
tion for Burns attracted to Ayr, her 
cottage was much frequented. Her 
manner to all was invariably courteous, 
dignified, and natural ; while her 
shrewd, practical observations on liter- 
ary subjects, as well as on the current 
topics of the day, and the sagacity and 
cultivated taste which she invariably 
displayed, never failed to convey a 
very favourable and lasting impression. 
Under her lowly cottage roof she 
received visitors of widely differing 
grades, including many of the first 
literary men and women of the day, 
and not infrequently the conversations 
which took place within her comfortable 
little parlour were as sparkling and 


bright as those which fancy associates 
with the brilliant salons of the titled 
leaders of society. Her recollections of 
the poet were vivid and distinct, 
although these were limited almost 
exclusively to the years of her youth, 
when Bums was still resident under the 
parental roof at Lochlea and Mossgiel. 
After Burns took up his abode at Ellis- 
land in 1788, the meetings between the 
brother and sister were of course rare 
and exceptional, and of the incidents 
of the later years of the poet's career 
she had little personal knowledge 
beyond what she obtained from the 
information of others. 

With her sister=-in-law, Jean Armour, 
she maintained a warm and sincere 


friendship from the days of their early 
association at Mauchline down to the 
date of Mrs. Burns's death in 1834 ; 
but, as is too often the case in Scotch 
families, especially in those days of 
costly postage, the intercourse never 
seems to have extended to anything 
like regular epistolary correspondence 
either between Mrs. Begg and her 
brother or between the sisters-in-law. 
Indeed, so far as regards the poet, it 
would almost appear that, however 
warmly he and his youngest sister were 
attached to each other, she never 
received a single letter from him during 
her whole life. Notwithstanding this 
lack of direct personal intercourse, she 
seems to have followed her brother's 


career after he left Mossgiel with all 
that keen interest and attention which 
deeply-rooted affection alone can give, 
and her knowledge of the varied inci- 
dents of his life and of the different 
persons whom he has immortalised in 
his works was remarkably full, minute, 
and reliable, and, as a matter of course, 
profoundly interesting. She never 
spoke of her brother save with that 
intense love and admiration which he 
was so well fitted to inspire, and 
although his failings were rarely alluded 
to, yet even these, when necessarily 
introduced, were spoken of by her with 
that candour, common sense, and good 
taste, which one would naturally expect 
from a pure-minded, intelligent woman 


of the world, and yet at the same time 
with all the large-hearted charitableness 
of a truly loving and considerate nature. 
In particular, she warmly resented the 
exaggerated accounts of the poet's 
irregularities at Dumfries, which were 
given to the world by some of his 
biographers a few years after his death. 
This feeling was keenly shared not only 
by her brother Gilbert, but also by the 
poet's loving and devoted wife, ''Bonnie 
Jean;" and Mrs. Begg, when this 
painful subject was under discussion, 
never failed to quote an assurance 
which Mrs. Burns had solemnly and 
emphatically made to her '' that Burns 
never indulged unless when he was in 
social and congenial company, and that 


during the whole time they were living 
in Dumfries, although often out at con- 
vivial meetings till a late hour, he never 
on one single occasion, however late he 
might be of coming home, failed in a 
nightly custom he invariably observed 
before coming to bed of going into the 
room where his children slept and 
satisfying himself that they were all 
comfortably ' tucked in and sleeping 
soundly/ " 

Mrs. Burns cherished a true sisterly 
affection for Mrs. Begg, and that feeling 
was fully reciprocated on Mrs. Begg's 
part. She entertained a profound 
admiration for Mrs. Burns's noble 
hearted devotion to her husband, 
-evinced in her unparalleled magnani- 


mity in receiving into her own family^ 
and nursing and rearing as a daughter 
of her own, "Betty Bums/' the off- 
spring of her husband's conjugal in- 
fidelity. Of the true nobility and 
thoroughness of that act of wifely self- 
abnegation it is fitting that we should 
leave the foster-daughter herself to- 
speak, and fortunately we can here 
introduce the following quotation from 
an interesting letter, dated 1st Decem- 
ber, 1843, addressed by her to Mrs. 
Begg, nearly ten years after Mrs. 
Bums's death. By that time " Betty '^ 
was settled in life as a married woman,, 
and the mother of a well-doing and 
thriving family. In course of com- 
municating, in all the pride of a 


mother s heaxt, the names and ages 
of her eight children, she interpolates 
the following grateful tribute to Mrs. 
Burns : — 

*'The names of the last two children (Sarah 
Surns and James Sums) was all that Mrs. Sums 
did exact from me as an acknowledgment of her 
unwearied kindness to me. God was kind to her, 
my dear aunt^ in giving her plenty, but she did 
not hide it in a hedge. She willingly shared it 
with the poor and needy. The last letter I had 
from her was in July, 1833, with £2 in it to buy 
a frock for my youngest child, then about a 
month (dd. The more I contemplate that 
excellent woman's character the more I admire 
it. There was something good and charitable 
about her, surpassing all women I ever yet met 
with. She was indeed a true friend and the best 
of mothers to me, and I was often led to think 
that all friendship for me in the family had gone 
with her, but I am glad to find it otherwise." 

With her nephews, the three sons of 
the poet, Mrs. Begg maintained a 


constant and affectionate intercourse^ 
although naturally her chief correspon- 
dence was with Robert, the eldest son, 
owing to his younger brothers, William 
and James, having been so long absent 
in India. After their return to this 
country they were frequent visitors at 
the cottage at Belleisle, and they never 
varied in the affection and respect with 
which they regarded their aunt. She, 
on her part, was warmly interested in 
their welfare, for she had known them 
from their boyhood, when they were in 
the habit of spending part of their 
autumn school " vacation '* at Dinning 
Farm, while she and her husband were 
riesident there in the early years of her 
wedded life. 



last Mrs, Begg retained 
vigorous intelligence, and 
Robert Chambers, in com- 
ion of the poet's life and 

he years 1851 and 1852, 
s use of the interesting 

she was capable of impart- 

nrd to the incidents and 

>^ of her brother's earlier 

infrequently, too, he con- 

riste and judgment on points 
as to the rendering and 
g of doubtful or disputed 
the poet's works, and he 
,nsmitted to her the proof- 
erusal and approval, and 
ce gave effect to alterations 

Busfgested. This naturally 



led to a correspondence between Mrs. 
Begg and her brother's genial bio- 
grapher, which extended over a period 
of nearly two years. The letters are 
numerous and of much interest, 
although, owing to the infirmity of her 
extreme age, she was obliged to avail 
herself of the services of her youngest 
daughter, Isabella, as her amanuensis 
in conducting her part of the corres- 
pondence. There is no doubt that the 
information thus derived tended very 
much to impart to Dr. Chambers's life 
of the poet that realistic efiect which 
renders it so superior to all others ; and 
so very highly did the generous-hearted 
biographer value the assistance of his 
aged collaborateur, that he in the most 


liberal manner devoted the whole 
profits of his edition (£300) towards 
providing for the future independence 
ctf her two daughters, thus " removing 
from her mind its last load of care," as 
Mrs. Begg emphatically puts it in her 
letter to Dr. Chambers expressing her 
gratitude for his noble and unlooked- 
for generosity. To Dr. Chambers 
himself the successftd issue of his 
disinterested scheme was a deep and 
genuine gratification. In his letter to 
Mrs. Begg he says : " I have not been 
so happy about anything for a long 
time as thus finding myself able and 
willing to become the medium through 
which the people of Scotland may 


make a kind of final atonement to the . 
shade of their great national poet." 

The closing years of Mrs. Begg's life 
were thus in striking contrast to the 
earlier years of her widowhood, and 
on Saturday, 4th December, 1858, she, 
in the eighty-eighth year of her age, ' 
calmly sank to her final repose in the 
very midst of the enthusiastic prepara- 
tions which were then being made all ; 
over the country for the celebration . 
of the centenary of the birth of her^ 
gifted brother. The final scene is 
feelingly and truthfully depicted ;by 
the contemporary writer from whom 
quotations have already been more - 
than once introduced into this Memoir;, 


" Her last illness, if such it could be called, 
came upon her on Tuesday night in the form of 
a slight cold, caught probably in the garden on 
the preceding day, when she had been out longer 
than usual and felt particularly well. Although 
she was a little restless and feverish on Tuesday 
night, there was nothing to excite apprehension, 
and the day before her death she had, to appear- 
ance, completely recovered. Once only did her 
faculties seem for a short time to waver, when 
on Wednesday she asked her daughter the date 
of the poet's birthday, and being answered 
'25th January,' she replied, *Well, I thought 
bo; but was not sure.' It was evident from 
this that the coming celebration must have 
deeply moved, perhaps to some extent excited, 
her. On Saturday morning about three o'clock, 
however, a change seemed to come over her, 
and it was with anxiety that her daughters 
observed she could only make dumb signs of 
recognition. In this condition she continued 
for about five hours, and then, with two deep- 
drawn sighs, her spirit gently took its flight, 
and lightly as a child she fell asleep." 

In the presence of many sorrowing 


friends her remains were, by the loving 
hands of her sons, John and Robert, 
and six of her grandsons, reverently 
deposited in the grave in Old Alloway 
kirkyard, where already repose the 
ashes of her father, William Burness, 
and where, after a lengthened separa* 
tion of upwards of three-quarters of a 
century, the worthy old father and his 
youngest and favourite child were at 
last reunited for ever. 

Besides her two daughters, Agnes 
and Isabella, who faithfully and 
devotedly ministered to their mother's 
comfort to the last, she was survived 
by four of her sons — William, John, 
Robert, and Gilbert. William, on 
leaving Ormiston, had settled in 


Canada, first as a teacher, and latterly 
as assistant to a medical practitioner 
there, and he died on 15 th May, 1864, 
much esteemed and regretted by every 
one who knew him. John died on 11th 
April, 1867, at Kilmarnock, where he 
had ultimately settled; and Gilbert, 
after long service in the Royal Navy, 
from which he retired as a petty officer 
with a pension, died at PoUokshaws in 
January, 1885, the holder of medals 
for military service at Navarino and in 
the Crimean campaign. Robert, her 
third son, and most regular corres- 
pondent, continued to discharge his 
laborious and important duties as 
schoolmaster of the parish of Kinross 
for upwards of half a century, and on 


25th July, 1876, he died in the school- 
house there in the eightieth year of 
his age. The painstaking zeal and 
unvarying fidelity and integrity which 
characterised his whole life is truthfully 
described in the following chaste tribute 
to his memory, which . was contributed 
to the public press by an anonymous- 
correspondent at the time of his 
death : — 

" He taughtey but first he folwede it himselve." * 

" In blessed quiet, late at eventide 
Hath passed away from earthly work the soul 
Of him whom old and young rejoiced ta 

And rightly ; for his manly, noble life 
Of fourscore years was sacredly devoted 
With one intent — to bless his fellow-men. 

* From Chaucer's Prologue to Canterbury Tales, 


In truest loyalty and faithfulness 

Were fulfilled the high and solemn duties 

Of the most sacred office justly his — 

The arming of men's minds for their life-long 

war ; 
He sought to do this not by pedant's lore, 
But foremost taught how simply to be men ; 
Full in the front he led that upward path 
Which he would lovingly have others tread. 
No more with us is seen his reverend form, 
Yet he invisibly will never cease 
To teach, as ever teach the holy dead 
In voiceless mighty teachings, the great lesson 
To consecrate life's work not to the seen. 
For nobleness of soul, siich as was his, 
Hath o'er our spirits an immortal sway." 

Mrs. Begg's two daughters, Agnes 
and Isabella, survived their mother 
several years — Agnes dying on 1st 
May, 1883, aged eighty-three, and 
Isabella on 27th December, 1886, aged 
eighty. Both of them lived out their 


exemplary lives under the roof which 
had sheltered their mother*s venerable 
head at the close of her long, weary 
experience of suflfering and toil, and 
the death of Isabella — ^the youngest 
member and solitary survivor of the 
whole family — severed the last link 
which united the descendants of 
William Bumess with the district of 
the poet's nativity. 







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^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^^H 411 

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