Ian Scott: Remembering the Bard - Neither sound sleep nor a blyth morn for Burns in Falkirk

On Tuesday of this week we celebrated the birthday of our national bard but not with the usual round of suppers, or ‘the haggis olympics’ as one wag called the happy gatherings.

By Ian Scott
Thursday, 27th January 2022, 12:30 pm
The Cross Keys Inn where Burns spent the night in 1787.
The Cross Keys Inn where Burns spent the night in 1787.

It is a pity because Falkirk folk have always felt a special bond with the Robert Burns following his one and only visit to the district.

It is 235 years since that Saturday afternoon in August 1787 when the great man along with his friend Willie Nicol arrived in the town having popped into “that dirty ugly place” Bo’ness on his way from Edinburgh.

The Red Lion, Falkirk’s principal coaching inn, was packed out with folk in town for the cattle tryst so they had to settle for the Cross Keys across the road.

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Robert Burns portrait by artist Alexander Naysmith.

“Falkirk”, said the bard in his Journal, was “nothing remarkable except the tomb of Sir John de Graeme” which he visited the next day.

The Cross Keys has long since closed as a tavern but the plaque above the shop which was paid for by William Mitchell of Grahamston Foundry back in 1889, reminds us of the day.

Another relic of the visit is a window pane in the Museum at Alloway said to be from the Cross Keys with a verse scribed on the glass with the diamond tipped pen the poet had been given by his admirers in Edinburgh.

“Sound be his sleep and blythe his morn, that never did a lassie wrang” it says, which probably suggests that he neither slept soundly nor got up blithely! Is it authentic?

There’s not much evidence other than a suggestion that the glass found its way abroad before being purchased by the Museum

After visiting the Kirkyard they headed west, crossing the “Grand Canal” into Camelon, which Burns called “the ancient Metropolis of the Picts”, before an unhappy trip to Carron Works where he famously failed to gain admission.

I have written about that occasion before so will pass it by this time.

They left Carron for Dunipace but took time to visit Larbert Churchyard to see the cast iron monument erected by James Bruce, the Abyssinian traveller for his wife Mary Dundas.

Bruce was far more famous than Burns at the time but Rabbie implied in his Journal that he had treated Mary very badly and that the grand monument was to settle his guilty conscience!

Not long after Burns’ untimely death in 1796 his friends began to gather each year to mark his birthday.

The earliest surviving record of a ‘Burns Supper’ in Falkirk is from 1820 and the 100th anniversary of the poet’s birth in 1859 brought a flurry of commemorations including the ‘Falkirk Working Men’s Burns Festival’.

The current Falkirk Burns Club followed in 1866 or 1875 depending on who you believe!

Over the years our area has enjoyed the contributions of many great speakers like Willie Muirhead, Tom Walker, Harry Ewing, Tom Barrie and Tom Myles who was actually born in the Cross Keys, probably in the very room where Burns passed the night in 1787.

Not so long ago we lost Jim Watt who graced many a supper with his talents as a speaker and performer of the poet’s works. He is sorely missed.

We remember and salute them all. They have helped keep the immortal memory of Robert Burns alive in our community so that the next generation will carry on the tradition that makes January a special month for all Scots.

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