Saturday, December 20, 2008

Robert Burns and the Ulster visit legends


Jan 25th is Burns Night, and next year is a special one, the 250th anniversary of his birth. To tie in with this the Scottish Government has branded 2009 the year of Scotland's Homecoming. There are some Burns legends, of alleged but unproven visits to Ulster. As usual, one from County Antrim and one from County Down.

In the Ulster Journal of Archaeology, Sept 1894, this letter appeared:


Was Burns ever in Co. Antrim?
Some four or five years ago an old gentleman, now dead, told me that when he was a boy he knew an aged farmer who professed to have met Burns repeatedly in different parts of the north-east of Co. Antrim, at country jollifications especially, when the poet, he said, would sometimes sing his own songs for the company. According to this tradition he would seem to have been here "fou for weeks thegither". The point was thrown out to me by my informant as worth investigating. Since I first heard of it I have, at odd times, turned over a mass of Burnsiana in the hope of finding something that would corroborate the statement made, or disprove it; but my search has been fruitless. Can any reader help me to some light on this dark subject? I shall be much obliged for any information that this query may elicit. That Burns should cross to Co. Antrim is probable enough in itself for many reasons, but something better than abstract probability is desirable. To arrive at some record of the poet's sojourn in the North would be highly interesting, if he really did visit as alleged.



The renowned antiquarian, academic and historian Rev George Hill replied to this over two pages in the Dec 1894 edition. Blurry digital pics of his reply are below. Sadly he dismisses the story.

There's another legend (told to me by Ian Wilson, who got it from the late Jack McCoy, the first local studies librarian at the library HQ in Ballynahinch) of Burns being invited to Donaghadee by an Ulster poet/fan. Donaghadee was the main "port of entry" from Scotland from 1606 - 1862. It is said that as Burns got off the boat and walked up the quayside, the Ulsterman spotted him and greeted him by saying something along the lines of:

"I can tell by your claes
An' the cut o' your hair
You're the bold Robert Burns
Fae the oul toon o' Ayr"

To which Burns responded in a similar spontaneous rhyme. They then retired to the famous Grace Neill's pub for some liquid refreshment!

Quite a few years ago there was a controversy when Belfast's Linenhall Library came close to quietly selling off its wonderful collection of Robert Burns material, the largest collection outside of Scotland. The collection of over 1000 books belonged to an Andrew Gibson, one of the most prominent Baptists of his generation. Thankfully the sale was prevented and the collection remains in Belfast. Perhaps it should be put on display to the public next year - yet another powerful example of the Ulster-Scots links.