The young ladies of Harvieston were, according to Dr. Currie, surprised with the calm manner in which Burns contemplated their fine scenery on Devon water; and the Doctor enters into a little dissertation on the subject, showing that a man of Burns's lively imagination might probably have formed anticipations which the realities of the prospect might rather disappoint. This is possible enough; but I suppose few will take it for granted that Burns surveyed any scenes either of beauty or of grandeur without emotion, merely because he did not choose to be ecstatic for the benefit of a company of young ladies. He was indeed very patient of interruption on such occasions; I have heard that riding one dark night near Carron, his companion teased him with noisy exclamations of delight and wonder, whenever an opening in the wood permitted them to see the magnificent glare of the furnaces:
'Look, Burns! Good Heaven! look! look! what a glorious sight!'—'Sir,' said Burns, clapping spurs to Jenny Geddes, 'I would not look! Look! at your bidding, if it were the mouth of hell!'
J. G. Lockhart, The Life of Robert Burns (1828) Everyman edition, 1959), p. 111.
THE Festival took place ... in a large pavilion erected in a meadow nearly opposite Alloway Kirk, and within sight of the poet's monument. The pavilion, richly decorated with flags and other ornaments, was planned for the accommodation of 2,000 guests, and all the tickets to the banquet, charged fifteen shillings for the gentlemen and ten shillings for the ladies, were speedily taken up.... The procession was composed of the magistrates and baillies of many important towns, with deputations of their townspeople, of the Masonic bodies, among whom, when living, Burns stood high in rank and repute, and who were proud of his brotherhood in the craft; and of Foresters, Odd Fellows, and many other societies, preceded by bands of music, and bearing, many of them, not merely the customary flags and banners of Great Britain, but the ancient historic flag of Scotland, under the gleam and glamour of which Bruce fought and won the battle of Bannockburn. There was also a grand procession of peasants and farm labourers, assembled in honour of the greatest peasant—next perhaps to King David of the Jews, a peasant, a poet, a patriot, and a king—whom any age had produced, and who bore high erected in the midst of them a gigantic thistle, eight or nine feet high, and with a profusion of flowers, which must have been the result of high cultivation. As this national emblem made its appearance, with the proud motto, 'Nemo me impune lacessit' emblazoned on a banner streaming over it, the applause of the immense assemblage was loud and unrestrained, and was repeated again and again as Christopher North took off his hat in reverence to the symbol as it was borne past. At two o'clock in the afternoon the banquet was served in the pavilion, and I had the good fortune, as an invited guest, to be assigned a seat of honour on the platform, to the left hand of the distinguished vice-chairman of the day. I was unable, from the distance and the want of acoustic facility in the tent, to hear a word said by Lord Eglinton on the occasion; but I saw from the newspapers in due time, that he had made a very eloquent and appreciative speech, and done justice to the genius of the bard whose memory they had all assembled to honour. Professor Wilson's speech, of which I heard every word that he was permitted to deliver, was still more eloquent, and as the literary effort of a literary man, on a great literary occasion, was equal to the Professor's reputation. But he made a great mistake. He took no account of time or space, and painting his picture of the poet on too extensive a canvas, fairly exhausted the patience of his auditory before he had advanced beyond the threshold of his argument. He dwelt upon the errors of Burns: upon his over passionate youth, and Samson-like enslavement to many Delilahs; and to the excessive conviviality that brought him into bad company, and overclouded his day ere the noon had fairly come. The long speech of Lord Eglinton, excellent though it was, had not disposed the audience for a second speech of equal dimensions, and after the Professor had expatiated for about half-an-hour or more on the frailties of the bard, the sounds of impatience, dissent, and disapprobation grew so loud, so prolonged, and so often repeated, that the Professor, seeing the hopelessness of proceeding, sat down with the best part of his speech unspoken. He turned to me, as he resumed his place, and said,
'It is a pity they won't hear me out. I only dwelt upon the errors of Burns, that I might lift him out of them in power and glory, as one of the very greatest of Scotsmen who ever conferred honour upon his country.'
'Fortunately,' I replied, 'you can publish your speech, as you intended to speak it, and so put yourself right.'
'Yes,' he replied, 'I'll shame the fools and print it.'
Charles Mackay, Forty Years' Recollections of Life, Literature and Public Affairs (1877), i. 258-261.