Robert Burns (1759 – 1796)
In 1789 Robert Burns penned ‘The Kirk of Scotland’s Garland” or “The Kirk’s Alarm” as it is better known. Inspired by the reaction of a band of Ayrshire ministers set in their old ways (Auld Lichts) to a publication by the minister at Ayr, one of many ministers now expressing much more liberal views (New Lichts).
Burns pulls no punches in the opening verse –
Orthodox! orthodox, who believe in John Knox,
Let me sound an alarm to your conscience:
A heretic blast has been blown in the West,
“That what is no sense must be nonsense,”
Orthodox! That what is no sense must be nonsense
Reverend William McGill (1732-1807)
The minister at the centre of the controversy was William McGill , a friend of the bard’s father William Burnes. The son of a Wigtonshire farmer he was appointed assistant minister at Kilwinning in 1759 and the following year was ordained to the second charge of Ayr, which sits on the banks of the River Ayr. At the age of 53 years he received a Doctorate of Divinity from the University of Glasgow.
In 1786 he published an essay ‘ The Death of Jesus Christ’ which was deemed to be at odds with the orthodox doctrines of the kirk by Dr William Peebles of Newton-on-Ayr. McGill attempted to defend his position but three years later the General Assembly ordered an inquiry and after the beleaguered minister offered an apology the case was dropped.
Rabbie mocks the punishment that should have been meted out to Dr Reverend McGill –
Doctor Mac! Doctor Mac, you should streek on a rack,
To strike evil-doers wi’ terror:
To join Faith and Sense, upon any pretence,
Was heretic, damnable error,
Doctor Mac ‘Twas heretic, damnable error.
With the sense of injustice established in the opening verses Burns turned his attentions to a number of the Auld Lichts in turn.
Reverend William Dalrymple (1723-1814)
The first in line was William Dalrymple.
The younger son of the Sheriff-Clerk of Ayr he was ordained minister of the second charge of Ayr in 1746 and translated to the first charge ten years later. On 26th January 1759, he baptised Robert Burns one day after his birth at Alloway.
Dalrymple received a Doctorate of Divinity from the University of St. Andrews in 1779 and two years later he was elected Moderator of the General Assembly. He would go on to serve as minister at Ayr for 68 years.
D’rymple mild! D’rymple mild, tho’ your heart’s like a child,
And your life like the new-driven snaw,
Yet that winna save you, auld Satan must have you,
For preaching that three’s ane an’ twa,
D’rymple mild! For preaching that three’s ane an’ twa.
Ministers of Ayrshire
The verses that followed attacked the following ministers
- John Russel (Kilmarnock) – ‘Rumble John‘
- James McKinlay (Kilmarnock) – ‘Simper James‘
- Alexander Moodie (Riccarton) – ‘Singet Sawnie‘
- Dr William Peebles (Newton-on-Ayr) -‘Poet Willie‘
- Stephen Young (Barr) – ‘Barr Steenie‘
- James Young (New Cumnock) – ‘Jamie Goose‘
- David Grant (Ochiltree) – ‘Davie Bluster‘
- George Smith (Galston) -‘Irvine Side‘
- John Shepherd (Muirkirk) -‘Muirland Jock‘
- Dr. Andrew Mitchell (Monkton) – ‘Andro Gowk‘
- William Auld (Mauchline) – ‘Daddy Auld‘
Reverend James Young (1711 – 1795)
In that band is our own Reverend James Young of New Cumnock. Born in 1711, the son of Alexander Young a cooper in Falkirk. He married Elizabeth Hunter, the daughter of Robert Hunter, minister of the Kirkconnel. He was called to New Cumnock on 29th December 1756 and was ordained on 3rd May 1758, the year before Burns was born.
Burn lampoons the Rev. Young as ‘Jamie Goose’ and attacks the minister for his pointless provocation of ‘hunting the wicked Lieutenant‘. This was Hugh Mitchell of Dalleagles, a captain in the Royal Marines, who was married to Grizzel Logan, sister of John Logan of Laight and close acquaintance of Robert Burns. The minister had refused to baptise either one or both of their children born at that time and had entered into some form of ecclesiastical prosecution against Mitchell.
Burns, also had other information on the minister as he makes reference to his father’s trade of cooper.
Jamie Goose! Jamie Goose, ye made but toom roose,
In hunting the wicked Lieutenant;
But the Doctor’s your mark, for the Lord’s holy ark,
He has cooper’d an’ ca’d a wrang pin in’t,
Jamie Goose! He has cooper’d an’ ca’d a wrang pin in’t.
The Reverend Young died on 1st Augut 1795, aged 84 years – the year before Burns died. He lies buried alongside the walls of the Auld Kirk ruins.
John Logan of Knockshinnoch and Laight
John Logan of Knockshinnoch and Laight was a close acquaintance of Burns. His marriage to Martha McAdam in March 1779 had caused some controversy. It was considered to have been irregular having been celebrated, it was was believed by an Episcopalian clergyman, not entitled to do so by law. Logan as one of the heritors in the parish of New Cumnock was also responsible for contributing to the upkeep of the kirk and he and the Reverend Young also crossed swords on this matter.
On the 7th August 1789, Robert Burns at Ellisland sent a copy of ‘The Kirk’s Alarm” to John Logan Esq. Of Afton at Laight House, along with a letter which included the remarks –
“I am determined not to let it get into the Publick; so I send you this copy, the first I have sent to Ayrshire, except some few of the Stanzas which I have wrote off in embrio for Gavin Hamilton under the express provision and request – that you will only read it to a few of us, and do not on any account give or permit it to be taken, any copy of the Ballad. If I could be of any Service to Dr. McGill I would do it though it should be at much greater expense than irritating a few biggoted Priests; but as I am afraid , serving him in his present embarrass , is a task too hard for me , I have enemies enow, God knows, tho’ I do not wantonly add to that number”
Burns enclosed copy of the Kirk’s Alarm which included the following presentation stanza reiterating his request not to to give out a copy, other than too their mutual friend, William Johnston , Laird of Clackleith in Sanquhar.
‘Afton’s Laird ! Afton’s Laird when your pen can be spared,
A copy of this I bequeath,
On the same sicker score as I mention’d before,
To that trusty auld worthy, Clackleith,
Afton’s Laird! To that trust auld worthy, Clackleith.’