Robert Burns

Local Connection through the Mauchline Belles

In Mauchline there dwells six proper young belles,
The pride of the place and its neighbourhood a';
Their carriage and dress, a stranger would guess,
In Lon'on or Paris, they'd gotten it a'.

Miss Miller is fine, Miss Markland's divine,
Miss Smith she has wit, and Miss Betty is braw:
There's beauty and fortune to get wi' Miss Morton,
But Armour's the jewel for me o' them a'.

The background to this Burns connection, which is admittedly a bit tenuous, is through Mauchline Belle, “Miss Smith”.  Apart from “having wit” she was a very clever woman and the sister of one of Burns’ best friends, James Smith. Burns’ high regard for Smith as a friend is evident in his “Epistle to James Smith” in which he says,

Dear Smith, the slee'st, pawkie thief,
That e'er attempted stealth or rief!
Ye surely hae some warlock-brief
Owre human hearts;
For ne'er a bosom yet was prief
Against your arts.

For me, I swear by sun an' moon,
An' ev'ry star that blinks aboon,
Ye've cost me twenty pair o' shoon,
Just gaun to see you;
An' ev'ry ither pair that's done,
Mair taen I'm wi' you.

Burns and Smith were lusty young men and very active in their pursuit of the local women. We are all aware of Burns’ reputation in this respect but Smith appears to have been at least as successful  as Burns. In his Epitaph to James Smith Burns wrote,

Lament him, Mauchline husbands a',
He aften did assist ye;
For had ye staid hale weeks awa,
Your wives they ne'er had miss'd ye.

Ye Mauchline bairns, as on ye press
To school in bands thegither,
O tread ye lightly on his grass, -
Perhaps he was your father!

Getting back to Smith’s sister Jane, she went on to marry James Candlish, a medical teacher in Edinburgh. She gave birth to her second son, Robert Smith Candlish in 1806. When her husband died just five weeks after the baby was born Jane showed her cleverness and force of character by educating him herself with the help of his older sister and brother.

Robert CandlishRobert Candlish went on to become a highly regarded and somewhat controversial preacher and theologian. The local connection is through the time he spent as a probationer in Bonhill Parish church under the Reverend William Gregor. He left Bonhill Parish when he was appointed assistant and eventually the minister of St. George's, Edinburgh, the most influential congregation in the city. [Link]

So there you have it. The son of one of the famed Belles of Mauchline was a B’nill man for a short period.

Note: The Rev. William Gregor was the minister at Bonhill Church from 1808 until 1848. He was a formidable character whose picture is still hanging in the vestry. He was a bit of an eccentric but an accomplished scholar and author. He would no doubt have had some influence on the young Candlish.

Billy Scobie’s “History of Bonhill Parish Church” says of Gregor, “A Moderate, he was a paternal, much loved and respected minister, a colourful local personality. During a period of prolonged drought Gregor prayed from the pulpit for rain. As he was doing so, torrents descended on the roof of the kirk. “In measure, Lord.” he cautioned the Almighty. The story is told of a wedding at which he was officiating. On his late arrival complaints were voiced. Gregor eyed the obviously pregnant bride and replied, “Yes, about six months too late”.

More information about Candlish and Gregor

James Barr in his “Disruption Memories” comments on the relationship between Gregor and his young Assistant, Candlish.  He describes Candlish as a fidgety, galvanised piece of humanity, and often paused to look upon the bolt-upright, square-shouldered little man, as he rushed along the road in the course of his visitations, professional or social. 

Never had Barr seen other adult human legs in such nimble motion when under no other excitement than the sober act of walking.  His nature, his entire career, so far as Barr had any knowledge of it, was that of unrest, happily not arising from a perturbed spirit, but from a physical and mental organisation to which movement and action were either involuntary or absolute necessity. 

The Rev. William Gregor was a favourable example of the Moderate.  He had for some considerable time been a teacher previous to becoming a parish minister, and was considered an excellent scholar, at least so far as a knowledge of the learned languages was concerned.  He had usually the function of examiner assigned him by the Presbytery, and was a terror to many of those young men who were on trial for license. 

As a preacher he was notable more by his personal appearance and peculiarities of expression, than for any of those qualities which distinguish preaching of a high class. For many years his custom had been to dispense the ordinance of baptism, not in the Church, but in an adjoining public-house during the interval between sermons. 

When the long prevailing custom of serving whisky or other spirituous liquors at marriages and funerals came to be questioned by the temperance party, the minister of Bonhill stood boldly out for use and wont, and some of his choicest sallies were directed against the innovators.  On the occasion of a marriage on abstinence principles I happened to be present, and after the ceremony the minister sat down, and waited patiently for some little time, expecting the appearance of the bottle.  It was however not forthcoming, and when his reverence lost hope, he passionately seized his  hat and rushed to the door.  On his exit the children congregated outside raised a shout, at hearing which he, in stentorian tones exclaimed, “Shout away; its all that’s going;” and then hasted away in no very amiable mood.

In his biography, Candlish recorded that Gregor had been very kind to him, so much so as to make him reluctant to break the connection.  However, in one of Dr. Candlish’s letters, written when he was about to be settled in St. George’s, he related that “Had our old friend in Bonhill not been a fool, I should not have thought of leaving it.”  A very ungenerous, a very ungracious passage.

Gregor’s opinion of Candlish was invariably positive and he conveyed his admiration of “Candy’s” abilities to Barr, adding, “You know, we always called him Candy.”  He had selected him in opposition to letters from Glasgow advising that he should have nothing whatever to do with Candlish, as he had preached a church in Glasgow vacant, and the probability was that he would soon do as much for Bonhill. 

“Notwithstanding that,” said the parson, “As I was to pay the piper, I would choose the tune.  I saw that the right stuff was in him, and by the help of God I’d try to bring it out of him.  I never yet knew a young man that could match Candy in the speed with which he could compose a sermon; and always capital matter in it too.  For instance, I would see him in the early part of the week, and would say to him, Well, Candy, have you selected your subjects for next Sabbath?  No, Candy had not begun to think of them.  Again I would see him on Friday or Saturday, and Candy was fully prepared. 

But he was ambitious though.  He was not long with me till I saw that he would not be satisfied till he should become the Pope of the Church.  I was in the habit of sometimes calling him Pope Candlish; and I believe that sticks to him to this day.”

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