Picture of Robert Gammage

Robert Gammage

places mentioned

Ayrshire and Renfrewshire

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It was now my good fortune to visit the Land of Burns. If I felt an interest in his grave, it was only natural that I should feel still more interest in visiting the town near in which he drew the first breath of life. I arrived at Ayr

Auld Ayr wham ne'er a town surpasses,
For honest men and bonnie lassies.

I did not lecture at Ayr on my first visit, as arrangements could not be made, but in a few days) went to it again, and a meeting had been announced to be held in the Town Hall. There was an excellent attendance. I was in every way gratified by the reception I met with. It was such as might have been expected in a town so closely associated with Scotland's great Bard. After the meeting, we adjourned to the house of Mr. Smith (another knight of the stirrup and the last), where we spent a most agreeable evening, chatting on all sorts of political subjects, and singing patriotic and other songs. Mrs. Smith had a good clear voice, and sang 'Ye Banks and Braes,' 'Highland Mary,' and other songs of Burns. If I had not enjoyed myself, and contributed to the enjoyment of those around me, I must have been less than flesh and blood.

I stayed at the house of Mr. McLaren, a master joiner of the town, who was a good hearty Chartist, as was his wife. They did all in their power to make me feel myself at home, and to do so was not difficult.

On the following morning, I arose almost with the dawn, and made my way to the monument erected to the memory of Burns on the banks of Doon. By payment of four pence I soon obtained admittance, and examined all I wanted to see. Looking through the window all the inside, there was full to the view the testament which the poet is said to have presented to Mary the last time they ever met on earth. Close to the spot there stood the 'Twa Brigs,' old and new, which all readers of Burns have read of. Returning, I passed Alloway Kirk, the scene of the witches' capers, described in 'Tam o'Shanter,' I soon arrived at the celebrated cottage in which the poet was born, and which was then licensed for the sale of drink. I called for a glass of whisky, and soon got into an agreeable chat with the hostess, a middle aged woman, and one of the most fluent talkers I had ever met. I stayed about half an hour. She showed me everything connected with the name of Burns, even the bed on which he was born. The bedstead was a curiosity, not that it was of itself very different from others, but because of the way in which it had been hacked about by numerous visitors. I then made my way back to Ayr, when, as may readily be imagined, after a walk of five miles over the crisp frozen snow that covered the ground, I was not only ready but eager to lay siege to a substantial breakfast, which was speedily set before me. What made the meal additionally agreeable was the heartiness of my entertainer. She talked all the time, and if talking over meals be, as said, and as I have proved, good for digestion, there was no danger of mine on that cold morning.

After a hearty farewell to my entertainers, I pursued my way to Old Cumnock. The sight of the snow clad hills was exhilarating. My friend Mr. S. M. Kydd (now barrister of that name) once said, when walking outside Northampton, the fields being covered with snow, that there was as much beauty in the winter as in the summer. It may he so to those who can command all the necessaries and comforts of life, but what will thousands say in this time of pinching poverty?

After staying for a night at Old Cumnock, I went on to the little town of Sanquair, where by arrangement I addressed a meeting in the Town Hall. There was generally very little expense in getting up a meeting in the small towns of Scotland. A fife and drum band was set to work, and at the sound people turned out, and by the time the musicians arrived at the place of meeting there was a considerable gathering. A plate was placed on a chair inside, into which those entering deposited whatever they chose, which as I was informed was generally a 'bawbee' (a halfpenny), as much, no doubt, as the working people could at that time afford. The meeting was not only large, but enthusiastic. I gave along lecture that night, to the gratification of the audience, and consequently to myself.

Back to Old Cumnock next day, when we had a crowded meeting, full of Ayrshire fire. A few select friends passed with me an evening I shall never forget. The secretary was brimful of Burns and his poetry. We finished up the night with democratic songs, in which, notwithstanding my want of musical ability, I freely shared.

The next day I walked to Mauchline, which, as already slated was the birthplace of Mrs. Geo. Julian Harney. I went on to Newmilns, a manufacturing town. I was there on a Saturday afternoon. The people had finished their hard and ill-requited labour for the week. In many of these small Scotch towns Saturday was the best day for public meetings, at all events we had a good one both for numbers and enthusiasm, and I spent a quiet Sunday on the following day.

I went next to the little town of Tarbolton—in more senses than one an interesting spot It was not merely that I met with a large number of warm hearted Chartists, but that I was still in the cherished 'Land o' Burns,' in a spot sacred both to him and to his gentle Highland Mary. There were here stalwart men and fair women, vieing with one another in their devotion to the common cause. We had a large gathering, which was truly Ayrshire in its enthusiastic spirit, and I felt myself as much at home in talking to them as though I had known them throughout life. The leading men came with me to the hotel, where, as at other places in the county, we spent one of the most agreeable of evenings.

The following morning was none too cheering, for the rain poured down in torrents. It was a Scotch downpour to all intents and purposes. I waited for a time to see if it would cease, but the weather gods were anything but propitious, and off I started for Montgomery Castle. Near to the grounds I came to the premises of some sawyers who were at work. Asking my way, they kindly offered to go with me. I verily believe that a Switchman, especially he be from Ayrshire, would go through almost anything to show a stranger a spot connected with the name of Burns. We soon came in front of what they told me was 'Mary's Thorn,' the hawthorn beneath which Mary and the poet met in their last earthly interview, on which, I presume, was founded the beautiful lines—

How sweetly bloomed the gay green birk,
How rich the hawthorn's blossom,
As underneath their fragrant shade
I clasped her to my bosom.

On going back, my companions called my attention to a small stream, over which it is related that Burns presented to Mary a copy of the Testament, as a pledge of his love and devotion. This was the book which, as I stated, I saw at his monument on the banks of Doon. Burns, I believe, never met his Mary again. That he loved her in all sincerity no one unprejudiced can entertain the shadow of a doubt. If there were any, those of his poems referring to the subject, written by a man who scorned to lie, who wrote the honest truth even though it made against himself, would sufficiently vindicate him.

While in the county, I paid a visit to the town of Irvine, when I lectured to an unusually small audience. I was recommended to call on a gentleman by the name of Bruce. He was a 'flesher', a very candid man, open as the day, about whom there could be no mistake. He was a thorough atheist. It was not long after we entered into conversation that he made known his views. He was a devoted admirer of Feargus O'Connor , and seemed as though he could hardly keep his name off his lips. It was O'Connor, O'Connor, O'Connor, but although I differed with him on some of the subjects on which we talked, he manifested a generosity worthy of imitation by all of us.

I addressed a numerous meeting at the little town of Denny. I went to Beith, and here I met with a surprise. A meeting had been arranged, but there was no one to announce it. The friends said to me, 'We can get a good meeting, but the bellman won't call it.' 'Well, can't you call it yourselves?' 'No, there is not one of us that can do it; but we will go round with you and ring the bell, and if you announce it we are sure of a good attendance.' I had never before been a town crier, but rather than fail in my purpose I consented to play the part. The good meeting which ensued was the best consolation for my unpleasant task. I remember having a conversation with one of the leaders on poetry. He was almost a worshipper of Burns. I had read some poems written by Mr. McQueen, and as the spirit of them suited me, I placed them before him contending that they were superior to those of Burns. 'Oh! I agree with what he has written more than with anything produced by Burns, but as regards genius he is far inferior.' Doubtless he was right. McQueen had, however, written some good poems, though not of the highest order. Take for instance the last verse of one of them—

It will come, and the great ones of earth will turn pale,
        The yoke of the bond-man enfeebled will shake,
All tyrants shall join in one desolate wail,
        And empires' foundations will tremble and quake.
Thrones shall crash, and the sceptre be clotted with blood
        Will shiver to shreds in the hands of its lord,
And a voice fierce and awful will echo aloud,
        That freedom the birthright of mind is restored.

Kilbarchan is not, I think, in the county of Ayr, although near to it. I dropped into the little town on a celebrated evening. It was 'Halloween.' Everybody was astir. I addressed my Chartist friends in private, but a public meeting was out of the question. True, there was a Chartist soiree, but only in name. There were songs, dancing, and everything that could contribute to the spending of a happy hour. One of the ladies got me up to dance, and took abundant pains with me; but, after a fair trial, she found that, however brisk I was for the Charter, I was not suited for dancing, not knowing nor wishing to know anything about it. The entertainment ended at a late, or, as I may more truthfully state, at an early hour. I went home to sleep at the house of a friend, who had that day been made happy by being united to a loving wife.

I passed on the following day to Elderslie, where stands the famous oak connected with the name of the Scottish hero, Wallace. I had an agreeable and profitable conversation with the leading Chartist of the town, but a public meeting was impracticable, for Chartism in this small but pleasant town was, although not dead, yet sleeping.

On my way to England I called at Kelso, where I had been announced to deliver two lectures. To make the meetings better known, the town crier was sent round in the evening. There was much merriment when my friends came to see me. They told me that, instead of announcing my first lecture to be on the 'True Principles of Democracy,' the crier had announced that 'Mr. R G. Gammon, from England,' would deliver a lecture on 'The True Principles of Hypocrisy,' A wag got hold of the old man and instructed him. But we got a good meeting. The blundering announcement had excited curiosity, and we had an equally good one on the following night.

I spent a quiet Sunday with my friends in Kelso, and then went on to Coldstream, the nearest border town, where I met with a warm Chartist whom I had previously seen in Newcastle, and in whose company I spent the evening. This finished up my tour in Scotland, which was such as, with all its difficulties, suited an enthusiast in the Chartist movement. Although Alnwick is in England, I may as well include it here. The name of the secretary was Burns, who was not Scotch, but in every sense a thorough Hibernian. Although under ducal influence, the town of Alnwick contained sonic of the warmest and most intelligent Chartists I met with. I gave two lectures in the long room of The Fleece Inn. My lectures were much applauded. Messrs. Steel, Taylor, and Pike were leading men in the movement of that day.

From Alnwick I walked with all cheerfulness, a distance of thirty-three miles, to the 'canny toon,' Newcastle.

Robert Gammage, 'Recollections of a Chartist', in the Newcastle Weekly Chronicle , Saturday, December 13 1884

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