Updated: Nov 8, 2021
Envy, if thy jaundiced eye, Through this window chance to spy, To thy sorrow thou shalt find, All that's generous, all that's kind, Friendship, virtue, every grace, Dwelling in this happy place.
So etched Robert Burns with his diamond-tipped pen on the window of the Queensberry Arms in Sanquhar in 1789.
The poet was a regular traveller between Dumfries and Mauchline in the late eighteenth century, along what is now the A76, in his role as an excise officer. I was a regular if nowhere near as frequent a traveller between Dumfries and Mauchline in the mid-twentieth century, along what was by then the A76, on my way to stay with my aunt and uncle in Hurlford. Whilst Burns would have travelled on a series of horses I was transported in a series of Vauxhall Victors.
My earliest memory of these trips probably dates to when I was aged about four. We travelled north from Gorleston in a cream and bronze F-Series Victor estate. Dad was working for Jewson at the time, a local East Anglian company in those days as opposed to just a part of the Saint-Gobain behemoth, and had swapped cars with the office's salesman for the trip, being of the view that it would be better for a family of five than his own far smaller company Ford 100E. I remember him telling me many, many years later that the pair of them got a good bollocking when he returned to the office after the holiday for that unauthorised vehicular exchange.
After Dad left Jewson we still made the journey in Victors. Firstly in a red FB estate, then a green FC saloon and finally, having somehow missed out on the FD Series, another saloon – a blue FE. Mrs. Bygone Boozer and I covered part of the route whilst on our recent trip with our bikes north of the border and this is a post to highlight of some of the historic hostelries which have been lost along that stretch of road.
About twelve miles north of Dumfries was Brownhill Inn. Built around 1780 this coaching inn provided the first stop for a change of horses after leaving Dumfries.
It was a drinking bout here with landlord John Bacon, when Bacon's wife Catherine refused to supply the pair with more drink, that reputedly resulted in Burns' penning of The Henpecked Husband.
Curs'd be the man, the poorest wretch in life,
The crouching vassal to a tyrant wife!
Who has no will but by her high permission,
Who has not sixpence but in her possession;
Who must to he, his dear friend's secrets tell,
Who dreads a curtain lecture worse than hell.
Were such the wife had fallen to my part,
I'd break her spirit or I'd break her heart;
I'd charm her with the magic of a switch,
I'd kiss her maids, and kick the perverse bitch.
Robert Burns wasn't the only literary person to stay at Brownhills. In 1803, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, travelling with with Dorothy and William Wordsworth, also stayed there. Dorothy recorded some of her thoughts of the place:
It was as pretty a room as a thoroughly dirty one could be, a square parlour painted green, but so covered over with smoke and dirt that it looked not unlike green seen through black gauze.
John Bacon died in 1824 and Brownhill died as an inn in 1850. It's now in residential use but the former coach house and stabling remain across the road as a reminder of its former role.
Fifteen miles further north and we come to Sanquhar and the aforementioned Queensberry Arms. Originally styled the New Inn it soon took on the name of the local dukedom. When Burns inscribed the verse at the top of the page onto one of the windows the place was known locally as Whigham's Inn, after the landlord of the time, Edward Whigham.
Burns was a frequent guest at Sanquhar's Whigham's Inn and it wasn't with faint praise that he described it as "...it the only tolerable inn in the place." That quote comes from a letter that he wrote describing the events which prevented him from spending the night there on the 10th January 1789. The arrival of the funeral cortege of Mrs. Mary Oswald, the rather despised widow of a local bigwig, meant that he had to travel another twelve miles to the Old Mill Inn in New Cumnock to find a bed for the night. A couple of months later he described the event thus:
"In January last, on my road to Ayrshire, I had put up at Bailie Whigham's in Sanquhar, the only tolerable inn in the place. The frost was keen, and the grim evening and howling wind were ushering in a night of snow and drift. My horse and I were both much fatigued with the labours of the day, and just as my friend the Bailie and I, were bidding defiance to the storm over a smoking bowl, in wheels the funeral pageantry of the late great Mrs Oswald, and poor I am forced to brave all the horrors of the tempestuous night, and jade my horse, my young favourite horse, whom I had just christened Pegasus, twelve miles farther on, through the wildest moors and hills of Ayrshire, to New Cumnock, the next inn."
In his etched 'At Whigham's Inn' Burns described the hostelry as 'this happy place'. If he could see it today he's unlikely to describe it so. It's certainly not such a happy place now.
There remains the odd reference to its former name...
...and to its link with Burns...
...but it does look to be very sad and unloved. Unlisted, it has fallen into such a state of disrepair that it has made it onto Scotland's register of Buildings at Risk.
Leaving Sanquhar, following the route taken by Burns and Pegasus that January night, we cross the border into Ayrshire and arrive in New Cumnock, passing this property as we do so. Burns would certainly never have a spent a night here, with Pegasus happily tethered and grazing on the front lawn, but I have. For this was my grandmother's home and the Vauxhall Victor, of whatever series or colour, would always stop here for a break before continuing on the final twenty miles of our journey to Hurlford.
A few hundred yards further along the road and we come to Burn's resting place on that January night – the Old Mill Inn.
It was here, after he'd defrosted, that he wrote his Ode, Sacred To The Memory Of
Mrs. Oswald Of Auchencruive. It is clear that he didn't hold the late Mrs. Oswald in high regard. The strophe is particularly cutting:
View the wither'd beldam's face:
Can thy keen inspection trace
Aught of Humanity's sweet, melting grace?
Note that eye, 'tis rheum o'erflows -
Pity's flood there never rose.
See those hands, ne'er stretch'd to save,
Hands that took but never gave.
Keeper of Mammon's iron chest,
Lo, there she goes, unpitied and unblest,
She goes, but not to realms of everlasting rest!
The complete ode, with English translation, can be seen by clicking here if you wish to appreciate the full extent of his feelings.
Today's trip would see us turn left here, to leave the A76, head for Dalmellington and then back to New Galloway for a coffee but we're just going to remain on it for a couple of hundred yards more to collect another pair of bygones.
The A76 in this part of New Cumnock is called Castle. Not 'The Castle'. I haven't omitted the definite article. The street's name is simply Castle, and at the address of 11 Castle used to be the Crown Hotel. This is another building that Burns never entered but I did. Once. Just the once.
Burns couldn't have entered it for it wasn't built until well after his death. The town had a new parish church built in 1833 to replace the existing one whose condition left a lot to be desired and the McKnight family, who at the time ran the Castle Hotel close to the original place of worship, took the opportunity to not miss out on any post-service trade by having a new hotel built next door. By 1837 it was up and running with Agnes McKnight as the innkeeper.
The Crown wasn't a happy place on my only visit, which was around Eastertime in 1975, for it was the occasion of my grandmother's funeral. A dull, drizzly sort of day matched the mood. It wasn't all bad though. In order to attend I'd been given permission by my lecturers to miss some exams. The breakdown pathway of haemoglobin to stercobilin and the effects of Coriolis forces on making tidal predictions were never a couple of my strengths.
The Crown wasn't a happy place either when Billy McCrorie caught it on camera in 2014...
...for it closed around 2005 and had been boarded up ever since.
No, the Crown's certainly not a happy place. In reality it's no longer a place at all.
So if the Crown's gone, is our final bygone still standing?
The Castle Hotel, as we heard earlier, used to operate from a position close to the old parish church and was another of the hostelries visited by Burns. It still stands today and has a plaque announcing his former patronage attached to its wall. The photograph below dates from around 1890 when it was being run by the Young family. I believe that the four young (Sorry, but the pun can't really be avoided.) ladies could well be the sisters Jane (Jeanie), Jessie, Mary and Agnes Young.
The Castle is also rather sad at the moment. Closed for many years, the attached building has been demolished but what remains has been acquired by the New Cumnock Development Trust and there are plans for it to be converted for use as budget visitor accommodation.
Where the attached buildings once stood there is now a statue of Robert Burns and as this post started with him it seems appropriate to end with him too.
Once more I must offer apologies to those who received a phantom notification about this post. Fat Finger Syndrome struck again. I really should not be considering buying that 12" laptop.
Billy McCrorie's image is copyright and reused under this licence.
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