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Scotland Highways and Byways

A record of a tour by car through Scotland in 1900.

We had been attracted to Dumfries chiefly because of its association with Robert Burns, who spent the last years of his life in the town or in its immediate vicinity. Our first pilgrimage was to the poet's tomb, in St. Michael's churchyard. A splendid memorial marks the place, but a visit to the small dingy house a few yards distant, in which he died, painfully reminded us of his last years of distress and absolute want. Within easy reach of Dumfries lie many points of interest, but as our time permitted us to visit only one of these, we selected Caerlaverock Castle, the Ellangowan of Scott's "Guy Mannering," lying about ten miles to the south. In location and style of construction it is one of the most remarkable of the Scotch ruins. It stands in an almost level country near the coast and must have depended for defense on its enormously thick walls and the great double moat which surrounded it, rather than the strength of its position. The castle is built of dark-brown stone, and the walls, rising directly from the waters of the moat and covered with masses of ivy, are picturesque, though in a sad state of disrepair. Bits of artistic carving and beautiful windows showed that it was a palace as well as a fortress, though it seems strange that the builder should select such a site. In common with most British castles, it was finally destroyed by Cromwell, and the custodian showed us a pile of cannon balls which he had gathered in the vicinity. On one of the stones of the inner wall were the initials, "R.B.," and the date, "1776," which our guide assured us were cut by Robert Burns; and there are certain peculiarities about the monogram which leave little doubt that it was the work of the poet. From the battlements of the castle the old man pointed to a distant hill, where, he told us, the home of the Carlyles had been for many years and where Thomas Carlyle, who was born at Ecclefechan, lies buried. Within a few miles of Dumfries is Ellisland Farm, where Robert Burns was a tenant for several years, and many of his most famous poems were written during that period. And besides, there were old abbeys and castles galore within easy reach; and glad indeed we should have been had we been able to make the Station Hotel our headquarters for a week and devote our time to exploring. But we were already behind schedule and the afternoon found us on the road to Ayr.

A little more than half the distance from Dumfries to Ayr the road runs through the Nith Valley, with river and forest scenery so charming as to remind us of the Wye. The highway is a splendid one, with fine surface and easy grades. It passes through an historic country, and the journey would consume a long time if one should pause at every point that might well repay a visit. A mile on the way is Lincluden Abbey, in whose seclusion Burns wrote many of his poems, the most famous of which, "The Vision of Liberty," begins with a reference to the ruin:

"As I stood by yon roofless tower
Where wall flowers scent the dewy air,
Where the owlet lone in her ivy bower,
Tells to the midnight moon her care"

Ellisland Farm is only a few miles farther on the road, never to be forgotten as the spot where "Tam-O'-Shanter" was written. The farm home was built by Burns himself during what was probably the happiest period of his life, and he wrote many verses that indicated his joyful anticipation of life at Ellisland Farm. But alas, the "best laid plans o' mice and men gang oft agley," and the personal experience of few men has more strikingly proven the truth of the now famous lines than of Robert Burns himself! Many old castles and magnificent mansions crown the heights overlooking the river, but we caught only glimpses of some of them, surrounded as they were by immense parks, closed to the public. Every one of the older places underwent many and strange vicissitudes in the long years of border warfare, and of them all, Drumlanrigh Castle, founded in 1689, is perhaps the most imposing. For ten years its builder, the first Earl of Queensbury, labored on the structure, only to pass a single night in the completed building, never to revisit it, and ending his days grieving over the fortune he had squandered on this many-towered pile of gray stone.

We may not loiter along the Nithdale road, rich as it is in traditions and relics of the past. Our progress through such a beautiful country had been slow at the best, and a circular sign-board, bearing the admonition, "Ten Miles Per Hour," posted at each of the numerous villages on the way, was another deterrent upon undue haste. The impression that lingers with us of these small Scotch villages is not a pleasant one. Rows of low, gray-stone, slate-roofed cottages straggling along a single street, generally narrow and crooked and extending for distances depending on the size of the place—made up the average village. Utterly unrelieved by the artistic touches of the English cottages and without the bright dashes of color from flowers and vines, with square, harsh lines and drab coloring everywhere, these Scotch villages seemed bleak and comfortless. Many of them we passed through on this road, among them Sandquhar, with its castle, once a strong and lordly fortress but now in a deplorable state of neglect and decay, and Mauchline, where Burns farmed and sang before he removed to Dumfries. It was like passing into another country when we entered Ayr, which, despite its age and the hoary traditions which cluster around it, is an up-to-date appearing seaport of about thirty thousand people. It is a thriving business town with an unusually good electric street-car system, fine hotels and (not to be forgotten by motorists) excellent garages and repair shops.

Ayr is one of the objective points of nearly every tourist who enters Scotland. Its associations with Burns, his birthplace, Kirk Alloway, his monument, the "Twa Brigs," the "Brig O' Doon," and the numerous other places connected with his memory in Ayr and its vicinity, need not be dwelt on here. An endless array of guide-books and other volumes will give more information than the tourist can absorb and his motor car will enable him to rapidly visit such places as he may choose. It will be of little encumbrance to him, for he may leave the car standing at the side of the street while he makes a tour of the haunts of Burns at Alloway or elsewhere.

It was a gloomy day when we left Ayr over the fine highway leading to Glasgow, but before we had gone very far it began to rain steadily. We passed through Kilmarnock, the largest city in Ayrshire. Here a splendid memorial to Burns has been erected, and connected with it is a museum of relics associated with the poet, as well as copies of various editions of his works. This reminds one that the first volume of poems by Burns was published at Kilmarnock, and in the cottage at Ayr we saw one of the three existing copies, which had been purchased for the collection at an even thousand pounds.

We threaded our way carefully through Glasgow, for the rain, which was coming down heavily, made the streets very slippery, and our car showed more or less tendency to the dangerous "skid." Owing to former visits to the city, we did not pause in Glasgow, though the fact is that no other large city in Britain has less to interest the tourist. It is a great commercial city, having gained in the last one hundred years three quarters of a million inhabitants. Its public buildings, churches, and other show-places, excepting the cathedral, lack the charm of antiquity. After striking the Dumbarton road, exit from the city was easy, and for a considerable distance we passed near the Clyde shipyards, the greatest in the world, where many of the largest merchant and war vessels have been constructed. Just as we entered Dumbarton, whose castle loomed high on a rocky island opposite the town, the rain ceased and the sky cleared with that changeful rapidity we noticed so often in Britain. Certainly we were fortunate in having fine weather for the remainder of the day, during which we passed perhaps as varied and picturesque scenery as we found on our journey.

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