‘Remember me to our mother’ (1)
Agnes Broun: the East Lothian Years.
As the year 2009 and the 250th anniversary of Robert Burns birth beckons, thousand of exiles and poetry lovers are expected to take part in a homecoming or pilgrimage to Scotland and its sites of special Burnsian interest. Much of the emphasis is likely to be directed towards Ayrshire and Edinburgh and while this is perfectly understandable it affords an incomplete picture of the story, since right here in the outskirts of Haddington lies three hidden gems of the Burns world.
The sites are associated with Agnes Broun, mother of the poet and Gilbert Burns his younger brother and confidante. They include a monument near the site of the family cottage on the Haddington to Bolton road and the well from where they drew their water supply some ninety metres to the north-east. The third site is the family grave in nearby Bolton the final resting place of this remarkable woman who gave the genius of her son to the nation and the world.
Agnes Broun was born in 1732 near Culzean in Ayrshire and died some 88 years later at Grants Braes, East Lothian. At the time she may have been unusual because of her longevity: in perpetuity, she is unique.
Nevertheless, most aspects of her life were unremarkable. Her reading skills were rudimentary to say the least and she never learned to write even her name. Perhaps that is why of the seven hundred or so letters known to have been written by Burns, none was addressed to his mother.
It was in 1756 that Agnes Broun met William Burnes, a gardener, eleven years her senior. In many ways, the couple appeared to be exact opposites, he was tall, dour, serious and shy, she was lively, fun loving and gregarious. He had a sharp intelligence; she was all but illiterate.
He is famously buried in the Auld Kirk in Alloway, where much of the fictional work ‘Tam O’ Shanter’ supposedly took place. She is buried, almost unheralded, in the tiny hamlet of Bolton, in the other side of the country.
Yet like all of us, Robert Burns is a unique amalgam of both parents and Agnes Broun is therefore, possibly unwittingly, a major contributor to our national heritage. She cannot be allowed to become forgotten.
Agnes and William were married in 1757 and went to live in the ‘auld clay biggin’, built by William’s owns hands and where Robert was born some thirteen months thereafter.
They were married for twenty-six years with Agnes and her growing family moving with William to a succession of unyielding farms. In 1784 with their father’s premature death imminent, Robert and Gilbert took the tenancy of Mossgiel farm in the parish of Mauchline. The newly widowed, Agnes moved in with them later that year and it was to be her home until 1798.
She then moved with Gilbert and various family members to Dinning in Nithsdale for two years, before, in 1800, four years after Robert’s death they moved to East Lothian.
Initially, Gilbert was employed as estate manager to Captain John Dunlop of Morham. Captain Dunlop’s mother, Frances Dunlop of Dunlop was an important figure in the life of Robert Burns having been described as both his mentor and mother confessor and it seems likely that this connection may have influenced Gilbert’s appointment.
In 1804 they made the short move to Grant’s Braes on Gilbert’s appointment as factor to the Lennoxlove estate owned by Lord Balantyre.
Agnes stayed there for sixteen years until her death in 1820. It was the longest time that she had ever stayed at one address.
The house at Grant’s braes must, by any standards, have been tightly packed, since Gilbert and his wife Jean Breckenridge from Kilmarnock had eleven children of their own, and apart from Agnes, they also gave a home to her daughter Annabella and Robert’s first born, Elizabeth, whom Gilbert had promised to ‘bring up as his own’.
As befitted a man of his position and education, Gilbert quickly established himself as an influential member of the community and his contribution to life in Haddington and its immediate surrounds was significant. He even acted as the unofficial clerk of works when the present church in Bolton, destined to be the final resting place of so many of his family, was erected in 1809.
Agnes, who as far back as 1786 had been described by Robert as ‘aged’, (2) unsurprisingly confined her duties to the domestic front, and crucially she is said to have carried water from the well to the cottage.
It was at Grant’s Braes that Agnes Broun died just short of her eighty-eighth birthday. She had seven children, three of whom predeceased her. Of her many grandchildren, at least ten died before her, a reflection of her own old age and the much shorter life expectancies of those times.
That the site of the cottage and the well can still be clearly identified to this day is largely down to the efforts of one man more than seventy years ago.
In 1932 Tranent Burnsian and businessman William Baxter FSA (Scot) lovingly created the monument close to the site of the cottage and restored the old well. They remain a fitting tribute to Agnes Broun till this day.
Baxter’s name must always be revered when it comes to keeping Burns East Lothian connections alive and seventy-five years later his foresight has proved an inspiration to members of the Grant’s Braes Burns Club in Haddington, which exists to promote and develop interest in Robert Burns and his East Lothian heritage.
Ambitious plans are currently being developed to tastefully restore the historic well and monument at Grant’s Braes and to commission a modest archaeological dig to expose some of the hitherto ‘lost’ original building*.
The only route between the monument, where vehicles require to be parked, and the well is currently close to the busy road and gives rise to obvious safety concerns. It is planned to create a woodland walkway between the two sites, well away from the road, aesthetically pleasing and much closer to the actual route taken by Agnes Broun and her family. Any such undertaking would lead to increased biodiversity and would be complemented by discreet, detailed and state of the art signage and notice boards.
The monument, well and immediate surrounds will be restored by a master stonemason with many years experience of working with historical buildings.
The family grave at Bolton has been modestly maintained over the years but is in need of general, tasteful renovation. The need to provide extra car parking has been addressed and informative signage similar to that proposed for Grant’s Braes will be commissioned.
Steps have been taken to restore the ornamental railings that long adorned the grave (see photo) but which were removed to aid the war effort during World War 2. General landscaping and the planting of ‘Jean Armour’ should enhance the overall appearance of the site well before the doubly significant year of 2009 when the church will also celebrate its bi-centenary.
The massive ‘homecoming ‘ planned for 2009 has provided the impetus for Grants Braes Burns Club to set the massive restoration project in motion. Clearly, at stake is our reputation as a genuine focus of Burnsian interest and the substantial economic and tourist potential it can unleash.
Bob Mitchell 2007
*The royal Burgh of Haddington and District Community Council helped kick start this project with a generous donation of £1000. This is gratefully acknowledged.
Letter from Robert to his brother Gilbert, 10th July 1796, 11 days before the poet’s death.
Letter from Robert Burns to Dr John Moore, 4th January 1789, referring to an
incident 3 years earlier.
Mackay, James (1987) The Complete Letters of Robert Burns, Alloway Publishing
Mackay, James (1992) A Biography of Robert Burns, Mainstream Publishing