Burn's Tour of the Borders

Ian Landles

11th February 2009


A capacity audience welcomed club favourite Ian Landles with a most interesting presentation on Burn’s Tour of the Borders. With great humour and abundant fascinating facts Ian followed in the footsteps of the Bard.

Robert Burns after the successful publication of a second edition of his poetry in Edinburgh at the end of 1786 was hailed as a sensation. Although flush with money he soon tired of Edinburgh society and decided to see something of his native land. In May 1787 he set out on the first of three tours, the Borders.

He purchased a mare for £4 naming it Jennie Geddes after the woman who threw a stool at the Dean in St Giles Cathedral in 1637 in protest at the introduction of a prayer book more like that of the Church of England. He invited Robert Ainslie a young apprentice lawyer in Edinburgh who hailed from Duns to be his travelling companion. Ainslie was of carefree disposition and they got on well together. Burns kept an account of their journey which was first published in 1834 and gives an insight into his thoughts as he passed through the Borders. Although the itinerary was   haphazard Ainslie with his local knowledge set up some hospitality.


Setting off on 5th May they travelled south by Haddington and Longformacus to spend their first night at Ainslie’s home Berrywell a farmhouse near Duns. Burns was impressed by Ainslie’s parents and recorded that they were fond of and took care of their servants. Burn’s took an immediate liking to Ainslie’s sister Rachel and accompanied the family to church the next day and sat next to her despite the minister’s fire and brimstone sermon about sinners.

Next day the travellers journeyed to Coldstream where Burns crossed the Tweed and set foot in England for the first time. Although not recorded in his journal, he apparently went down on bended knee to pray for and bless Scotland with lines from ‘Cottars Saturday Night’.


On to Kelso, which Burns thought was a charming situation with a fine bridge. He toured Floors Castle, the Abbey and ruin of Roxburgh Castle. Jedburgh he thought was charming too and here they stayed outside the town at Langlee House with lawyer James Fair. Burns remembers Mrs Fair and her sister Miss Lookup as being only tolerable, although Miss Lookup clearly had her eye on Burns. Burns however avoided her attentions by accepting an invitation to dine with Captain Rutherford who had fought in the American wars and been captured by Indians. Exciting though all this was Burns was more distracted by the Captain’s lovely daughter Isabella Lindsay. Burn’s noted in his journal that he was almost damnably in love! During his stay in Jedburgh he was honoured to be made a Burgess.


Burns paid visits to Melrose and Dryburgh Abbeys then on to Innerleithen staying at the thatched change house in the main street called Piccadilly Inn. He visited Elibank and Holilee but no record of any visit to Traquair. On to Selkirk although according to his journal he didn’t visit Gala he did write the song ‘Braw Lads o’ Galla Water’ some years later. Surprisingly he didn’t visit Hawick either. Ian could only speculate on how his life might have been changed had he done so. 


The travellers returned to Duns before a journey via Foulden to Berwick where they toured the town and sailed around the harbour. Burns thought that Berwick was dirty and the people uncivil. They headed north to Eyemouth where they were inducted as masons of St Ebbs Lodge. Ainslie by now had to return to Edinburgh so Burns visited Peasbridge and Dunbar alone dining with the Provost. Returning to Duns he once more had the opportunity to see the lovely Rachel Ainslie before in the company of Gilbert Kerr of Coldstream he crossed over into England visiting Wooler, Alnwick, Morpeth and Newcastle before heading west to Longtown via Hexham. Surprisingly he made no mention of Hadrian’s Wall.


Generally Burns was more interested in commenting on the people he met especially the ladies than the landscapes he saw. He found the company in the Borders over the five week tour more amenable than the gentry of Edinburgh. The ploughman in him thought the soil of both Berwickshire and Roxburghshire more fertile than his native Ayrshire but the traveller was less enamoured with the roads. After a mere two weeks back home however boredom led him to embark on a similar tour of the Highlands.


Reported by Helen Elliott.