28 November 2008

Robert Burns’s Schooldays

Robert Hughes posts a correction, and an apology:

Several sources are clear that Robert Burns, the Scottish Bard, went to school in Kirkoswald at 17 years of age, and as he was born in 1759, my previous post obviously was wrong on a vital date; so humble pie to be eaten and spank me if you can catch me.

Burns died at 37 years of age after a prodigiously (re)productive career: some accounts suggest that 'By the end of his short life he was to have fathered fourteen children, nine of them out of wedlock, by six different mothers'.

He also gave Scotland hundreds of poems and songs, interweaving traditional tunes, an original use of vernacular dialect, and his own colourful observations of nature; human, animal and social.

Was 'Rabbie' Burns a subversive or a social climber?

Did he make accessible the Scots dialect, or slaughter the English language?

Was he a virile perpetuator of his race and genes, or a vile wanton rake?

Did he deserve an Oscar or an ASBO?

Controversial however he may be, there is a more prosaic question: did he know my ancestors?

He was an almost exact contemporary of my great-great-great-great-grandfather Thomas Nimmo, who was born in the parish of Kirkoswald less than a year before Burns. It might be a stretch to suppose that Thomas could have attended school with Rabbie, but there were enough younger siblings to make it likely that at least one of them studied with him, and in any case it is impossible to believe he did not know of the Nimmos of Auchenblain, whatever may have been his opinion of them.
One Burns-related website tells of a Jean Kennedy, a ‘gentlewoman’ who was running a pub, and William Fergusson inherited Auchenblain by marrying a Jean Kennedy.

Henceforth there is a cascade of names which seems to resonate between the Burns story and that of my Nimmo ancestors, see The Burns Encyclopedia. This link handily indexes many of Burns’s friends and acquaintances.

There are many Fergussons, (and Fergusons), and then Erskines, and Miss Erskine Nimmo.

A rather striking record from the Scotland census of 1861 shows the following people at 9 Brisbane St, Greenock:

Robert Candlish, aged 16, born in St Cuthbert’s, Edinburgh. (A James Candlish was a boyhood friend of Burns, and indeed a best friend.)

Elizabeth Mary Chalmers, aged 32. (This unfortunate woman was to die a month later, and it seems likely that the census achieved a snapshot of a gathering at her deathbed. She was the daughter of Elizabeth Smith, neé Nimmo.)

Richard Chalmers, also aged 32, born in St Cuthbert’s Edinburgh, who was an English teacher. (Four Chalmers are listed in the index, including a close Ayrshire friend of Burns.)

Thomas C. Chalmers, aged 14, a ‘scholar’, born in St Cuthbert’s Edinburgh, described as a ‘brother’, so possibly a young brother of Richard.

Elizabeth Smith, ‘factor’s wife’, aged 62. (My great-great-great-grandmother. She was born Elizabeth Nimmo in 1796, and the little porkie-pie about her age was typical of ladies in her day. On her marriage in 1825 she was approaching 30, and it would have been natural to shave off three years or so. Her daughter and her sister were both called Catherine Erskine, and her grandson Arthur Britton gave Harding as a middle name to his own son. There is no other known candidate to be Elizabeth Nimmo at the relevant time.)

A Catherine Saw and an Agnes Saw were servants in the household.

Apart from Catherine and Agnes Saw, all the others had surnames which figure in the Robert Burns story.

Elizabeth Nimmo of course was a Smith by marriage: to my great-great-great-grandfather James Smith, born in Birmingham. Researching someone of that name is a bit like looking for the third nematode on the left in the Jurassic ooze.

However, another very great friend of Robert Burns was James Smith, a linen draper, and although this guy died young in Jamaica, it is perfectly possible that other family members later appeared in Birmingham.

James Smith of Birmingham was normally described as a ‘factor’, and I would welcome an exact estimation of what that signified at the era in question, but his son Frederick Sutherland Smith is in the 1871 census as a ‘factor and agent in cloth trade’. At the time he was occupying Wickhamford Manor with his own large family, and that property is still notable today as a large country hotel; so he was either going through a purple patch in the cloth trade or doing a nifty line in house-sitting.

Where did Elizabeth Nimmo meet James Smith? I doubt she was down in Birmingham to bask in the bright lights. Her daughter Elizabeth Mary, (whom I have mentioned as suffering an untimely death in Greenock), was first married to Robert Nimmo Nicholson, the son of a farmer near Greenock and his wife Abigail McRae…yes you’ve got it, Nimmo!

They liked to keep it in the family these people, and that is why it seems so probable that James Smith was actually of a Scottish family himself, and perhaps the same family as the James Smith of Robert Burns’s acquaintance. Certainly the trade seems to be the same.

(A small aside: Lionel Britton, who was Elizabeth Nimmo’s great-grandson, wrote Hunger and Love, which could be seen as a tirade against trade; yet not only was James Smith unquestionably in trade, (cloth or not), but another of Lionel’s great-grandfathers – James Britton, also of Birmingham – was in trade, the only doubt being whether he was a leathercutter, an ironmonger or both; and yet another great-grandfather – Samuel Thomas Senior of Redditch – had needed sixteen bodyguards to protect him from stonethrowing townspeople after he had industrialised the needle-manufacturing process there. Trade, trade, trade…it wasn’t about what other people were doing, it was about what his own people were doing.)

Was there a circle involved with Robert Burns who still cohered, (hung out together, if you prefer,) nearly seventy years after the Bard’s death? Or is it just a coincidence that all these names crop up together, and that the common thread of Ayrshire seems to link them?

Robert Burns experts to the rescue here please!

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