Turn again, thou fair Eliza!

Today it is the 25th January 2015. Rabbie Burns was born on this day in 1759.


My family have a story about Rabbie Burns. It is not widely known. In fact most scholars of Rabbie Burns are unaware of it. Above our fireplace we have a family sampler that was stitched in Bridge of Allan in 1813. This was the Rutherfoord family (my mother’s side of the family).

Mrs Rutherfoord was from Mauchline, her maiden name was Black. Her son, John Stewart Rutherfoord was our first village doctor.  As a medical student in Edinburgh he was a resurrectionist (body snatcher) and supplied bodies to the one-eyed anatomist Dr Robert Knox. When the deadly hoo-haa of Burke and Hare arose, Dr Rutherfoord had to flea Edinburgh and became a ship’s doctor. Only a year later did he feel it safe enough to return home to Bridge of Allan.


Dr Rutherfoord had a lodger in his house: Gilbert Farie, a newly qualified pharmacist. Gilbert Farie was a hunchback who lives on in notoriety for his unequaled ability to sell anything! He dispensed cough mixture to the child that was Robert Louis Stevenson. This was how Gilbert Farie came to haunt Robert Loius’ dreams: the “bogey” that inspired Mr Hyde of “The strange case of Dr Jekyll & Hyde”.

Dr Rutherfoord’s mother, Margaret Black, is  denoted in the family sampler by the large initials M.B.


Margaret Black’s sister was Eliza Black. Known in the family as “Betty”.

Eliza Black was a love of Rabbie Burn’s. She met him in Dean Castle, Kilmarnock where her father was Butler to the Earl of Glencairn.


The Earl of Glencairn was a very close friend of Rabbie Burns, and introduced Rabbie to an appreciative audience in Edinburgh. The Earl of Glencairn paid for the first publication of Rabbie’s poems, the “Kilmarnock edition”.


Eliza Black then moved with her family to Stirlingshire. She married John Stewart and became Mrs Stewart, a local publican in Alva.

A great-great uncle of mine (Daniel McNeil Watson) recorded this in the 1870’s:


“The Grandmother belonged to Mauchline, her name was Margaret Black. Her sister, Betty Black, one of Burn’s six Mauchline Belle’s, came to live in the Bridge of Allan District, and got married to John Stewart, their house being at Alva, on the Banks of the Devon. Burn’s visited her repeatedly”

“How pleasant the banks of the clear winding Devon,
With green spreading bushes and flowers blooming fair,
But the bonniest flower on the banks of the Devon
Was once a sweet Bud on the Braes of the Ayr.”

And then followed another, his farewell to Fair Eliza when he anticipated leaving to go to Jamaica:

“From thee Eliza I must go,
And from my native shore;
The Cruel Fates between us throw
A boundless ocean’s roar.”

The following extract is from a 19th century book Robert Burns in Stirlingshire” by William Harvey:

Robert Burns's second visit to Stirlingshire: October 1787.

The story of the poet's visit to Alva, as it has been preserved 
in oral tradition, is not without interest. It appears that 
during the time he was in the Hillfoots district he journeyed to 
Alva and remained over night.

He visited Mr. Johnston, the first laird of Alva of that name, 
who was then the inhabitant of Alva House, and who, in earlier 
years, had fought at Plassey. It might be inferred from Burns's 
letter already quoted that he was the guest of Mr. Johnston 
during his stay in Alva, but, locally, it is believed that this 
is not the case. The tradition is that he passed the night in 
Courthill House,which was at that time occupied as an inn 
by a person of the name of Hume.

The building, which is situated in Ochil Street, is now used as 
a dwelling-house, and on the occasion of our visit we found 
that the inhabitants were quite familiar with the story of the 
poet's stay, although they made no endeavour to impose upon 
credulity by pointing out the room or showing the bed in which 
he had slept.

It would seem that Burns renewed the acquaintance of a Mauchline 
friend who was then resident in Alva. This was Betty Black. The 
information concerning her is somewhat scanty.

Among the song-heroines of Burns there are two named "Betty”: 
Elizabeth Black and Elizabeth Miller — and for want of accurate 
information confusion of these persons has been the result. 
Elizabeth Black, otherwise Mrs Stewart, kept a public-house in 
the village. The building is situated in what is known as 
"The Middle Bridge," and is still occupied as a public-house.

Burns visited the place, and the room in which he sat - the 
apartment at the west end of the building - is still pointed out. 
Our informant stated that among those who met Burns on this 
occasion was his wife's grand-uncle, James Dawson. Dawson, who 
was precentor in the Parish Church was, of course, well-known in 
the village, and it is understood that "Lucky" (as Betty was 
familiarly called), thinking him a likely person to converse 
with the bard, sent for him. He, in company with another 
villager, named John Morrison, sat down at Lucky's table with the 
poet, and they had two gills - rather a moderate quantity - among 
them. Dawson in after years used to tell that Burns was very 
silent on the occasion, and did not seem to care whether he 
joined in the conversation or not. Our informant's father also 
recollected having seen the poet. He was a mere boy at the time 
and was playing with some companions in the Square when a man 
clad in grey clothes went past, and somebody remarked 
“That's Robert Burns."

While these sheets were in the press, an interesting county 
landmark connected with Burns was swept away. The change- 
house at Alva, kept by Betty Black (see page 34), and locally 
known as "No. 5," suffered demolition, and as another structure 
was proposed to be erected in its stead, the Alva Burns Club 
arranged to place a memorial tablet, commemorating the 
tradition of the poet's visit, in the wall of the new building. 
The ceremony of handing over the tablet took place on Friday, 
September 29, 1899, in presence of a large gathering of 
members of the Alva Burns Club and others interested.

I should add, another Bridge of Allan worthy, Rev Charles Roger met the youngest sister of Rabbie Burns. I made the film “Monumental Madness” about Rev Charles Rogers. He is a most interesting character!

In his 1853 book “The Modern Scottish Minstrel” Roger’s records:

“Having selected the Minstrels to be introduced, I proceeded to visit their haunts.” This was how Rogers met Mrs Begg the sister of Rabbie Burns. She was 25 yrs old when her brother died and she was was 80 when Rogers met her but “retained her faculties in full vigour’”. She described her brother Rabbie Burns: “He had dark eyes and a quick disarming glance, but every feature indicated power and feeling”. However, most interesting of all, she added that most of the engraved portraits of her brother “are incorrect, some bear no resemblance”.


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