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The Burns Encyclopedia
Home | Introduction | A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z

Begbie, Alison (or Ellison)

The most important of the early friends of the opposite sex with whom the poet associated, Alison, or Ellison, Begbie is a somewhat shadowy figure. She is said to have been born in the parish of Galston, the daughter of a small farmer, and at the time she was being courted by Burns to have been a servant employed in a house near the river Cessnock, about 2 miles from Loudon. Burns was then at Lochlea.

Five letters from Burns were claimed by Dr Currie to have been sent to Alison Begbie. Of these, only the manuscript of one — the first, in which 'burns hopes the recipient will not despise him because he is 'ignorant of the flattering arts of courtship' — has been traced. The others were found by Dr Currie in draft form among Burns's papers.

In language of copy-book stiltedness, Burns leads up to a proposal of marriage in the fourth letter: 'If you will be so good and so generous as to admit me for your partner, your companion, your bosom friend through life, there is nothing on this side of eternity shall give me greater transport.' The only evidence to suggest that the fifth draft takes the form of o brave acknowledgment of refusal.

The initial used in the one authentic letter is 'My dear E'. In the autobiographical letter to Moore, Burns said that in his 23rd year, somebody, 'a bellefill whom I adored', jilted or refused him ' with peculiar circumstances of mortification'. The fifth letter in the series, supposedly to Begbie, gives no indication of the existence of any such circumstances, and, indeed, it was Burns's sister Isabella who first said that Alison Begbie was the person her brother referred to. Ferguson goes so far as to suggest that the letters may not have been 'personal letters of Burns's at all, since we have his own testimony that he often acted as go-between for his shyer and less literate friends.'

Miss Begbie is said to have married another a few years after her alleged 'jilting' of Burns — though to refuse a man's offer of marriage is not normally referred to as jilting — and to have settled in Glasgow.

She is probably the 'lass of Cessnock Banks' who inspired 'On Cessnock banks a lassie dwells', and the Peggy Alison of 'Ilk care and fear, when thou art near', both of which appeared in the Scots Musical Museum to the tunes of 'The Butcher Boy' and 'Braes o' Balquidder' respectively.

But her main claim to our grateful remembrance is that, according to some Burns scholars, she seems much more likely to have been the inspiration of that exquisite love song 'O Mary at thy window be' than the actual Mary Morrison who lies buried in the churchyard at Mauchline, and whom the poet is thought to have met only once. This song was marked by Burns to go to the tune 'Duncan Davidson', as printed by Dick in The Songs of Burns. Thomson published it with the tune 'Bide ye yet'. It was matched to 'The Glasgow Lasses' in a collection, Scotch Airs published in 1818, but since then is usually published with the tune 'The Miller' (in the second volume of the Museum), one of the few unauthorised airs that suit the words better than the air chosen by the poet.

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