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The Burns Encyclopedia
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Chalmers, Margaret (1763 — 1843)

The daughter of a farmer, her mother was a sister of Gavin Hamilton's stepmother. Margaret Chalmers was born at Fingland, Kirkcudbrightshire. Her father was later forced to sell his estates and took a farm near Mauchline, where Burns may have met her. Most recent biographers of Burns agree that Peggy Chalmers was probably the recipient of the undated letter, placed by Ferguson in January 1787, which begins: 'My dear Countrywoman' and confesses love: 'I know you will laugh at it, when I tell you that your Pianoforte and you together have play'd the deuce somehow, about my heart. I was once a zealous Devotee to your sex, but you know the black story at home. My breast has been widowed these many months and I thought myself proof against the fascinating witchcraft; but I am afraid you will "feelingly convince me what I am". I say, I am afraid, because I am not sure what is the matter with me, I have one miserable bad symptom, which I doubt threatens ill: when you whisper, or look kindly to another, it gives me a draught of damnation.'

Clearly this is lovers' language. Margaret Chalmers, when in Edinburgh, often played and sand for blind Dr Blacklock and Burns probably met her again there.

In November, Burns addressed two love songs to Margaret Chalmers: 'Where braving angry winter's storms' (to the tune 'Neil Gow's Lamentation for Abercairney' it appeared in the Museum in 1788) and 'My Peggy's Face, my Peggy's Form' (which appeared in Thomson's Scottish Airs to an unauthorised air in 1801, and in the Museum, 1803 to the air 'My Peggy's Face') The second song begins:

"My Peggy's face, my Peggy's form,
The frost of Hermit age might warm;
My Peggy's worth, my Peggy's mind,
Might charm the first of human kind.
I love my Peggy's angel air,
Her face so truly, heavenly fair,
Her native grace so void of art,
But I adore my Peggy's heart."

Burns followed this up with a letter from Edinburgh, dated December 1787, by Chambers and (rather surprisingly) 6th November by Ferguson, which begins: 'I just now have read yours. The poetic compliments I pay cannot be misunderstood. They are neither of them so particular as to point you out to the world at large; and the circle of your acquaintances will allow all I have said. Besides I have complimented you chiefly, almost solely, on your mental charms. Shall I be so plain with you? I will; so look to it. Personal attractions, madam, you have much above par; wit, understanding and worth, you possess in the first class. This is a cursed flat way of telling you these truths, but let me hear no more of your timidity.'

Her 'timidity' was over Burns's proposed publication of the songs he had written to her. 'My Peggy's Face, My Peggy's Form' was, in fact, delayed for nearly 15 years, and then divorced from the Gaelic air, 'Ha a chaillich air mo Dheith', which Burns originally intended for it.

On the third Highland Tour, made in October 1787, Burns went to Harvieston and spent eight happy days in Peggy Chalmers's company. Years later, she told the poet Thomas Campbell, that Burns had proposed to her, but that she had refused him. She must have done so in a kindly manner, for she remained a confidante who received letters from him (sprinkled with French tags) almost up to the date of her marriage in December 1788 to a banker, Lewis Hay, of Sir William Forbes's bank in Edinburgh.

Writing to her from Ellisland on 16th September 1788, and remembering that Harvieston visit, Burns burst out: '... when I think I have met with you and have lived more of real life with you in eight days than I can do with almost anybody I meet with in eight years — when I think on the improbability of meeting you in this world again — I could sit down and cry like a child!'

Peggy Chalmers was undoubtedly one of the only two intellectually able women with whom Burns became friendly ( the other was Maria Riddell). That he loved her is obvious, not only from her own story of his proposal, but from his remark in a letter of 10th January 1788, to Mrs M'Lehose, that he registered a female friend 'in my heart's core by Peggy Chalmers'.

That she seemed an obvious choice as a wife for Burns from Mrs M'Lehose's standpoint is clear from her question in a letter of 31st January 1788: 'Miss Chalmers' letters are charming. Why did not such a woman secure your heart? O the caprice of human nature, to fix on impossibilities.'

Miss Chalmer's letters to Burns have disappeared. According to Cromek, Mrs Adair (nee Charlotte Hamilton) threw Burns's letters to Peggy Chalmers into the fire. Certainly, the series is incomplete; but one wondrs how those which have survived did so if Cromek's story was entirely true. (Burns did not normally date his drafts, and a number of the Magaret Chalmers letter which have been traced are dated.)

In the Burns Chronicle for 1944, Margaret Chalmers's obituary notice from The Scotsman of 1st April 1843 is printed. The obituary was reprinted from the Inverness Courier, where it first appeared. It reads: 'Died at Pau, in Bearn (Berne), on the 3rd inst. Mrs Lewis Hay, daughter of James Chalmers, Esq., of Fingland, and widow of Lewis Hay, Esq., one of the partners of the Banking House of Sir William Forbes, J Hunter and Co. Ed'. She settled in Berne after the death of her husband in 1800. She had three sons and three daughters.

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