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The Burns Encyclopedia
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Graham of Fintry, Robert (1749 — 1815)

Graham of Fintry in Forfarshire, was a descendant of Sir Robert Graham of Strathcarron, ancestor of the Grahams of Claverhouse. In 1780, he sold his estate, of which he was the 12th laird, but retained his designation. He married Margaret Elizabeth Mylne of Mylnefield, by whom he had four sons and ten daughters. Burns first met Graham at Athole House on 31st August 1787, while on the Highland tour. Graham was appointed a Commissioner of the Scottish Board of Excise in 1787.

Burns is supposed to have first confided his desire to be appointed to the Excise to his Doctor in Edinburgh, 'Lang' Sandy Wood, who spoke on the poet's behalf to Graham.

Burns first mentioned Graham in a letter to Josiah Walker, sent to Blair Atholl (as it is now spelt) from Inverness, and dated 5th September 1787. In it, Burns enumerated the pleasures he had enjoyed while visiting Athole House, among them, 'Mr Graham of Fintrie's charms of conversation'. On 7th January 1788, Burns wrote to Graham: 'When I had the honour of being introduced to you at Athole House, I did not think of putting that acquaintance so soon to the test... You know, I daresay, of an application I lately made to your Board, to be admitted an Officer of Excise. I have, according to form, been examined by a Supervisor, and today I give in his Certificate with a request for an Order for Instruction. In this affair, if I succeed, I am afraid I shall but too much need a patronising friend....'

On 2nd August, Burns indicated to Mrs Dunlop that he proposed writing an Epistle to: 'the Gentleman on whose friendship my excise hopes depend — Mr Graham of Fintry, one of the worthiest and most accomplished Gentlemen, not only of this Country, but I will dare to say it, of this Age.' Burns wrote to Graham on 10th September 1788, telling him that Ellisland 'does by no means promise to be such a Pennyworth as I was taught to expect'. Graham also heard how the poet lent money to keep Gilbert and his sisters on a 'farm in Ayrshire'. Then came the point of the letter: 'There is one way by which I might be enabled to extricate myself from this embarrasment, a scheme which I hope and am certain is in your power to effectuate. I live here, Sir, in the very centre of a country Excise-Division; the present Officer lately lived on a farm which he rented in my nearest neighbourhood; and as the gentleman, owing to some legacies, is quite opulent, a removal could do him no manner of injury; and on a month's warning, to give me a little time to look again over my Instructions, I would not be afraid to enter on business. I do not know the name of his Division, as I have not yet got acquainted with any of the Dumfries Excise People; but his own name is Leonard Smith. It would suit me to enter on it, beginning of next Summer...'

With this somewhat unscrupulous letter went the 'First Epistle to Robert Graham of Fintry Esq.' In which Burns repeated his request for patronage in heroic couplets:

"Why shrinks my soul, half-blushing, half-afraid,
Backward abash'd to ask thy friendly aid?
I know my need, I know thy giving hand,
I tax thy friendship at thy kind command..."

Burns seems to have thought highly of the poem, too, for he sent copies of it to a number of correspondents, among them Professor Dugald Stewart and Henry Erskine.

It was almost a year before Burns got the favour he craved; not, apparently, through any fault of Graham's, but, as Burns told Mrs Dunlop on 25th March 1789: 'There are in the Excise Board certain regulations, which, notwithstanding Mr Graham's warmest exertions, baffle all my hopes.'

Graham's 'warmest exertions' were repeatedly requested, and, in fact, considerably benefited Burns, as is testified not only by the obviously heartfelt gratitude of the poet's letters to him, but from second and third verse Epistles, of which Graham was the recipient. Graham also took a keen interest in Burns's poetry, and was sent manuscript copies of many new songs and poems. He was, indeed, in Burns's own words, a true 'Friend of the Poet, Tried and Leal'.

When Burns's loyalty was called in question at the end of December 1792, it was to Graham that he appealed for help, writing on the last day of that year: 'I believe, Sir, I may aver it, and in the sight of Omnipotence, that I would not tell a deliberate Falsehood... and I say, that the allegation, whatever villain has made it, is a LIE! To the British Constitution, on Revolution principles, next after my God, I am mosy devoutly attached.' (By 'Revolution', of course Burns meant 1688)

Graham apparently wrote back a kindly letter, naming the specific charges that had been levelled against Burns, to which Burns replied at length on 5th January 1793:

'Now to the charges which Malice & Misrepresentation have brought against me.

'It has been said, it seems, that I not only belong to, but head a disaffected party in this place. I know of no party in this place, Republican o[r] Reform, except an old party of Borough-Reform; with which I never had anything to do. Individuals, both Republican & Reform, we have, though not many of either; but if they have associated, it is more than I have the least knowledge of: & if there exists such an association, it must consist of such obscure, nameless beings, as precludes any possibility of my being known to them, or they to me.

'I was in the playhouse one night, when CA IRA was called for. I was in the middle of the Pit, & from the Pit the clamour arose. One or two individuals with whom I occasionally associate were of the party, but I neither knew of the Plot, nor joined in the Plot; nor ever opened my lips to hiss, or huzza, that or any other Political tune whatever. I looked on myself as far too obsucre a man to have any weight in quelling a Riot; at the same time as a character of higher respectability, than to yell in the howlings of a rabble. This was the conduct of all the first Characters in this place; & these Characters know, & will avow, that such was my conduct.

'I never uttered any invectives against the king. His private worth, it is altogether impossible that such a man as I, can appreciate; and in his Public capacity, I always revered, & ever will, with the soundest loyalty, revere, the Monarch of Great Britain, as, to speak in Masonic, the sacred KEYSTONE OF OUR ROYAL ARCH CONSTITUTION.

'As to REFORM PRINCIPLES, I look upon the British Constitution, as settled at the Revolution, to be the most glorious Constitution on earth, or that perhaps the wit of man can frame; at the same time, I think, & you know what High and distinguished Characters have for some time thought so, that we have a good deal deviated from the original principles of that Constitution; particularly, that an alarming System of Corruption has pervaded the connection between the Executive Power and the House of Commons. This is the Truth the Whole truth of my Reform opinions; opinions which, before I was aware of the complection of these innovating times, I too unguardedly (now I see it) sported with: but henceforth, I seal up my lips. However, I never dictated to, corresponded with, or had the least connection with, and political association whatever — except, that when the Magistrates & principal inhabitants of this town, met to declare their attachment to the Constitution, & their abhorrence of Riot, which declaration you would see in the Papers, I, as I thought my duty as a Subject at large, & a Citizen in particular, called upon me, subscribed the same declaratory Creed.

'Of Johnston, the publisher of the Edinr Gazetteer, I know nothing. One evening in company with four or five friends, we met with his prospectus which we thought manly & independent; & I wrote to him, ordering his paper for use. If you think that I act improperly in allowing his Paper to come addressed to me, I shall immediately countermand it. I never, so judge me God! wrote a line of prose for the Gazetteer in my life. An occasional address, spoken by Miss Fontenelle on her benefit-night here, which I called the Rights of Women, I sent to the Gazetteer; as also, some extempore stanzas on the Commemoration of Thomson: both of these I will subjoin for your perusal. You will see that they have nothing whatever to do with Politics. At one time when I sent Johnston one of these poems, but which one I do note remember, I inclosed, at the request of my warm & worthy friend, Rob Riddel Esq: of Glenriddle, a prose essay signed Cato, written by him, & addressed to the delegates for the County Reform, of which he was one for this County. With the merits, or demerits of that Essay, I have nothing to do, farther than transmitting it in the same Frank, which Frank he had procured me.

'As to France, I was her enthusiastic votary in the beginning of the business. When she came to shew her old avidity for conquest, in annexing Savoy, &c. to her dominions, & invading the rights of Holland, I altered my sentiments. A tippling Ballad which I made on the Prince of Brunswick's breaking up his camp, & sung one convivial evening, I shall likewise send you, sealed up, as it is not every body's reading. This last is not worth your perusal; but lest Mrs FAME should, as she has already done, use, & even abuse, her old privilege of lying, you shall be the master of everything, le pour et le contre, of my political writings & conduct.

'This, my honored Patron, is all. To this statement I challenge disquisition. Mistaken Prejudice, or unguarded Passion, may mislead, & often have misled me; but when called on to answer for my mistakes, though, I will say it, no man can fell keener compunction for his errors, yet, I trust, no man can be more superior to evasion or disguise.'

The storm blew over, however, no doubt partly as a result of Graham's influence. But writing to Erskine of Mar — who erroneously believed that Burns had actually been dismissed, and who had written to Captain Riddell offering to start a subscription fund for the poet — on 13th April 1793, Burns related his belief that: 'there existed a system of corruption between the Executive Power and the Representative part of the Legislature which boded no good to our glorious Constitution; and which every patriotic Briton must wish to see amended. Some such Sentiments as these I stated in a letter to my generous Patron, Mr Graham, which he laid before the Board at large, where it seems my las[t] remark gave great offence; and one of our Supervisors General, a Mr Corbet, was instructed to enquire on the spot, into my conduct, and to document me — "that my business was to act, not to think; and that whatever might be Men or Measures, it was for me to be silent and obedient". Mr Corbet was likewise my steady friend; so between Mr Graham and him, I have been partly forgiven.'

On 7th January 1794, Burns laid before Graham a scheme whereby there could be: 'an officer's appointment saved to the public'.

The last surviving letter from Burns to Graham, again urging promotion, and sent in the autumn of 1794, finishes: 'Should the Chapter of Chances and Changes, which God forbid! ever place a Child of yours in the situation to need a Friend, as I have done; may they likewise find that Generous Friend that I have found in YOU!'

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