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The Burns Encyclopedia
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Hamilton, Gavin (1751 — 1805)

The dedicatee of the Kilmarnock Edition was the 5th son of John Hamilton of Kype by his first wife, Jacobina Young. His father was a lawyer, clerk to the regality of Mauchline. He bought the tower known as the Castle of Mauchline, but later sold it and leased it back from the Earl of Loudon. Gavin entered his father's office, but soon set up in practice on his own. When, in 1771, the Kirk Session made a move to suppress begging by discontinuing the giving of alms to travelling professional beggars, they set up a special fund to relieve the genuine poor, which was to be a stent of a penny in the pound of the valued rent. 4 years later, Gavin Hamilton was appointed collector of stent. By 1778, however, Daddy Auld was finding it inconvenient to his Auld Licht conscience to have a New Licht official functioning for him, and there followed one of those sordid Kirk intrigues particularly rife in Scotland at this time. Auld persuaded the kirk session to stigmatise Hamilton as having been in default by £6 2 shillings and 2d halfpenny whilst stent collector. Hamilton ignored this move, so Auld stopped the parochial distribution of money to the poor on the grounds that the necessary money was being fraudulently retained by Hamilton. Hamilton's case was teat it had never been collected, because those from whom it was due could not pay. Legal action followed, and the Kirk Session apparently lost. So Auld altered the line of his attack. He convened the Kirk Session roll 2 weeks earlier than usual. The customary warning to non-attenders was issued, among others, to Hamilton. But the recorded minutes of the meeting show beyond doubt that Hamilton was the target of their aggression. He, however, got sight of the minutes, and struck back sharply with a protest. The row developed, and Hamilton appealed to the Presbytery of Ayr. He appeared before them on 25th June 1785, charged with:
  1. Unnecessary absences from church two Sabbaths in December and three Sabbaths in January together.
  2. Setting out on a journey to Carrick on the third Sabbath in January.
  3. Habitual if not total neglect of family worship.
  4. Abusive letter to session dated 13th November 1784.

The Presbyter found in Hamilton's favour, and Auld and his Session then appealed to the Synod of Glasgow and Ayr. They, too, upheld Hamilton.

This was the dispute in which Burns is exulted, and which produced the dedicatory poem in the Kilmarnock Edition, 'Holy Willie's Prayer' and some smaller poems. Burns had been introduced to Hamilton by Aiken in the Autumn of 177783, when the Burns family was still at Lochlea. Hamilton's education, warmth and common sense endeared him to the poet, who set out his character in the 'Epistle to John M'Math'.

"There's Gau'n, misca'd waur than a beast,
Wha has mair honor in his brest
Than mony scores as guid's the priest
Wha sae abus't him;
An' may a bard no crack his jest
What way they've use to him?
See him, the poor man's friend in need,
The gentleman in word an' deed —
An' shall his fame an' honor bleed
By worthless skellums,
An' not a muse erect her head
To cowe the belluins?" [babblers

Hamilton became factor to the Earl of Loudon, from whom he leased Mossgiel, intending to make it a place of summer retreat. But Hamilton's wife, Helen Kennedy, had other views, so Hamilton accepted Burns's offer to sub lease it from Martinmas, 1784.

Hamiloton interested himself enthusiastically in Burns's affairs, and disposed of quite a number of the proposals for the Kilmarnock Edition. When in August, 1787, Burns reached Harvieston, near Dollar, where Hamilton's half brothers and sisters were staying, he sent a detailed description of them back to Hamilton at Ayr, since he had been 'told you have not seen them these several years'.

About March 1788, however, Hamilton apparently suggested to Burns that he should become a guarantor to Gilbert Burns for a considerable sum. Burns replied: 'The language of refusal is to me the most difficult language on earth, and you are the man of the world... to whom it gives me the greatest pain to hold such language. My brother has already got money, and shall want nothing in my power to enable him fulfil his engagement with you; but to be security on so large a scale, even for a brother, is what I dare not do, except I were in such circumstances of life as that he worst that might happen could not greatly injure me. I never wrote a letter which gave me so much pain in my life, as I know the unhappy consequences: I shall incur the displeasure of a Gentleman for whom I have the highest respect, and to whom I am deeply obliged.'

The friendship survived, however, though not perhaps with quite its earlier ardour. The last letter Burns wrote to Hamilton, dated 16th July 1793, from Dumfries, invoked Hamilton's assistance on behalf of Mrs Muir, who was in trouble over the settlement of the affairs of her husband, William Muir, miller of Tarbolton. It contains some amusing reflections on marriage.

Gavin Hamilton lived in a house adjoining the Castle at Mauchline. He had 8 children. The poem 'The Calf' resulted from a wager between Burns and Hamilton.

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