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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

M'Lehose, Agnes Craig, 'Clarinda' (1759-1841)

Agnes Craig — or Nancy as she was known to her friends — was the daughter of a Glasgow surgeon, Andrew Craig. Several of her ancestors had been ministers, and she herself possessed a good deal of somewhat sentimental piety. She also developed a bosomy figure (as may be seen in the Miers silhouette), and had large eyes and a smattering of culture, which put her beyond the ordinary, so far as women were concerned, in an age when it was not thought necessary, or desirable, that women should receive much education.

The first two of these attractions interested a dissolute young Glasgow law agent, James M'Lehose, who was forbidden the house by Mr Craig. But M'Lehose found other ways of seeing Miss Craig, one of them being by making himself the only other occupant of the Glasgow to Edinburgh coach in which Nancy happened to be travelling, he having purchased all the remaining seats. In spite of her father and her uncle, later Lord Craig, a Court of Session judge, Nancy became Mrs M'Lehose at the age of seventeen. She bore her husband four children in four years, one of whom died in infancy. But shortly before the birth of the fourth, she left her husband because of his cruelty, and returned to her father. Her father, however, died in 1782, so Nancy came to Edinburgh where she took a small flat in Potter Row, living on an annuity, supplemented from time to time by gifts from Lord Craig.

When Burns became the rage of Edinburgh, Nancy determined to meet him. Her wish was gratified at a tea-party given in the house of Miss Nimmo, a friend of Margaret Chalmers, on 4th December 1787. They were at once attracted to each other. Nancy went home and promptly wrote Burns a note inviting him to drink tea with her the following Thursday. He was unable to come on that day, but said he could, and would, come on Saturday.

But the actions of a drunken coachman caused the poet to fall from a coach, with the result that he was bruised by 'a good, serious agonising, damn'd, hard knock on the knee'. His doctor, 'Lang Sandy Wood', made him lie up. The Saturday party had to be postponed.

Burns wrote explaining the nature of his mishap on 8th December (if the date may be believed, since many of the dates of Burns's letters were later tampered with by Nancy for some obscure reason of her own). He took up the challenge of the larger invitation which the bright eyes and the plumply-rounded figure of the cultured grass-widow seemed to offer:

'I can say with truth, Madam, that I never met with a person in my life whom I more anxiously wished to meet again than yourself... I know not how to account for it. I am strangely taken with some people; nor am I often mistaken, You are a stranger to me; but I am an odd being: some yet unnamed feelings; things, not principles, but better than whims, carry me farther than boasted reason ever did a Philosopher.'

Nancy replied at once:

'I perfectly comprehend.... Perhaps instinct comes nearer their description than either "Principles" or "Whims". Think ye they have any connection with that 'heavenly light which leads astray'? One thing I know, that they have a powerful effect on me, and are delightful when under the check of reason and religion.... Pardon any little freedoms I take with you.'

This must have seemed baffling encouragement, since, on the one hand, he was clearly bidden to go on, while on the other, 'reason' — which has no place in the lover's vocabulary — and 'religion' were pointed out as the ultimate, though perhaps distant, barriers.

Nancy next sent some verses, which Burns acknowledged on 12th December:

'Your lines, I maintain it, are poetry, and good poetry.... Friendship... had I been so blest as to have met with you in time, might have led me — God of love only knows where.'

The word 'love' drew from Nancy the reproof: 'Do you remember that she whom you address is a married woman?'

Burns then fell back upon literary criticism. Professor Gregory had seen Nancy's verses, and pronounced them good. Nancy was delighted, and wanted to meet Gregory. At Christmas, they exchanged verse, Nancy's poem revealing in the first verse a natural enough reaction to her unhappy marriage, and in the last verse reminding the recipient about those ultimate barriers which were not to be crossed:

"Talk not of Love, it gives me pain,
For Love has been my foe;
He bound me with an iron chain.
And plunged me deep in woe....
Your Friendship much can make me blest,
O, why that bliss destroy!
Why urge the odious, one request
You know I must deny!"

Burns said he thought these lines 'worthy of Sappho', and matched them to the tune, 'The Borders of Spey' for the Scots Musical Museum. To the man who advised his younger brother to 'try at once for intimacy' that 'one request' was, of course, by no means 'odious'. (Incidentally, 'odious' became 'only' in the Museum version.) Another mention of love brought reproof again, and counter reproof from Burns, who had agreed with her idea of using the Arcadian names of 'Clarinda' and Sylvander':

'I do love you if possible still better for having so fine a taste and turn for Poesy. I have again gone wrong in my usual unguarded way, but you may erase the word and put esteem, respect, or any other tame Dutch expression you please in its place.'

But the 'word' could not now be so easily erased from their relationship. Nancy fell back upon religion, adding: 'I entreat you not to mention our corresponding to anyone on earth. Though I've conscious innocence, my situation is a delicate one.'

It was indeed. Her stem, Calvinistic spiritual adviser, the Reverend John Kemp of the Tolbooth Church, would certainly not have approved of the amorous 'commerce' by letter in which she had got herself entangled. Nor would Lord Craig, whose additions to her income were absolutely necessary to her. Somehow, she had to devise a means of continuing to attract Burns without granting him the physical surrender which he craved. Their relationship moved rapidly to its climax during January 1788.

On 30th December 1787, Burns wrote to his friend Captain Richard Brown, whose ship was then in port at Irvine: 'Almighty Love still 'reigns and revels' in my bosom; and I am at this moment ready to hang myself for a young Edinr. Widow.'

On 5th January 1788, Burns was able to visit Nancy in a sedan chair. During this, the first of six visits this month, he upset Nancy's sensibilities by revealing his admiration for Milton's Satan, soothing them again by explaining that he only admired Satan's 'manly fortitude in supporting what cannot be remedied — in short, the wild broken fragments of a noble mind, exalted in ruins'. He also showed her his Autobiographical Letter to Dr Moore.

After his visit on the twelfth, Nancy wrote:

'I will not deny it, Sylvander, last night was one of the most exquisite I ever experienced. Few such fall to the lot of mortals! Few, extremely few, are formed to relish such refined enjoyment. That it should be so, vindicates the wisdom of Heaven. But though our enjoyment did not lead beyond the limits of virtue, yet to-day's reflections have not been altogether unmixed with regret.'

Burns reassured her: 'I would not purchase the dearest gratification on earth, if it must be at your expence in worldly censure; far less, inward peace.'

Nevertheless, he forgot his own words, and after they had been together again on the evening of the twenty-third, Nancy wrote:

'I am neither well nor happy. My heart reproaches me of last night. If you wish Clarinda to regain her peace, determine against everything but what the strictest delicacy warrants.'

'Clarinda, my life, you have wounded my soul,' protested the poet. But there was a further impassioned meeting on the twenty-sixth. 'Perhaps the 'line' you had marked was a little infringed,' Nancy wrote, 'but, though I disapprove, I have not been unhappy about it.'

Thereafter, the affair declined. Burns's thwarted physical passion found expression with Jenny Clow, a servant girl about whom little is known, beyond the fact that she later bore him a son. Just before Burns left Edinburgh, on 18th February, there was a hectic exchange of letters between the poet and Nancy. Either the Reverend Kemp or, more probably, Lord Craig had sent a 'haughty dictatorial letter' about the position of his niece's reputation. In impassioned tones, Burns apologised for the 'injury' Sylvander had caused to Clarinda's reputation.

On Saturday, 23rd February, he arrived at Willie's Mill, saw Jean, and wrote to Nancy from Mossgiel:

'Now for a little news that will please you. I, this morning as I came home, called for a certain woman. I am disgusted with her; I cannot endure her! I, while my heart smote me for the prophanity, tried to compare her with my Clarinda; 'twas setting the expiring glimmer of a farthing taper beside the cloudless glory of the meridian sun. Here was tasteless insipidity, vulgarity of soul, and mercenary fawning; there, polished good sense, heaven-born genius, and the most generous, the most delicate, the most tender Passion. I have done with her, and she with me....'

But he had not 'done with her'. Within six weeks he had married her, a fact which he left Robert Ainslie to tell Nancy. For a year 'Clarinda' kept her peace. The letter she then wrote to Burns has been lost. We can guess at its nature from his dignified reply, dated 9th March 1789: 'As I am convinced of my own innocence, and though conscious of high imprudence and egregious folly, can lay my hand on my breast and attest the rectitude of my heart; you will pardon me, Madam, if I do not carry my complaisance so far as humbly to acquiesce in the name of, Villain, merely out of compliment even to YOUR opinion; much as I esteem your judgment, and warmly as I regard your worth. I have already told you, and I again aver it, that at the Period of time alluded to, I was not under the smallest moral tie to Mrs B-; nor did I, nor could I then know, all the powerful circumstances that omnipotent Necessity was busy laying in wait for me.'

(In the interval between the 'farthing taper' letter and his marriage, Burns had had his interview with the Excise authorities, which resulted in his getting his commission. It has been surmised that a possible reason for his volte face over Jean may have been a hint, if not an order, from the Excise people that he must regularise his position with Jean if he wished to be appointed.)

Continuing his letter, Burns then told Nancy pretty sharply that the credit for not having taken final advantage of her was his: 'When you call over the scenes that have passed between us, you will survey the conduct of an honest man, struggling successfully with temptations the most powerful that ever beset humanity, and preserving untainted honor in situations where the austerest Virtue would have forgiven a fall. Situations that I will dare to say, not a single individual of all his kind, even with half his sensibility and passion, could have encountered without ruin; and I leave you to guess, Madam, how such a man is likely to digest in accusation of perfidious treachery!'

By 1790, Nancy had sufficiently forgotten about the 'perfidious treachery' for their correspondence to resume something like its former ardour. But she could not resist a further bout of accusation when, in November 1791, she found out that Jenny Clow was in distress. Burns replied that he had offered to take 'my boy from her long ago, but the would never consent, and asked Nancy to give Jenny five shillings.

On 6th December 1791, these two lovers, on whom later generations have seen fit to pour much patronising scorn, met in Edinburgh for the lot time. On 27th December, Burns sent Nancy from Dumfries 'Ae fond kiss', a song so genuine in its resigned passion that it relegates the other nine songs he had written for her, full of 'sensibility' and drawing-room manners, to the realms of the insignificant.

In January, Nancy sailed aboard the Roselle, one of the ships Burns himself had once considered sailing upon, to emigrate to Jamaica. Nancy was bound for the same place, to try to bring about a reconciliation with her husband. But her husband was not on the quayside to meet her, and she found, indeed, that her place had been taken by a Negro Mistress Ann Chalon Rivvere, who had borne him a daughter, Arm Lavinia M'Lehose. Pleading an aversion from the climate - according to Grierson, who conversed with her in 1829 'the heat was so excessive and the mosquitos so anoying '[sic] - she returned to Scotland when the ship sailed home three months later. A few friendly letters were thereafter exchanged between her and Burns, but Burns's passion was dead.

In her journal, under the date, 6th December 1831, Nancy wrote: 'This day I can never forget. Parted with Burns, in the year 1791, never more to meet in this world. Oh, may we meet in Heaven!'

Sir Walter Scott recorded having seen her at his friend Lord Craig's House, when she was 'old, charmless and devout'. According to her friend Mrs Moodie, among 'Clarinda's' last words were 'I go to Jesus'. On her death, the Clarinda-Sylvander letters in her possession were valued at twenty-five pounds.

The song which celebrates Burns's passion for her, 'Ae fond kiss', first appeared in the Museum, 1792. The air, 'Rory Dall's Port', comes from the Caledonian Pocket Companion, c. 1756, though it must be much older. Rory Dall was the 'cognomen' of the harpers attached to the M'Leods of Skye. 'Port' is Gaelic for 'air'.

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