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The Burns Encyclopedia
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M'Murdo of Drumlanrig, John (1743-1803)

Like his father before him, whom he succeeded in 1780, John M'Murdo was chamberlain to the Duke of Queensberry, until he retired in 1797, settling at Hardriggs, Dumfries.

Burns's first letter to M'Murdo, written when he was 'baiting' on his way to Ayrshire and dated Sanquhar, 26th November 1788, has a warmth and frankness which probably reflected the nature of their friendship. He told M'Murdo: 'I have Philosophy or Pride enough, to support with unwounded indifference against the neglect of my mere dull Superiors, the merely rank and file of Noblesse and Gentry, nay even to keep my vanity quite sober under the larding of their Compliments; but from those who are equally distinguished by their Rank and Character, those who bear the true elegant impressions of the Great Creator, on the richest materials, their little notices and attentions are to me among the first of earthly enjoyments.' M'Murdo, having asked for copies of Burns's 'fugitive Pieces', thus found himself placed by the poet among the select band.

Burns became a welcome guest at M'Murdo's home, and wrote several songs for members of his numerous family - he had seven sons and seven daughters besides persuading the somewhat indolent musical editor of the Museum, Stephen Clarke, to come to Drumlanrig to give some of the young M'Murdos music lessons. Burns enlisted M'Murdo's support for James Clarke, the Moffat schoolmaster threatened with unjust dismissal for alleged cruelty to his pupils. That their friendship had its moments of stress is suggested by an undated letter probably written about February 1792:

'I believe last night that my old enemy, the Devil, taking the advantage of my being in drink (he well knows he has no chance with me in my sober hours) tempted me to be a little turbulent. You have too much humanity to heed the maniac ravings of a poor wretch whom the powers of Hell, and the potency of Port, beset at the same time. In the meantime, allow me to present you with the following Song which I have hammered out this morning.'

Enclosed was 'Lang here awa there awa wandering Willie'.

With a copy of the 1793 Edition, Burns sent a note to M'Murdo, remarking: 'However inferiour now, or afterwards, I may rank as a Poet; one honest virtue, to which few Poets can pretend, I trust I shall ever claim as mine: - to no man, whatever his station in life, or his power to serve me, have 1 ever paid a compliment at the expence of TRUTH.'

But what was probably a truer self-estimate of his stature as a poet occurs in another letter to M'Murdo, probably written in July I793: 'Kings give Coronets; Alas, I can only bestow a Ballad. Still however I proudly claim one superiority even over Monarchs: My presents, so far as I am a Poet, are the presents of Genius; and as the gifts of R. BURNS, they are the gifts of respectful gratitude to the WORTHY. I assure you, I am not a little flattered with the idea, when I anticipate children pointing out in future Publications the tribute of respect I have bestowed on their Mothers. The merits of the Scots airs, to which many of my Songs are, and more will be, set, give me this pleasing hope.'

In December 1793, Burns repaid a loan from M'Murdo and sent with it a covering letter accompanying the manuscript of the collection subsequently known as The Merry Muses:

'I think I once mentioned something of a collection of Scots songs I have for some years been making: I send you a perusal of what I have got together. I could not conveniently spare them above five or six days, and five or six glances of them will probably more than suffice you. When you are tired of them, please leave them with Mr Clint, of the King's Arms. There is not another copy of the collection in the world; and I should he sorry that any unfortunate negligence should deprive me of what has cost me a good deal of pains....'

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