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The Burns Encyclopedia
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Miller of Dalswinton, Patrick (1731 — 1815)

Son of Wiliam Miller of Glenlee and brother of Sir Thomas Miller, President of the Court of Session. He started his career as a sailor which stimulated a lasting interest in navigation. He then became a banker in Edinburgh. In 1767, he was made a director of the Bank of Scotland. In 1785, he brought Dalswinton estate in the valley of the Nith, near Dumfries.

16 years after Burns's death, Miller wrote: 'When I purchased this estate about five and twenty years ago, I had not seen it. I was in the most miserable state of exhaustion and all the tenants in poverty. When I went to view my purchase, I was so much disgusted for 8 to 10 days that I never meant to return to this county.' Though agriculturally, the estate was run down, Miller started extensive experiments in scientific agriculture, inventing a drilling plough and a new threshing machine. He introduced the feeding of cattle on steamed potatoes. His interest in navigation led him to pioneer the building of an unsuccesful catamaran craft with hand-driven paddles. Later, he financed William Symington's pioneer steamboat, which sailed on Dalswinton Loch, and on which it is possible that on one occasion Burns was a passenger. Miller's ideas were sound, but he habitually under estimated the time necessary to put them into practical operation. Burns himself became a victim of Miller's habit of under estimating the time ideas take to be turned into realities: for although Ellisland was a farm that ultimately became a profitable one, it did not recover from its exhaustion until several years after Burns had left it.

Miller entered Burns's life in December 1786, when the poet had been in Edinburgh 2 weeks. On 13th December Burns wrote to John Ballantine: 'An unknown hand left ten guineas for the Ayrshire Bard in Mr Sibbald's hand, which I got. I have since discovered my generous unknown friend to be Patrick Miller, Esq. Brother to the Justice Clerk; and drank a glass of claret with him by invitation at his own house yesternight.' A month later, on 14th January, Bruns wrote to Ballantine prophetically: 'My generous friend, Mr Peter [sic] Miller... has been talking with me about the lease of some farm or other in a n estate called Dalswinton which he has lately brought near Dumfries. Some life-rented, embittering Recollections whisper to me that I will be happier anywhere than in my old neighbouthood, but Mr Miller is no Judge of land; and although I dare say he means to favour me, yet he may give me, in his opinion, an advantageous bargain that may ruin me.'

Matters rested, however, until the end of September 1787, when Burns indicated his interest in the form of a letter to Miller, and on 20th October, the day the poet returned from his tour of Clackmannanshire with Adair, he wrote again more definitely: 'In two or three days... I will take a ride to Dumfries directly.... I want to be farmer in a small farm, about a ploughgang' — ie about the size that one 'gang' of 2 men and 4 horses could cultivate — 'in a pleasant country, under the auspices of a good landlord.'

Meanwhile, he angled for his Excise commission, and indeed, wrote to Clarinda on 23rd February 1788: 'I set off tomorrow for Dumfriesshire. 'Tis merely out of Compliment to Mr Miller, for I know the Excise must be my lot'.

Ten days later he changed his mind, telling her: 'Don't accuse me of being fickle; I have the two plans of life before me, and I wish to adopt the one most likely to procure me an independence.'

He had looked at the farm with his father's old friend John Tennant of Glenconner, who, as Burns told Ainslie on 3rd March 1788, had been 'highly pleased with the bargain, and advised me to accept of it'. By 7th March 1788, had been 'highly pleased with the bargain, and advised me to accept of it.' By 7th March, Burns had made up his mind, telling Robert Muir: 'I took old Glenconner with me to Mr Miller's farm, and he was so pleased with it that I have wrote an offer to Mr Millar, which, if he accepts, I shall sit down a plain farmer, the happiest of lives when a Man can live by it.'

The arrangement between Miller and Burns was that Miller gave the poet £300 with which to build a farmhouse and fence the fields. The rental was to be fifty pounds annually for three years, and thereafter, seventy pounds during the seventy-six term. Burns was to take possession on Whitsunday, 25th May 1788. (the lease is printed in full in the appendix Burns Documents)

The building of the farmhouse took about a year, and was only achieved after numerous and vexating delays.

By September 1788, with his first harvest in, Burns's doubts about Ellisland were already growing. By July 1789, he was 'deliberating whether I had not better give up farming altogether, and go into the Excise wherever I can find employment.' By 11th January 1790, he had had enough. 'This Farm had undone my enjoyment of myself', he burst to his brother, Gilbert: 'It is a ruinous affair on all hands. But let it go to hell! I'll fight it out and be off with it!'

It might not have been so easy for Burns to 'be off with it', had not John Morin, the owner of the adjoining estate of Laggan, offered Miller £1,900 for it. Burns wrote to Peter Hill early in the autumn of 1791: 'I may perhaps seee you about Martinmass. I have sold to My Landlord the lease of my farm, and as I roup off everything then, I have a mind to take a week's excursino to see old acquaintances.' There were, in fact, two sales: one in August, and one in early November.

Not unnaturally, relations between Burns and Miller, during the latter part of Burns's Ellisland tenancy, became strained, and Burns told Hill: 'Mr Miller's kindness has been just such another as Creech's was, but this for your private ear.

"His meddling vanity, a busy fiend
Still making work his selfish craft must mend."

Once the business relationship was ended, however, Burns and Miller became friendly again.

Miller built himself a new mansion 'almost on Cummin Castle'.

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