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The Burns Encyclopedia
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Ramsay of Ochtertyre, John (1736 — 1814)

Son of a Writer to the Signet whose family had acquired the estate of Ochtertyre, in the parish of Kincardine-in-Menteith, near Stirling, in 1591. Ramsay was schooled at Dalkeith, where the master, a Mr Barclay, had acquired a reputation for favouring moral rather than corporal punishment in dealing with his pupils. Ramsay afterwards related: 'He seldom whipped but when in a passion, substituting different degrees of shame according to the offence, - viz. setting them on the floor with their breeches down; making them crawl round the school, which he called licking the dust; or putting them naked to bed in a play afternoon, and carrying off their clothes. This method soon rendered him exceedingly popular, both with parents and children....'

Ramsay became a good classicist at Edinburgh University. He then studied law in his father's office, and passed as an advocate, though he never practised. His father died while he was still under age, and he settled down to live the life of a country gentleman.

Burns, carrying a letter of introduction from Dr Blacklock, visited Ramsay during his ten days' stay at Harvieston, in Clackmannshire, in October 1787. Writing to Cruikshank from the other Ochtertyre, in Strathearn, home of Sir William Murray, Burns said: 'I leave this place, I suppose, on Wednesday, and shall devote a day to Mr Ramsay at Ochtertyre near Stirling; a man to whose worth I cannot do justice.'

The second meeting took place, and Ramsay had Burns to himself. He found Burns's principles 'abundantly motley, he being a Jacobite, an Arminian and a Socinian'. Ramsay supplied information to Currie, as well as a letter he had addressed to Burns in October 1787, which Currie published. He transmitted Burns's alleged statement about the employment of his grandfather as gardener at Inverugie Castle, Aberdeenshire, to the Jacobite Earl Marischal. Ramsay also recorded that he had asked Burns: 'whether the Edinburgh Literati had mended his poems, by their criticisms. 'Sir,' said he, 'the gentlemen remind me of some spinsters in my country who spin their thread so fine that it is neither fit for weft nor woof.' He said he had not changed a word except one, to please Dr Blair.' This one change was 'salvation' to 'damnation' in 'The Holy Fair': a change incomparably for the better.

Ramsay's account of what passed between them also dealt with the impression made by Burns on the writer, and on the subject of Burns writing a drama. Said Ramsay: 'I have been in the company of many men of genius, some of them poets, but never witnessed such flashes of intellectual brightness as from him, the impulse of the moment, sparks of celestial fire! I never was more delighted, therefore, than with his company for two days, tete-a-tete. In a mixed company I should have made little of him, for in the gamester's phrase, he did not always know when to play off and when to play on.... I not only proposed to him the writing of a play similar to The Gentle Shepherd, qualem decet esse sororem, but Scottish Georgics, a subject which Thomson has by no means exhausted in his Seasons.

'What beautiful landscape of rural life and manner might not have been expected from a pencil so faithful and so forcible as his, which could have exhibited scenes as familiar and interesting as those in The Gentle Shepherd which everyone who knows our swains in their unadulterated state instantly recognises as true to nature! But to have executed either of these plans, steadiness and abstraction from company were wanting, not talents!'

Ramsay related a possible Highland subject which apparently attracted Burns. For further information Ramsay sent the poet a letter of introduction to the Reverend Walter Young of Erskine (see Drama, Burns and the) and in the covering letter went on: 'I approve of your plan of retiring from din and dissipation to a farm of very moderate size, sufficient to find exercise for mind and body, but not so great as to absorb better things. And if some intellectual pursuit be well chosen and steadily pursued, it will be more lucrative than most farms in this age of rapid improvement. Upon this subject, as your well-wisher and admirer, permit me to go a step further. Let those bright talents which the Almighty has bestowed on you, be henceforth employed to the noble purpose of supporting the cause of truth and virtue. An imagination so varied and forcible as yours may do this in different modes; nor is it necessary to be always serious, which you have been to good purpose; good morals may be recommended in a 'comedy', or even in a song.'

From all of which it may be gathered that Ramsay, who had put up 'a Latin inscription over his door, expressing his wish to live in peace and die in joyful hope in the small but pleasant inheritance of his fathers', was an admirer of the Augustan Burns rather than of the virile vernacular poet who needed the Scots tongue to spark fire from his genius.

Ramsay was a good landlord,, and an experimenter in the new agricultural techniques then being developed. He was a particular friend of Lord Kames. In 1793, Scott, then recently called to the bar was a visitor at Ochtertyre. Scott sent a copy of his Ballads from Burger to Ramsay, whose letter of commendation and acknowledgment may be seen in Lockhart's Life of Scott. Scott used Ramsay as the prototype for Jonathan Oldbuck, in The Antiquary. Ramsay died unmarried. Letters of John Ramsay, 1799-1812, edited by Barbara, L. H. Horn, were published by the Scottish History Society in 1966.

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