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The Burns Encyclopedia
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Riddell, Captain Robert (1755 - 94)

Robert Ridell was the first son of Walter Riddell of Newhouse - who had been taken captive by Prince Charles Edward Stuart along with the Provost of Dumfries, a security for the levy laid on the town by the Jacobite army during the retreat to the north in December 1745 — and Anne Ridden of Glenriddell. On 1st November 1766, Glenriddell had signed a deed disposing of all his lands to Ann, and then to her son, Robert.

Robert Riddell, their son, was schooled at Dumfries, where his fellow-pupils included Dr James Currie, Burns's future biographer, and the Edinburgh lawyer Alexander Young. Young called him 'the most heavy, dull youth, the least of a Scholar, and the most incorrigible dolt in our class', adding that his greatest success was in marrying 'an excellent and amiable lady... whom all his school fellows admired, as much as they under-valued him'. But dolt or no, Riddell went on to study at the Universities of St Andrews and Edinburgh. He joined the Royal Scots as an Ensign, later enlisting in the Eighty-third Regiment, in which he was promoted Captain in 1771. In 1782, he retired on half-pay and made his home at Friars' Carse, on the Glenriddell estate. He heired the estate on the death of his father in 1788, but sold Glenriddell itself and lived on at Friars' Carse.

He seems to have had a lively mind, interesting himself in antiquarian pursuits, and contributing papers on local matters of archaeology to the journal of the London Society of Antiquaries, of which he was a member. He was also a talented musician, composing airs of his own - Burns used Riddell's airs for 'The Whistle', 'Nithsdale's Welcome Home', 'The Blue-eyed Lassie' and 'The Day Returns, though, judging by their compass, Riddell must have had the fiddle rather than the voice in his mind's ear: and collecting folk airs — A Collection of Scotch, Galwegian and Border Tunes for violin and pianoforte was published in 1794.

On 23rd March 1784, Ridden married Elizabeth Kennedy, the daughter of wealthy Scots fustian merchant who ha settled in Manchester. Burns seems to have respected rather than liked her, although he named his daughter, born on 1st November 1792, Elizabeth Riddell after her.

Exactly how or when Burns met Riddell is not known. Patrick Miller of Dalswinton, Burns's landlord at Ellisland, may have effected an introduction. In any case, they apparently took to each other quickly, for Burns arrived to take up residence in Ellisland, a mile away, on 13th June 1788, and on the 28th, the poet was composing his 'Lines written in Friars' Carse Hermitage', having already been given a key to the hermitage - an artificial 'link' with the place's monkish past - by Riddell. By September, the friendship seemed secure. Burns sent a poem in honour of the Captain's wedding-anniversary, accompanying it with a request: 'I have seen very few who owe so much to a Wedding-day as Mrs Riddell and you; and my imagination took the hint accordingly.... A little gratitude, too, had a pretty large share in firing my Muse; as, amidst all the enjoyment I have in your hospitable Mansion, there is nothing gives me more pleasure than to see the minute, cordial attentions and the sparkling glances of the Lover, while in so many Conjugal scenes in the World, a third person is hourly hurt with the insipid yawn of Satiety, or the malignant squint of Disgust.

'I return you my most grateful thanks for your lad to-day. Dare I ask him for tomorrow? I dare not ask more: 1 would not ask even that one, did not staring necessity compel me. I have not a person I can command but three; your servant makes a fourth, which is all my forces.'

A pleasant survival of the friendship between Riddell and Burns is the 'Extempore to Captain Riddell on Returning a Newspaper':

"Ellisland: Monday Even:
Your News and Review, Sir, I've read through and through. Sir,
With little admiring or blaming:
The Papers are barren of home-news or foreign,
No murders or rapes worth the naming.
'Our friends the Reviewers, those Chippers and Hewers,
Are judges of Mortar and Stone, Sir;
But of MEET OR UNMEET, in a FABRIC complete,
I'll boldly pronounce they are none, Sir.
'My Goose-quill too rude is to tell all your goodness
Bestowed on your servant, The Poet
Would to God I had one like a beam of the Sun,
And then all the World, (Sir), should know it!"

Riddell and Burns became associated in the communal library scheme know as The Monkland Friendly Society. See Monkland Friendly Society. Riddell gave ' his infant society a great many of his old books', and Burns bought most of the others from his friend the Edinburgh bookseller, Peter Hill. On Riddell's instigation, Burns wrote an account of the Society for Sinclair's Statistical Account.

It was for Riddell that Burns wrote the two manuscript volumes, one of his poems, and the other of his prose, known as the Glenriddell Manuscript. See Glenriddell Manuscript. Only the volume of poems, however, was ever given to Riddell. The first reference to these documents occurs in a letter possibly written in May 1789, in which Burns remarked: 'If my Poems which I have transcribed and mean still to transcribe into your Book were equal to the grateful respect and esteem I bear for the Gentleman to whom I present them, they would be the finest Poems in the language.' The Preface to the volume of poetry is dated 27th April 1791, shortly after when, presumably, it was given to Riddell. But work on the prose was slower, for reasons which Burns gave to Mrs Dunlop in December 1793: 'I have lately collected, for a friend's perusal, all my letters; I mean, those which I first sketched in a rough draught, and afterwards wrote out fair. On looking over some old musty papers, which, from time to time, I had parcelled by as trash that were scarce worth preserving, and which yet at the same time I did not care to destroy, I discovered many of these rude sketches, and have written, and am writing, them out, in a bound MS for my Friend's Library.'

Riddell was a participant in the drinking contest held at Friars' Carse on the 16th October 1789, for 'The Whistle', celebrated in Burns's poem of that name, and of which Fergusson of Craigdarroch was the winner. See Fergusson, of Craigdarroch, Alexander. On the morning of the contest, Burns, who sent over a boy with a request that some letters might be franked by Sir Robert Lawrie, wrote a light-hearted note to Riddell: 'Big with the idea of this important day at Friars' Crase, I have watched the elements and skies the full persuasion that they would announce it to the astonished world by some phenomena of terrific portent. Yesternight until a very late hour did I wait with anxious horror for the appearance of some Comet firing half the sky; or aerial armies of sanguinary Scandinavians darting athwart the startled heavens, rapid as the ragged lightening, and horrid as those convulsions of Nature that bury nations.

'The elements, however, seem to take the matter very quietly: they did not even usher in this morning with triple suns and a shower of blood, symbolical of the three potent heroes and the mighty claret-shed of the day. For me, as Thomson in his 'Winter' says of the storm - I shall 'Hear astonish'd, and astonish'd sing'.'

The mutual friendship continued happily until the close of 1793. In April Burns sent the Captain a copy of the 1793 Edition of his Poems with the inscription: 'When you and I, my dear Sir, have passed that bourne whence no traveller returns, should the volumes survive us, I wish the future Reader of this Page to be informed that they were the pledge of Friendship, ardent and grateful on my part, as it was kind and generous on yours.'

Riddell shared Burns's views on the need for representational reforms, and, at the poet's request, sent 'a Prose Essay signed Cato' to Burns, requesting him to send it to the Editor of the Gazatteer, where it appeared.

When, soon afterwards, Burns was in trouble with the Excise Authorities over his loyalty, Erskine of Mar wrote to Riddell, proposing 'a Subscription among the friends of Liberty' for the poet. Riddell showed the letter to Burns, who was deeply touched by Erskine's solicitude.

The friendship with Riddell, which obviously meant a great deal to Burns, was shattered as a result of some sort of drunken incident at Friars' Carse towards the close of December 1793. Mrs Robert Riddell took offence at what was possibly a too-energetic embrace; Burns was ordered from the house; and Maria Riddell, the Captain's sister-in-law, and the poet's close friend, felt bound to 'cut' Burns for a time, in support of the family honour.

In vain did Burns appeal to Mrs Robert Riddell for forgiveness, though the larger-souled Maria eventually forgave him. Nor was there a word from her husband, the Captain, who, a few months later, was dead and buried in Dunscore churchyard.

Burns was deeply distressed by his death. To John Clarke of Locherwoods, to whom he wrote on 21st April 1794, he said: 'This morning's loss I have severely felt. Inclosed is a small heart-felt tribute to the memory of the man I loved.' The tribute was the 'Sonnet on the Death of Robert Riddell', which concludes:

"Yes, pour, ye warblers, pour the notes of woe,
And soothe the Virtues weeping o'er his bier!
The man of worth-and 'hath not left his peer!'
Is in his 'narrow house' for ever darkly low.
Thee, Spring, again with joy shall others greet;
Me, memory of my loss will only meet."

To some member of the family, most probably to Miss Elinor Riddell, the Captain's unmarried sister, Burns wrote a few weeks later:

'Nothing short of a kind of absolute necessity could have made me trouble you with this letter. Except my ardent and just esteem for your sense, taste, and worth, every sentiment arising in my breast, as I put pen to paper to you, is painful. The scenes I have passed with the friend of my soul and his amiable connections! the wrench at my heart to think that he is gone, for ever gone from me, never more to meet in the wanderings of a weary world! and the cutting reflection of all, that I had most unfortunately, though most undeservedly lost the confidence of that soul of worth, ere it took its flight!

'These, Madam, are sensations of no ordinary anguish. However, you also may be offended with some imputed improprieties of mine; sensibility you know I possess, and sincerity none will deny me.

'To oppose those prejudices which have been raised against me, is not the business of this letter. Indeed it is a warfare I know not how to wage. The powers of positive vice I can in some degree calculate, and against direct malevolence I can be on my guard., but who can estimate the fatuity of giddy caprice, or ward off the unthinking mischief of precipitate folly?

'I have a favor to request of you, Madam; and of your sister Mrs [Riddell], through your means. You know that at the wish of my late friend, I made a collection of all my trifles in verse which I had ever written. They are many of them local, some of them puerile and silly, and all of them unfit for the public eye. As I have some little fame at stake - a fame that I trust may live when the hate of those who 'watch for my halting', and the contumelious sneer of those whom accident has made my superiors, will, with themselves, be gone to the regions of oblivion; I am uneasy now for the fate of those manuscripts. Will Mrs [Riddell] have the goodness to destroy them, or return them to me? As a pledge of friendship they were bestowed; and that circumstance indeed was all their merit. Most unhappily for me, that merit they no longer possess; and I hope that Mrs [Riddell's] goodness, which I well know, and ever will revere, will not refuse this favor to a man whom she once held in some degree of estimation.'

Burns's appeal was successful, and the book was duly returned to him.

Riddell has been unjustly sneered at by Burns students from J. C. Dick, who dis-allowed him musical abilities, to Professor Ferguson, who called him a loud and blustering squire. But Burns, who knew and loved the man, recorded his own verdict on Robert Riddell and his wife: 'At their fire-side I have enjoyed more pleasant evenings than at all the houses of fashionable people in this country put together: and to their kindness and hospitality, I am indebted for many of the happiest hours of my life.'

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