Sillar, David (1760 - 1830)
The third of the four sons of Patrick Sillar, farmer at Spittalside, near Lochlea. Sillar was largely self-educated. He became interim teacher in the parish school, but failed to get the permanent appointment, which went to John Wilson of Dr Hornbook fame. Sillar then set up his own school, which was unsuccessful. He became a member of Tarbolton Bachelors Club in 1781, of which Burns was a founder member, and of the Mauchline Debating Society, of which Gilbert Burns was a member.
Sillar later recorded the circumstances in which he came to meet the poet:
'Mr Robert Burns was some time in the parish of Tarbolton prior to my acquaintance with him. His social disposition easily procured him acquaintance; but a certain satirical seasoning, with which he and all poetical geniuses are in some degree influenced, while it set the rustic circle in a roar, was not unaccompanied by its kindred attendant suspicious fear. I recollect hearing his neighbours observe he had a great deal to say for himself, and that they suspected his principles. He wore the only tied hair in the parish; and in the church, his plaid, which was of a particular colour, I think fillemot, he wrapped in a particular manner round his shoulders. These surmises, and his exterior, had such a magical influence on my curiosity, as made me particularly solicitious of his acquaintance. Whether my acquaintance with Gilbert was casual or premeditated, I am not now certain. By him I was introduced not only to his brother, but to the whole of that family, where, in a short time, I became a frequent, and, I believe, not unwelcome visitant.
'After the commencement of my acquaintance with the bard, we frequently met on Sundays at church, when, between sermons, instead of going with our friends or lassies to the inn, we often took a walk in the fields. In these walks I have frequently been struck by his facility in addressing the fair sex; and many times, when I have been bashfully anxious how to express myself, he would have entered into conversation with them with the greatest ease and freedom; and it was generally a death-blow to our conversation, however agreeable, to meet a female acquaintance.'
Burns and Sillar became firm friends. They both played the fiddle, although Sillar was reported to be a better fiddler than the poet. Burns is reputed to have played 'blackfoot' to Sillar when Sillar was wooing Peggy Orr, the nurse-maid at Stair House. Sillar was the recipient of two verse-epistles from Burns. In the first, which carries the title 'An Epistle to Davy, a Brother-Poet, Lover, Ploughman and Fiddler', Burns wrote:
"There's a' the pleasures o' the heart,
The lover an' the frien',
Ye hae your Meg, your dearest part,
An' I my darling Jean."
Sillar did become engaged to Peggy Orr, but she broke the engagement and married John Paton, an Edinburgh shoemaker. Sillar also married another.
In 1783, he removed to Irvine, where he tried his hand in business as a grocer. He failed again, possibly partly because he was devoting too much time to versifying. Burns, who found the literary companionship of Sillar and Lapraik necessary for the development of his own poetic gifts, seems to have thought highly of Sillar's talents, and in the 'Second Epistle to Davie' wrote:
"Hale be your heart, hale be your fiddle;
Lang may your elbuck jink an' diddle,
Tae cheer you thro' the weary widdle
O' war'ly cares,
Till bairns' bairns kindly cuddle
Your auld, gray hairs.
But, Davie, lad, I'm red ye're glaikit;
I'm tauld the Muse ye hae negleckit;
An' gif it's sae, ye sud be licket
Until ye fyke;
Sic hauns as you sud ne'er be faikit,
Be hain't wha like."
Inspired by the success of Burns's Poems, Sillar persuaded Wilson of Kilmarnock to bring out his own Poems in 1789, prefacing it with Burns's 'Second Epistle'. The volume was, however, a failure, the reason why being perhaps suggested by his 'Epistle to the Critics':
"Then know when I these pieces made,
Was toiling for my daily bread;
A scanty learning I enjoy'd,
Sac judge how I hae it employed.
I ne'er depended for my knowledge
On school, academy, nor college;
I gat my learnin' at the flail,
An' some I catch'd at the plough-tail;
Amang the brutes I own I'm bred,
Since herding was my native trade.
Some twa-three books I read wi' care,
Which I had borrow'd here an' there.
The actions an' the ways o' men,
I took great pains an' care to ken;
Frae them, their manners, an' their looks,
Their words, their actions, an' frae books;
On these for knowledge I relied,
Without anither for my guide.
Latin an' Greek I never knew sic,
An' sae how can my works be classic?"
Soon after his book was published, Sillar became bankrupt. Eventually, he founded a school for navigation, and came into wealth on the death of his uncle, a partner in the Liverpool mercantile house of Sillar and Henderson. Prosperous at the last, he served for some years on Irvine Town Council.
Contrary to a frequently repeated allegation, Sillar's name was among one of the first of the subscribers to the Burns Monument at Alloway. In 1827, he helped to found the Irvine Burns Club.