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The Burns Encyclopedia
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Stewart of Stair, Mrs Catherine (d. 1818)

The daughter of Thomas Gordon of Afton, she married in 1770 a grandson of the Earl of Galloway, Alexander Stewart of Stair, on the banks of the Ayr, three miles below Barskimming. Stewart became a Major-General, and Member of Parliament for Kirkcudbrightshire from 1786. Stewart was interested in agricultural improvement, and in mining. He died in 1795, his death causing the bye-election in which Burns supported the Whig, Heron of Kerroughtree. In 1796, Mrs Stewart sold Stair House and built a new house on the Enterkine estate, which she named Afton Lodge, where she died. Enterkine was the property of her son-in-law, William Cunningham, who, in 1794, had married the eldest of her four daughters. Mrs Stewart is buried in Stair churchyard.

In September 1786, Burns wrote to Mrs Stewart, enclosing a parcel of his songs (the Stair Manuscript): 'One feature of your character I shall ever with grateful pleasure remember, the reception I got when I had the honor of waiting on you at Stair. I am little acquainted with Politeness, but I know a good deal of benevolence of temper and goodness of heart. Surely, did those in exalted stations know how happy they could make some classes of their Inferiours by condescension and affability, they would never stand so high, measuring out with every look the height of their elevation, but condescend as sweetly as Mrs Stewart of Stair.'

In 1787, her sixteen-year-old son, Alexander Gordon Stewart, died 'at a Military Academy at Strasburgh', and Burns made the lines: 'Fate gave the word, the arrow sped' do double duty, having already applied them to the son of Mrs Fergusson of Craigdarroch, who had died on 19th November. In 1791, Burns prepared for Mrs Stewart the Manuscript Collection known as the Afton Manuscript which is now in the Cottage Museum, Alloway.

Dr Currie claimed that Burns's song 'Flow Gently Sweet Afton' was composed in Mrs Stewart's honour, though Gilbert Burns said it was inspired by Highland Mary. Burns certainly sent Mrs Stewart a copy of it. Mary Murdoch of Laight, by the other Afton, which joins the Nith near New Cumnock, has also been said to be the heroine of the song, which first appeared in the Museum, 1792. Burns himself communicated this beautiful air to Johnson, and the frequent substitution of inferior later airs to his words is much to be deplored.

It was at Stair House, a century before Burns visited it, that the tragedy described by Scott in The Bride of Lammermoor took place.

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