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The Burns Encyclopedia
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Syme, John (1755-1831)

Son of the Laird of Barncailzie, Kirkcudbrightshire, and, like his father, a Writer to the Signet, young Syme spent some years in the Army, as an ensign in the 72nd Regiment. He then retired to his father's estate, where he experimented with farming improvements. But his father lost heavily as a result of the Ayr Bank failure, and Syme was no longer able to live at Barncailzie. Appointed to the Sinecure of Collector of Stamps for the District, Syme moved to Dumfries in 1791. His office was on the ground floor of a house in what is now Bank Street. When Burns, a few months later, moved from Ellisland to the Wee, or Stinking, Vennel he became a tenant of Captain John Hamilton, on the floor above Syme's office.

Syme, a few years older than Burns, found Dumfries society dull, and welcomed in the poet a kindred convivial spirit. Burns was a frequent guest at Syme's villa, Ryedale, on the west side of the Nith. Of Syme as a host, Burns wrote, in an impromptu verse:

"Who is proof to thy personal converse and wit,
Is proof to all other temptation."

In the summer of 1794, Syme accompanied Burns on a tour through Galloway. The poet, smarting from the restrictions on his Jacobin sympathies placed on him by the Commissioners of the Excise, apparently raged against the rich at the mere sight of a mansion. According to Syme's remembered recollection of the trip, they rode to Kenmure the first day, then on to Gatehouse-of-Fleet, Kirkcudbright and St Mary's Isle, where they were happily entertained by Lord Selkirk. Again, according to Syme: 'The poet was delighted with his company, and acquitted himself to admiration...'

Syme visited Burns at Brow on 15th July 1796, and again a few days later, when Burns had returned to Dumfries. He was horrified at the poet's deteriorated condition.

After Burns's death, Syme, with Dr Maxwell, organised the funeral, and, with Alexander Cunningham, worked unsparingly raising money to help the poet's widow and children. He was one of those who urged Dr Currie to undertake his edition of Burns's work, and along with Gilbert Burns spent three weeks staying with Currie at his Liverpool home.

Syme left some highly-coloured, though valuable, reminiscences of Burns. His correspondence with Cunningham came to light a few years ago.

Of Burns's features, Syme wrote: 'The poet's expression varied perpetually, according to the idea that predominated in his mind: and it was beautiful to mark how well the play of his lips indicated the sentiment he was about to utter. His eyes and lips, the first remarkable for fire, and the second for flexibility, formed at all times an index to his mind, and as sunshine or shade predominated, you might have told, a priori, whether the company was to be favoured with a scintillation of wit, or a sentiment of benevolence, or a burst of fiery indignation.... I cordially concur with what Sir Walter Scott says of the poet's eyes. In his animated moments, and particularly when his anger was aroused by instances of tergiversation, meanness, or tyranny, they were actually like coals of living fire.'

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Complete Burns Songs

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