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The Burns Encyclopedia
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de Peyster, Colonel Arent Schuyler (1736-1822)

In spite of his unusual name, de Peyster was a British subject. His family were of French Protestant descent, and fled to Holland at the Massacre of St Bartholomew in 1572. (The history of the family is traced by John Malcolm Bulloch in the Burns Chronicle, 1930.) The Colonel's grandfather, Colonel Abraham de Peyster, married a Dutch kinswoman, Catherine de Peyster, in 1684. Their seventh son, Pierre, married Catherine, daughter of Arent Schuyler, one of the sons of Philip Schuyler. The elder of their two sons was Burns's friend, Arent Schuyler de Peyster. He seems to have spent his boyhood partly in Britain, partly in Holland, though brought up on British traditions. He joined the British Army in 1755. His regiment, the 50th Foot, had been raised in America in 1748, by the Governor of Massachusetts, William Shirley, who, in 1745, had directed the siege of Louisberg with de Peyster's uncle, Colonel Peter Schuyler. Next, de Peyster held a commission in the 51st Foot, also a regiment raised in America and which at one time had three Schuylers in it. Forty-seven years of his service, however, were spent in the 8th Foot, later the King's Liverpool Regiment. With it, de Peyster campaigned in Germany during the Seven Years War. His main service seems to have been in Canada. From 1768 to 1785, he apparently did service as a Military Administrator, handling the Indians with such tact that when he was about to return to England, they sent him a letter, thanking him, for all that he had done for them. The last seven years of his service were spent in England and Ireland. He retired to Dumfries in April 1794.

He had married Rebecca Blair, sister of John M'Murdo's wife, Jane, and, like her, a daughter of Provost Blair of Dumfries. On his retirement, de Peyster settled at Mavis Grove, on the Nith, three miles from Dumfries. There, he threw himself eagerly into the Volunteer movement, becoming Major Commandant of the Dumfries Company of which Burns was a member in 1795. Colonel de Peyster must have been physically tough, but 'beneath a rugged exterior he concealed a warm and affectionate heart', as one Burns editor put it.

In response to an inquiry by de Peyster about Burns's health, in January 1796, Burns wrote:

"My honor'd Colonel, deep I feel
Your interest in the Poet's weal:
Ah! now sma' heart hae I to speel
The steep Parnassus
Surrounded thus by bolus pill
And potion glasses."

At the time of the formation of Dumfries's two companies of volunteers, Burns wrote the patriotic song, 'The Dumfries Volunteers':

'Does haughty Gaul invasion threat?
Then let the louns beware, Sir!
There's WOODEN WALLS upon our seas,
And VOLUNTEERS on shore, Sir:
The Nith shall run to Corsincon,
The Criffel sink in Solway
E'er we permit a foreign foe
On British ground to rally!"

Burns is generally considered to be the author of a letter bearing twenty-five signatures, including his own, asking Colonel de Peyster to suspend asking a public subscription 'for defraying the exps of our Association. That our Secretary should have waited on those Gentlemen and others of that rank of life, who from the first, offered pecuniary assistance, meets our idea as highly proper but that the Royal Dumfries Volunteers should go abegging, with the burnt out Cottager and Shipwrecked Sailor, is a measure of which we must disapprove.

'Please then, Sir, to call a meeting as soon as possible, and be so very good also as to put a stop to the degrading business, untill the voice of the Corps be heard.'

De Peyster led his Volunteers on the occasion of Burns's funeral.

In 1813, he published in Dumfries a book of verse, Miscellanies by an Officer, only three copies of which are still known to exist, all of them in America. According to Bulloch, this includes 'threnodies on Nelson, Sir John Moore, the Marquis of Cornwallis, and Mrs de Peyster's parrot'. He died as the result of an accident, and was given a large funeral. He is buried in St Michael's Churchyard. His wife died in 1827.

In Sketches from Nature, published in 1830, John McDiarmid, who knew de Peyster, wrote: 'No man ever possessed more of the principle of vitality. Old age, which had silvered his hair and furrowed his cheeks, made so little impression on his inner man that... up to... his last illness his mind appeared as active and his intellect as vigorous as they had ever been. When the weather permitted, he still took his accustomed exercise, and walked round the billiard table or bestrode his gigantic charger, apparently with as little difficulty as a man of middle age.'

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