Like most Scots of his generation, D.O. Hill was a great fan of both Rabbie Burns and Sir Walter Scott. Several of his and Robert Adamson’s compositions recreated characters from Scott’s novels (like this one from The Antiquary) and he was an illustrator of both writers, spending quite some time in Ayrshire prior to publishing a collection of engravings called The Land of Burns. He was also a lover of Burns’ songs and poetry.
But although this was in my mind while writing In the Blink of an Eye, it was only when I found out about the Ballochmyle calotypes* and Hill’s visit to Ballochmyle House (possibly in the company of his friend and assistant Jessie Mann – how we novelists love the possiblies!) that I had the opportunity to make a bit more of this connection.
I soon found out there is a song by Burns called The Bonnie Lass of Ballochmyle and there’s an explanation of the story behind the song here. The lady in question was a member of the family Hill would have visited. But in the end her story was peripheral, while Jessie Mann’s was not and in the end I used the visit and the chapter as a turning point for both her and D. O.
So to celebrate Burns Night 2019, here’s a clip of the song as sung by the late Peter Mallan and a short extract from Chapter 12 of In the Blink of an Eye, ‘The Braes of Ballochmyle’.
The Braes of Ballochmyle
From In the Blink of an Eye, Chapter 12
This passage forms the conclusion to a well-meant but in the end unsuccessful excursion to Ayrshire.
While they were gone, and with the house falling silent, Jessie roamed the downstairs rooms until she found the Kingencleuch library. She pushed open the heavy door and went inside, hoping for a chemistry book or even some scientific papers to help her work out what to try next with the calotypes. Walking from shelf to shelf she could see only novels or biblical texts and with nothing better to do, sat down at a table bearing London magazines and a single heavy volume. The magazines contained stories and she flicked through them for a while although none held her interest. When she opened the book, the title page read, ‘The Land of Burns, a series of landscapes and portraits, illustrative of the life and writings of The Scottish Poet.’ The landscapes were from paintings by D.O. Hill Esq, R.S.A. This was what had brought him here before. The date was 1840, nearly twenty years ago.
She turned a few pages and examined the first few plates. Barskimming was a stretch of water not unlike the bend in the river they had seen the day before with its steep banks and overhanging trees, spanned by a high arched bridge. This is where they were having their picnic today, but she was happy enough to see these places through his eyes and in the fine lines his fingers had made.
She must have dozed off in the warmth and solitude. She was woken by D.O.’s voice and his head around the door.
‘They said you were hiding in here. Am I disturbing you?’
She shook herself and rubbed her hand over her face. The more she felt herself in a house of strangers, the more she welcomed his company. She motioned to the seat next to hers. ‘Look. I’m travelling without leaving the room.’
He saw the book, open somewhere in the middle, and laughed. ‘I can’t recommend a better companion. Unless the man who wrote it.’
‘Then why don’t you tell me yourself?’
The text alongside the plates was by some professor. D.O. sat down and gave her his own version, starting from the beginning, stopping at each plate to recount his memories of how the weather had been, where he had stayed and which landscapes pleased him the most. The warmth of the room and the comfort of his voice lay over Jessie like a finely knitted shawl.
‘From Tarbolton to Mauchline is the finest stretch of the Ayr,’ he said, and even in her half-sleep she caught a wistfulness in his voice.
‘1840,’ she said. ‘So was Ann here with you?’
The silence lengthened. He shook his head. ‘Two summers I was here, sitting in the damp with my sketch pad when I could have been with my wife at my own fireside.’
She reached for his hand on the open book and covered it with hers. ‘You had your work to do. And you made good friends here who love you still.’
‘You’ve been as good a friend as any, Jessie.’
But he took his hand away and went back to the book, turning over the last few pages, smiling to himself over some tale of mischief at Tarbolton Cross.
As he closed the book, he flexed the fingers Jessie knew were plagued with rheumatism. This had been the first cause of it, the reason sketching and sometimes painting cost him dear.
‘I have let you down with the calotyping,’ she said. ‘I can do better.’
Now he was the one to reach for her hand. ‘You have done wonders, Jessie, and maybe there are others who will give you work. There are plenty more calotypists these days. You must decide for yourself.’
He sat back in his chair, his eyes never leaving hers. ‘But I am done with it.’