Galston, East Ayrshire, Scotland
|Died||by June 1823
|Occupation||Servant and housewife|
Alison Begbie, Ellison Begbie or Elizabeth Gebbie is said to have been the daughter of a farmer, born in the parish of Galston, and at the time of her courtship by Robert Burns she was a servant employed at Carnell House, then known as Cairnhill, close to the River Cessnock, situated about 2 miles from Loudoun. It is thought that Burns' sister confused her name and that she was actually Elizabeth Gebbie.
Life and character
Alison may have lived at Old Place, now Shawsmill Farm, the daughter of a tenant-farmer. Burns was living at Lochlea Farm at this time. Although not a beauty, she had many charming qualities, inspired by an education somewhat beyond anything that Burns had ever encountered before in a female.
Alison met Burns in 1781 near Lochlea Farm and had hoped to set up a household of his own with her. Her rejection of him may have significantly contributed to the depressive illness that he suffered whilst living and working in Irvine.
Alison's surname was difficult to pair in rhyme, so Robert is said to have used artistic licence and named her in his work as 'Peggy Alison'.
Burns said of her "All these charming qualities, heightened by an education much beyond anything I have ever met in any woman I ever dared to approach, have made an impression on my heart that I do not think the world can ever efface."
She was flattered enough however to commit Burns's 'Cessnock Banks' verses about her to memory and when an older lady, living in Glasgow, at 74 King Street. This lady was able to repeat them, 26 years after first hearing them, to Robert Hartley Cromek of Hull, the author of the 1811 publication "Reliques of Burns." He does not give the first name of Mrs Brown, simply stating that the song was from "A lady residing in Glasgow, whom the bard in early life affectionately admired." Elizabeth Gebbie and her family are known to have moved to Glasgow.
Isobel Burns, later Begg, provided the name Alison Begbie to the Burns biographer Dr Robert Chambers when she was 76 years of age, recollecting events and details from when she was ony 9 or 10 years old. Research by James Mackay suggests that 'Elison Begbie' was in fact a confused recollection of the name Elizabeth Gebbie, a surname which does appear in the Galston parish register. Thomas Gebbie was a tenant-farmer at Pearsland Farm near Galston and had a daughter, Elizabeth on 22 July 1762. Elizabeth married Hugh Brown at Newmilns on 23 November 1781 and had two daughters, Helen and Agnes, she had died by June 1823. This Elizabeth appears to have rejected Robert Burns which left him with a deep emotional scar, reflected possibly in the use of this christian name for three of his daughters.
She may have been the heroine of one of Burns's earliest songs 'Farewell to Eliza.'
Association with Robert Burns
She may have met Burns during his visits to collect lime with his father from the Cairnhill kiln close to her home and place of work.
Although five letters from Burns were claimed by Dr James Currie to have been sent to Alison Begbie, only one in manuscript form survives, this being the first, in which Burns hopes, using the introduction "My dear E", the recipient will not despise him because he is "ignorant of the flattering arts of courtship." The others letters were only found in draft form among Burns's papers as lent to him by Jean Armour. A proposal of marriage is made in the fourth letter: "If you will be so good and so generous as to admit me for your partner, your companion, your bosom friend through life, there is nothing on this side of eternity shall give me greater transport." it seems that he may have been too shy to propose to her in person. It is clear from the fourth letter that a reply had been received from "My dear E".
In an autobiographical letter Robert Burns stated that in his 23rd year "a bellefille whom I adored", jilted or refused him "with peculiar circumstances of mortification." It was Isabella Burns who first said that Alison Begbie was the person her brother referred to, for the fifth letter in the series, supposedly to Begbie, gives no indication of the existence of any such proposal and refusal. The letters may not have been his personal letters and at all, written instead by Burns on behalf of another individual in an unrelated romantic relationship.
Alison is likely to be the "lass of Cessnock Banks" who inspired "On Cessnock banks a lassie dwells", and the Peggy Alison of "Ilk care and fear, when thou art near", both of whom appear in the tunes of "The Butcher Boy" and "Braes o' Balquidder." Alison may also have been the central figure of the love song "O Mary at thy window be" for Mary Morison, the central figure, is thought to have actually met Robert Burns on only one occasion. Burns called this Cessnock Lass work his Song of Similes and it was set to the tune if he be a Butcher neat and trim.
Burns's sister relates a curious anecdote connected with Alison. Robert was sometimes very late in returning from the Cessnock Banks, and one night William Burns sat up to let him in and administer a rebuke to his son. William enquired of his son where he had been, and Burns, by way of explanation, told him that he had met the Devil in coming home. This story quite put his father off track and the rebuke was forgotten.
- Hunter, Page 169
- Mackay, Page 84
- Robert Burns Encyclopedia Retrieved : 9 February 2012
- World Burns Club Retrieved : 9 February 2012
- Hecht, page 34
- Dougall, Page 232
- Hecht, Page 35
- Hill, Page 17
- Paton, Page 192
- Cromek, Page 187
- Dougall, Page 139
- Mackay, Page 89
- MacKay, Page 83
- Mackay, Page 88
- Mackay, Page 90
- World Burns Club Retrieved : 11 April 2012
- Auld Lang Syne Retrieved : 10 February 2012
- The Real Robert Burns Retrieved : 9 February 2012
- Paton, Page 196
- The Life of Robert Burns Retrieved : 10 February 2012
- Hill, Page 21
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- Dougall, Charles S. (1911). The Burns Country. London: A & C Black.
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- Hill, John C. Rev. (1961). The Love Songs and Heroines of Robert Burns. London : J. M. Dent.
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- Paton, Norman R. (1996). The Lass of Cessnock Banks. Burns Chronicle.