EMAIL THE BEEKEEPER
RT A's to RTlist Q's, Part III
9/13/2005 (updated 9/13/2005)

Second Part - linked to the first by the "no other Scots usage" comment)
More recently, another list member (Derrick Leigh) has come up with this theory on the song itself. Any comments?:

Devonside tells a story in song involving 3 main characters:
Robert Burns (Jan 1759 - 21 July 1796)
James aka John Adair (1765 - 1802)
Charlotte Hamilton (1763 - 1806)

In the summer of 1787 Robert Burns was fatigued and in low spirits. This was not improved in August when he received a writ over a young woman alleged to be bearing his child. He arranged to leave Edinburgh for a tour of the north with a friend Willie Nicol, but at one point left Willie to make a diversion to visit friends at Harvieston, by the Devon river. He went to see the mother of his musical friend Margaret Chalmers, though Margaret herself was in Edinburgh. Also staying there with the householder Mr Tait was Mrs Hamilton, the stepmother of Gavin Hamilton, an Ayrshire friend of Burns. There was also an older sister of Margaret and the 24 year old daughter of Mrs Hamilton, Gavin's half sister Charlotte Hamilton, who he had not met before. Burns spent a day out on 27 August with Charlotte and a group of her friends along the banks of the Devon, visiting Linn Caldron, Rumbling Bridge and Deil's mill.

For Burns it was love at first sight, and he spent more time admiring Charlotte than the scenery. It's said that most of Burns's loves were quite plain, but Charlotte was a noted exception. Had his prospects been more settled he might have proposed to her, but as things turned out his love was doomed. She would continue to represent for him an ideal love, a muse figure. In correspondence he wrote of her glowingly and spoke of her "eye beaming with mind". "Her eyes are fascinating, at once expressive of good sense, tenderness and a noble mind." They became close friends, corresponding regularly and Burns came to look back on that day out on the Devon as one of the happiest days of his life. He wrote Banks of Devon that year.

How pleasant the banks of the clear-winding Devon,
With green-spreading bushes, and flowers blooming fair!
But the bonniest flower on the banks of the Devon
Was once a sweet bud on the braes of the Ayr.

Later that summer Burns returned to Harvieston to spend more time with Charlotte and her friends. He took with him a friend John Adair, and they spent another day out at Caldron Linn. However, by October of that year John had in Burns's absence made his own advances to Charlotte and Burns's chances were drifting away. Two years later John and Charlotte were marrried. Burns wrote two poems/songs directly about Charlotte - Banks of Devon in 1787, and his last ever work, Fairest Maid on Devon Banks. The latter indicates the position that Charlotte held in Burns's heart, but suggests that some shadow had fallen over their relationship (at least in Burns's eyes). We may never know the full details, since on Burns's death Charlotte burned all his letters, and those of their mutual friend Margaret Chalmers. By John's account his marriage to Charlotte was a happy one. She survived him, but died a somewhat premature death in 1806.

In the song Devonside the boy whose health was failing is for me clearly Burns, who met his muse that day on the banks of the Devon. The qualities in Charlotte's eyes can perhaps be heard in that marvellous guitar break in the middle of the song. There remains a question as to who it was who had "loved and never seen her". Was it John, who loved and married Charlotte but never saw her as a muse? Or was it Burns, who never saw the everyday woman in her until nine years later when he wrote his very last poem as his vision of her as a muse faded and the light fell from that shiver in her eye?

Fairest maid on Devon banks,
Crystal Devon, winding Devon,
Wilt thou lay that frown aside,
And smile as thou wert wont to do?

Full well thou know'st I love thee dear;
Couldst thou to malice lend an ear?
O did not love exclaim 'Forbear,
Nor use a faithful lover so?'

Then come, thou fairest of the fair,
Those wonted smiles, O let me share;
And by thy beauteous self I swear,
No love but thine my heart shall know."

I am familiar with the Devon river from the works of Burns, but I knew nothing of the triangle with John Adair. I remember the Devon from my childhood - we used to visit relatives right across South-West Scotland. My intention in using this river as a song setting was really just to spin a fantasy.