Ayrshire Towns and Parishes

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THE TRYSTING THORN  and Mill Mannoch

 March 19, 1937

Burns Associations Of Tarbolton Relic

Contributed by John Watson

The final meeting of Tarbolton Literary Society in the Lorimer Library was made especially interesting by the fact that Mr. James Wilson, F.S.A. (Scot.) vice-chairman, was presenting a chairman's mallet and section of wood from the famous trysting-thorn which grew on his grounds at Mill Mannoch and which was referred to by Robert Burns. The programme was Magazine Night and the secretary, acting as editor, read a large number of contributions all of high standard of merit, many of them being in verse and the whole of them dealing chiefly with matters of great local interest. The latter part of the evening was occupied with harmony, tea being purveyed by lady members of the committee. During the social hour Mr. Wilson, who has been connected for many years, first as tenant and latterly as owner, with the lands where grew the famous thorn was called upon.

When Mr. Wilson entered Mill Mannoch as tenant there were two especially valuable trees on the lands, one-the famous trysting thorn and the other a magnificent specimen of plane tree. A previous owner, Mr. Claude Hamilton, a great lover of trees, took great care of both and Mr. Wilson following him with the same value of beauty did likewise, with the result that the plane tree still stands, a monarch of its kind, now valued at something from 50 to 100. All efforts to obtain it for commercial purposes, however, have failed, the owner preferring to maintain it as a show tree.

Making the presentation of the memento to the society, Mr. Wilson revealed some interesting facts about the trysting thorn with its association with Burns through the bard's direct reference to it in his poem "The Soldier's Return." The thorn was a full grown tree before Burns saw it. It had always been recognised as a popular trysting spot in the locality, before, during and after Burns' time and even yet. Though there is now no milk white thorn to "Scent the evening gale," the spot is still favoured by the "youthful loving pair" who seek to "breathe out the tender tale." The tree and its tradition were well known to Burns. He passed it on every occasion of his many journeys between Mauchline and Dalrymple, the best and most direct road between the two village's in the poet's time being via Coalhall. Cairnston and Mill Mannoch. Mr. John Thorn, a remarkable man in many ways, took four leases of Mill Mannoch in his lifetime, each of fifteen years, his second lease being taken in 1792.Through his family and one relative who preceded MrWilson in the mill a rich fund of anecdotage had come down the years. The worthy miller was a familiar figure to Burns on the road, and he it is said, often related how on one occasion he saw the poet stop at the thorn tree and either meditate or view his Surroundings.

Referring to the scene and characters of the poem the speaker related how the poet must have been acquainted with the sight of the numerous soldiers who then traversed this road. These were all soldiers of the North British Fusiliers regiment now the Royal Scots Fusiliers, In those days all fusiliers who lived south of Ayr, when returning from duty, took their discharge at Dumfries and then travelled home by this road, Dumfries was then No.2 depot of the regiment, Ayr of course being No. 1 as it still is. It was one such soldier that burns in his poem depicts coming home from the wars. As he nears home his memory stirs and his heart gladdens at the sight of old familiar landmarks, It is he, who speaks through the muse of Burns in that verse of the poem,

At length I reached the bonnie glen

Where early life I sported

 I  passed the mill and trysting thorn

Where Nancy aft I courted

The characters like the setting were no figment of the poet's imagination. Nancy lived at Bankhead close to the mill. Her home is referred to by the poet as 'her mither's dwelling." The soldier lover lived at the Mailin' of Tobergill, also in the immediate vicinity. Bankhead is no longer, but Mr. Wilson can point out its site. Tobergill still stands, and the mill of course on the historic river Coyle meets the eye as of yore. The exact location of the trysting thorn is marked and the bonnie glen, a superb reality, gem of that particular kind of feature which ornaments Scotia's landscape is unaltered and unspoiled. The tree, despite the care of Mr. Wilson, died of age in 1914. He let it stand for two more years to make sure all growth had stopped, and then on the advice of some prominent personalities in the Burns world whom he consulted, he cut it down and had it removed to Mauchline Boxwork to be preserved and made into small relics and mementoes. These, in the years since then, he has been distributing among all the important Burns Societies and museums in the world. Parts of the famous thorn are now to be found in America, Mexico, Australia, India, all over Europe and throughout the United Kingdom. In handing over the mallet and plaque Mr. Wilson made only one condition-tbat should the Literary Society ever cease to function the relic would remain in the Library in the custody of the Lorimer Trustees."

Mr. William Burton, Chairman of the society, presided, and on behalf of the Society accepted the gift.

On the motion of Mr. Andrew Morton a vote of thanks to the donor was enthusiastically responded to.

An offshoot of the original trysting thorn, immortalised by Robert Burns in " The Soldier's Return," has been moved from its original site to a spot farther from the road, by Coylton Burns Club. The thorn which is situated on the land of Millmannoch, near Coylton has. romantic memories for many, couples in the village of Coylton and even now the old meeting place of lovers is still popular.

The original thorn, which, is known to have been in existence. Long before Robert Burns' time, died in 1916. The tree was left for two years in the hope that it would recover, but finally it was removed and Mr, J. P. Wilson, owner of Millmannoch, was given the task of distributing sections of the thorn to Burns clubs all over the world. These polished sections are the treasured possessions of many Burns lovers. The story is told of a gentleman who was proudly showing off his portion in a train passing through France. The piece of the thorn rolled out of his grasp and along the corridor. Such was the panic that ensued that the train had to be stopped and a search made before the wood was found. There are portions of the thorn jealously guarded by individuals and clubs in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, United States and Mexico.

Mr. Wilson who is himself an enthusiastic Burns lover, along with a few helpers, 'decided to nurture the shoots which began to grow up on the spot where, the old thorn had grown. The shoots sprouted from haws, which had fallen from the parent tree, and the strongest of these was chosen. This shoot flourished but because it was so near the roadway many people, instead, of cutting sprigs from it, broke pieces off. This was gradually killing the tree and Coylton Burns Club finally decided the if the thorn was to be preserved it would require to be moved farther from the roadway and railed in.

This work was carried out by member's of the Club and the operation been completed and a verse from The Soldier's Return" inscribed inside the railing. The ballad itself was written by Burns long after he left Ayrshire. His reference to the trysting thorn which occurs in the third verse is as follows: -

"At length I reach'd the bonnie glen

Where early life I sported;

I pass'd the mill, an' trysting thorn.

Where Nancy aft I courted."

The mill referred to is that of Millmannoch and the poet goes on to tell of Nancy's mother's dwelling.  This cottage, which has now disappeared, was Bankhead of Millmannoch about 70 yards from the thorn. The extensive garden of the dwelling is still recognisable, stretching down to the water of Coyle, and is a reminder of the amours of the poet. The remarks of a miner walking near the thorn on Tuesday, as the above photograph was being taken, sums, up the value of the work which has been carried out by the Club.

Before the photographer had reached the spot he asked this man how the tree looked. His reply was "It's really nice now, but a year ago it wasn't worth tuppence."









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