Harry and Puma at East Preston Cemetery, Edinburgh
The house I live in on the South Side of Edinburgh abuts the old Newington grave yard. It was an open field until purchased by St. Cuthbert’s Kirk Session in 1820 and put to its present use. Well-off Edinburgh merchants were interred there when graveyards in the west end of the city reached capacity. Many had grand mausoleums built in their memory.
At the back of the graveyard there is a stone watchtower with ‘1820’ inscribed above the door. This once provided a secure lookout for a guard who would scan the area for ‘Ressurectionists’ (i.e. body snatchers). Last summer the tower sheltered a homeless man until some official looking types showed up to evict him and barricade the entrance. The crypts, however, are not so easily sealed off and host many a rainy day imbiber of some of Scotland’s less celebrated beverages.
The history and current activity in the graveyard are interesting enough in themselves, but a book called ‘The Literary Traveller in Edinburgh’ took my interest up a notch. It was here I discovered that Robert Burns’ muse Jean Lorimer is buried a mere twenty yards of so from my back window. Jean was the inspiration for the songs ‘Lassie wi the lintwhite locks’, ‘Whistle and I’ll come tae ye’, and 24 others. The online Burns encyclopaedia is rather dismissive of Jean and the songs written to her. ‘Whatever the state of her charms’, it says, ‘none [of the songs] is among Burns’ finest’.
In life as in death Jean Lorimer struggled to get respect. It did not help that Burns named her ‘Chloris’ – too close, perhaps, to the better remembered ‘Clarinda’ (Mrs Agnes McLehose) for full separate recognition. Clarinda, incidentally, also lived for a while in this area of Edinburgh, just half a mile or so from the Lorimer grave.
Burns early songs to Chloris were written on behalf of an Excise colleague called John Gillespie, but the later ones were offered on his own account. She was the daughter of a rich merchant who moved the members of his family from Moffat to just outside Dumfries where Burns’ excise duties brought him into contact with them. Jean married a man named Whelpdale who was prone to running up debts. He was eventually incarcerated at Carlisle.
After they separated, Jean returned to Scotland and reverted to the name of Lorimer. She took a housekeeping job with a family in the Newington area. When she became too old for housekeeping duties she was pensioned off to a humble abode, again on the south side of Edinburgh.
Jean Lorimer died in 1831 aged fifty six and in these reduced circumstances. She was the subject of a book called ‘Chloris’ by one James Adams which was published in 1895. Adams was the son of Lorimer’s doctor and was sent on an errand to her when he was a boy. One source says that the book ‘vindicates her character, which seems to have been carelessly depreciated in some of the biographies of Burns’.
This early attention to Chloris, however, was not sustained and these days she is commonly described as the least known of Burns’ heroines. In lieu of a Burns gathering this year, I crawled out the back window and walked over to her grave. It is easy to find as it is in a cruciform which, as far as I can see, make is unique in the graveyard. It was a bleak day with a wind ‘ensuin baith snell and keen. Jean’s grave has seen many such days and the stone has acquired a film of green algae over the years. The inscription is still legible, though only just. It reads:
“The “Chloris” and “Lassie wi’ the lint white locks” of the poet Burns
Born 1773 Died 1831
Erected under the auspices of the Ninety Burns Club.
The Lorimer stone is set back from the line of the others and slightly raised on bricks which may have been laid over the site of her previously unmarked grave. It’s a pity the Ninety Burns Club had no more space on the plinth or they might have considered adding some verses from “Lassie wi’ the line white locks”. On a Burns Day such as this was, the last two verses seem particularly apt:
And should the howling wintry blast
Disturb my lassie’s midnight rest,
I’ll fauld thee to my faithfu’ breast,
And comfort thee, my Dearie O.
Lassie wi’ the lintwhite locks,
Bonie lassie, artless lassie,
Wilt thou wi’ me tent the flocks,
An wilt thou be my Dearie O.