Alexander Reid, artist and friend of Robert Burns, was a native of Buittle Parish. His story was published in the "Burns Chronicle" in 1919.

Alexander Reid - Painter of the Burns Miniature

AS the result of enquiries set on foot by the writer in 1891, a considerable amount of information has now been gleaned concerning "Alexander Reid, Esq., of Kirkennan," as he is styled in several of the engravings from his paintings. Kirkennan is the name of a mansion-house and estate of some five hundred and ten acres or thereby, closely adjoining the small port of Palnackie, on the river Urr, about three miles south-west of Dalbeattie, Kirkcudbright, near which is the site of Kirkennan Church and the ivy-clad ruins of Buittle Church (held anciently by Sweetheart Abbey), in the churchyard surrounding which the artist and many of his kindred are buried. The present owner of Kirkennan is Mr Wellwood Maxwell, J.P.

Not so much, however, as one could wish has been learned regarding Reid's achievement as an artist. His life and the circumstances of his family and connections are more or less known; but his work is nearly all hidden away from the pubic gaze in private collections, or in the recesses of public libraries and antiquarian museums. A singular fatality seems to have overtaken his works. Of six engravings from his paintings known to collectors, the original of only one of them, "Kipp Cairns," has been traced to its present owner. His work is not of outstanding artistic value, but it is of great interest and importance to students of our vernacular literature and national history and antiquities. Reid's period of greatest activity was during the last two decades of the eighteenth century, when the antiquities of Scotland, for the first time, were being subjected to an intelligent examination and careful portrayal by men like Cardonnell, Grose, and others, to whom Scotland is so much indebted for arousing an interest in the memorials of her past history. Reid's life only incidentally concerns us here, and an uneventful life, such as he lived, cannot be too quickly summed up.

He was the second son of John Reid (1691-1764) of Kirkennan, and grandson of Wm. Reid (1647-1724) of Glen of Almorness, in the parish of Buittle and shire of Kirkcudbright. He was born in 1747; got his art training, as far as can be ascertained, in London and in Paris; executed numerous portraits, pictures, and drawings of persons, places, and scenes in Dumfries and Galloway; had a studio in the town of Dumfries, in which, in 1796, he painted a miniature portrait of Burns; succeeded to Kirkennan on the death of his brother William, in 1804, and died unmarried, in 1823, aged 76. Directly concerning him there is a fragment of a diary of a journey which he made to London in 1784, with a poem attributed to him written on the back of a letter of no importance; also an interesting letter to him from his brother William ; the family papers, and the headstone in Buittle Churchyard.

Apart from these fragmentary data, the particulars of Reid's life have to be gleaned from miscellaneous sources — oral, written, and printed; and his merits as an artist have to be judged from an examination of the very few works from his pencil which have been discovered and catalogued — some forty odd items in all, originals and reproductions. Reid was kith and kin to many of the territorial grandees of Galloway; and what is of more importance and interest, he was connected by ties of friendship or community of tastes with all the most interesting people in one of the most interesting districts in Scotland; and he lived during one of the most interesting and momentous periods of Scottish history — the fall of feudalism in the political world, the rise of romanticism in the world of art, and the inception, in the scientific world, of the pregnant ideas and hypotheses which, in the following centuries, produced the multitudinous discoveries and inventions accounts of which crowd the images of our encyclopedias. A Stewartry laird, he was intimate with Burns, Grose, Glenriddell, and others by whom the province of grey Galloway was made ready to the hand of the late Mr Crockett, and, as Raiderland, has had an additional lustre shed on it by that author's long series of breezy tales and romances. Besides, Reid individually did more than any other man before or since his time to illustrate the persons, places, and scenes, the interest attaching to which Crockett did so much to focus and perpetuate.

Reid's importance in the history and in the practice of art in Scotland is more considerable than may be thought, for he is little known to students of art, and is not known at all to the general reader. The importance of Reid’s work to the student of our national antiquities lies in this, that most of his paintings and drawings illustrate places and scenes of interest in the South of Scotland which have, in many instances, undergone changes tending to alter and in some instances to obliterate the features that made them interesting and important; and it is these features of which Reid has given us the form and the colour but rarely the spirit, except in the case of the portrait of George Cairns of Kipp (otherwise known as "Kipp Cairns"), a well-known humorist in his day, of whom more presently.

Reid lived during the rise of romanticism, when the old world of acceptance was gradually and reluctantly giving place to a new world of wonder; when Percy, as Boswell would have said, had balladised the land; and MacPherson had spread his own or Ossian's theatrical melancholy over the face of the reading world, taking great intellectual giants like Napoleon and Goethe by storm. But the laird of Kirkennan, to judge by the scanty remains of his work, was untouched by the spirit which was then quickening into new life the arts of poetry and of painting which prepared the way for the subtle imaginative work of that great creator of colour effects, Turner, the only begetter of some of Ruskin’s best and worst work. Reid lived at a time when the imagination was seeking to manifest its new conceptions of beauty by the application of new methods to the new materials then discovered. Of this renaissance of wonder, to use Mr Watts-Dunton’s happy phrase, Reid knew little, and, apparently, cared nothing.

The engraving of Reid's picture of Dumfries, which is dated 1st December, 1793, gives us a view of that town as it appeared at the time when Burns was ts most outstanding burgess, occupying the house in which he afterwards died, in the Mill Vennel, now called by his name Burns Street; when the Queen of the South was seen and described by Dr Robert Chambers as a compact and prosperous little town, situated on the Nith at the point where it becomes navigable. One cannot but dwell for a moment on the little word-picture given by a contemporary, of the Poet standing at the front door of his house dandling his little Elizabeth, then a year old, whose premature death did more to hasten the end of her bereaved father than all the imaginary causes conjectured by Currie and repeated by others in the Currie tradition.

Reid's delineation of the town of Kirkcudbright pictures the Whisky Jean of the Election Ballads; or, as another manuscript has it : —

"And Brandy Jean that took her gill
In Galloway sae wide."

His Lincluden shows us that Abbey at the date of the composition of a Vision, when Burns, in musing mood,

"Stood by its roofless tower,
Where the wa'flow'r scents the dewy air,"

and of the Washington Ode; while his view of Terregles shows us that venerable pile before it was reconstructed and had assumed the grave quadrangular appearance which it has to-day — the veritable Terregles towers of the gallant Maxwells as seen by Burns as he walked up the avenue on the occasion when he dined there with that singular old curmudgeon, the Lady Winifred Maxwell Constable, with whom he had a bout of high-flying Jacobitism ere noticing, partly with the eye of a poet and partly with the eye of an exciseman (for candles were excisable articles in those days), the large number of wax candles used in lighting the house. Burns celebrated the rebuilding of Terregles in the song beginning,

"The noble Maxwells and their powers."

It is not generally known that the tune to which this song was written, Nithsdale's Welcome Hame, is the composition of Glenriddell, who was a musician as well as an antiquary. It is one of his best melodies, yet, strange to say, it is in neither of his printed collections of tunes.

Friars' Carse, which is known only from engravings, shows trusty Glenriddell’s hospitable mansion as it appeared at the time the memorable bacchanalian contest took place which is celebrated in "The Whistle." The engraving from Reid, by T. Medland, antedates by twelve years Greig's well-known drawing and engraving; but it is subsequent to Hopper's by four years.

Of his miniatures, on which his fame, such as it is, will be found to rest ultimately, that of Burns shows the Poet as he wished to appear when he gifted the likeness to his friend and superior in the Excise, Collector Mitchell, the

"Friend of the Poet, tried and leal,
Wha, wanting thee, might beg or steal";

at one of whose official dinners the rollicking song, "The Deil's awa wi' the Exciseman," was sung, with great applause, for the first time. This is the miniature mentioned in the letter from Burns to Mrs Riddell, 29th January, 1796; which should not be, as it too often has been, confounded with the portrait referred to in the letter to Thomson, May, 1795; and alluded to again in the above letter to Mrs Riddell.

The miniature of Edward Cairns, of his sister Janet, and of her husband William Nicol (this last in Lord Rosebery's collection) are interesting as portraits of three friends celebrated in the Poet's writings — the lady and her husband being well known in this connection; but her brother, who was equally deserving of that honour, is not known at all, as the stanza dedicated to him under his territorial style, as "the good laird of Torr," is unannotated in the latest and most complete editions of Burns.

The stanza in question is adhibited to a copy of "The Whistle" now in the Burns Cottage Museum — Catalogue 1917, number 167:—

"But one sorry quill, and that worn to the core,
No paper but such as I show it;
But such as it is, will the good laird of Torr
Accept and excuse the poor Poet?"

There is a tradition in Rerrick, in which parish Torr is situated, that it was due to the machinations of Mrs Wm. Nicol (Janet Cairns) that the good laird of Torr separated from his wife, Anne Humphreys, after she had borne him several children. The Rerrick tradition is an odd commentary on a feature of Mrs Nicol's character, as described by her husband in a letter to his friend Burns, dated from Edinburgh, 10th February, 1793: —

"My wife, who is in a high devotional fit this evening, wishes that Mrs Burns and her children may be reckoned the favourites of the Lord, and numbered with the elect. She indeed leaves your honour and me to shift for ourselves, as, so far as she can judge from the criteria laid down in Guthrie's Trials of a Saving Interest, both you and I are stamped with the marks of reprobation."

In a letter to Xicol, Burns invites his friend's little Neddy to Ellisland to gather nuts during his holidays. This son was no doubt named after his maternal uncle, "the good laird of Torr," to whom the Nicols owed so much.

Nor do the editors of Burns appear to know that it was Mr Cairns, and his sister Janet, out of her marriage dowry, who provided the means by which Nicol became, in the sarcastic words of Burns, "the illustrious Lord of Laggan's many hills." Nicol is one of the heroes of the song,

“O, Willie brew’d a peck o’ maut,
And Rab and Allan cam' to prie";

which some editors, including the hypercritical Ritson, of "Scotish" renown, with amazing remissness, print,

"O, Willie brew'd a peck o' maut,
And Rab and Allan cam to see";

as if Burns and Masterton could have been contented with merely seeing a peck o' maut that had been specially brewed to be drunk at their meeting; and was drunk, and something else besides, if Rab's lively imagination is to be taken literally.

Reference has been made to the portrait in oils of "Kipp Cairns,” who was sib to the laird of Torr. Kipp was a well-known humorist in his day. The huggery-muggery MacTaggart, in that amazing literary and historical gallimaufry of his, the Scottish Gallovidian Encyclopedia — a rare and scarce book — desiderated information regarding "Kipp," but, as he laments in his jocular way, could get none. The present writer has been more fortunate, as his collection of unpublished ana witnesses. One of the best anecdotes given in Dean Ramsay's classic Reminiscences, but without the names of the dramatis personae, has reference to "Kipp" and his wife (her maiden name is unknown to the historian of the family of Cairns), whose annals, sumptuously got up, and the articles galore which have been written on the subject, are well known to students interested in Scottish family histories.

In the summer of 1791, and again in 1792, Reid and Glenriddell, who were latterly joined by Grose and Grose's accomplished servant, Thomas Cocking, some of whose drawings still exist, made a tour of inspection of all the interesting historical remains in Dumfries and Galloway, Reid or Grose making drawings from them, and Glenriddell writing the descriptions. A record of these interesting journeys, accompanied by the drawings, still exists in manuscript, partly at Dalmeny and partly elsewhere. It may have been during these journeys that Reid executed a portrait, in sepia, now in the collection of an Edinburgh gentleman.

Returning to the miniature portraits: that of David Davidson, author of Thoughts of the Seasons, shows more traces of Reid's French art training than any other of his productions that have come to light. Soon after returning from London and Paris Reid was so exclusively engaged on purely Scottish subjects, at the instance of or in company with such enthusiasts for things Scottish as Burns, Grose, and others, that the French influence on his style of treatment and method of colouring, which was very superficial at the best, soon disappeared; and he became, what he ever afterwards remained, a purely Scots artist. Indeed, it would be doing Reid no injustice to style him, as has been done here, a Gallovidian artist, by virtue of his subject-matter as well as on account of his birth. More than four-fifths of his discovered work derives its subjects from persons and places in Galloway.

Nevertheless, with his old methods, and in the spirit which still lingered in the age in which he lived, Reid did good and lasting work; for art, while it is conditioned by the ideals of the age in which it flourishes or fades, is art or is not art in proportion as its fundamental principles guide the artist, the ideals of the age notwithstanding. What constitutes an artist is not so much the media by means of which he achieves his results as the spirit in which he works; for in the graphic, as in the plastic arts, style is of more importance than matter. Reid had the spirit of the artist deep down in his soul, but it never played freely on his work All the same, he was a capable workman; careful in his draughting, and pleasing in his colours; and was always, or at least nearly always, interesting by virtue of the subjects he chose, or was commissioned by others to execute.


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