The Kings Arms Inn

The Old Head Inn of Kirkcudbright and its Burns Associations.


Interesting Burns Discovery.

Some time ago the historic “Head Inn” of Kirkcudbright, situated in the High Street near to the ancient Cross, and which for many years had been occupied as a dwelling house, was sold to Mr William Robson, artist, Twynholm, and late of Dalreoch, Ayrshire. During the past fortnight Mr Robson has had the rooms in the house renovated, and an interesting discovery has been made regarding the National Bard, who visited the inn when on business in Kirkcudbright. The two front rooms on the first flat had originally been one, most probably used as the dining hall, and where the County Commissioners had their relaxation after they had transacted county business in the adjoining Tolbooth. When the painter took the paper off the wall in the room to the right, and to the rear of the building, a beautiful sketch in pencil was disclosed, depicting a church-like building, with trees and a long low wall, with openings. In the middle distance is water with vessels, and in the background a lofty range of hills. To the left of this sketch were seen four lines of poetry, with the signature “R. Burns” in bold, clear letters. Unfortunately, the painter passed his wet brush over the lines and sketch, with the curious result that the sketch stood out in bolder relief, while the lines had words obliterated here and there With great difficulty, and with the aid of a microscope, the following was made out:

“When January winds were blawin’ cauld,
[Kirkcudbright?] I took my way;
But mirksome night did me enfauld,
[ . . . . . ] till earlyest day.
R. Burns.”

Mr Robson has taken all needful steps to have the writing, which bears a remarkable resemblance to that of Burns, preserved, and it is to be hoped that the complete verse will yet be deciphered, and the authenticity of the Poet’s handwriting put beyond doubt.

The following day, in a back room on the ground floor, another verse was discovered when two chats of paper were stripped off, these lines being fairly well decipherable, and reading as follows;

“A’ can drink and A’ can stan’
A drink wi’ [ony] man,
But when it comes that ye mak’ sang,
Your tongue it takes anither twang.

*[“This effusion may, however, be with some probability attributed to Robert Malcolmson, referred to below, who was a well known local versifier.]

The property has an interesting history, besides its memories of the National Bard. For many years it was the “head inn” of the burgh, or, to give it its proper name, “King’s Arms.” In 1789 William Johnstone, merchant in Kirkcudbright, and at that time in Milnthird, a few miles from the town, disponed the property to Samuel Malcolmson, merchant and innkeeper, and it is described as a “slated house,” last possessed by Samuel Herries. All three were prominent in the municipal affairs of the town at that time. Malcolmson, who pulled down the ancient house and rebuilt it, was of the same family as Robert Malcolmson, who gave the best narrative of the descent by Paul Jones on St. Mary’s Isle, and was the correspondent of Sir Walter Scott and Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, whom he supplied with many local traditions. Three years later Mr William Campbell, who gave the name of Queenshill to Nether Culquha, held a bond over the property, which was discharged to his son, Mr Patrick Campbell of Queenshill. Half a century later, in 1866 the property came into the possession of George Frederick Bowen, of St. Mary’s Cottage, Diego Martin, Trinidad, great grandson of Samuel Malcolmson. After being in the possession of other two proprietors, it was, in 1884, purchased by the late Mrs Cairns, who died recently and who altered and greatly improved the front of the house. Mrs Cairns, it may be stated as a matter of interest, was closely connected with the family of M’Taggart, author of the “Galloway Encyclopaedia,” a book which is very rare and much prized.

Burns, in the course of his duties, often visited Kirkcudbright, and was on terms of intimacy with the family of St. Mary’s Isle. His most memorable visit was after his journey across the hills from New-Galloway to Gatehonse, when he composed his immortal ode “Scots wh’a ha’e.” He afterwards paid a visit to Lord Daer at St. Mary’s Isle, where he also composed the celebrated “Selkirk Grace.” On these visits his headquarters were the King’s Arms. At the Kirkcudbright celebration of the Centenary of the Poet, there were four individuals who had seen him. Miss Warwick, whose father was an officer of Excise in Annan and afterwards at Kirkcudbright, as a girl, frequently saw Burns in her father’s house at Annan, and was delighted to hear him converse with her father, with whom the poet was a great favourite. She also saw Burns in her father’s house in Kirkcudbright, when he was on a visit to St. Mary’s Isle. Mr David Blair, shoemaker, took to Burns, then in the King’s Arms Inn, his boots, which had been cut off his feet in consequence of his stormy journey from New-Galloway to Gatehouse and Kirkcudbright, and which had to be repaired. Deacon Alexander M’Kinnell, who saw Burns in Dumfries, attended his funeral there. The fourth was Mr James Malcolmson, who, when a boy, saw Burns on his way to St. Mary’s Isle, on the old road (now Academy Wynd), near to the “Calfward Dub,” now forming part of what is commonly called “My Lord’s Field.” On Burns approaching with Mr Dalziel, one of Mr Malcolmson’s schoolfellows cried out, ” There’s the poet Burns.”

In the days before the railway the Commissioners of Supply took two days to transact their business, public and private. On the evening of their first day their headquarters were at the “Head Inn,” where, to use a modern newspaper phrase, “a pleasant evening was spent.” At that time it appears a special cellar was kept at the inn for the Commissioners, and a regulation is recorded in their minutes that no Commissioner who did not take a full part in the business was to share in the wine!

J. Robison.
April 2, 1920.

Note: This item was privately published for the author, who produced several excellent works on the history of the Burgh and it’s people. Held in Ewart Library, Dumfries)