At this time of year, the thoughts of Scots and those of Scots extraction inevitably turn to the Burns Supper season. The one taking place at Aberdeen’s Beach Ballroom on 3 February will have a particularly Hay flavour. Organised by the Burgesses and Guild of the City of Aberdeen, this glittering charity event raises funds for the Lord Provost of Aberdeen’s Charitable Trust. The entertainment includes Pam Rotheroe-Hay of the Ballater Pipe Band, official piper for the evening, and that incomparable Burns performer, Gordon Hay of Longside, who will deliver the toast to the Immortal Memory of the bard himself. In addition, the charity auction of donated items and activities includes a day’s shooting generously given by Clan Hay Commissioner, Malcolm Hay of Seaton, at his Aberdeenshire estate of Edinglassie.
Greatly to the disappointment of many of us, it’s hard to find any meaningful Hay connection with the poet himself. He was born in Ayrshire, lived the bulk of his life in Dumfries-shire, latterly in the town of Dumfries itself, neither county known for Hay connections. However Burns did pass judgement on the well known ballad, John Hay’s Bonnie Lassie, and its popular tune in 3/4 time, which is still occasionally heard. According to the great man, the ‘John Hay’ concerned was the first Marquis of Tweeddale, and the ‘bonnie lassie’ his daughter, Lady Margaret Hay, who married the Earl of Roxburghe and lived to the age of 96, no fewer than 72 of those years as a widow. The words are attributed to poet Allan Ramsay, a man Burns greatly admired. Lady Margaret’s portrait by Godfrey Kneller does indeed attest to her bonniness, but Burns’s attribution of Ramsay’s inspiration is perhaps questionable, as she must have been very elderly by his time.
The poet was, though, well acquainted with Charles Hay, Lord Newton, a well known judge of the turn of the 19th century. Although Burns was several years’ dead by the time of Newton’s elevation to the Court of Session, they were both kenspeckle figures in Edinburgh towards the back end of the 18th century, and both members of the Crochallan Fencibles, not, as the name suggests, a regiment of militia, but a social club for gentlemen, which foregathered in the Anchor House pub on the Royal Mile. There is some evidence that Hay and Burns knew each other well. Very near the end of his life, the poet sent the judge a copy of his poem, On the death of the Late Lord President, with a note saying, “These kind of subjects are much hackneyed; and besides, the wailings of the rhyming tribe over the ashes of the great are damnably suspicious and out of all character for sincerity. These ideas have damp’d my muse’s fire, but I have done the best I could.” (The Lord President was Hay’s colleague, Lord President of the Court of Session and the chief justice of Scotland.)
The portrait of Lord Newton (right) is by Sir Henry Raeburn and its original is held by the National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh. However it has been copied many times. There is a fine engraving of it currently on sale in London’s Grosvenor Prints art shop, priced at £280.