Blues singer Robert Johnson (1911-1938)

50 years ago this week, 19 year old student Bruce Gardiner put the final stones on the cairn he built at Drumelzier to honour the memory of the largely forgotten blues pioneer, Robert Johnson.

Bruce now lives in Burma, where he teaches solar energy and agriculture.  However, he comes from Drumelzier in the Scottish border country, historically the seat of the Hays of Drumelzier, descended from a younger brother of the first Marquis of Tweeddale, a line now represented by Alick Hay of Duns.

There are thousands of cairns all over Scotland and there is scarcely a hilltop without one.  They are built for a variety of reasons: to mark a site of historic interest, the summit of a hill, or as route markers for walkers to follow in the event of pathways being obscured by our often uncertain weather.  Some, like this one, are memorials.

It may seem odd that Bruce chose to build a cairn to Robert Johnson here; Johnson himself had no connection to Scotland, and spent his entire life nearly 5000 miles away in the Mississippi Delta.  Bruce himself explained his choice of location, saying he felt a deep personal connection with the man whose music he so admired, and that he felt he had to build it in the place where he himself had grown up.

Bruce Gardiner completes the cairn with the addition of a cross

Robert Johnson died in 1938, his body found at a roadside.  He was the first of the “Twenty-seven Club”, the long list of musicians who died, in various circumstances, at that young age.  The cause of Johnson’s death is a matter of debate.  He was reported the previous day to be suffering convulsions and severe stomach pain.  Rumours circulated that he had been murdered by either a scorned girlfriend or a jealous husband, although his death was not investigated and it remains unclear whether he succumbed to poison or his excessive alcohol consumption.  His “twin weaknesses for whisky and women” are well attested.  He had an itinerant childhood and let a rackety adult life, so at his death there was no close family to ensure his death was appropriately dealt with.  Even his gravesite is uncertain and it seems Bruce’s cairn at the top of a Drumelzier hill is one of few, or perhaps even the only, confirmed memorial to the great musician.

Drumelzier came to the Hays in 1623 with the bankruptcy of James Tweedie of Drumelzier, who was foreclosed upon by his own nephew, the first Earl of Tweeddale.  On Tweeddale’s second marriage to Lady Elizabeth Montgomerie, it was a condition of her marriage contract that the eldest son of that union should receive Drumelzier.  William Hay, first of Drumelzlier, is the ancestor of the Hays of Drumelzier, Whittinghame and Duns Castle.  The property remained in the family’s hands until the late 20th century.