The Polquhirter Muse

Polquhirter Burn in the parish of New Cumnock is a tributary of the mighty River Nith which  rises in the hills of New Cumnock before meandering through the parish and leaving Ayrshire to cut its way through Dumfriesshire and finally flow into the Solway Firth.

Armstrong's Map of Ayrshire (1775) Courtesy of Natinal Library of Scotland
Armstrong’s Map of Ayrshire (1775) Courtesy of National Library of Scotland

The lands of Polquhirter originally comprised of Nether and Over Polquhirter and latterly High Polquhirter, East Polquhirter and West Polquhirter. These lands take their name from Polquhirter Burn. The first element of the name is common in the parish and derives from the Old British pol ‘stream, burn’  while the second element may have its origins in the Gaelic chruiter ‘harper’, a reference perhaps to the musical quality of the sound of the burn as it tumbles from the hilltop of the Knipes to its meeting with the River Nith.

Perhaps the burn is also the source of the Polquhirter Muse that in some way connects the three following people, all with links on this Burns Day, to our national bard Robert Burns.


Acclaimed Scot’s poet Rab Wilson was born at Polquhirter Cottage in 1960 and still lives in the parish of New Cumnock a few hundred yards from his birthplace. Over the years he has published several successful collection of poems chiefly written in Scots, including more recently ‘Burnsiana’ which uniquely ‘places a range of photographic artworks by celebrated Scottish artist Calum Colvin alongside poems written in response to each work by Rab Wilson‘ .

In 2007 Rab was appointed the first ‘Robert Burns Writing Fellow – In Reading Scots’ for Dumfries and Galloway Region. Six years later he was chosen as the first” James Hogg writer-in-residence in the Scottish Borders”.

Always keen to support community initiatives Rab gave a rousing rendition of Burns;  ‘The Kirk’s Alarm” at an event in the New Cumnock Parish Church to celebrate work carried out on a local heritage project.

  • Visit Rab’s Facebook page here
Rab reads Burns 'The Kirk's Alarm' at New Cumnock Parish Church
Rab reads Burns ‘The Kirk’s Alarm’ at New Cumnock Parish Church

JANET LAPRAIK (1810-1901)

Janet was the granddaughter of John Lapraik of Muirkirk, a friend of Robert Burns as well as a fellow poet.  Lapraik’s friendship with Burns ‘stimulated the poet to write two of his best verse epistles’ [ On-line Burns Encyclopedia]

In the ‘First Epistle to John Lapraik‘, Burns sets out his poetic creed

“I am nae poet, in a sense,
But just a rhymer, like, by chance,
An’ hae to learning nae pretence;
Yet, what the matter?
Whene’er my muse does on me glance,
I jingle at her…
“Gie me ae spark o’ Nature’s fire,
That’s a’ the learning I desire;
Then, tho’ I drudge thro’ dub an’ mire
At pleugh or cart,
My muse, tho’ hamely in attire,
May touch my heart.”

A shepherd’s daughter Janet was born in 1801 at Muirkirk. It’s unclear when she moved to New Cumnock, in search of work presumably, but in 1841 Janet is at Polquhirter which was then farmed by William McTurk. Here she met David Murdoch, working on the farm as a labourer, and the couple later married. After David’s death, Janet remained in New Cumnock and married William Kennedy Gibson.  In a remarkable twist-of-fate her stepson Andrew Gibson became a celebrated collector of the works of Burns which now resides in The Linen Hall Library, Belfast. Janet lies at rest within the ruins of the Auld Kirk of New Cumnock.

Janet Lapraik's resting place in the Auld Kirk, New Cumnock
Janet Lapraik’s resting place in the Auld Kirk, New Cumnock

ISOBEL PAGAN (ca.1741- 1821)

Isobel ‘Tibbie’ Pagan was born in New Cumnock and as a teenager moved to the parish of Muirkirk. In her later years she lived in a cottage on the banks of the Garpel Water and for a living she composed poems and songs and kept a howff for the selling and drinking of whisky and other strong drink.  Tibbie is considered to have composed the opening stanzas of “Ca’ the Yowes”, later made popular by Robert Burns – however her contribution to this work is now under question. Nevertheless, no matter the author or authoress, the chorus remains a Scots classic.

“Ca’ the yowes to the knowes ,
Ca’ them where the heather grows,
Ca’ them where the burnie rowes ,
My bonie dearie”


Tibbie died at Muirkirk in 1821 and is buried there in the kirkyard where the current headstone carries the simple inscription ‘In MEMORY of ISABELA PAGAN who died 5th November 1821 aged 80 years.’

It is from the following auto-biographical verse that some insight into her early life is gleaned. From the age given on her headstone Tibbie’s date of birth is therefore calculated as ca. 1741 and her place of birth four miles from the source of the River Nith.

“I was born near four miles from Nithhead,
Where fourteen years I got my bread;
My learning it can soon be told,
Ten weeks when I was seven years old,
With a good old religious wife,
Who lived a quiet and sober life;
Indeed she took of me more pains,
Than some does now with forty bairns.
With my attention and her skill,
I read the Bible no’ that ill,
An’ when I grew a wee thocht mair,
I read when I had time to spare,
But a’ the whole tract of my time,
I found myself inclined to rhyme;
When I see merry company,
I sing a song with mirth and glee,
And sometimes I the whisky pree,
But ‘deed its best to let it be.
A’ my faults I will not tell,
I scarcely ken them a’ mysel’;
I’ve come through various scenes of life,
Yet never was a married wife”

A search of the available Old Parish Records of  New Cumnock reveal that an Isabel Pagan was born not in 1741 but two years later in 1743 at Polquhirter.

  • 1743 Dec 11 ‘Isabell daughter to an unknown father , Betsy Pagan in Polquhortur’

Polquhirter, as the crow flies, is closer to six miles from the source of the Nith than four, and on 5th November 1821, the date of her death , Tibbie would have been a month short of her 78th birthday and not 80 years. However, it’s surely not stretching poetical licence too far in order to claim Isabell Pagan of Polquhirter as the celebrated Tibbie Pagan.

 Happy Burns Day & Night

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