Meet the 1826 founders

who decided that Irvine should forever honour the poet who had once lived in their town

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John Mackenzie, MD,   David Sillar, Bailie,   William Gillies, Grain Dealer,   John Peebles, Convener of Trades,
James Johnston, Town Clerk,   Robert Wyllie, Harbour Master,   John Orr, Merchant,   James Allan, Merchant (grocer),
Maxwell Dick, Bookseller,   William Shields, Senior, Merchant,   John Fletcher, Surgeon,   Patrick Blair, Writer.

As most of these are buried in Irvine Old Parish Church graveyard, photos of their gravestones are shown along with what details we know of their lives. Ten were members of Irvine Town Council, and the Council chairs of Dr Mackenzie and David Sillar are now at the head and foot of the boardroom table in Irvine Burns Club. Eight (or more) were Freemasons. The Club's inaugural meeting was held in Milne's Inn, where John Milne, Innkeeper, was a Freemason.

1826 declaration by founders
The original minute: Irvine, 2 June 1826

"The subscribers agree hereby to form, and do now form ourselves into a Committee for the purpose of establishing a Club, or Society for Commemorating the birth of Robert Burns the Ayrshire Poet - and we agree to meet at an early day to get the preliminaries of the Club properly arranged."

Dr John Mackenzie (1753-1837) was the doctor who attended to Burns' father during his last illness in 1783/84. He became a loyal friend to the family, particularly Robert, whom he described as "displaying a dexterity of reasoning, an ingenuity of reflection, and a familiarity with topics apparently beyond his reach". Initiated into Freemasonry at Newmilns in 1780, when Gavin Hamilton, the Mauchline lawyer, was Master of the Lodge, he introduced Robert Burns to Professor Dugald Stewart at Catrine House. In 1791 he married Helen Millar, one of the 'Mauchline Belles' ("Miss Miller is fine"). In 1796, the new 12th Earl of Eglinton, one of his patients as Colonel Hugh Montgomerie at Coilsfield, persuaded him to move to Irvine, granting him the life rent of Seagate House on Eglinton St (near today's Nazarene Church) and an annuity of £130 p.a.. A Freemason from 1780, in the Irvine St Andrews Lodge he served as Right Worshipful Master in 1805-15 and in 1820-26, being then elected as the lodge's proxy representative at the Grand Lodge of Scotland, holding this position until his death; his Masonic apron and two decanters are displayed at 'Wellwood'. In local government, Dr Mackenzie joined the Council in 1801, serving until 1828, when, by then a widower, he retired to Edinburgh. Whilst in Irvine he commanded a company of Volunteers and afterwards of local militia, with the title of 'Captain'. His wife Helen died in 1827 and is buried in Irvine Old Parish Church graveyard (pictured here; the stone records "Inscribed by Irvine Burns Club 25th January 1922 in memory of John Mackenzie MD, First President of the Club"). Dr Mackenzie then moved to Edinburgh, where he died and was interred in New Calton Cemetery. The Council chairs once occupied by Dr Mackenzie and David Sillar were presented by the Council to Irvine Burns Club on the occasion of the Club centenary in 1926, and continue to be occupied by the President and Vice-President of the day.

For more information (each opens in a separate window):
James L Hempstead, "Dr John Mackenzie, M.D." in The Burns Chronicle, 1991, p.37
Wikipedia article John_MacKenzie_(doctor)

Helen Miller, wife of Dr Mackenzie

David Sillar (1760-1830), a farmer's son born at Spittalside near Lochlea, was a friend of Burns from teenage years and a fellow-member of the Bachelors Club in Tarbolton; he recalled that Burns was the only man in Tarbolton to tie his hair at the back. After unsuccessful attempts to be a teacher, he became a grocer in Irvine around 1783, in a shop below the Tolbooth, but with little success, and in 1789 published a volume of his Poems, also unsuccessful. Bankruptcy led to a short spell in the Debtors' Prison in the Tolbooth. He went to Edinburgh, perhaps seeking work, returned to Irvine and set up a reasonably successful school of navigation in East Rd. Twice married, only one child survived to adulthood. Family legacies came his way in 1811, ending money problems; he lent money to the council, and made a donation to the new academy; he joined the Town Council in 1815, becoming a Baillie. In 1826, he assisted Robert Chambers in determining which house on Glasgow Vennel had been the lodgings where Burns had stayed. Due to ill-health, he did not follow Dr Mackenzie as President of Irvine Burns Club, though his son Zachariah, before moving to a medical practice in Liverpool, served as President in 1829/30. He resided on the High St (near today's Post Office), and is interred in Irvine Old Parish Church graveyard - the stone is a 1962 facsimile of the original. Robert Burns referred to him as a 'brother poet' and as 'Dainty Davie', and respected him as a fiddler - Sillar composed the tune of 'The Rosebud' to which Burns wrote the lyric of 'A Rosebud by my early Walk' in honour of the daughter of the couple who hosted him for four months in Edinburgh (though the lyric is now commonly sung to a different tune).

Irvine Burns Club possesses two letters from Burns to Sillar. The Loving Cup used at Annual Celebrations is the gift given by David Sillar to his grandson William Cameron Sillar on the occasion of his baptism, and donated by a Sillar descendant to the Club in 1964. His son Zachariah gave the Club a copy of David Sillar's address to the inaugural Annual Dinner in 1827, written in his own hand.

For more information (each opens in a separate window):
H Makinson, "David Sillar - Poet, Lover, Ploughman and Fiddler" in The Burns Chronicle 1915, p.70
John McVie, "David Sillar - a vindication" in The Burns Chronicle 1959 p.38
James L Hempstead, "David Sillar in The Burns Chronicle 1994 p.107
'The Rosebud' - the tune, the MS (crediting 'Mr Sillar, a gentleman in Irvine'), & the page in 'Scots Musical Museum'
Wikipedia article David_Sillar

David Sillar

William Gillies (1797-1841), a grain dealer, was appointed manager, in 1830, of the new Irvine branch of the Ayrshire Banking Company. One of the two poll-topping newcomers on the Council in 1833, he served as Provost in 1839-41. In October 1839, as Provost, he chaired a banquet hosted by the 13th Earl of Eglinton following his famous Tournament.

The inscription on his monument records "Sometime Provost of Irvine . . Erected by Townsmen"

William Gillies

John Peebles, the Convener of Trades 1822-1826, lived at Bridgegate and is recorded to have personally known Robert Burns. A tailor, he joined the Irvine Masonic Lodge in 1818. Five of his children died in infancy. Listed in the Roll of Electors of 1833 as a merchant, he is not listed in Pigot's directory of 1837. (This item includes information from Allen Paterson.)
He was (writes James Mackay, p.108) an adjutant to Hugh Montgomerie, later the 12th Earl of Eglinton.

John Peebles

James Johnston (1794-1853), Town Clerk from 1818 till his death, was the first Honorary Secretary of Irvine Burns Club and he served as President in 1833 (though that year's Annual Dinner may have been cancelled due to the cholera epidemic). Originally from Ayr (and the tenth of thirteen children), he lived in 'Rosebank' on Castle Street. When he died in 1853 twelve days before the Annual Dinner, Irvine Burns Club cancelled the Dinner as a mark of respect, primarily to him as he had for many years acted as Honorary Secretary to the Club, and also because other principal members of the Club had recently lost family members.
 (A maternal uncle was William Murdoch, 1754-1839, who invented the making of gas from coal.)

James Johnstone

Robert Wyllie (1792-1843) was Irvine Harbourmaster till his death in Edinburgh in 1843 - soon after giving evidence in the High Court on behalf of his friend James Beaumont Neilson, inventor of the 'Hot Blast' which revolutionised the iron industry. Wyllie's monument in Irvine O.P.C. churchyard, erected by his friends, indicates the high esteem in which he was held. The stone records "Erected by his acquaintances". His appointment as Harbourmaster was very shortly before the foundation of the Club, possibly even only the previous day (June 1st).

For more on Robert Wyllie, see the article on the Irvine Harbourside website.
(Information prepared by Ian Dickson.)

Robert Wyllie

John Orr (1791-1864), a merchant, is recorded to have been known to Robert Burns - though very young, he may have met the poet. Married in 1821, his five children were baptised in the  Irvine East Associate Church. The 1841 Pigot's Directory records him as a grocer and as a linen & woollen draper at Halfway St (later Montgomery St), where they lived, and where he is described as a merchant in 1851. He was a member of the local Masonic Lodge from 1825. The gravestone was erected by him in memory of three daughters and two sons. (This item includes information from Archie Chalmers.)

John Orr

James Allan (1801-...), a grocer, may have been the youngest of the founding members. He lived almost his entire life on Irvine's High Street, his age in 1851 being wrongly recorded as 60 instead of 50. He was assisted by his sister Jean and later by his nephew Joseph Gillies. The last known mention of him is in the Post Office Directory of 1855.
The neighbouring gravestone (here on the right of his grave) bears a dramatic carving, on the reverse, of the raising of the dead, complete with angel with trumpet. (This item includes information from Archie Chalmers.)

James Allan

Maxwell Dick (1797-1870) was possibly Irvine's most influential 'mover and shaker' of the 1800s, with interests too numerous to include here. After running a successful printing business in Paisley, he opened a bookshop on Irvine High Street, then acquired Macquiston's business in 1820. One of the Macmillan Publishing founder brothers (Daniel) worked in his shop for seven years as a teenager. He produced an Irvine News-Letter which was published for several years and, from 1858, an Ayrshire News Letter. He devised a snow plough in 1827, experimented with a suspension railway at Gailes in 1829, invented a water-warmed bed for cholera patients in 1832, and was experimenting with guano and artificial fertilisers in 1856. On the Town Council he served as Dean of Guild and as a Magistrate and was a councillor for almost 50 years. He was associated with several inventions, such as the screw propeller (his friend James Steadman being one of several around the world who have a claim to the invention). When the New Hall was begun next to Burns Cottage, he laid the Foundation Stone on behalf of Freemasons. He served twice as President of Irvine Burns Club, in 1835 and in 1854, and, as a lithographer, produced facsimiles of some of the manuscripts held by the Club. The photo shows where he is buried, though his stone was removed at some time in the past. His printing business passed to Charles Murchland.

Maxwell Dick

William Shields, senior, probably born c. 1760, married in 1788, and was a merchant living on the High St (near today's Crown Inn), as we know from Wood's Town Plan of 1819), with four children. He was a boot and shoe-maker, so would be regarded as a craftsman. He joined the local Masonic Lodge in 1823. His wife died in 1833. The 1841 census shows him as still living, his age kindly recorded as 75, on the High Street. He died in 1843, aged 83. He and his wife are buried in the churchyard. In Pigot's 1837 Directory, William Shields, junior, and John Shields are listed as boot and shoe makers on Bridgegate. (This item includes information from Archie Chalmers.)

William Shields

John Fletcher (1798-1830) was a surgeon residing in the Parterre on the High Street, highly respected and successful, and a town councillor and baillie. Implicated, with three others, later in 1826 as a resurrectionist (body snatcher), he was socially ruined, so moved to Ayr and died, of paralysis, aged 32. Although sometimes referred to as having met the poet, he could not have done so, though his father William may have been a friend of Burns. In November, 1830, his body was interred in his parents' grave in Irvine Old Parish Churchyard. (This item includes information from Billy Kerr and Iain Doole.)

John Fletcher

Patrick Blair (1796-1873), writer (at that time the term for a solicitor in Scotland) lived on the High St (opposite today's Townhead Surgery). Having commenced as a solicitor in 1828 he became the senior partner of Blair & Highet, Solicitors, Irvine, his clients including Irvine individuals claiming compensation for the loss of slave labour in the West Indies. He was the Irvine agent for the Western Bank and, after its 1857 collapse, for the Clydesdale Bank, he became Deputy-Governor of the Irvine Savings Bank.  A devoted church member, he often represented both the Royal Burgh and the Presbytery of Irvine at the General Assembly. He was involved in may good causes, whether social, educational or religious. He was an administrator of the funds of Lyle's Free School, established by the Free Church in 1839 to provide free education for poor children of that district. He donated the land for Trinity Church (opened 1863). He arranged for the removal of a minister's plaque (Rev. Alexander Campbell, minister of the Burgher Kirk 1809-1843), to make way for his own memorial in the graveyard. He and his wife John (sic) Fairrie had at least ten children. (This item includes information from Billy Kerr and Iain Doole.)

Patrick Blair

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