© Robert Guthrie
William Simson was born in the neighbouring parish of Ochiltree in 1758, the eldest son of the farmer at Tenpoundland. He moved with his family to New Cumnock when he was 14 years old, where he received instructions in the classics from a Mr Ferguson ' an enthusiastic teacher who had sometimes as many as twenty-four scholars learning Latin in a village which not so long before had not even a school'. [ William Boyd]
Being lame of foot and a life on the land was not for Simson. Initially he aspired to join the minstry, but at an early age turned his attention to 'teaching the young idea how to shoot', [ John MacIntosh] influenced perhaps by his New Cumnock school-master. He studied at Glasgow University where he passed the full Arts course with credit and from there returned to his native Ochiltree to take on the role of school-master in 1780.
Simson also became known as a minor poet 'writing pieces of passable merit, but was possessed of a natural shyness and a diffidence which could not permit him to sanction the publication of any of his musings' . It was through his poetry, by means of epistolarly correspondence, that he would come to the the notice of Robert Burns .
I Gat you letter, winsome Willie;
Wi' gratefu' heart I thank you brawlie;
Tho' I maun say't, I wad be silly,
And unco vain.
Should I believe, my coaxin' billie,
Your flatterin' strain.
'The two poets, together with James Tennant of Glenconner, were wont to have frequent meetings in the inn at Ochiltree, when wit sparkled more brightly than the village ale, and te sature was sometimes equally bitter.' [ John MacIntosh].
In 1788, William Simson was promoted to the grammar school,at Cumnock in the parish of Old Cumnock, where he remained until his death in 1815. He is buried in the cemetery on the Barrhill and his tombstone carries the following epitaph by the local poet and one time resident of Wellhill, New Cumnock, Mr. A.B. Todd.
The following extract is from 'The Poets Of Ayrshire' John MacIntosh, 1910'
'Isobel 'Tibbie' Pagan is remembered as the authoressof the sweet pastoral lyric 'Ca' the yowes to the knowes'. She was born about four miles from nith-head in the parish of New Cumnock, where she lived till about fourteen years of age. Being lame from infancy she was unfitted for laborious work of any kind , and passed the greater part of her life in a cottage romatically situated on the banks of the Garpel Water (parish of Muirkirk). She did not live as a recluse , but was at all times ready to receive visitors, who frequently spent their evenings there singing and carousing, make her house the favourite "howff" of all the wits and drouthy neighbours in the district.
She died towards the end of 1821 , in the 80th year of her age, and her remains were interred in the churchyard of Muirkirk, where a tombstone was erected over her grave. Burns composed a new version of her popular song, retaining the original chorus. It begins :-'
Ca' the yowes to the knowes,
Ca' them where the heather grows,
Ca' them where the burnie rows,
My bonie dearie
O wilt thou go wi' me, sweet Tibbie Dunbar?
O wilt thou go wi' me, sweet Tibbie Dunbar?
Wilt thou ride on a horse, or be drawn in a car,
Or walk by my side, O sweet Tibbie Dunbar?
I care na thy daddie, his lands and his money,
I care na thy kin, sae high and sae lordly;
But sae that thou'lt hae me for better for waur,
And come in thy coatie, sweet Tibbie Dunbar.
Genealogical records of the Campells of New Cumnock suggest that the Burns' 'sweet Tibbie Dunbar' was the daughter of William Dunbar, who was born at Polshill farm in the parish of New Cumnock. William married Isabel Neil and together they lived at Burnton, near Dalrymple. Tradition has it, that Willaim and Isabel were Best Man and Best Maid to Rabbie's parents at their wedding. From Burnton they moved to Guelt, Old Cumnock and then to Blacksidend in the parish of Sorn. There eldest daughter Isobel (sweet Tibbie) was said to very handsome. Another daughter, Margaret married Ivie Campbell of Dalgig, New Cumnock, a farmer of great repute. Their tombstone stands in the Auld Kirkyard to this day, adjacent to the Auld Kirk walls.
Source: Christine Clement, Genealogist
Note: The Earls of Dunbar and a cadet branch of that family were Barons of Cumnock until the early 17th century. Local tradition has it that the last of these Dunbars became a tenant farmer in Polshill.
Source : New Cumnock School Fellows Magazine (1898)