© Robert Guthrie
Mrs. Catherine Stewart
The story of a remarkable woman of her timewhich binds together several pages of the history of the parish of New Cumnock Covenanters, Coal Mining and Robert Burns.
Gordon of Earlston
Born Catherine Gordon, she was a daughter of the house of Gordon of Earlstoun. Her ancestral home was at Earlstoun Castle, overlooking Earlston Loch, to the north of St.John's Town of Dalry in Kirkcudbrightshire. Her family were descended from the Gordons of Lochinvar, the most powerful branch of the family in Galloway and it was Sir Robert Gordon of Lochinvar that acquired the barony of Earlstoun from Lord Stewart of Ochiltree in 1620. Prior to this much of the land owned by the Stewarts had been held by the Crawfords, including the Crawford's of Dalleagles, an ancient branch of that family.
Gordon of Afton
William, 3rd Gordon of Earlstoun and his eldest son Alexander were with the Covenanting force deafeated at the Battle of Bothwell Bridge in 1679. William was killed and Alexander was imprisoned in Edinburgh Castle until 1689. His second son, Sir William Gordon married Mary Campbell, the heiress of Sir George Campbell of Cessnock, a leading Covenanter and a landowner in the parish parish of Cumnock (Old and New). Sir William was honoured as 1st Baronet of Afton in 1706 . He died without issue in 1716, and his elder brother Sir Alexander, now a free man, succeeded as 2nd Baronet of Afton. Sir Alexander was succeeded by his son Sir Thomas Gordon and he in turn by his son Thomas, younger of Earlstoun. Thomas married Catherine Campbell, daughter of Daniel Campbell of Shawfield and together they had two sons, Thomas and Daniel and one daughter Catherine.
Gordon of Afton and Stair
Thomas Gordon acquired the property of Stair on the banks of the River Ayr in 1756. Thereafter he was known as Thomas Gordon of Afton and Stair. Tragedy struck the family with the deaths of Daniel in 1762 and Thomas the younger in 1766. On her father's death Catherine Gordon succeeded to estates of Afton and Stair. According to McVie 'the Afton estates comprised the whole valley of the Afton in Nithsdale and the Estate of Dalleagles'. In 1770 Catherine married Colonel Alexander Stewart, grandson of the Earl of Galloway. The rank of Major-General would follow and Catherine Gordon would be known thereafter as Mrs. General Stewart. The Stewarts played a major role in developing the New Cumnock coalfield particularly around Straid, Brockloch, Burnfoot and Littlemark, on their Dalleagles property, but that is another story !
Mrs. Catherine Stewart and Robert Burns
Robert Burns and his friend David Sillar were regular visitors to the kitchen of Stair House, where Sillar's sweetheart Peggy Orr worked as nurse-maid. After one such visit, Burns had left behind some songs in manuscript form which were later shown to Mrs. Stewart. Suitably impressed with the quality of the writing, Mrs Stewart duly invited Burns to meet with her on his next visit to Stair.
Tradition suggests that this was the one and only meeting between patroness and poet. However, considerable correspondence followed from which emerged two great collections of manuscripts.
The first collection, sent to Mrs. Stewart in 1786 and described by Burns as 'a parcel of songs', became known as the Stair Manuscripts and included 'The Lass of Ballochmyle'. Five years on in 1791, the second collection was presented to Mrs. Stewart. Known as the Afton Manuscripts, they hold a special place in the history of New Cumnock since this suite contains 'Sweet Afton'.
'To Mrs. General Stewart of Afton, The first person of her sex and rank that patronised his humble lays, this manuscript collection of Poems is presented, with the sincerest emotions of greatest respect, by the Author.'
A mark of the bard's 'sincerest emotions and greatest respect' was the inclusion of 'A Mother's Lament for the loss of her only son' as the opening poem in this volume of fourteen. It was composed to the memory of Alexander Gordon Stewart, only son of General Alexander Stewart and Mrs. Stewart of Afton, who had died at Military Academy in Strasburgh, in 1787 , aged 16.
The Afton Manuscripts
A Mother's Lament for the loss of her only son
Tam o' Shanter
Elegy on Captain Matthew Henderson
The Lament of Mary Queen of Scots
Written in the Hermitage at Friars' Carse
The Five Carlins
Epistle to Robert Graham, Esquire, of Fintry
Alteration of the Verses (Friars' Carse)
Poem - On Sensibility
General Stewart of Stair died in 1795 and within a year Mrs. Stewart sold the Stair Estate. A new house had already been built for her and her unmarried daughters on the Enterkine estate, in the neighbouring parish of Tarbolton. Here, Mrs. Stewart had obtained a feu of 25 acres of the estate from her son-in-law William Cunninghame of Enterkine, husband to another daughter Catherine Stewart. The new house was called 'Afton Lodge' in honour of the Afton estate that Mrs. Stewart had inherited from her father, Thomas Gordon of Afton.
Mrs. Catherine Stewart died on 26th January 1818 and is buried in Stair Kirkyard, a few hundred yards from Stair House. Her two daughters Miss Grace Stewart and Miss Ann Stewart, continued the support the development of the New Cumnock Coalfield. Ann died in 1836 and Grace, referred to as Miss Stewart of Afton Lodge in the New Statistical Account of New Cumnock 1838, died in 1841. Both Ann and Grace lie buried next to their mother in Stair Kirkyard. Little is known of another daughter Jean.
New Cumnock Parish Church
Mrs. Stewart's daughter Catherine and her husband William Cunninghame of Enterkine, had a son William. He married Miss Allason, heiress to the Logan estate and was thereafter known as William Allason Cunninghame, Esquire of Logan. In 1850 he sold the Stair Manuscripts and in 1880 he gifted the Afton Manuscripts to the Burns Cottage Trustees, Alloway and are now housed in the Cottage Museum for public viewing. Mr W.A. Cunningham, grandson of Mrs. Stewart of Afton also gifted the clock for the parish church of New Cumnock in 1872.
Miss Grace Stewart
died 18th March,
The memory of
Mrs Catherine Stewart,
Maj. Gen. Alex. Stewart
of Afton and Stair
who died 26th January,
Miss Ann Stewart
died 7th February,
The next time you pass the Martyrs Kirk , take a glance at the clock and take a few minutes pay respect to the memory of Mrs Catherine Stewart of Afton .
Tombstones of Mrs. Catherine Stewart and her daughters Grace and Ann at Stair Kirk
Mrs. Catherine Stewart
'Burns and Stair' John McVie