Elspeth in the barley.


Banff is situated on the Moray Firth Coast in the North East of Scotland, at the mouth of the River Deveron.

Born near Banff, Elspeth Buchan lived from 1739 to 1791. She moved to Glasgow in 1760 and married Robert Buchan a potter from Greenock. They had three children together but the marriage then broke down. Elspeth returned to Banff for a period before returning to Glasgow in 1780.

She met a Church Minister from Irvine, the Rev Hugh White. Elspeth convinced White that she was ‘the woman clothed with the sun.’ White assumed for himself the role of ‘man child.’ By 1783 the two had set up a community called the Buchanites, in Irvine. Elspeth claimed to have the power of prophesy. None of this went down well with the Presbyterian Kirk. The Kirk ejected White and had the Buchanites evicted from Irvine.

Rumours soon began to circulate about the sect, largely because all its members lived together in a small number of rooms. Among those contributing to the rumours was Robert Burns, possibly because he was thwarted in his advances towards a female member of the sect.

According to Burns;

‘They lye and lodge all together and hold likewise a community of women. It is another of their tenets that they can commit no mortal sin.’

Banff, on a nicer day.

Members of the sect were often hit with sticks and stones as well as verbal abuse, but ‘Friend Mother’ was always there to ask if they had been hurt. Their meetings were usually well attended, not only by members but by others trying to dissuade their friends from being deluded by such fanatical nonsense. One such was soon to achieve national recognition as the ‘Ploughman Bard of Scotland.

Elspeth was becoming increasingly impatient to see the return of members from Irvine. Mr Hunter and others had gone to Irvine to settle their affairs. She sent many letters via the hand of Andrew Innes, imploring them to return soon. Andrew eventually returned with not only the missing members of the sect, but he also had a number of new ones who had been too afraid to leave with the main group. Among this group was a young and beautiful girl called Jean Gardner. It is alleged that Jean had an affair with Robert Burns.

Burns’ Museum, Alloway. Parking for Motorhomes.

Andrew Inness tells the story;

‘When I was sent back from Thornhill for Mr Hunter, Jean Gardner came with me to Closeburn. When we came in the neighbourhood of Tarbolton she seemed to be in a discomposed condition. When I inquired the cause she said it was lest Burns the Poet should see her. He would be sure to interrupt her for they had long been on terms of intimacy. But we proceeded on our journey without meeting with any obstruction.’

Joseph Train concludes that she and not Jean Armour was the heroine of Burns’ affection. Train adds that;

‘Burns frequently visited her in the society both at New Cample and at Auchengibbert.’

Buchan Hall.

Elspeth Buchan died in 1791. She had promised that when she died she would have her followers lifted to heaven. There were enough of the sect left to guard over Elspeth’s cadaver. They hid her body from the authorities in various places; in fields of barley, up in the loft, behind the fireplace, etc, etc, etc. On the 50th anniversary of her death in March 1841, one of the dates on which she had prophesied she would rise from the dead, the prophesy failed to come to pass and what was left of the sect dispersed.

Comment: As for Robert Burns’ involvement in the affair. I believe his affections were directed more towards Elspeth, than to Jean Gardner. The following is a poem that the Bard perhaps could have written at the time;

Elspeth in the Barley.

Fair whappit oot when the hervest’s o’er.

A man fairly builds up a heid or twa o’ steam.

Thinkin’ o’ the lassies o’ the sweetest flower.

Elspeth in the barley in her gunny goon o’ green.

Ye’re a hoot, Rab, ye’re a hoot.

Fair fu’ tae burstin’ wi’ haggis an’ wi’ neeps.

An’ an awfy peculiar feelin’ deep within my troosers.

Ninemile Bar’s where my bonnie lassie sleeps.

Efter I’ve feenished tourin’ roon’ the boozers.

Ye’d better scoot, Rab, ye’d better scoot.

Fair drunk wi’ passion is my unsteady gait.

The lovely Elspeth Buchan is my awfy tasty bait.

Wi’ my frame sae fu’ o’ longin’ her.

Tae be lyin’ doon ding dongin’ her.

Ye’re a brute, Rab, ye’re a brute.

Fairly excited is my arisen state.

As I traipse like a stallion tae Elspeth’s gairden gate.

Up tae the gunnels wi’ my belly fu’ o’ Guinness.

Jist tae be telt by yon eegit Andrew Innes.

She’s oot, Rab, she’s oot.

Burns’ Cottage, Alloway.

Joe Sharp.

Read the adventures of Francie and Josie, click here.

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