Andrew Aitken (1780 – 1851), Beith-Born poet who worked as a farmer.

In September 1851, tenant-farmer Andrew Aitken of Overton, Beith, died. Known as the Beith Poet, a collection of his poems was printed in 1873 by James M’Kie of Kilmarnock. Aitken’s book of poems proved to be so successful that a second edition was published.

Photograph of title page of Andrew Aitken’s book of poetry.

Andrew Aitken was born in 1780 at Langside, Beith, the son of a tenant farmer, whose main occupation was that of flax dresser. Mr Aitken, Senior, grew the flax and quarried lime on lands belonging to John Patrick of Trearne. The family lived in a one-storey house which had a thatched roof. Andrew began working on the farm at the age of ten, working from early morning until 8pm at night alongside his father.

Andrew didn’t attend school but was taught to read and write by his mother. His early reading material consisted of bible passages, devotionals, songs and poetry. Miss Patrick of Trearne realising that this young man was an avid reader with a thirst for knowledge, supplied Andrew with books from her family library.

Andrew tried his hand at writing essays and poetry, several of which were published in local periodicals and newspapers of the time, and with the assistance of local townsman Mr Smith in “Chambers Journal”.

Being of a modest, kind, honest and sociable nature, Andrew gathered a wide circle of friends from all ranks of Beith’s society, while farming at Overton, and developing his standing amongst the local poets. At the age of 56, Andrew married Janet Fergusson, daughter of John Fergusson of Dernshaw, Stewarton on 6th May 1836. They were married by Rev. George Thomson.

In 1845 his friends decided to confer upon him some token of their regard. To this end, a public subscription was opened, with the funds raised being used to commission an oak armchair crafted by James Dale, a Beith cabinetmaker. The back of the armchair was indented with a silver plate bearing the inscription: “Presented to Andrew Aitken, Farmer, Overton, Beith, by his friends and fellow parishioners, as a mark of their regard for his private worth and literary attainments”.

On 26 December 1845 over 160 proprietors, farmers and merchants gathered at the Saracen’s Head Inn, Beith. The chair was occupied by William Cochran-Patrick, Esq., who gave the toast to their worthy guest who was before them that night, not as a valued member of Beith society, but as an author and poet, and presented him with the elegant armchair as a testimonial of the respect and esteem in which Mr Aitken was held by his friends and neighbours, along with a silk purse containing forty guineas to either “promote your intellectual enjoyments or your domestic comfort”.

On 6th December 1849 Andrew Aitken fell badly on the frosty surface of Dalry Bridge, while on his way to buy horses, breaking his hip and thigh bone in the process. He died in September 1851 never having fully recovered from his fall. His beloved wife Janet died in 1850.

Verses on the departure of Thomas Gowans for America

Rich fo’k are aye famed for their knowledge and wisdom,

Though aft it’s a’ nought but a show and a sham;

But I’ll show you a man strictly honest and knowing –

Nae rich man is he, put poor Collier Tam,

He was born an’ brought up ‘mang the hills o’ New Cumnock,

And, in search o’ employment, to Beith side he cam’,

And for years he’s been usefu’, by deeds and example –

Much guid might be learned frae poor Collier Tam.

Whan he came frae his work, he was aye wet and dirty,

But, whan sorted, was cheery an’ brisk as a lam’,

An’ weans an’ auld fo’k were a’ fond to be near him –

They got tales an’ queer stories frae Collier Tam.

The maist o’ his tribe spen’ their earnings on Sunday,

On whisky, tobacco, tea, steak, and saut ham,

Then they starve the hale week, or get tick frae the grocers,

But there’s part left to-morrow by Collier Tam.

They despise law and order, and form combinations

Against social freedom, and fight, curse, and damn;

Sic dark deeds he shunned – free trade and just dealing;

“Peace and guid will,” is the motto o’ Collier Tam.

Now he’s o’er the braid sea, wi’ his weel-won sma’ treasure,

To inhabit the land o’ great, big Uncle Sam;

And ne’er truer soul left the shores o’ auld Scotia,

When on shipboard, at Glasgow, went Collier Tam.