“I have for some time past been amusing myself occasionally at a whimsical composition which I call ‘The Deil’s Response to Robert Burns,’ purporting to be an answer from Satan himself to the Poet’s far famed ‘address.’”
This diary entry, written with devilish delight, reveals the decidedly playful side of prominent public figure, James Brown. He asked that the poem be published anonymously, and though a few knew its true authorship, Brown must have relished in the reaction to its publication in the Scottish American Journal in September 1859. A long lost poem written by the bard himself, many declared. Robert Burns was immortal indeed! Tongue firmly in cheek, Brown took great pleasure in showing his son John, during a government sponsored tour of Scotland in 1861, the Deil’s chair where Satan composed his reply to Robert Burns. The joke long continued to tickle James Brown’s funny bone, perhaps because of his own connection to the bard. James Brown was related to Robert Burns through his maternal line. He revered the bard and had a writing style which evidently matched that of Burns.
Diarist James Brown emigrated from Glamis near Dundee, Scotland when he was 20 years old. When he arrived at the port of St. Andrews, Charlotte County, in May 1810, he described himself as “a friendless boy”. That friendless boy rose not only to local but provincial prominence. He became politically active, serving as a member of the Legislature. He was appointed to the Board of Works and travelled throughout the province surveying roads and bridges for the Crown Land Office. Brown was also appointed School Inspector in 1844, and helped prepare a critical provincial report on the state of education.
Brown began keeping a diary shortly after he settled in St. David, and in short entries, recorded life on his farm. He faithfully kept his diary during particular pockets of time: from 1813-1816; 1838-1844; and from 1857-1870. He wrote the last entry in January 1870, and he died in April of that year. Brown often wrote retrospectively, documenting his daily activities at the end of the week. He later reviewed his diary entries, and would correct inaccuracies or amend date discrepancies. Over time his entries became more detailed, painting a picture of New Brunswick society and most especially the hospitality of Scottish immigrants across the province.
His travels brought Brown into frequent contact with fellow countrymen, whether colleagues, friends, or strangers. Once he knocked at the door and broke bread with them, they did not remain strangers for long. Memories of the home country forged fast friendships, and nights were livened by songs, stories, music, dance, and laughter. Once an acquaintance was made, Brown never forgot a friend. James Brown’s diary contains 90 different encounters with people from Scotland over the course of a 30 year period, from 1838 to 1868.
The diary is a lively and entertaining read, making references to the “downfall of Bonapart”, to grand Balls at Government House, the arrival of dignitaries, public scandals, holiday merriment, and to entertainers such as Anderson, the Wizard of the North. Brown documents such pivotal events as the laying of telegraph cable in 1858, the Tour of the Prince of Wales in 1860, the Fenian scare in 1866, and a meeting favouring the “union of the Colonies” that same year, but curiously no mention was made of Confederation in 1867, perhaps reflecting his opposition to it.
James Brown worked long days and logged considerable mileage on foot daily. He was rarely sick, but a mysterious condition plagued him from 1866 to 1868. It was in fact the return of a most dreadful affliction, which he had suffered many years earlier: Hypochondria. This “old complaint”, as he called it, referred not to imagined illnesses but to a stress-related disorder which came with very real physical symptoms. Brown suffered terribly with medicinal cures which were worse than the disease. Sleep was often in short supply and when he managed to nap, he would awaken in a “fit of horrors”. Though his “mental disease” caused him grave concern, Brown did his best to keep pace with work and familial obligations. He consulted many doctors and even a few friends who suffered from the same condition during those dark days. Finally in September 1868, James Brown declared himself in excellent health. He was not only thankful for the improved state of his health, but for the comfort and satisfaction he had taken in “pushing along through the journey of life.”