Burns’ “Most Elegant Woman in the World”
Lesley Baillie, later Mrs Lesley Cumming, was born at Mayville, Stevenston, North Ayrshire. Her lasting fame derives from being Robert Burns's 'Bonnie Lesley', "the most beautiful, elegant woman in the world". On her tombstone her name is given as Leslie Baillie.
The daughter of sea captain Robert Baillie of Mayfield, she married Robert Cumming of Logie, Morayshire in 1799. She had a sister named Maria (Grace) and her mother was May Reid. Lesley had six children of whom four sons died on army service in India. Her husband predeceased her by a good many years. Her character was much esteemed for her benevolence of character, kindness of disposition and agreeable manners.
Lesley Baillie was a descendant of the family who had owned the Orangefield estate John Dalrymple owned Orangefield in the time of Robert Burns. Lesley was buried in Edinburgh.
This memorial, was originally erected in 1784 by Robert Baillie as a memorial to his wife May Reid and his other daughter Grace (Maria), is nowadays located between Sinclair Street and Glencairn Street, near the site of Mayfield House in Stevenston. It was originally situated in an area known as the 'Monument Park' near Kerelaw Mains Farm. Lesley's name was added in 1929 when the monument was re-erected on its present site by members of the Burns Federation after it had been derelict for over 50 years. It is now maintained by North Ayrshire Council.
The circumstances of Burns's association with Miss Baillie are related in a letter the poet wrote Mrs Dunlop from 'Annan Waterfoot' on 22 August 1792, he declared himself to be "in love, souse! Over head and ears, deep as the most unfathomable abyss of the boundless ocean", Burns explained that Mr Baillie with his two daughters, Grace and Lesley, was passing through Dumfries on their way to England, and did him the honour of visiting him. Although he was busy at the time he rode with them for some distance, dining and spending the whole day with them. On 8 November 1792 Burns sent the song to George Thomson with a comment on how it should got to the tune of "The Collier's Bony Dochter". Thomson replied, making suggestions for certain alterations, however, Burns wrote from Dumfries on 1 December, saying, "I must not, cannot alter, Bonnie Lesley". He added the revealing comment: "that species of stanza is the most difficult that I have ever tried."
Burns was extremely proud of this song, and he remarked that it was "one of the finest songs I ever made in my life." He never saw Lesley Baillie again, however he wrote to her from Dumfries in May 1793, enclosing "Blythe hae I been on yon hill", a song he had composed for her. He thought highly of this song, sending it to Thomson matched to a slowed-down reel, "The Quaker's Wife", which came from Bremner's Reels, 1759.
His feelings towards Lesley Baillie are seen as a revealing comment on his ability to imagine himself in love with any woman on the slightest pretext.
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