A Letter of Apology
To MRS, RIDDELL
Madam, —I daresay that this is the first epistle you ever received from this nether world. I write you from the regions of hell, amid the horrors of the damned. The time and manner of my leaving your earth I do not exactly know, as I took my departure in the heat of a fever of intoxication, contracted at your too hospitable mansion; but, on my arrival here, I was fairly tried, and sentenced to endure the purgatorial tortures of this infernal confine for the space of ninety-nine years, eleven months, and twenty-nine, days, and all on account of the impropriety of my conduct yesternight under your roof. Here am I, laid on a bed of pityless furze, with my aching head reclined on a pillow of ever-piercing thorn, while an infernal tormentor, wrinkled , and old, and cruel — his name I think is Recollection — with a whip of scorpions, forbids peace or rest to approach me, and keeps anguish eternally awake. Still, Madam, if I could in any measure be reinstated in the good opinion of the fair circle whom my conduct last night so much injured, I think it would be an alleviation to my torments. For this reason I trouble you with this letter. To the men of the company I will make no apology. -Your husband, who insisted on my drinking more than I chose, has no right to blame me; and the other gentlemen were partakers of my guilt. But to you, Madam, I have much to apologise. Your good opinion I valued as one of the greatest acquisitions I had made on earth, and I was truly a beast to forfeit it. There was a Miss I— too, a woman of fine sense, gentle and unassuming manners — do make, on my part, a miserable d-mned wretch's best apology to her. A Mrs G—, a charming woman, did me the honor to be prejudiced in my favor; this makes me hope that I have not outraged her beyond all forgiveness. — To all the other ladies please present my humblest contrition for my conduct, and my petition for their gracious Pardon. O all ye powers of decency and decorum! whisper to them that my errors, though great, were involuntary — that an intoxicated man is the vilest of beasts — that it was not in my nature to be brutal to any one — that to be rude to a woman, when in my senses, was impossible with me — but —
'Regret! Remorse! Shame! ye three hellhounds that ever clog my steps and bay at my heels, spare me! spare me!
The Riddell family were neighbours and for a time, good friends with Robbie Burns. Captain Robert Riddell (1755–1794) was the owner of an estate called Friar's Carse. The poet was given access to a small cottage on the grounds where he would sometimes retire to write.
There was a falling out with the Riddell family. There is doubt about the circumstances. It appears to have been a result of a social function that took place in December 1793.
Burns is said to have become intoxicated during a dinner party. He allegedly made an improper embrace of one of the women at the event (likely Riddell's wife Elizabeth). Captain Riddell demanded that Burns leave the house because of this impropriety.
This abject and melodramatic letter of apology followed the scandal. It was probably directed to his hostess, Mrs. Elizabeth Riddell. In it, Burns chastises his host for causing him to over-indulge, but begs forgiveness of the ladies.
Burns was not known to be particularly close to Elizabeth, but he certainly was to her sister in law Maria Riddell (1772-1808). She was young and beautiful and an author in her own right. She also shunned Burns after this event, something that embittered him greatly.
Burns and Robert Riddell never reconciled, with the Captain dying the next year. Burns wrote a sonnet in his honour.
Maria Riddell did bring herself to write the first obituary of Burns after his death in 1796. Versions of it were printed in the first and second printings of Dr. Robert Currie's biography of Burns.
This story has a connection with our home province. Friar's Carse came into the Riddell family in the 17th century through William Riddell. He was a son of Sir John Riddell, an original baronet of Nova Scotia.
This letter was read by our club President, John Lewandowski at our January 2013 meeting.