Oswald of Auchencruive, Mrs Mary (d. 1788)
Daughter of a wealthy estate owner in Jamaica, Alexander Ramsay, she married Richard Oswald, youngest son of the Reverend George Oswald of Dunnet. Richard Oswald amassed considerable wealth in London as a merchant and contractor during the Seven Years War. Through his wife, he acquired estates in America and the West Indies. In 1764, he bought Auchencruive, St Quivox, the former seat of the Cathcarts, from Lord Cathcart, completed the unfinished mansion, and continued Cathcart's agricultural development. On her husband's death, Mrs Oswald settled in London. It was her funeral cortege which stopped at Sanquhar on its way to St Quivox, where her husband was buried, that so angered Burns. In a letter to Dr Moore from Ellisland, 23rd March 1789, Burns described the incident:
'In January last, on my road to Ayrshire, I had put up at Bailie Whigham's in Sanquhar, the only tolerable inn in the place. The frost was keen, and the grim evening and howling wind were ushering in a night of snow and drift. My horse and I were both much fatigued with the labors of the day, and just as my friend the Bailie and I, were bidding defiance to the storm over a smoking bowl, in wheels the funeral pageantry of the late great Mrs Oswald, and poor I am forced to brave all the horrors of the tempestuous night, and jade my horse, my young favorite horse, whom I had just christened Pegasus, twelve miles farther on, through the wildest moors and hills of Ayrshire, to New Cumnock, the next Inn. The powers of Poesy and Prose sink under me, when I would describe what I felt. Suffice it to say, that when a good fire at New Cumnock had so far recovered my frozen sinews, I sat down and wrote the enclosed Ode.' This was the bitter poem beginning, 'Dweller in yon dungeon dark'.
Earlier, in the same letter to Dr Moore, Burns said of Mrs Oswald: 'I spent my early years in her neighbourhood, and among her servants and tenants I know that she was detested with the most heartfelt cordiality.'
Writing to Peter Stuart, owner of the London Star, April 1789, he described her as 'That venerable votary of iron avarice and sordid pride, the late Mrs Oswald of Auchencruive, N-, Ayrshire'.
Under the pseudonym of Tim Nettle, Burns wrote a letter to the Star prefacing the 'Ode'.
'Mr Printer - I know not who is the author of the following poem, but I think it contains some equally well-told and just compliments to the memory of a Matron who, a few months ago, much against her private inclinations, left this good world and twice five good thousands per annum behind her.
'We are told, by very respectable authority, that 'the righteous die, and none regardeth'; but as this was by no means the case in point with the departed beldam, for whose memory I have the honour to interest myself, it is not easy guessing why prose and verse have both said so little on the death of the owner of ten thousands a year.
I dislike partial respect of persons and am hurt to see the public make such a fuss when a poor pennyless gipsey is consigned over to Jack Ketch and yet scarce take any notice when a purse-proud Priestess of Mammon is, by the inexorable hand of death, pinioned in everlasting fetters of illgotten gold. and delivered up to that arch-brother among the finishers of the law, emphatically called, by our Bard ,the Hangman of Creation.'
The bitterest part of the ode is the strophe:
"View the wither'd beldam's face
Can thy keen inspection trace
Aught of Humanity's sweet, melting grace?
Note that eye, 'tis rheum o'erflows-
Pity's flood there never rose.
See those hands, ne'er stretched to save,
Hands that took - but never gave.
Keeper of Mammon's iron chest,
Lo, there she goes, unpitied and unblest
She goes, but not to realms of everlasting rest!"
Wrote Mrs Dunlop on receiving this effusion: 'Are you not a sad wicked creature to send a poor old wife straight to the Devil, because she gave you a ride in a cold night?'