[1900:] Maxwelton, the estate of a family of rank, is beautifully situated on the banks of the valley of the Cairn, in Dumfriesshire; and there is the scene of the song. Sir Robert Laurie, the first Baronet of the Maxwelton family - so created in 1685 - by his second wife, Jean, a daughter of Riddell of Minto, had three sons and four daughters, of whom Annie, the youngest, was much celebrated for her beauty. She made a conquest of William Douglas of Fingland, a cadet of the Queensberry family, who is said to have composed these verses to express his passion:
Maxwelton braes are bonnie, where early fa's the dew
Where me and Annie Laurie made up the promise true
Made up the promise true, and ne'er forget will I
And for bonnie Annie Laurie I'd lay doun my head and die
She's backit like the peacock, she's breistit like the swan
She's jimp aboot the middle, her waist ye weel may span
Her waist ye weel may span, and she has a rolling eye
And for bonnie Annie Laurie I'd lay doun my head and die
Very ardent indeed. No apparent sham about that fellow's love. But the lady - even although, according to the song, she had of her own accord been a party to the making of "the promise true" - was not destined to be won by her poetical lover, but, in 1710, became the wife of Alexander Fergusson of Craigdarroch, a handsome and well-to-do country laird, who was also a neighbour.
[...] Annie, or Anna as she is styled in the register, and as she invariably signed herself, seems really to have been a bit of a flirt, and is credited with jilting more than her poetical admirer. But we anticipate. About ten years ago, when a discussion arose in the public prints in respect of the song and its personal application and locality, the following letter, written by Miss Stuart-Monteith, a great-grand-daughter of the song-sanctified lady, appeared:
"That Annie Laurie of Maxwelton," said the writer, "was the heroine of the song bearing her name can be proven beyond doubt by any one who takes the trouble to look through the old papers now at Craigdarroch and Maxwelton. The song [...] first appeared in an Edinburgh newspaper, and created a sensation. Douglas was an adherent of the exiled Stuarts, while Sir Robert Laurie, father of Annie, was a canny gentleman who believed in standing by the stronger side. Douglas first met Annie at a ball in Edinburgh, and was greatly struck by her beauty. A love affair sprang up, to check which Sir Robert Laurie carried his daughter back to Nithsdale. Thither, however, Douglas followed, and for months the lovers met clandestinely in the woods and braes around Maxwelton. Finally the rumour of an impending Stuart invasion lured Douglas back to the capital, and tradition has it that on the night before his departure he wrote the ballad of Annie Laurie.
Douglas's trip to Edinburgh proved fatal to his love affair. His Jacobite intrigues were suspected, and he was forced to fly to the Low Countries. Whether he corresponded with Annie Laurie from the Continent, or left her without news of his whereabouts, I know not. At any rate, Annie was not inconsolable for his loss. She amused herself with several love affairs, and finally married Alex. Fergusson, laird of Craigdarroch. Fergusson was not a poet, but his estates were large and his family old as the hills. With him Annie Laurie lived long and happily. Douglas obtained pardon from the Government, and returned to Scotland, but there is no tradition of his ever again meeting Annie Laurie.
She survived her husband, and became the lady bountiful of Nithsdale. Under her directions the present mansion of Craigdarroch was built, and a relic of her taste is still preserved in the formal Georgian gardens in the rear of the house. In her old age she became a notable matchmaker, probably using her own experience in selecting husbands for the young ladies of her acquaintance.
She was very fond of letter writing, but in all her correspondence which I have seen there is only one reference to William Douglas. Her cousin, Mrs. Riddell of Glendriddel, had mentioned seeing Douglas at a ball in Edinburgh. Mrs. Fergusson wrote in reply - "I trust that he has forsaken his treasonable opinions, and that he is content." Very unromantically she dismisses her old lover with that sentence, and proceeds to dwell upon the coming nuptials of one of her nieces. She died in the year 1761 at the age of 79, and was buried in the old graveyard at Craigdarroch. Portraits of her are preserved at Maxwelton and at Mansfield, the seat of Sir C. Stuart-Monteith.
In appearance she was slender and graceful, with large blue eyes and brown hair which was never powdered, in spite of the fashion of the times. Her face seems to have been rather long, and her features followed the Grecian type. Tradition has it that her feet and hands were very small, so that Douglas's beautiful simile of 'dew on the gowan lying' had some foundation in fact."
True, perhaps, my good lady; but the simile of the "dew on the gowan" did not come from Douglas at all, as a reference to his version of the song will show, but was conceived by a mind not then active: Superseded in his love, even the song of Douglas has been superseded, for it will be seen that the fore-quoted is not the copy with which the public is familiar. The modern and deservedly popular version is a brighter and more delicately cut gem; a third and new verse being added, which for beauty of imagery, liquidity, and fervour has scarcely a peer in the whole realm of song. The authorship of this popular and improved version continued a mystery until February, 1890, when Lady John Scott, a member of the family of Spottiswood of Lauderdale, and widow of the brother of the late Duke of Buccleuch, wrote to the editor of the Dumfries Standard, saying she composed the tune, and wrote the most of the modern words. The tune Lady Scott had first of all made for the old ballad of Kempye Kaye, but being at Marchmont, the seat of Sir Hugh Campbell - whose wife was her sister - she one day met with Allan Cunningham's collection of the Songs of Scotland in the library there, and was greatly taken with the words of Annie Laurie, so much so, indeed, that she adapted the music she had composed for Kempye Kaye to them instead. The second verse of the old version she did not like. She therefore altered it. The third verse she made entirely. This done, she sang the song to Sir Hugh and Lady Campbell, to see whether they liked it. They did like it. Many years afterwards Lady John Scott published the song with some others, also her own, for the benefit of the widows and orphans of the soldiers killed in the Crimea. The time she put the tune to the words, which together have since become so popular all over the world, was in 1834 or 1835. [...] Lady Scott survived until the 12th of March this year (1900), when she died, at her residence at Spottiswood, where she had so long continued a personage of equal note and esteem.
But to return to Annie Laurie. It almost shocks one to learn that late in life she was partial to snuff, even although we know that snuffing was fashionable among ladies of rank of her time, and later. The box from which her dainty fingers extracted many a titillating pinch is still to the fore. Quite recently, too, there was shown at an exhibition in Dumfries a copy of the last will and testament of the renowned lady. [...]
Calculating from the date of the heroine's birth [16th December 1682], it will be seen that the original version of Annie Laurie cannot be less than about 200 years old; and how the fragile production has survived without outside aid or effort, and in these later years has provoked so fully the unravelings of its own curious story, is nothing short of marvellous.
At the outset here I accused the gracious Annie of being a bit of a flirt. Probably the "Maxwelton braes" affair was no more than a "calf love" experience on both sides. Certainly William Douglas did not sigh his soul away over the loss of his early inamorata if it be true, as asserted, that he was the hero of Hamilton of Gilbertfield's well- known song Willie was a Wanton Wag, and made a runaway marriage with Elizabeth Clerk of Glenboig, in Galloway, by whom he had four sons and two daughters. Douglas, who had fierce and squinting eyes, is reported to have been one of the most expert swordsmen of his time. He wrote other verses, but his song of Annie Laurie is all that survived his own day. (Ford, Histories 23ff)