Syme, John (1755-1831) (DNB00)

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SYME, JOHN (1755–1831), friend of Burns, born in Edinburgh in 1755, was son of a writer to the signet who owned property in East Galloway. Educated in Edinburgh, and trained as a lawyer, he served for a short time in Ireland as an ensign in the 72nd regiment. Retiring in 1774, he settled on his father's estate of Barncailzie, Kircudbrightshire, devoting himself to gardening and agriculture. The father, however, being involved in the affairs of the disastrous Douglas and Heron bank, Ayr, had to dispose of his property, and Syme signalised in verse his involuntary departure from his rural retreat. In 1791 he was appointed distributor of stamps at Dumfries, where he was noted for business capacity and lavish hospitality. Burns's first residence in Dumfries was over Syme's office, and the two men speedily became close friends. Burns was an honoured guest on great occasions, and privately a close and sympathetic companionship existed. At Syme's house at Ryedale one afternoon, in a momentary ebullition of anger caused by an interminable lecture from Syme (on the subject, it would appear, of temperance and moderation), Burns drew his sword, which as an excise officer he wore habitually, and promptly threw it down again. This trifling scene—the ‘sword-cane incident,’ as it is called—was somewhat too seriously regarded by Scott when reviewing Cromek's ‘Reliques of Burns’ in the ‘Quarterly Review’ for 1809 (Scott, Miscellaneous Works, xvii. 242, ed. 1881; see Peterkin, Review of the Life of Burns, 1815, pp. lxv sq.).

In July 1793 Syme accompanied Burns through the stewartry of Kirkcudbright (cf. Scott Douglas, Burns, vi. 89). Syme was one of the executors appointed by Burns in his will, and he zealously defended the poet's reputation and promoted the subscription raised in the interests of his family. He also spent some time at Liverpool assisting Currie with his edition of Burns's ‘Works.’ He died at Ryedale on 24 Nov. 1831, and was buried in the parish churchyard. In certain characteristic epigrams—as in that on a tumbler at Ryedale, in a letter of 17 Dec. 1795—Burns eulogises Syme's ‘personal converse and wit’ (ib. p. 174).

[Dumfries Courier, 6 Dec. 1831; m'Dowall's Burns in Dumfriesshire; Rogers's Book of Robert Burns, ii. 257; Life and Works of Burns, 1896, iv. 217–19.]

T. B.