David Sillar

a friend of Robert Burns, and the first vice-president of Irvine Burns Club
Find the outline of his life on the Founders page (with links to biographical articles)
Read here about the his descendants and about his friend Charles Gray

David Sillar's spectacles

The spectacles of David Sillar, the founding Vice-President of the Club, on display at 'Wellwood'

The Sillar family

Only one child of David Sillar (1760-1830) survived to adulthood - Zachariah Sillar graduated Doctor of Medicine at the University of Edinburgh in 1816, served as President of Irvine Burns Club in 1830 (when his father was too ill to attend the Annual Dinner), married Mary Cameron (hence the 'C' in some of the family names) and practised as a doctor in Liverpool. His family included David, William, Thomas and Robert. Zachariah was a man of many interests - as the owner and occupier of a 150-acre farm at Rainford, he won, in 1842, the Liverpool Agricultural Society medal for laying 19,602 yards of drain to effectually drain 34 acres.

Zachariah and Mary's family:
David Sillar 
(1820-1879) may be the ancestor of the late Rev. David Sillar, of Yorkshire, from whom Irvine Burns Club purchased two letters written by Burns to David Sillar - described on another page.
William C Sillar (1822-1910) was the grandson to whom David Sillar gave the Loving Cup as a hansel gift in 1822 - the cup and David Sillar's spectacles were presented to Irvine Burns Club in 1964 by David Sillar's great-great-grandson Frederick C Sillar (of Castle Douglas), who accepted honorary membership of the Club in 1967. This line of the family all published something: William wrote a book on Usury, his son, also William, a technical book 'Materia Medica', the latter's wife, Eleanor, 'Edinburgh's Child: Some Memories of Ninety Years', and Frederick himself 'The Symbolic Pig' and 'Cats Ancient and Modern'. William, wanting a substitute for imported guano, devised and patented, with others, in 1868, the "A. B. C." process of producing manure from human waste ('night soil'), and called his company the Native Guano Company. It promised to “relieve towns of injurious refuse” and “restore polluted streams to their primitive purity”. Shares started at £5 each and soared to £48 within two years; but he failed to get the contract to treat London’s sewage, causing his company to crash, with its shares worth only pennies.
Thomas F Sillar (1825-1906)'s descendants include David Sillar's great-great-great-great-great-granddaughter Marina in Canada.
Robert Sillar (1827-1902) in 1860 named a son Hubert Gray (Sillar) but it is not known whether the middle name is in honour of Capt Charles Gray (see next panel below), who had died in 1851 - though the family do regard the name Gray as lucky and Hubert's grandson and great-grandson were also given that middle name. In this line of descent from Zachariah, David Sillar's great-great-great-great-grandson Norman has visited Wellwood from Australia. 
(Irvine Burns Club will not give contact details of descendants without their permission.)

Captain Charles Gray, R.M. (1782-1851, Club President in 1834 and in 1846)

How did David Sillar, in the West of Scotland, come to know Charles Gray, from Anstruther in Fife? Research* suggests that Charles Gray may have attended David Sillar's School of Navigation in Irvine, possibly around 1800, when David would have been 40 and Charles would have been 18. Their friendship was based on a love for poetry; they both admired the works of Burns, and both enjoyed good company and laughter.
Their friendship is clearest from two things:
i) In 1808, as Charles Gray, then a 26-y-o lieutenant, was being tossed around in the Adriatic near Venice during the British containment of Napoleon, he wrote an eight-page 'Epistle to Mr David Sillar, Irvine', published in his volume of 'Poems and Songs' three years later, in 1814.
ii) Following the formation of Irvine Burns Club in 1826, Capt. Gray attended the Annual Dinner as often as circumstances allowed him, happily linking Irvine Burns Club to the literary circles of Edinburgh - he contributed much good entertainment and warm friendship to Irvine celebrations on at least nine occasions spanning the years 1829 to 1848. Between 1829 and 1846, no fewer than 21 of Capt. Gray's literary friends were included in honorary membership of Irvine Burns Club. 

Captain Gray had joined the Royal Marines at the age of 23, and retired in 1841 on full pay after 36 years service. He published two volumes of his poems and songs, the first in 1811, reprinted in 1814, and the second, with frontispiece signatures by many literary figures of the time, in 1841. The 1829 minutes of the Club capture the spirit of the Captain: "The meeting this year was honored [sic] with the presence of Charles Gray Esq Captain in the Royal Marines, an ardent admirer of the Ayrshire Bard, and himself an author and a Poet of celebrity. – Besides chaunting with joyous glee several songs of his own Muse, Capt Gray with much animation and in true poetical style recited an address to the Club with several stanzas prepared by him for the occasion, which afforded sufficient testimony that this son of Mars is neither a young nor a lame acquaintance of the Nine [Muses].”

Arising from his early friendship with David Sillar, Capt. Charles Gray R.M. became a key figure in ensuring the success of Irvine Burns Club in its early years, linking a young and small club in an Ayrshire town to the literary scene in the capital, and possibly even ensuring its survival to become the respected Burns Centre it is today

* research by Ian J Dickson, a Past President of Irvine Burns Club, and
Ron Budd, a native of Gray's home town of Anstruther and a member of Calgary Burns Club


  • Wellwood Burns Centre & Museum
  • 28 Eglinton Street,
  • Irvine, Ayrshire, KA12 8AS

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