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The Scottish Nation

LAIDLAW, WILLIAM, author of the beautiful ballad of ‘Lucy’s Flitting,’ and the trusted friend of Sir Walter Scott, was the son of a sheep-farmer at black House, on the Douglas Burn, Selkirkshire, in the “Braes of Yarrow,” where he was born in Nov. 1780. Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, was for some years a servant of his father. “In my eighteenth year,” he says, “I hired myself to Mr. Laidlaw of black House, with whom I served as a shepherd eighteen years. The kindness of this gentleman to me it would be the utmost ingratitude in me ever to forget; for, indeed, it was more like that of a father than a master.” It was at black House that Hogg first became a poet, and there he formed a lasting friendship with William Laidlaw. He “Was,” he says, “the only person who for many years ever pretended to discover the least merit in my essays, either in verse or prose.” In 1810 Laidlaw’s ‘Lucy’s Flitting,’ known to all who take an interest in Scottish song, was first printed in the ‘forest Minstrel’ of Hogg. He is also the author of the sweet and simple Scottish songs of ‘Her bonnie black e’e,’ and ‘Alake for the lassie,’ On setting out in life, Mr. Laidlaw took a farm at Traquair, and afterwards another at Liberton, near Edinburgh. But in the latter he was not successful, and early in 1817 he was under the necessity of giving up the lease of his farm. He was on the look out for one at a less rent, when he was invited to Abbotsford, in the capacity of steward, by Mr. afterwards Sir Walter Scott, then sheriff of Selkirkshire, who had become acquainted with him in 1800. In Lockhart’s Life of Scott, his name is frequently mentioned in terms of confidence, affection, and respect by the great novelist. Laidlaw’s zeal about border ballads, at the time that Scott was collecting for the ‘Ministrelsy of the Scottish Border,’ was at that period “repaid,” says Lockhart, “by Scott’s anxious endeavours to get him removed from a sphere for which, he wrote to him, ‘it is no flattery to say that you are much too good.’ It was then, and always continued to be, his opinion, that his friend was particularly qualified for entering with advantage on the study of the medical profession; but such designs, if Laidlaw himself ever took them up seriously, were not ultimately persevered in.” Laidlaw at once accepted the offer to remove to Abbotsford. He had, says Lockhart, “loved and revered Scott, and considered the proposal with far greater delight than the most lucrative appointment on any noble domain could have afforded him. though possessed of a lively and searching sagacity as to things in general, he had always been as to his own worldly interests simple as a child. He surveyed with glistening eyes the humble cottage in which his friend proposed to lodge him, his wife, and his little ones, and said to himself that he should write no more sad songs on ‘forest Flittings.’” This ‘humble cottage’ was named Skaeside, and in the letter, dated April 5, 1817, which Scott wrote to him, on his offer being accepted, he says, “Without affectation I consider myself the obliged party in this matter, or, at any rate, it is a mutual benefit, and you shall have grass for a cow, and so forth, whatever you want. I am sure when you are so near I shall find some literary labour for you that will make ends meet.” Scott found full employment for him. Under his directions, Laidlaw wrote and compiled the Chronicle department and Reviews for the Edinburgh annual Register. He also contributed some articles on Scottish superstitions to the Edinburgh Monthly Magazine, afterwards Blackwood’s Magazine. In 1819, when Sir Walter was suffering from illness, he and John Ballantyne acted as his amanuenses, and to them he dictated the greater portion of the Bride of Lammermoor, the whole of the Legend of Montrose, and almost the whole of Ivanhoe. It is thought that Scott’s novel of St. Ronan’s Well originated in a suggestion of Laidlaw, during a ride that he had with Sir Walter and Mr. Lockhart in the neighbourhood of Melrose, in the summer of 1823.

      On the involvement of Scott’s affairs, Laidlaw was removed from Skaeside for a time, and at Scott’s death, his superintendence ceased over the estate of Abbotsford. He afterwards became factor on the estate of Sir Charles Lockhart Ross of Balnagowan, Ross-shire, baronet; but his health failing, he went to live with his brother, James, a sheep-farmer at Contin, in the same county, where he died 18th May 1845, in his 65th year. James Laidlaw survived till 4th March 1850. At his death he was in his 61st year.

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