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Reminiscences of the Royal Burgh of Haddington
Richard Gall, An East Lothian Poet


EAST LOTHIAN is not so barren of poets as some people would think. When their names are gathered together, they will be found to form a goodly list, which may compare favourably with other similar localities, both in number and quality.

Miller, in his History of Haddington published in 1844, narrates as follows:—“Song-writing was generally popular in East Lothian during the eighteenth century, when the poet’s mantle seems to have fallen upon our farmers, who were highly versant in literature sixty years ago, and excellent scholars. In addition to the satirical productions of Mr Skirving’s muse (of whose ballad of the Battle of Prestonpans, Sir Walter Scott says, *It has preserved for its author a memorial for his name, outlasting the period of his own day and generation.", Mr William Dudgeon, whose father was tenant at Tynninghame, wrote ‘The Maid that tends the Goats' which was sung in the Theatre Royal, Edinburgh, and was set to music. About the same time, Mr James Mylne of Lochhill produced two tragedies, with a farce, and other poems. And Richard Gall, the poet of Haddington, while his uncle was employed on the improvements at Gosford, gave us ‘My only Joe and Dearie' and ‘Captain O’Kain' At an earlier date, our nobility had set the example—John, second Marquis of Tweeddale, had written, ‘When Maggie and I were acquaint' and Charles, Lord Binning, ‘Did ever swain a nymph adore, as I ungrateful Nannie do?’ Mrs Cockburn of Ormiston produced the ‘Flowers of the Forest' At a more remote period, William Dunbar, a Franciscan monk, entertained our ancestors with ‘Mrs Musgrave’s smiles;’ and Sir Richard Maitland of Lethington favoured them with the ‘Gude wyfis of the Bur-rouston'. The author of *Johnnie Cope" is not known; but from the local allusion of *gang to the coals in the morning" it smells of the atmosphere of Tranent In addition to Miller’s list can be added the names of John Home, author of " Douglas;” Robert Blair, also of Athelstaneford, author of “The Grave;” John Logan, born at Soutra farmhouse, minister of South Leith; Miller himself, author of “St Baldred of the Bass,” and other poems; Colonel Vetch of Caponflat, author of “The Songs of the Exile,” &c. The poetic pieces which frequently appear in the columns of the Haddington newspapers by numerous authors, many of them of considerable talent, show that the poetic fire of East Lothian is not yet extinct.

Our present purpose is to notice the poems and songs of Richard Gall, the Haddington poet. He was a contemporary of Burns, MacNeil, Mylne of Lochhill, Campbell, and honourably associated with them, and Robert Fergusson,. who died in 1774, in restoring and developing the genius, taste, dignity, and capabilities of the ancient dialect of Caledonia. His poems and songs are now little known, and almost forgotten; but their merits well deserve to be resuscitated, and become better known to Scotchmen, and more especially to the reading public of East Lothian. It may perhaps be a good idea to suggest to the Council of the Edinburgh East Lothian Association, now an established institution, to reprint Gall’s volume, also Mylne’s Tragedies, and other now scarce books connected with the county. Such would be interesting to natives of East Lothian, both at home and in foreign lands. A volume of Gall’s poems and songs, with a memoir of his life, understood to have been written by Mr M'Diarmid of Dumfries, was published by Oliver & Boyd of Edinburgh, in 1819. The poems number nineteen, and the songs twenty-four. Stark of Edinburgh, in his Biographia Scotica, published in 1805, also takes notice in complimentary terms of Gall’s abilities, and classes him in the list of eminent Scotch poets.

Richard Gall was born in December 1776, at Link-house, near Dunbar, where his father exercised the profession of a notary. When five years old, he was sent to the Grammar School of Haddington, where he received the ordinary branches of education, and distinguished himself by his aptitude in learning. (We quote to some extent from M'Diarmid’s memoir.) When old enough, he was apprenticed as a carpenter to his uncle, who was engaged in erecting Gosford House, the magnificent mansion of the Earl of Wemyss. The carpenter trade did not suit him, and he soon left it for a more genial one; and he became apprentice as a printer to Mr David Ramsay, the late proprietor of the Edinburgh Evening Courant. In this situation he had better opportunities of indulging his inclination for literature. As the powers of his mind expanded, his passion for literature became more ardent, and he began to be fired by an ambition for literary fame.

Acting as a travelling clerk for Mr Ramsay—and an ardent admirer of the beauties of nature—through some of the finest scenery of “his own loved native land,” his bosom beat high with the anticipation of poetic fame, and his business was to animate, with the creation of his own fancy, some favourite spot by mountain, glade, or glen, or to treasure up stores of rural imagery, to be drawn forth in his hours of calmer inspiration. It was now that he composed some of his happiest poems. While Gall was rapidly advancing to eminence, he was attacked by an abscess in his breast, and died 10th May 1801, in the twenty-fifth year of his age. He was buried with military honours in the Calton burying-ground, Edinburgh, having been attached to the Highland Regiment of Volunteers. In the premature death of Richard Gall, we naturally recollect, with melancholy interest, the similar lot of his countrymen and fellow-poets—Robert Fergusson, Michael Bruce, Robert Bums; and James Mylne.

His poem of “Arthur’s Seat,” in three cantos, contains many beautiful passages, descriptive of scenery, spirit of independence, &c. Two extracts will suffice to show the pith and fire of his poetry :—

O for a spark o’ genial fire,
Sic as could ance a Burns inspire!
O for a Shakespeare’s pencil rare,
To trace ilk glowing prospect fair!
Then might we sey, in sweetest key,
To sing frae Arthur’s Seat sae hie,
To sing the list o’ beauties thrang,
That ne’er hae swelled the poet’s sang ;
To sing ilk bonny bushy bower,
Adorned wi’ mony a wild-lorn flower—
Ilk bumie singing through the vale,
Whare blooming hawthorns scent the gale,
An’ ilka sweet that Nature yields
In meadow wild or cultured fields—
Thae cultured fields, whare, towering strang,
The sturdy aik his shadows flang;
Whare lanely Druids wont to rove—
The mystic tenants o’ the grove—
In cultured fields : whare, on a day
Whan gallant Jamie bare the sway,
The forest flowers fair to see,
Wi’ mony a gem to bless the e’e,
Ere ruin’s blast was heard to blaw,
That wed their bonny blooms awa'

* * * * *

Craigmillar’s fa’n; an’ wha can see
Auld Holyrude wi’ tearless e’e?
Its polished towers, neglected sair,
The haunt o’ regal pomp nae mair;
Its ancient splendour fled awa’,
That bleezed sae bright in ilka ha’
Whare Scotia’s kings were wont to reign,
Which Stuarts ance could ca’ their ain.
(Ah, luckless race ! on them nae day
E’er blinkit wi’ propitious ray;
Their hindmost stoop now forced to crave
In ither lands a wretched grave.
Ah, luckless race ! for ever fa’n
An’ banished from their native lan’,
Tho’ aft they struggled gallantlie
The sceptred great again to be;
Though late they saw on Preston field
Their marshalled foes inglorious yield,
Save sic as Gard’ner, gallant, brave,
Wha scorned to flee the warrior’s grave,
But nobly fought upon the lea,
An’ fell near yonder hawthorn tree.
Ah me! ance joy an’ courtly grace
Near by the thistle had a place,
An’ a’ our lords at hame wad dine
An’ drink wi’ glee the blude-red wine.
Whan Hardyknute, wi’ horn sae shrill,
Shook a* the trees o’ Greenwood Hill,
An’ gart the witless Norse repent
His “brag o’ weir” upon the bent
Alas! sic objects to behold
Bring back the glorious days of old,
Whare Scotia’s daring gallant train,
That ever spurned a tyrant’s chain,
For dearest independence bled,
An* nobly filled their gory bed.
Sae o’er yon mountains, stretching lang,
Their shields the sons o’ freedom rang,
Whan Rome’s ambition wild burst forth,
An’ roused the warrior o’ the North ;
Whan Caigach urged his dauntless train,
An’ freedom rushed through ilka vein,
As close they met the haughty foe,
An’ laid fu’ mony a tyrant low,
As fierce they fought like freemen a'.
O glorious fought—yet fought to fa’!
They fell—an’ thou, sweet Liberty,
Frae Grampia’s blood-stained heights didst flee,
An’ fixed thy seat remote, serene,
’Mang Caledonia’s mountains green.
Fair maid, O may thy saftest smile
For ever cheer my native isle.

“The Tint Quey, or Thrawart Maggy,” in the style of Allan Ramsay, is a humorous piece of pure Doric Scotch, wherein Meg is clearly shown to “wear the breeks” over her gudeman Sandie. It is worth reading by both old and young. Among his other poems may be mentioned, “Epistle to Robert Burns," “On the Death of Robert Bums,” “The Waits,” “Helenorie“ "Pudding Lizzie,” &c. Many of Gall’s songs were set to music, and obtained a very flattering share of popularity. Their title to that distinction will be admitted by all who have any taste for melody of verse, elegant simplicity, and natural sentiment. The following may be mentioned “The Bard,” “The Braes of Drumlee,” “Captain O’Kain,” “My only Jo and Dearie,” “Farewell to Ayrshire,” “Song in celebration of Admiral Duncan’s Victory over the Dutch Fleet at Camperdown.” Many of his songs, his biographer says, might have been owned by the Ayrshire poet. Connected as Gall was with Haddington, we must give his address to the old burgh before ending this notice. It may be interesting to those of our readers who have not seen it. It gives a good specimen of Gall’s powers—

Ye gowany braes, ye meadows green,
Ye dear retreats o’ simmer sheen,
Ye heights whare busy labour’s seen,
An’ rural glee,
Mark ye the stranger’s thoughtful mien
An' ruefu’ e’e.

Alas, there was a time I trow,
Ye. scenes, when he was kent to you;
Whan his young heart ilk pleasure knew
O' life’s gay mom,
Pure as the blobs o’ siller dew
Upo’ the thorn.

Departed days!—youth’s joyfu' reign!—
O will ye never come again?
Ah ! fled is ilka happy scene
Youth ran to meet;
Except whan fancy warms the strain—
Delusion sweet?

Yet let me pensive musing stray
By sunny bank an’ flowery brae,
While former joys, now fled away,
My bosom warm,
An’ dear remembered scenes display
Ilk wonted charm.

How bonny spreads the haugh sae green
Near yonder holy ruin seen!
The Briery Bauk—how sweet at e’en
Wi* music’s sound,
Whare weel the wandering e’en may glean
Ilk landscape round.

An’ peeping frae yon broomy heights,
The Yellow Craigs break on the sight,
Whare aft the youngsters tak’ their flight
Wi’ hearts fu’ gay,
Ah me ! the lintie’s joy to blight
For mony a day.

There ithers round the greenwood ply,
An’ fearless, midst their thoughtless joy,
The Kayheughs climb—wild, rugged, high,
Wi’ hoary side;
While rooks an’ cushats dinsome cry
Baith far an’ wide.

But let me breathe my heart’s warm flame
Aneath yon auld tree’s aged frame,
Whare friendship past may justly claim
A silent tear,
To trace ilk rudely-sculptured name
O’ comrades dear.

How scattered now—ah, woe is me!
They steer their course on life’s dark sea;
Some scud awa’ wi’ lightsome glee
An’ easy sail;
Some aft the rudest shock maun dree
O’ ruin’s gale.

O life! in thy wee fond career
What shifting lights an’ shades appear!
Now hope’s bright beam will twinkle clear
An’ promise fair;
Now lours the gloom, sae dark an’ drear,
O’ deep despair.

An* such, ye scenes to nature true,
The chequered features seen in you—
Here shadows dark ilk glen, an' howe,
An’ laigh-land fill;
There sunny beams wi' light bestrew
Field, wood, an’ hill.

Sweet Tyne! while thus thy streamlet plays
An' sparkles bright in siller rays,
How bonny are thy banks an’ braes
Through simmer’s prime,
They claim the musing minstrel’s lays,
An’ thoughts sublime.

Yes, down thy banks ance on a day,
Aft Salton’s sons wad musing stray,
Whan freedom fanned the kindling ray
O’ patriot fire,
An’ eke the muses wont to play
Their gleesome lyre.

For there, the dewy leas amang,
The bard wad breathe his heaven-taught sang,
An’ here, frae midst the rural thrang
A Douglas rose,
Whan “woods and wilds” green waving rang
Wi’ Randolph’s woes.

Wake, Nature’s lyre, sweet, wild, and chaste!
O wake the strain that lulls to rest!
Thy notes may charm my throbbing breast,
By anguish torn;
While I, the joys and pleasures past,
Can only mourn.

Gall’s biographer, at the close of his memoir, has the following paragraph:—“Upon the whole, it is hoped that this little volume will be regarded as no mean accession to the poetry of our country, and will be received with peculiar pleasure by the friends of the author, as a relic of one whom they deservedly loved, and whose premature decease they sincerely deplored.”


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