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The Hon. Andrew Erskine, Soldier and Poet


The Hon. Andrew Erskine was a younger brother of the "musical Earl of Kellie." He held a lieutenant's commission in the 71st regiment of foot, which corps being reduced in 1763, he exchanged from half-pay in the 24th, then stationed at Gibraltar.

Erskine had little genius or inclination for a military life; his habits and tastes were decidedly of a literary character. He was one of the contributors to Donaldson's "Collection of Original Poems by Scottish Gentlemen." He is chiefly known, however, for his correspondence with Boswell (the biographer of Johnson), printed at Edinburgh in 1763. These letters, the legitimate off-spring of "hours of idleness," consist of a mixture of prose and verse; and are remarkable for the spirit of extravagance which pervades them. Those of Boswell are characteristic of the writer, and his pen might be traced in every line; but it would be difficult to discover in the letters of Erskine any marks of the dull, reserved disposition which was natural to him. His manner was unobtrusive and bashful in the extreme. He indeed occasionally alludes to this; and, in one of his poetical epistles to Boswell, says—

"Yon kindly took me up an awkward cub,
And introduced me to the soaping club."

Some idea of Erskine's appearance may be gathered from his friend's reply:

"Now, my lieutenant with the dusky face;
For though you're clothed in scarlet and in lace,
The gorgeous glare of which to art you owe,
Yet nature gave you not my snowy brow."

As a specimen of the lieutenant's style and humour, we may quote the following from one of his letters, dated from New Tarbat, where he appears to have resided principally during the epistolary intercourse, and where Boswell paid him a visit—the friends having previously met at Glasgow by appointment:—

"I have often wondered, Boswell, that a man of your taste in music cannot play upon the Jew's harp; there are some of us here that can touch it very melodiously, I can tell you. Corelli's solo of Maggie Lauder, and Pergolesi's sonata of the Carle he cam'' o'er the craft, are excellently adapted to that instrument. Let me advise you to learn it. The first cost is but three-halfpence, and they last a long time. I have composed the following ode upon it, which exceeds Pindar as much as the Jew's harp does the organ." [We quote the last verse.]

"Roused by the magic of the charming wire,
The yawning dogs forego their heavy slumbers;
The ladies listen on the narrow stair,
And Captain Andrew straight forgets his numbers.
Cats and mice give o'er their battling,
Pewter plates on shelves are rattling;
But falling down, the noise my lady hears,
Whose scolding drowns the trump more tuneful than the spheres."

"Captain Andrew," however, could "touch it very melodiously" on other instruments than the Jew's harp. He was an excellent musician —little inferior to the "musical Earl" himself—and composed several much admired airs. To Thomson's Collection of Scottish Songs he contributed, among others, the delightful air and words of

"See the moon on the still lake is sleeping," etc.

The Captain was an admirer of the drama, and wrote one or two pieces for the Edinburgh stage. One of these, by no means deficient in spirit, published in 1764 (6d.), bears the title of "She's not Him, and He's not Her—a farce, in two acts, as it is performed in the Theatre in Canougate."

Although a poet, Erskine does not appear to have been influenced by any romantic adoration of the fair sex. On the subject of matrimony, his notions were very different from those of Boswell; and he remained all his life a bachelor. In one of his letters to Boswell, he says—"When you and I walked twice round the Meadows upon the subject of matrimony, I little thought that my difference of opinion from you would have brought on your marriage so soon." On the death of Vice-Admiral Lord Colville, in 1790, he resided chiefly thereafter with his sister Lady Colville, at Drumsheugh, near the Dean Bridge, Water-of-Leith. His dress continued of the same fashion for nearly half a century; and he wore the garters and flapped waistcoat to the last. The only change he latterly adopted was a curiously formed flat round hat. He was a tall, stout man, and particularly fond of walking. Every morning, and in all weathers, he walked to the Hall's Inn, at Queensferry, where breakfast was waiting him at his stated hour. He rang no bell—gave no orders—and seldom saw a waiter. After breakfast, he turned up a plate, put his money in payment upon it, and then walked back in the same solitary manner to Drumsheugh.

Like many gentlemen of his day, Erskine indulged occasionally at cards, and he was particularly partial to the game of whist. He was, notwithstanding, no great player, and generally came off the loser. It is supposed that an unlucky run at his favourite game was the cause of his melancholy end. He was discovered drowned in the Forth (October 1793), opposite Caroline Park.

Besides the works previously enumerated, Mr. Erskine was the author of "Town Eclogues:" 1. The Hangman—2. The Harlequins —3. The Street Walkers—4. The Undertakers; London, no date, with a curious plan of Edinburgh prefixed. The object was to expose the false taste for florid description which then and still prevails in poetry. These satirical effusions possess great merit. The late Archibald Constable at one time projected a complete collection of Erskine's works, and actually advertised it; but his other numerous speculations came in the way, and the project fell to the ground. This is much to be regretted, as the book, if well edited, could not have failed to have been attractive.


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