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Significant Scots
William Cleland


CLELAND, WILLIAM, the troubadour, as he may be called, of the covenanters, was born about the year 1671, having been just twenty-eight years of age at his death, in 1689. When only eighteen, he held command as captain in the covenanting army at Drumclog and Bothwell Bridge. It would thus appear likely, that he was born in a respectable grade of society. He seems to have stepped directly from the university into the field of arms; for it is known that he was at college just before completing his eighteenth year; at which age he enjoyed the rank above-mentioned in the whig army. Although Cleland probably left the country after the affair at Bothwell, he is found spending the summer of 1685, in hiding, among the wilds of Clydesdale and Ayrshire, having, perhaps, returned in the unfortunate expedition of the earl of Argyle. Whether he again retired to the continent is not known; but, after the revolution, he reappears on the stage of public life, in the character of lieutenant-colonel of the earl of Angus’ regiment, called the Cameronian regiment, in consequence of its having been raised out of that body of men, for the purpose of protecting the convention parliament. That Cleland had now seen a little of the world, appears from a poem entitled, some Lines made by him upon the observation of the vanity of worldly honours, after be had been at several princes’ courts. [We also observe, in Watt’s Bibliotheca Britannica, that he published "Disputatio Juridica de Probationibus," at Utrecht, in 1684; which would imply that he studied civil law at that celebrated seminary.]

It is a strong mark of the early popularity of Hudibras, that, embodying though it did the sarcasms of a cavalier against the friends of civil and religious liberty, it nevertheless travelled into Scotland, and inspired with the principle of imitation a poet of the entirely opposite party. Cleland, who, before he left college, had written some highly fanciful verses, of which we have preserved a copy below, [These form part of a poem entitled, "Hollo, my Fancy," which was printed in Watson’s Collection of Scottish Poems, at the beginning of the last century: -

In conceit like Plaeton,
I’ll mount Phoebus chair,
Having ne’er a hat on,
All my hair a’burning,
In my journeying,
Hurrying through the air.
Fain would I hear this fiery horses neighing!
And see how they on foamy bits are playing!
All th stars and planets I will be surveying
Hollo, my fancy, whither wilt thou go?
O, from what ground of nature
Doth the pelican,
That self0devouring creature,
Prove so forward
And untoward
Her vitals for to strain!
And why the subtle fox, while in death’s wounds lying,
Doth not lament his wounds by howling and by crying!
And why the milk-white swan doth sing when she’s a0dying!
Hollo, my fancy, whither wilt thou go?
&c. &c. &c.]

composed a poem in the Hudibrastic style, upon the celebrated expedition of the Highland host, which took place in 1678. His object was to satirise both the men who composed this expedition and those who directed it to take place. It chiefly consists in a ludicrous account of the outlandish appearance, senseless manners, and oppressive conduct of the northern army. So far as satire could repay the rank cruelty of that mode of constraining men’s consciences, it was repaid—for the poem is full of poignant sarcasm, expressed in language far above the poetical diction, of that day, at least in Scotland. It was not published, however, till 1697, nearly twenty years after the incident which called it forth, when at length it appeared in a small volume, along with several other poems by the same author. We present the reader with the following specimen of the composition, being a description of the Highlanders:—

Some might have judged they were the creatures
Call’d selfies, whose customes and features
Paracelsus doth descry,
In his occult philosophy,
Or faunes, or brownies, if ye will,
Or satyres, come from Atlas hill;
Or that the three-tongu’d tyke was sleeping,
Who hath the Stygian door a keeping:
Their head, their neck, their leggs, and thighs
Are influenced by the skies;
Without a clout to interrupt them,
They need not strip them when they whip them;
Nor loose their doublet when they’re hanged

* * *

But those who were their chief commanders,
As such who bore the pirnie standarts;
Who led the van and drove the rear,
Were right well mounted of their gear;
With brogues, and trues, and pirnie plaides,
And good blue bonnets on their heads,
Which on the one side had a flipe,
Adorn’d with a tobacco-pipe.
With dirk, and snap-work, and snuff-mill,
A bagg which they with onions fill,
And, as their strict observers say,
A tame horn fill’d with usquebay.
A slasht-out coat beneath her plaides,
A targe of timber, nails, and hides;
With a long two handed sword,
As good’s the country can afford—
Had they not need of bulk and bones,
Who fight with all these arms at once?
It’s marvellous how in such weather
O’er hill and moss they came together;
How in such stormes they came so far;
The reason is, they’re smeared with tar
Which doth defend them heel and neck,
Just as it doth their sheep protect—

* * *

Nought like religion they retain,
Of moral honestie they’re clean.
In nothing they’re accounted sharp,
Except in bagpipe and in harp.
For a misobliging word,
She’ll durk her neighbour o’er the boord,
And then she’ll flee like fire from flint,
She’ll scarcely ward the second dint:
If any ask her of her thrift,
Foresooth, her nainsell lives by theft."

Colonel Cleland was not destined long to enjoy his command in the Cameronian regiment, or the better times which the revolution had at length introduced. In August, 1689, the month after the battle of Killiecrankie, he was sent with his men to take post at Dunkeld, in order to prepare the way for a second invasion of the Highlands. The remains of that army which Dundee had led to victory, but without gaining its fruits, gathered suddenly into the neighbourhood, and, on the 21st of August, made a most determined attack upon the town. Cleland, though he had only eight hundred men to oppose to four thousand, resolved to fight it out to the last, telling his men, that, if they chose to desert him, he would stand out by himself, for the honour of the regiment, and the good cause in which he was engaged. The soldiers were animated so much by his eloquence and example, that they withstood the immense odds brought against them, and finally caused the Highlanders to retire discomfited, leaving about three hundred men behind them. Perhaps there was not a single skirmish or battle during the whole of the war of liberty, from 1639, to 1689, which conferred more honour on either party than this affair of Dunkeld. Cleland, to whom so much of the glory was due, unfortunately fell in the action, at the early age of twenty-eight. He was employed in encouraging his soldiers in front of Dunkeld house, when two bullets pierced his head, and one his liver, simultaneously. He turned about, and endeavoured to get back into the house, in order that his death might not discourage his men; but he fell before reaching the threshold.

It is stated by the editor of the Border Minstrelsy, but we know not with what authority, that this brave officer was the father of a second colonel Cleland, who flourished in the beau monde at London, in the reign of queen Anne, and George I., and who, besides enjoying the honour of having his character embalmed in the Spectator under the delightful fiction of Will. Honeycomb, was the author of a letter to Pope, prefixed to the Dunciad. The son of this latter gentleman was also a literary character, but one of no good fame. John Cleland, to whom we are alluding, was born in 1709, and received a good education at Westminster school, where he was the contemporary of Lord Mansfield. He went on some mercantile pursuit to Smyrna, where he perhaps imbibed those loose principles which afterwards tarnished his literary reputation. After his return from the Mediterranean, he went to the East Indies, but, quarrelling with some of the members of the Presidency of Bombay, he made a precipitate retreat from the east, with little or no advantage to his fortune. After living for some time in London, in a state little short of destitution, he was tempted by a bookseller, for the sum of twenty guineas, to write a novel of a singularly indecent character, which was published in 1749, in two volumes, and had so successful a run that the profits are said to have exceeded 10,000. It is related, that having been called before the privy council for this offence, he pleaded his destitute circumstances as his only excuse, which induced the president, Lord Granville, to buy the pen of the unfortunate author over to the side of virtue, by granting him a pension of 100 a year. He lived many years upon this income, which he aided by writing occasional pieces in the newspapers, and also by the publication of various works; but in none of these was he very successful. He published a novel called the Man of Honour, as an amende honorable for his flagitious work, and also a work entitled the Memoirs of a Coxcomb. His political essays, which appeared in the public prints under the signatures, Modestus, a Briton, &c. are said to have been somewhat heavy and dull. He wrote some philological tracts, chiefly relating to the Celtic language. But it was in songs and novels that he chiefly shone; and yet not one of these compositions has continued popular to the present day. In the latter part of his life, he lived in a retired manner in Petty France, Westminster, where he had a good library; in which hung a portrait of his father, indicating all the manners and d’ abord of the fashionable town-rake at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Though obliged to live frugally, in order that he might not exceed his narrow income, Mr Cleland occasionally received visits from his friends, to whom his conversation, enriched by many observations of foreign travel, and all time literary anecdote of the past century, strongly recommended him. He spoke with fluency the languages of Italy and France, through which countries, as well as Spain and Portugal, he had travelled on his return from the East Indies. He died in his house in Little France, January 23, 1789, at time age of eighty.


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