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Significant Scots
Allan Cunningham


CUNNINGHAM, ALLAN.—This distinguished poet entered the world under those lowly circumstances, and was educated under those disadvantages, which have so signally characterized the history of the best of our Scottish bards. He was born at Blackwood, in Dumfries-shire, 7th of December, 1784, and was the fourth son of his parents, who were persons in the humblest ranks of life. One circumstance, however, connected with his ancestry, must have gratified the Tory and feudal predilecting of Allan Cunningham; for his family had been of wealth and worship, until one of his forefathers lost the patrimonial estate, by siding with Montrose during the wars of the Commonwealth. A more useful circumstance for his future career was his father’s love of Scottish antiquarianism, which induced him to hoard up every tale, ballad, and legend connected with his native country--a love which Allan quickly acquired and successfully prosecuted. Like the children of the Scottish peasantry, he was sent to school at a very early age; but he does not seem to have been particularly fortunate in the two teachers under whom he was successively trained, for they were stern Cameronians; and it was probably under their scrupulous and over-strict discipline that he acquired that tendency to laugh at religious ascetism which so often breaks out in his writings. He was removed from this undesirable tuition at the tender age of eleven, and bound apprentice to a stone-mason; but he still could enjoy the benefit of his father’s instructions, whom he describes as possessing "a warm heart, lively fancy, benevolent humour, and pleasant happy wit." Another source of training which the young apprentice enjoyed, was the "trystes" and "rockings" so prevalent in his day—rural meetings, in which the mind of Burns himself was prepared for the high office of being the national poet of Scotland. The shadows of these delightful "ploys" still linger in Nithsdale, and some of the more remote districts of Ayrshire; and it is pleasing to recall them to memory, for the sake of those great minds they nursed, before they have passed away for ever. They were complete trials of festivity and wit, where to sing a good song, tell a good story, or devise a happy impromptu, was the great aim of the lads and lasses, assembled from miles around to the peat fire of a kitchen hearth; and where the corypheus of the joyful meeting was the "long-remembered beggar" of the district; one who possessed more songs and tales than all the rest of the country besides, and who, on account of the treasures of this nature, which he freely imparted, was honoured as a public benefactor, and preferred to the best seat in the circle, instead of being regarded as a public burden. But the schoolmaster and the magistrate are now abroad; and while the rockings are fast disappearing, the Edie Ochiltree who inspired them is dying in the alms-house. May they be succeeded in this age of improving change by better schools and more rational amusements!

While the youth of Allan Cunningham was trained under this tuition, he appears also to have been a careful reader of every book that came within his reach. This is evident from the multifarious knowledge which his earliest productions betokened. He had also commenced the writing of poetry at a very early period, having been inspired by the numerous songs and ballads with which the poetical district of Nithsdale is stored. When about the age of eighteen, he seems to have been seized with an earnest desire to visit the Ettrick Shepherd, at that time famed as a poet, but whose early chances of such distinction had scarcely equalled his own; and forth accordingly he set off in this his first pilgrimage of hero-worship, accompanied by an elder brother. The meeting Hogg has fully described in his "Reminiscences of Former Days;" and he particularizes Allan as "a dark ungainly youth of about eighteen, with a boardly frame for his age, and strongly marked manly features—the very model of Burns, and exactly such a man." The stripling poet, who stood at a bashful distance, was introduced to the Shepherd by his brother, who added, "You will be so kind as excuse this intrusion of ours on your solitude, for, in truth, I could get no peace either night or day with Allan till I consented to come and see you." "I then stepped down the hill," continues Hogg, "to where Allan Cunningham still stood, with his weather-beaten cheek toward me, and seizing his hard brawny hand, I gave it a hearty shake, saying something as kind as I was able, and, at the same time, I am sure, as stupid as it possibly could be. From that moment we were friends; for Allan has none of the proverbial Scottish caution about him; he is all heart together, without reserve either of expression or manner: you at once see the unaffected benevolence, warmth of feeling, and firm independence of a man conscious of his own rectitude and mental energies. Young as he was, I had heard of his name, although slightly, and I think seen two or three of his juvenile pieces."

"I had a small bothy upon the hill, in which I took my breakfast and dinner on wet days, and rested myself. It was so small that we had to walk in on all-fours; and when we were in we could not get up our heads any way but in a sitting posture. It was exactly my own length, and, on the one side, I had a bed of rushes, which served likewise as a seat; on this we all three sat down, and there we spent the whole afternoon; and, I am sure, a happier group of three never met on the hill of Queensberry. Allan brightened up prodigiously after he got into the dark bothy, repeating all his early pieces of poetry, and part of his brother’s to me." . . . . "From that day forward I failed not to improve my acquaintance with the Cunninghams. I visited them several times at Dalswinton, and never missed an opportunity of meeting with Allan, when it was in my power to do so. I was astonished at the luxuriousness of his fancy. It was boundless; but it was the luxury of a rich garden overrun with rampant weeds. He was likewise then a great mannerist in expression, and no man could mistake his verses for those of any other man. I remember seeing some imitations of Ossian by him, which I thought exceedingly good; and it struck me that that style of composition was peculiarly fitted for his vast and fervent imagination."

Such is the interesting sketch which Hogg has given us of the early life and character of a brother poet and congenial spirit. The full season at length arrived when Allan Cunningham was to burst from his obscurity as a mere rural bard, and emerge into a more public sphere. Cromek, to the full as enthusastic an admirer of Scottish poetry as himself, was collecting his well-known relics; and in the course of his quest, young Cunningham was pointed out as one who could efficiently aid him in the work. Allan gladly assented to the task of gathering and preserving these old national treasures, and in due time presented to the zealous antiquary a choice collection of apparently old songs and ballads, which were inserted in the "Remains of Nithsdale and Galloway Song," published in 1810. But the best of these, and especially the "Mermaid of Galloway," were the production of Cunningham’s own pen. This Hogg at once discovered as soon as the collection appeared, and he did not scruple in proclaiming to all his literary friends that "Allan Cunningham was the author of all that was beautiful in the work." He communicated his convictions also to Sir Walter Scott, who was of the same opinion, and expressed his fervent wish that such a valuable and original young man were fairly out of Cromek’s hands. Resolved that the world should know to whom it was really indebted for so much fine poetry, Hogg next wrote a critique upon Cromek’s publication, which he sent to the "Edinburgh Review;" but although Jeffrey was aware of the ruse which Cunningham had practised, he did not think it worthy of exposure. In this strange literary escapade, the poet scarcely appears to merit the title of "honest Allan," which Sir Walter Scott subsequently bestowed upon him, and rather to deserve the doubtful place held by such writers as Chatterton, Ireland, and Macpherson. It must, however, be observed in extenuation, that Cunningham, by passing off his own productions as remains of ancient Scottish song, compromised no venerated names, as the others had done. He gave them only as anonymous verses, to which neither date nor author could be assigned.

In the same year that Cromek’s "Remains" were published (1810), Allan Cunningham abandoned his humble and unhealthy occupation, and repaired to the great arena of his aspiring young countrymen. London was thenceforth to be his home. He had reached the age of twenty-five, was devoted heart and soul to intellectual labour, and felt within himself the capacity of achieving something higher than squaring stones and erecting country cottages. On settling in London, he addressed himself to the duties of a literary adventurer with energy and success, so that his pen was seldom idle; and among the journals to which he was a contributor, may be mentioned the "Literary Gazette," the "London Magazine," and the "Athenaeum." Even this, at the best, was precarious, and will often desert the most devoted industry; but Cunningham, fortunately, had learned a craft upon which he was not too proud to fall back should higher resources forsake him. Chantrey, the eminent statuary, was in want of a foreman, who combined artistic imagination and taste with mechanical skill and experience; and what man could be better fitted for the office than the mason, poet, and journalist, who had now established for himself a considerable literary reputation among the most distinguished writers in London? A union was formed between the pair that continued till death; and the appearance of these inseparables, as they continued from year to year to grow in celebrity, the one as a sculptor and the other as an author, seldom failed to arrest the attention of the good folks of Pimlico, as they took their daily walk from the studio in Ecclestone Street to the foundry in the Mews. Although the distance was considerable, as well as a public thoroughfare, they usually walked bareheaded; while the short figure, small round face, and bald head of the artist were strikingly contrasted with the tall stalwart form, dark bright eyes, and large sentimental countenance of the poet. The duties of Cunningham, in the capacity of "friend and assistant," as Chantrey was wont to term him, were sufficiently multifarious; and of these, the superintendence of the artist’s extensive workshop was not the least. The latter, although so distinguished as a statuary, had obtuse feelings and a limited imagination, while those of Cunningham were of the highest order: the artist’s reading had been very limited, but that of the poet was extensive and in every department. Cunningham was, therefore, as able in suggesting graceful attitudes in figures, picturesque folds in draperies, and new proportions for pedestals, as Chantrey was in executing them, and in this way the former was a very Mentor and muse to the latter. Besides all this, Cunningham recommended his employer’s productions through the medium of the press, illustrated their excellencies, and defended them against maligners; fought his battles against rival committees, and established his claims when they would have been sacrificed in favour of some inferior artist. Among the other methods by which Chantrey’s artistic reputation was thus established and diffused abroad, may be mentioned a sketch of his life and an account of his works, published in "Blackwood’s Magazine" for April, 1820, and a critique in the "Quarterly" for 1820; both of these articles being from the pen of Allan Cunningham. The poet was also the life of the artist’s studio, by his rich enlivening conversation, and his power of illustrating the various busts and statues which the building contained, so that it was sometimes difficult to tell whether the living man or the high delineations of art possessed most attraction for many among its thousands of visitors. In this way also the highest in rank and the most distinguished in talent were brought into daily intercourse with him, from among whom he could select the characters he most preferred for friendship and acquaintance.

Among the illustrious personages with whom his connection with Chantrey brought him into contact, the most gratifying of all to the mind of Cunningham must have been the acquaintance to which it introduced him with Sir Walter Scott. We have already seen how devout a hero-worshipper he was, by the visit he paid to the Ettrick Shepherd. Under the same inspiration, while still working as a stone-mason in Nithsdale, he once walked to Edinburgh, for the privilege of catching a glimpse of the author of "Marmion" as he passed along the public street. In 1820, when Cunningham had himself become a distinguished poet and miscellaneous writer, he came in personal contact with the great object of his veneration, in consequence of being the bearer of a request from Chantrey, that he would allow a bust to be taken of him. The meeting was highly characteristic of both parties. Sir Walter met his visitor with both hands extended, for the purpose of a cordial double shake, and gave a hearty "Allan Cunningham, I am glad to see you." The other stammered out something about the pleasure he felt in touching the hand that had charmed him so much. "Ay," said Scott moving the member, with one of his pawky smiles, "and a big brown hand it is." He then complimented the bard of Nithsdale upon his ballads, and entreated him to try something of still higher consequence "for dear auld Scotland’s sake," quoting these words of Burns. The result of Cunningham’s immediate mission was the celebrated bust of Sir Walter Scott by Chantrey; a bust which not only gives the external semblance, but expresses the very character and soul of the mighty magician, and that will continue through late generations to present his likeness as distinctly as if he still moved among them.

The acquaintanceship thus auspiciously commenced, was not allowed to lie idle; and while it materially benefited the family of Cunningham, it also served at once to elicit and gratify the warm-hearted benevolence of Sir Walter. The event is best given in the words of Lockhart, Sir Walter Scott’s son-in-law and biographer. "Breakfasting one morning (this was in the summer of 1828) with Allan Cunningham, and commending one of his publications, he looked round the table, and said, ‘What are you going to make of all these boys, Allan?’ ‘I ask that question often at my own heart,’ said Allan, ‘and I cannot answer it.’ ‘What does the eldest point to?’ ‘The callant would fain be a soldier, Sir Walter—and I have half a promise of a commission in the King’s army for him; but I wish rather he would go to India, for there the pay is a maintenance, and one does not need interest at every step to get on.’ Scott dropped the subject, but went an hour afterwards to Lord Melville (who was now president of the Board of Control), and begged a cadetship for young Cunningham. Lord Melville promised to inquire if he had one at his disposal, in which case he would gladly serve the son of honest Allan; but the point being thus left doubtful, Scott, meeting Mr. John Loch, one of the East India directors, at dinner the same evening, at Lord Stafford’s, applied to him, and received an immediate assent. On reaching home at night, he found a note from Lord Melville, intimating that he had inquired, and was happy in complying with his request. Next morning Sir Walter appeared at Sir F. Chantrey’s breakfast-table, and greeted the sculptor (who is a brother of the angle) with ‘I suppose it has sometimes happened to you to catch one trout (which was all you thought of) with the fly, and another with the bobber. I have done so, and I think I shall land them both. Don’t you think Cunningham would like very well to have cadetships for two of those fine lads?’ ‘To be sure he would,’ said Chantrey, ‘and if you’ll secure the commissions, I’ll make the outfit easy.’ Great was the joy in Allan’s household on this double good news; but I should add, that before the thing was done he had to thank another benefactor. Lord Melville, after all, went out of the Board of Control before he had been able to fulfil his promise; but his successor, Lord Ellenborough, on hearing the circumstances of the case, desired Cunningham to set his mind at rest; and both his young men are now prospering in the India service."

By being thus established in Chantrey’s employ, and having a salary sufficient for his wants, Allan Cunningham was released from the necessity of an entire dependence on authorship, as well as from the extreme precariousness with which it is generally accompanied, especially in London. He did not, however, on that account relapse into the free and easy life of a mere dilettanti writer. On the contrary, these advantages seem only to have stimulated him to further exertion, so that, to the very end of his days, he was not only a diligent, laborious student, but a continually improving author. Mention has already been made of the wild exuberance that characterized his earliest efforts in poetry. Hogg, whose sentiments on this head we have already seen, with equal justice characterizes its after progress. "Mr. Cunningham’s style of poetry is greatly changed of late for the better. I have never seen any style improved so much. It is free of all that crudeness and mannerism that once marked it so decidedly. He is now uniformly lively, serious, descriptive, or pathetic, as he changes his subject; but formerly he jumbled all these together, as in a boiling caldron, and when once he began, it was impossible to calculate where or when he was going to end." Scott, who will be reckoned a higher authority, is still louder in praise of Cunningham, and declared that some of his songs, especially that of "It’s hame, and it’s hame," were equal to Burns. But although his fame commenced with his poetry, and will ultimately rest mainly upon it, he was a still more voluminous prose writer, and in a variety of departments, as the following list of his chief works will sufficiently show:—

"Sir Marmaduke Maxwell," a drama. This production Cunningham designed for the stage, and sent it in M.S., in 1820, to Sir Walter Scott for his perusal and approbation. But the judgment formed of it was, that it was a beautiful dramatic poem rather than a play, and therefore better fitted for the closet than the stage. In this opinion every reader of "Sir Marmaduke Maxwell" will coincide, more especially when he takes into account the complexity of the plot, and the capricious manner in which the interest is shifted.

"Paul Jones," a novel; "Sir Michael Scott," a novel. Although Cunningham had repressed the wildness of his imagination in poetry, it still worked madly within him, and evidently required a safety-valve after being denied its legitimate outlet. No one can be doubtful of the fact who peruses these novels; for not only do they drive truth into utter fiction, but fiction itself into the all but unimaginable. This is especially the case with the last of these works, in which the extravagant dreams of the Pythagorean or the Bramin are utterly out-heroded. Hence, notwithstanding the beautiful ideas and profusion of stirring events with which they are stored—enough, indeed, to have furnished a whole stock of novels and romances—they never became favourites with the public, and have now ceased to be remembered.

"Songs of Scotland, ancient and modern, with Introduction and Notes, Historical and Critical, and Characters of the Lyric Poets." Four Vols. 8vo. 1825. Some of the best poems in this collection are by Cunningham himself; not introduced surreptitiously, however, as in the case of Cromek, but as his own productions; and of these, "De Bruce" contains such a stirring account of the battle of Bannockburn as Scott’s "Lord of the Isles " has not surpassed.

"Lives of the most eminent British Painters, Sculptors, and Architects," published in Murray’s "Family Library." Six Vols. 12mo. 1829-33. This work, although defective in philosophical and critical analysis, and chargeable, in many instances, with partiality, continues to be highly popular, in consequence of the poetical spirit with which it is pervaded, and the vivacious, attractive style in which it is written. This was what the author probably aimed at, instead of producing a work that might serve as a standard for artists and connoisseurs; and in this he has fully succeeded.

"Literary Illustrations to Major’s ‘Cabinet Gallery of Pictures.’" 1833, 1834.
"The Maid of Elvar," a poem.
"Lord Roldan," a romance.
"Life of Burns."

"Life of Sir David Wilkie." Three Vols. 8vo. 1843. Cunningham, who knew the painter well, and loved him dearly as a congenial Scottish spirit, found in this production the last of his literary efforts, as he finished its final corrections only two days before he died. At the same time, he had made considerable progress in an extended edition of Johnson’s "Lives of the Poets," and a "Life of Chantrey" was also expected from his pen; but before these could be accomplished both poet and sculptor, after a close union of twenty-nine years, had ended their labours, and bequeathed their memorial to other hands. The last days of Chantrey were spent in drawing the tomb in which he wished to be buried in the church-yard of Norton, in Derbyshire, the place of his nativity; and while showing the plans to his assistants he observed, with a look of anxiety, "But there will be no room for you." "Room for me!" cried Allan Cunningham, "I would not lie like a toad in a stone, or in a place strong enough for another to covet. O, no! let me lie where the green grass and the daisies grow, waving under the winds of the blue heaven." The wish of both was satisfied; for Chantrey reposes under his mausoleum of granite, and Cunningham in the picturesque cemetery of Harrow. The artist by his will left the poet a legacy of 2000, but the constitution of the latter was so prematurely exhausted that he lived only a year after his employer. His death, which was occasioned by paralysis, occurred at Lower Belgrave Place, Pimlico, on the 29th October, 1842.



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Songs: Chiefly in the Rural Language of Scotland
By Allan Cunningham (1813)

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Other Poems from his 1822 Book

Part 1  |  Part 2

The Songs of Scotland
In 4 volumes


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