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Significant Scots
David Grant


There is perhaps no need to justify a biographical sketch prefixed to a volume of poems. To many who read poetry merely for its own sake, such an arrangement adds an interest; they look for it. There is a more certain value in such a sketch when the verses to which it is prefixed derive their interest, not exclusively from their poetical merit, but also, and hardly less from a certain flavour, a racial or local colouring, from any quality indeed which directs their first and immediate appeal to a circumscribed range of readers. The title of the present volume shows that this greater justification is present here, and it may be hoped that the short biography which is here set out, will have an interest for other than those who cherish their personal recollections of our poet.

David Grant was born in 1823 at Affrusk, in the Parish of Banchory Ternan, Kincardineshire. His great grandfather, it would seem, came from Strathspey shortly after “ The Forty Five,” but as the Grants of Strathspey were not active supporters of the Pretender, there is no special reason to imagine that he was in any way implicated in the Rebellion. His grandfather was the prosperous farmer of Gellan, in the Parish of Strachan, and of his sons, one, Robert, became the father of Joseph Grant, who, although he died young, achieved some note as the writer of vigorous tales of local interest, many of which appeared in “Chambers’s Journals.” His youngest son, George, was the father of our poet. This George Grant seems to have been an energetic and capable farmer, but about the time of our poet’s birth, he was refused a renewal of the lease of Affrusk farm, which he was compelled to leave before he had reaped any return from his considerable outlays towards its improvement. For this refusal of a new lease no other reason has been assigned than the aggravating one, that his Laird disapproved of his political opinions. Be this as it may, it was in greatly reduced circumstances that he removed to the Parish of Strachan, where, with the assistance of his sons, Joseph and David, he carried on not unsuccessfully the business of a wood sawyer.

It was in the Parish of Strachan, then, that David Grant received his first impressions of men and things, and spent a sufficiently happy boyhood, which was distinguished, as he himself records, by the discovery of a precocious facility in turning his childish adventures into rude forms of verse. Remaining with his father until he was twenty-four years of age, he then found himself in a position to gratify a thirst for learning by proceeding to the Aberdeen Grammar School, where he spent two Sessions. At the end of this period he had so far progressed in his studies that he was able to proceed to Marischal College, and link himself with the long procession of those who have found that their birth in this North East of Scotland has brought them near to the easiest opening gates in the high walls of the House of Learning. Of his life at Marischal College, he has himself left some record, and his assurance that “the last infirmity of noble minds” did not mar for him the enjoyment of student life, or cover him with either the dust or the palms of class competitions. He seems rather to have decided rightly, that it was good to experience humanity and things as his College life gave him occasion, and to assimilate rather than to gorge himself with the learning of the classrooms. A breakdown in health prevented him from attending Marischal College for a third session, and he abandoned his University career without obtaining a degree. He had, however, acquired a good knowledge of Mathematics and the Ancient Languages, and was also, in the words of John Stuart Blackie, then Professor of Humanity in Marischal College, “favourably known by his command of the English Language.” His literary and poetical ability is further attested by the fact that for English verse he was awarded Professor Blackie’s Prize ; which bore this inscription, doubtless from the pen of the perfervid Professor who instituted the Competition: “David Grant, puer egregius versuum pangendorum arte doctus com-pluribus canticis anglicis auditoria academica per-sonans hocce praemium reportavit.”

Notwithstanding the unfortunate termination of his University career, Grant decided, when his health was restored, to take up the profession of teaching, and found his first appointment in Stonehaven. From this he proceeded to Clackmarris School, in Morayshire, where he also found time to act as Editor of the Elgin Courier, and sometime later he became master of the Parochial School of Canisbay.

His life here seems to have been rich in experiences, and the things seen and heard along the shores of the Pentland Firth formed the themes of a numerous host of yarns and tales, which he published in metrical form many years after he had left the North.

His professional duties at this time left him leisure to contribute frequently in prose and verse to the Aberdeen Herald, in the columns of which, indeed, his name was familiar till the end of his life.

In 1862, after leaving Canisbay and spending a year in Aberdeen and Bridge-of-Allan, Grant took over the management of an “English and Classical Institution” for young gentlemen, which had for some time been carried on by a clergyman in Blythswood Square, Glasgow. Everything seemed to point to the success of this undertaking. Grant was now an experienced teacher, eminently qualified to supervise the education of the class of pupils which the Blythswood Square School invited. He had married a Mrs Allan, the widowed daughter of Mr Webster, the Goods Manager of the Great North of Scotland Railway, and his wife seems to have been well suited to undertake the management of the domestic department of such an institution. But an unforeseeable calamity brought this bright prospect to an end ; for, two months after this prosperous start, an outbreak of diphtheria had carried off* Mrs Grant, and completely scattered his pupils. Returning to Aberdeen, Grant had not long to wait before he was offered the post of French Master, in Oundle Grammar School, Northamptonshire, and, after spending some time in France, he entered on the duties of this appointment, which he held for three and a half years.

His work as a teacher here was in a high degree successful, and he seems to have met with much appreciation as a scholar and a gentleman.

Just when he was on the point of entering on more responsible duties at Oundle, he was offered an appointment as Sub-Principal and Classical Master at Eccleshall College, Sheffield. This post he accepted and successfully occupied for six and a half years, when he acquired the goodwill of Springvale Academy, a middle class school of good standing in Sheffield. For some eight years this undertaking flourished in Grant's hands, but in 1878 the opening of a Central Board School for higher education seemed likely to withdraw the support of such private establishments as Springvale Academy, and he decided to dispose of it. He had for some time been doing literary and journalistic work, and he now resolved to adopt literature as his profession.

With this object in view he went on a visit to London, where he had good opportunities of being introduced into literary circles. Not long, however, after his arrival in London he caught a chill which developed into an illness from which he never quite recovered. Shortly before this he had .prepared for the press a collection of his occasional verses, which appeared, during his illness, under the title of “ Metrical Poems and other Tales.” This volume, the miscellaneous contents of which were classified as “ Tales of the Stormbound,” “ Yarns of the Pent-land Firth,” Miscellaneous Sonnets, Poems etc., met with a very gratifying reception, which has to be attributed to the genuine poetical power and narrative fluency which the “Yarns” in particular revealed. In these last are seen the fruits of the time spent at Canisbay, where those who remembered their popular teacher were glad to hail his book of verse as an honour and a service done to their native place. Indeed, the appreciation which these poems met from those familiar with their themes provides a good evidence of the readiness with which the Scottish Poet finds an audience: a circumstance which helps to explain why Scotland is, by reason of its wealth of minor poets, and in that sense “the land of song.” Being now much restored in health Grant, who still had his home in the neighbourhood of Sheffield, having been obliged to give up his London project, continued to be a frequent contributor to local publications and confined his energies to this class of work although urged by many who had admired his qualities as a teacher to resume this profession.

For some eight months he acted as editor of the Sheffield Post, to which he had been a frequent contributer in prose and verse. A tour in Scotland which he undertook for the benefit of his health, suggested to him the idea of a permanent residence on the north side of the Border, and in 1883 he removed from Sheffield to Edinburgh. Here, besides some tutorial work which he undertook, he continued his literary pursuits, and displayed an unabated mastery of the vernacular. Of his prose writing at this time an interesting specimen is the “Extracts from the Chronicles of Keckleton,” which appeared in serial form in the Aberdeen Free Press, and elicited the following mistaken but not unflattering criticism from a contemporary, “Extracts from the Chronicles of Keckleton.“ overflowing with pawkie Scotch humour, is apparently from the pen of that genuine vernacular man “to whom we are indebted for ‘Johnny Gibb of Gushetneuk.’ Mr Alexander writes the Doric in its purity, which is refreshing in these days of a hybrid patois, that savours of the Glasgow goosedubs and of the sister isle rather than of the land of Burns. The substance of his work as well as its form entitles him to a place beside Galt and Moir.“ Since ‘ Mansie Wauch/ indeed, we have had “nothing to equal the opening chapters of the “‘Chronicles of Keckleton.’” Any one who now reads these “Chronicles” will be willing to admit that, while there is sufficient difference in the manner of them to prevent confusion with the work of these authors, the language in which they are written well merits the implied compari son. “A Handbook to the Great North of Scotland Railway” may also be mentioned here, as exhibiting a certain charm of picturesqueness and a fluent and entertaining manner of prose writing. Of his poetical works beyond the “Lays and Legends,” none need here be mentioned except perhaps his “Book of Ten Songs” published posthumously, concerning which it will suffice to quote the testimony of Professor Blackie—himself a less successful wooer of the Doric Muse, and a kind friend of Grant's later years—who never had occasion to go back on his early judgment on Grant's “ars pangendorum versuum.” "Among those,” he says, “who in this generation have contributed largely to maintain our character as a lyrical people, few deserve to be held in more honourable memory than the late David Grant, some of whose productions, set to music by his friends, are here placed before the public.” The “Lays and Legends” were first published in the beginning of 1884 and, like his earlier volume, were well received. In this collection is to be found a representative selection of the best things that David Grant accomplished in verse, and those who care for his reputation would not be unwilling that it should rest on these poems, which it was the labour of almost his last years to see through the press. Of his last years in Edinburgh, indeed, little remains to be said, except that they were spent in so uncertain a condition of health, that no new task of much moment could be undertaken hopefully. Whatever gloom his ill health may have put on his spirit, he did not lack for friends, nor find his last years neglected. In the winter of 1885 his illness became acute, and although he rallied in the spring and had thoughts of visiting his native Deeside, he had come to the end of his journeying. On the 22nd of April 1886 he died rather suddenly, leaving a widow who had been his helpmate and companion for 1S years, and their family of two, who still live to cherish the memory of this man, whose large soul and kindly heart endeared him to all he met.

Such in brief outline is the life story of David Grant. Of his writings there is no room for criticism here, nor much need for it when his poems themselves are in the reader’s hands. Of his poetical and literary faculty there is no room for doubt: his adequate verse translations show that he lacked few of the accomplishments and fewer of the instincts of a scholar: his power of acute observation, and his humour, are not to be controverted. It is to be added that the vernacular, in which for the greater part he wrote, is so native to his tongue that this volume should in these days derive an added interest from the circumstance, that it is in some sort a storehouse of Scottish speech.

And it would be well that this should be preserved, lest a later age should seek carefully, by Scottish revivals and the like, to recover a lost record of a people’s mind and not find it; for as surely as the dialect in which he wrote becomes obscure and lost, just as assuredly will a certain something of the mind and temperament of the men he wrote about be left ultimately without a witness. Of this there is no opportunity here to speak, nor of that naturally suggested question of the reason for Scotland’s predominance at different times in the realm of minor poetry. This unquestionable phenomenon will be easily and gladly imputed by some to the ingenium of this resultant nationality. Those who have not the courage of this patriotic conviction will most probably fall back on some peculiarity in the industrial conditions of Scotland, and the disposition of her population, which readily provides an audience for her poets: or to a certain homeliness in her greatest poets and a frank pride in their craft which tends to provoke emulation: or on this circumstance, that those who seek to play the poet in the Scottish vernacular, have to their hands an instrument of speech which was the vehicle of cultured and literary thought centuries before Ferguson rescued or Burns glorified it.

You can see some of his genealogy here








Glossary
Lays and Legends of the North
The Hermit of Powis
Metrical Tales
Scotch Stories


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