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Significant Scots
John Mayne


MAYNE, JOHN.—This amiable and talented poet was born at Dumfries, on the 26th of March, 1759, and was educated at the grammar-school of that town, under Dr. Chapman, whose learning and worth his grateful pupil afterwards commemorated in the "Siller Gun." His stay at school was a short one, and his progress in scholarship afterwards was chiefly accomplished by self education, as he became a printer at a very early age, and was employed upon the "Dumfries Journal," which was conducted by Professor Jackson. He had not been long thus occupied, when he left Dumfries for Glasgow, to which latter city he accompanied his father’s family, and took up his residence with them at the farther extremity of the Green of Glasgow, this locality being commonly called Greenhead by the citizens, who have, time out of mind, been proud of this their place of public recreation on the banks of the Clyde. At a very early period, the chief predilection of John Mayne appears to have been towards poetry, and that, too, in his own native dialect, instead of the statelier and more fashionable diction of Pope and Addison. In him such a preference was the more commendable, because it was before the poetry of Burns had arrested the decay of our Doric tongue, and given it a classical permanency. It deserves to be noticed also, that one of Mayne’s poems on Halloween appears to have suggested to Burns both the subject and style of the happiest production of the national muse of Scotland.

So early as 1777, John Mayne’s chief poem, entitled the "Siller Gun," was published. The history of this poem is curious, as indicative of a mind that steadfastly adhered to a single idea until it had completely matured it, and that would not rest satisfied with an inferior amount of excellence. At first the "Siller Gun" consisted of not more than twelve stanzas, which were printed at Dumfries on a single quarto page. Soon afterwards it was reprinted in the same town, extended into two cantos. It became so popular that other editions followed, in the course of which it swelled into three cantos; afterwards it extended to four, in an edition printed in 1808; and when the last version, with the author’s improvements and final corrections, appeared in 1836, the same year in which he died, the poem, that originally consisted of only a dozen stanzas, had expanded and grown into five goodly cantos. It should be mentioned, also, that this unwonted process of amplification had by no means impaired either the strength or the excellence of the original material; on the contrary, every successive edition was an improvement upon its predecessor, until the last was also the best.

This poem, at present too little known compared with its remarkable merit, is founded upon an ancient custom in Dumfries, called "Shooting for the Siller Gun." This practice, strangely enough, was instituted by James VI., who, of all sovereigns, was the one most averse to every kind of lethal weapon, and has continued till modern times, while the events of such a weaponshaw, were generally well adapted for the purposes of a comic poet. Mr. Mayne selected that trial which was held in 1777; and in his subsequent editions he took the opportunity of introducing many of the public characters of his native Dumfries, who were wont to figure at these annual competitions. The preparations for the festival are thus humorously described:--

"For weeks before this fete sae clever,
The fowk were in a perfect fever,
Scouring gun-barrels in the river—
At marks practising—
Marching wi’ drums and fifes for ever—
A’ sodgerizing.

And turning coats, and mending breeks,
New-seating where the sark-tail keeks;
(Nae matter though the clout that eeks
Be black or blue);
And darning, with a thousand steeks.
The hose anew!"

The shooting, as he describes it, was by no means the most efficient kind of practice for the contingency of a French invasion:

"By this time, now, wi’ mony a dunder,
Auld guns were brattling aff like thunder;
Three parts o’ whilk, in ilka hunder,
Did sea recoil,
That collar-banes get mony a lunder,
In this turmoil.

"Wide o’ the mark, as if to scar us,
The bullets ripp’d the swaird like harrows;
And fright’ning a’ the craws and sparrows
About the place,
Ramrods were fleeing thick as arrows
At Chevy Chace."

After the first publication of the "Siller Gun," Mr. Mayne continued to write poetry, but with that careful fastidiousness, in which quality rather than quantity was the chief object of solicitude. These productions generally appeared in "Ruddiman’s Magazine," a weekly miscellany, and it was there that his "Halloween," which was to be honoured by such an illustrious successor, first saw the light. He also exchanged verses in print with his fellow-townsman, Telford, afterwards so distinguished among our Scottish engineers. Among Mayne’s few and short poetical productions of this period, may be mentioned his beautiful song of "Logan Water," which first appeared about the year 1783. The tune of "Logan Water," one of our most simple and touching old national melodies, for which the verses were composed, and especially the intrinsic merits of the verses themselves, made the song such a universal favourite, that after taking complete hold of Scotland, it was published with the music in England, and established as one of the choice performances of Vauxhall. Burns, also, who mistook it for one of our old Scottish songs, as it was published anonymously, produced an imitation, under the same title, which scarcely equals the original. In simplicity, in tenderness, and classic elegance, we would match the "Logan Water" of Mayne even with the "Fountain of Bandusia" of Horace.

The other chief poetical production of Mr. Mayne, next to the "Siller Gun" in point of extent, was "Glasgow," a descriptive poem, which was published with illustrative notes in 1803. It is a work of considerable merit, and all the more worthy of attention, that it describes a state of men and things that has utterly passed away. Who would recognize in the Glasgow of that day the gorgeous Tyre of the west, whose merchants are princes, and whose population is numbered by myriads? In the same year that his "Glasgow" appeared, he also published "English, Scots, and Irishmen," a patriotic address to the inhabitants of the three kingdoms.

Although John Mayne loved his country with all the patriotic ardour of a Scotchman, and celebrated its people and its scenery as few Scotchmen could do, yet, like many of his countrymen, he was doomed, during the greater part of his life, to contemplate it at a distance, and to speak of it to strangers. As a printer, his occupation was chiefly with the Messrs. Foulis, of the University Press, Glasgow, under whom he entered into an engagement that continued from 1782 to 1787. He visited London, probably for the first time, in 1785; and, having been attracted by the facilities that presented themselves there of permanent and profitable occupation, he moved thither in 1787, when his engagement in Glasgow had expired, and, during the rest of his long life, never happened to revisit the land of his nativity. It is well that Scottish patriotism, instead of being impaired, is so often enhanced by the enchantment of distance. In London he was singularly fortunate; for after the usual amount of enterprise and perseverance in literature, to which all his hopes and energies were devoted, he became printer, editor, and joint proprietor of the "Star" evening paper. Under his excellent management, the journal was a thriving one; and, from year to year, he continued to indulge his poetical likings not only in its columns, but also in the "Gentleman’s Magazine," to which he occasionally contributed from 1807 to 1817. After a long life of usefulness and comfort, which extended to seventy-eight years, he died in his residence, No. 2, Lysson Grove, South, on the 14th of March, 1830, and was buried in his family vault, Paddington church-yard.

As a poet, John Mayne must be allowed a much higher standing than is usually given to the Scottish bards of the present century; and in comparing him, it must be with Ramsay, Ferguson, and Hogg, to whom he approached the nearest, rather than with inferior standards. The moral character of his writings, also, cannot be too highly commended. "He never wrote a line," says a popular author, "the tendency of which was not to afford innocent amusement, or to improve and increase the happiness of mankind." Of his private character, Allan Cunningham also testifies that "a better or warmer-hearted man never existed."


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