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Significant Scots
William Motherwell


MOTHERWELL, WILLIAM.—This poet, antiquary, and journalist, was born at Glasgow, on the 13th of October, 1797, and was the third son of William Motherwell, an ironmonger in that city. His education, owing to family movements, was received partly in Edinburgh, and afterwards in Paisley, but was brought to a close at the age of fifteen, when he was placed as clerk in the office of the sheriff- clerk of Paisley. During so brief a training in literature, he was distinguished merely as an active, clever boy; but independently of school lessons, he had already prepared himself for his future career by his aptitude in copying and imitating old MSS., and by writing verses. The object of his early poetical inspiration was Jeanie Morrison, a beautiful young girl, who attended with him the same school in Edinburgh, and sat with him on the same form, according to the fashion of teaching at that period, even in our metropolis. The exquisite song in which he commemorated this fair theme of his youthful enthusiasm, and whom he never afterwards forgot, would have reached a higher celebrity than it has ever attained, had there not been a "Mary in Heaven."

After William Motherwell had completed his apprenticeship, he was appointed, at the early age of twenty-one, sheriff-clerk depute of the county of Renfrew, an office that brought him a considerable income. But it was also fraught with no little danger, on account of the Radical commotions of that manufacturing district, where every weaver, under the enlightenment of Paine and Cobbett, was persuaded that all things were wrong both in church and state, and that there was no remedy except a universal subversion. With this turbulent spirit Motherwell was often brought into perilous contact, from being obliged by his office to execute the unpalatable behests of law; and on one of these occasions, in 1818, he was assailed by a frantic mob, who hustled him to the parapet of the bridge across the Cart, with the intention of throwing him into the river. Up to this period, like most young men of ardent poetical temperament, he had dreamed his dream of liberty, but such rough handling was enough to extinguish it, and he settled down into a Conservative.

While he was thus compelled by duty to issue ungracious writs, prepare copies of the Riot Act, and occasionally wield the truncheon of a constable in the disturbed streets of Paisley, William Motherwell steadily pursued those literary occupations upon which his claims to public notice were founded. He enlarged his reading, until his library was stored with a miscellaneous but rich collection, in which antique works predominated, especially those connected with poetry, romance, and the old Runic mythology. He also wrote pieces in prose and verse, which he readily bestowed upon his friends; and was, so early as 1818, a contributor to a small work published at Greenock called the "Visitor." He edited the "Harp of Renfrewshire," containing biographical notices of the poets of that district, from the l6th to the 19th century, which was published in 1819. This work was but the prelude to one of greatly higher importance, which he published in Glasgow in 1827, under the title of "Minstrelsy, Ancient and Modern," in which his researches into Scottish antiquarianism were turned to best account. In 1828 he commenced the "Paisley Magazine," the pages of which he enriched with some of his best poetical productions; and during the same year he succeeded to the editorship of the "Paisley Advertiser," a Conservative newspaper, previously under the management of his friend, William Kennedy, author of "Fitful Fancies." As Motherwell had now acquired considerable reputation, not only as a poet, but political journalist, this last step was followed by one more important two years afterwards. The "Glasgow Courier" having lost the able superintendence of Mr. James M’Queen, its proprietors applied to Motherwell, who closed with their proposals, and became editor of the Courier in February, 1830, an office in which he continued till his death, nearly six years after.

However profitable this change might have appeared in a pecuniary point of view, or even as an opportunity of acquiring higher literary distinction, it is certain that the result was far from being favourable. Motherwell’s knowledge of general, and especially of modern history, was defective, owing to his exclusive love of antiquarianism; and his habits of composition, from the scantiness of his early training, were irregular, slow, and laborious. But thus imperfectly equipped, he was obliged, as editor of the "Glasgow Courier," to step forth as the champion of Toryism in a locality where Toryism was at a mercantile discount, and at a period when the tide of public events throughout Europe was rushing in an opposite direction. In a newspaper that was issued three times a-week, and at a season when every throne was overturned or rudely shaken, he found it equally impossible to command his attention to every scene of action, and his temper upon every variety of subject; and although he bore up and fought gallantly, so as to command the approval of both friends and enemies, the termination, in an overworn intellect and premature death, was nothing more than a natural penalty. Such was the result, on the 1st of November, 1835, when he was suddenly struck with apoplexy in bed, at four o’clock in the morning, and expired four hours after, at the early age of thirty-eight, although his robust frame, active habits, and happy temperament promised a healthy longevity. He was buried in the Glasgow Necropolis, while the persons of every class of political opinion who attended the funeral, betokened the general esteem in which he was held, and the regret that was felt on account of his departure.

During his short life of toil in Glasgow, Motherwell was not wholly occupied with his editorial duties; his devotedness to poetry continued unabated, and although he found little time for new productions, he was a considerable contributor to "The Day," a periodical conducted in Glasgow by Mr. John Strang. He also joined with the Ettrick Shepherd in preparing an edition of Burns’s works, but which he did not live to see completed. In addition to these he left unfinished at his death a prose collection of Norse legends, said to be of great power and beauty, and materials for a life of Tannahill. It is as a poet, however, that Motherwell will continue to be best known and distinguished; and of his larger productions, his ballads of "The Battle-Flag of Sigurd," and "The Sword Chant of Thorstein Raudi," fully attest his ability in the wild and stirring runes of the north; while his songs of "My heid is like to rend, Willie," "The Midnight Wind," and above all, "Jeanie Morrison," will make those who read them regret that he did not throw journalism to the dogs, and become wholly and devotedly a song-writer. Indeed, it has been well said of him, by no less a critic than Professor Wilson:--" All his perceptions are clear, for all his senses are sound; he has fine and strong sensibilities, and a powerful intellect. . . .His style is simple, but in his tenderest movements masculine; he strikes a few bold knocks at the door of the heart, which is instantly opened by the master or mistress of the house, or by son or daughter, and the welcome visitor at once becomes one of the family."


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