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Significant Scots
Alexander Ross


ROSS, ALEXANDER, a poet of some eminence, was born in the parish of Kincardine O’Neil, Aberdeenshire, on the 13th April, 1699. His father was Andrew Ross, a farmer, in easy circumstances. Ross received the first elements of his education at the parochial school, under a teacher of considerable local celebrity; and after four years’ study of the Latin language, succeeded in gaining a bursary at the competition in Marischal college, in November 1714. Having gone through the usual curriculum of the university, he received the degree of master of arts in 1718; and shortly after was engaged as a tutor to the family of Sir William Forbes of Craigievar and Fintray; a gentleman who appears to have possessed considerable taste and learning. How long the poet remained in this situation has not been ascertained; but he seems to have earned the good opinion of his patron, who recommended him to study divinity, with the assurance that his interest should not be wanting to procure a comfortable settlement in the church. Favourable as this offer was, from a gentleman who had no fewer than fourteen patronages in his gift, Ross declined it, on a ground which evinces extraordinary modesty,—"that he could never entertain such an opinion of his own goodness or capacity as to think himself worthy of the office of a clergyman." On leaving the family of Sir William Forbes, Ross for some time taught, apparently as an assistant, the parochial school of Aboyne in his native county, and afterwards that of Laurencekirk, in Kincardineshire. While in this last situation he became acquainted with the father of Dr Beattie; a man who, in our poet’s opinion, "only wanted education to have made him, perhaps, as much distinguished in the literary world as his son. He knew something of natural philosophy, and particularly of astronomy, and used to amuse himself in calculating eclipses. He was likewise a poetical genius, and showed our author some rhymes of considerable merit." [Life of Ross, by his grandson, the Rev. Alexander Thomson of Lentrathen – prefixed to an edition of the "Fortunate Shepherdess," printed at Dundee, 1812.] In 1726, Ross married Jane Cattanach, the daughter of a farmer in Aberdeenshire, and descended by the mother from the ancient family of Duguid of Auchinhove. In 1732, by the influence of his friend, Mr Garden of Troup, he was appointed schoolmaster of Lochlee, in Angus; and the rest of his life was spent in the discharge of the duties of this humble office. There are, perhaps, few pieces of scenery in Scotland of a more wild and poetical character than that in which Ross’s lot was cast. Lochlee is a thinly peopled parish, lying in the very centre of the Grampians, at the head of the valley of the North Esk. The population is almost entirely confined to one solitary glen, the green fields and smoking cottages of which are singularly refreshing to the eye of the traveller, after the weary extent of bleak moor and mountain which hem in the spot on all sides. On a mound in the centre, stands the ruin of an ancient fortalice, built by the powerful family of the Lindsays of Edzel, as a place of retreat, where they could defy those dangers which they could not cope with in their Lowland domains, in the How of the Mearns. The loch, which gives its name to the parish, is a very beautiful sheet of water, imbedded deep among steep and craggy mountains. The Lee, the stream which feeds it, flows through a very wild glen, and over a rocky channel, in several picturesque water-falls. On one of the tall precipices that form its sides, an eagle has built its nest, secure from molestation, in the inaccessible nature of the cliff. The remains of Ross’s house still exist, situated near the eastern extremity of the loch, and only a few feet from the water’s edge. Near at hand, surrounded by a few aged trees, is the little burying ground of the parish, the tombstones of which bear some epitaphs from Ross’s pen, and there his own ashes are deposited. [The only fact which a search of the kirk session of Lochlee furnished with regard to Ross, is one of no very poetical nature, viz., that for some years he rented the grass of this quiet cemetery, at the yearly rent of one pound sterling.]The poet’s house is now occupied as a sheepfold; and the garden, on which it is said he bestowed much of his time, can still be traced by the rank luxuriance of the weeds and grass, and the fragments of rude wall. It is impossible to look on the ruins of this humble hut, without interest: its dimensions are thirty feet in length, and twelve in breadth; and this narrow space was all that was allotted to the school-room and the residence of its master. The walls seem to have contained but two apartments, each about twelve square feet in size, and the eastern was that occupied by Ross, from whom one of the windows, now built up, is still named the poet’s window. He had trained to cluster around it honeysuckle and sweet briar; and here looking forth on the waters of the loch, is said to have been his favourite seat when engaged in composition. So deep and confined is the glen at this spot, that, for thirty days of the winter, the sun never shines on the poet’s dwelling. The emoluments of Ross’s office were small, but perhaps more lucrative than the majority of parochial schools in the same quarter, from his being entitled to a sort of glebe, and some other small perquisites. One of his biographers has quoted some lines of the introduction to Helenore, as a proof of Ross’s poverty and want:—

"Pity anes mair, for I’m out-through as clung—
‘Twas that grim gossip, chandler-chafted want,
Wi’ thread-bare claething, and an ambry scant," &c.

It is consoling to be satisfied that these lines are not to be understood in a literal sense. We are assured by his grandson, that "no person in his station, or perhaps in any station, enjoyed a greater share of personal and domestic happiness. His living was, indeed, but small, not exceeding twenty pounds a-year, exclusive of the profits of his glebe; but he had no desire beyond what was necessary to support himself and family, in a way suitable to his station; and, considering the strict economy observed in his house, and the simple though neat mode of living to which he was accustomed, the emoluments of his office, as well as the profits arising from his publications, rendered him in some degree comfortable and independent." It was not until he had resided here for thirty six years, that, in the year 1768, when he was nearly seventy, Ross appeared before the public as an author. So early as his sixteenth year he had commenced writing verses; a translation from the Latin of Buchanan, composed at that age, having been published by his grandson in the memoir we have just quoted. From that time, he seems to have cultivated his poetical talents with ceaseless assiduity: Dr Beattie, who appears to have advised him in the selection of his works for publication, writes, in a letter to Dr Blacklock, "He put into my hands a great number of manuscripts in verse, chiefly on religious subjects: I believe Sir Richard Blackmore is not a more voluminous author. He told me that he had never written a single line with a view to publication: but only to amuse a solitary hour." [Forbe’s Life of Beattie, i. 119. We may add Dr Beattie’s desecription of Ross at this date: "He is a good humoured, social, happy old man: modest without clownishness, and lively without petulance."]The poems which by Dr Beattie’s advice were chosen for publication consisted of "Helenore, or the Fortunate Shepherdess," and some songs, among which were, "The Rock and the Wee Pickle Tow," "To the Begging we will go," and "Woo’d and married and a’." They appeared at Aberdeen in 1768, ["The Fortunate Shepherdess, a pastoral tale in the Scottish dialect, by Alexander Ross, Schoolmaster at Lochlee, to which are added a few songs by the author. Aberdeen, printed by and for Francis Douglas-1768."—pp. 150.] in one volume 8vo, and a considerable number of subscribers having been procured, the profits of the publication amounted to about twenty pounds; "a sum," says Beattie, "far exceeding his most sanguine expectations, for I believe he would thankfully have sold his whole works for five." To promote the sale, Beattie (whose interest in Ross was excited by the latter’s acquaintance with the doctor’s father) addressed a letter to the editor of the Aberdeen Journal, together with some verses inscribed to Ross, which are remarkable from being their author’s only composition in the Scottish dialect; they have been prefixed to all the subsequent editions of Helenore, and possess much merit. The success of the volume does not seem to have been very rapid, for ten years elapsed before the publication of the second edition. While this was going through the press, Dr Beattie wrote to Ross from Gordon castle, with an invitation from the noble owners to pay them a visit. Though now eighty years of age, the poet at once accepted the invitation, and took that opportunity of presenting a copy of the second edition of his work, dedicated to the duchess of Gordon. He remained at the castle for some days, says his grandson, and "was honoured with much attention and kindness both by the duke and duchess, and was presented by the latter with an elegant pocket-book, containing a handsome present, when he returned to Lochlee in good health, and with great satisfaction." The next year he experienced the loss of his wife, who died at the advanced age of eighty-two, and to whose memory he erected a tombstone with a poetical epitaph. He himself did not long survive: on the 20th of May, 1784, "worn out with age and infirmity, being in his eighty-sixth year, he breathed his last, with the composure, resignation, and hope becoming a Christian." Of Ross’s numerous family, two sons and a daughter died in early youth, and four daughters survived him. Such are the few facts that constitute the biography of Alexander Ross. His character appears to have been marked by much cheerfulness and simplicity; lowly as was his lot, he found tranquillity and content in it, and the picture of his household piety which has come down to us, is singularly affecting. Regrets have been expressed that a man of his merits should have been allowed to toil on in the humble situation of a parish schoolmaster; but it should be remembered that he was nearly seventy years old before he gave the public proof of his talents, and it may be very doubtful if at that advanced age he would have found in a higher sphere the same peace and happiness which he had so long enjoyed in his Highland glen. It is also gratifying to think that the profits of his publications, trifling as they would now be viewed, were still sufficient to afford him many additional luxuries; and that the fame which his poems received from the world reached his retired home, and secured to him honour from his neighbours, and marks of attention from the few strangers of rank that found their way to Lochlee. Neither should it be forgotten that his songs became, even in his own day, as they still continue, the favourite ditties of his neighbourhood, and that the poet’s ears were gratified by hearing his own verses chanted on the hill-sides in summer, and by the cottage ingle in winter. This is the incense to his genius prized by the poet beyond other earthly rewards, and which cheers him even when stricken by the poverty which is "the badge of all his tribe." Ross left eight volumes of unpublished works, of which an account has been preserved in Campbell’s Introduction to the History of Poetry in Scotland, (p. 272 to 284.) The chief of these is a tale in the same measure with the Fortunate Shepherdess, entitled, "The Fortunate Shepherd, or the Orphan." The specimens which are given are too unsatisfactory to permit us to judge if we ought to regret its suppression, which we are informed was owing to the advice of Dr Beattie. "A Dream, in imitation of the Cherry and Slae," and composed in 1753, seems to possess some stanzas of considerable merit. "Religious Dialogues," written in 1754, are characterized by Beattie as unfit for publication; and Mr Campbell, certainly a favourable critic, can find no word of commendation for the six pieces which bear the following titles: "A Paraphrase on the Song of Solomon;" "A View of king David’s Afflictions;" "The Shunamite, from 2 Kings iv.;" "Moses exposed in the Ark of Bulrushes;" "An incitement to Temperance, from a thought of the nice construction of the Human Body;" and "Moses’ story continued." This long catalogue seems to have been the origin of Beattie’s comparison of Ross with Sir Richard Blackmore. In addition to these there are in the same strain, "The Book of Job, rendered into English verse," 1751, and "A Description of the Flood of Noah." A translation of Andrew Ramsay’s beautiful poem on the creation seems to possess more merit; and from the specimens given is at least fully equal to that of the notorious Lauder, whose attack on Milton had the effect of attracting attention to Ramsay’s works. The list of Ross’s unpublished works is closed by a dramatic piece, called "The Shaver," founded on an incident which occurred in Montrose, and by a prose composition, "A Dialogue of the Right of Government among the Scots, the persons George Buchanan and Thomas Maitland." "There are ninety sections in this tract," says Campbell, "and from the slight look I have taken through it I am of opinion it might be rendered a very valuable performance." The specimen given does not indicate the direction of Ross’s political sentiments, nor does Canipbell supply that information; his grandson tells us that " he was best pleased with such religious discourses as were strictly Calvinistic."

From the information thus preserved regarding Ross’s unpublished writings, there seems little reason to regret their loss. His reputation must be founded on his Fortunate Shepherdess, and the songs which were published along with it. With all its faults, this poem is possessed of a high degree of merit and, in addition to its local fame, will continue to be esteemed, by the student of Scottish poetry. Burns has written of him, "Our true brother, Ross of Lochlee, was a wild warlock;" and "the celebrated Dr Blacklock," says Dr Irving, "as I have learnt from one of his pupils, regarded it as equal to the pastoral of Ramsay." This last opinion, it is to be feared, will be shared by few; nor is it any strong evidence of its soundness, to say that it was adopted by Johu Pinkerton, who writes:--"Some of the descriptions are exquisitely natural and fine; the language and thoughts are more truly pastoral, than any I have yet found in any poet, save Theocritus." Ross, indeed, is far inferior to Ramsay in delicacy of feeling, in taste, and in the management of his story. In reading the Fortunate Shepherdess we constantly meet with expressions and allusions of the most unworthy nature. Dr Irving has quoted two lines of this description,—

"And now the priest to join the pair is come,
But first is welcom’d
with a glass a’ rum."

And it were easy to fill a page with similar instances:--

"Now, Mary was as modest as a fleuk,
And at their jeering wist na how to look."

Nor can the reader easily overlook Ross’s absurd nomenclature. Thus the hero is honoured with the female name of Rosalind, and Scottish glens are clothed with the classic appellations of Flaviana and Saevitia; which last name, intended by the author to be expressive of fierceness, was, by a typographical error in the first edition, converted into Soevilia. But the most forcible objection undoubtedly lies in the plot, than which it were difficult to conceive any thing more unpoetical. The early part of the poem is devoted to the description of the love of the hero and heroine, which is beautifully painted in its various stages, growing up from their infancy to their youth, and strengthened by all the love-inspiring incidents and situations of a pastoral life. And at the very moment when the poet has succeeded in completing this beautiful picture of simple affection and guileless innocence, he sets himself to undo the charm, weds the heroine to a richer lover, and sacrifices the hero to a marriage, which his heart cannot approve, and of which the chief object is the recovery of certain sheep and horned cattle. Ross seems to have been aware of the objections which are chargeable against this denouement, and endeavours to obviate them in the preface prefixed to the first edition, by pleading that it is productive of a salutary moral:—"This important lesson is inculcated, that when two young people have come under engagements to one another, no consideration whatever should induce them to break faith, or to promise things incompatible with keeping it entire." It is certainly difficult to see the force of this apology; and Ross’s error on this head is the more note-worthy from his taking objection in his invocation to the plot of his model, the Gentle Shepherd:--

---"Allan bears
The gree himsell, an’ the green laurels wears;
We’el mat he brook them, for
tho’ ye had spair’d
The task to me,
Pate might na been a laird."

It is singular how Ross could have overlooked the circumstance, that Ramsay, in elevating his hero, sacrifices no long-cherished feeling, or former affection; while not only is the Fortunate Shepherdess raised to a similar rank, but this upon the very ruins of an affection, which had twined itself round her heartstrings from her earliest years. We have, perhaps, dwelt too long upon the ungracious task of fault-finding. Ross’s chief talent lies, as was remarked by Beattie, in his descriptions of scenery, and of the habits of a rude and pastoral life. Many of these will cope with the best passages in the Gentle Shepherd, or in any of our Scottish poets. We may refer to the description of a valley at noon (at page 28 of the second edition); to the picture of Flaviana, which has been quoted by Sir Walter Scott in the Heart of Mid Lothian; and to the numerous descriptions of morning, evening, and night, scattered through the poem. It must not be concealed, however, that few of the delineations possess that consistency in their parts, completeness, and nice finish, which are to be found in the Gentle Shepherd. Ross’s songs, though certainly of a very high order of merit, have unfortunately been omitted in the more popular editions of his works. This is to be regretted, as they are disfigured by none of the faults of his larger work, and, notwithstanding their length, would be valuable additions to the Scottish song book. It has been already mentioned, that two editions of his work appeared in the author’s lifetime; a third was printed at Aberdeen in volume with Macneill’s Will and Jean, and some other poems: and a fifth appeared at Dundee in 1812. This last has a life prefixed by his grandson; and it is to be regretted that the liberties taken with the text, the omission of the preface, songs, and glossary, should have rendered it so defective. [The liberties taken with the text, we complain of, consist in attempts to translate the most obsolete words into English, and in frequent omissions of couplets, without any discernible cause. We have ‘shepherd’ for ‘herding;’ ‘honest’ for ‘sackless;’ ‘liv’d,’ for woun’d;’ ‘a burning coal,’ for ‘a clear brunt coal,’ &c.]Besides these, there have appeared numerous editions, on coarse paper, and at a low price, to be hawked through the north of Scotland, where they ever find a ready sale. Of the number of these reprints, it is not easy to obtain an account; we believe the last is that published at Aberdeen in 1826. In Aberdeen-shire and in Angus, the Mearns and Moray, there is no work more popular than "The Fortunate Shepherdess." It disputes popularity with Burns and the Pilgrim’s Progress; is read, in his idle hours, by the shepherd in the glens, and wiles away the weariness of the long winter night, at the crofter’s fireside. On its first appearance, Beattie predicted—

"And ilka Mearns and Angus bairn,
Thy tales and sangs by heart shall learn."

The prediction has been amply verified, and a hope which Ross expressed in one of his unpublished poems, has been realized:—

"Hence lang, perhaps, lang hence may quoted be,
My hamely proverbs lined wi’ blythesome glee;
Some reader then may say, ‘Fair fa’ ye, Ross’
When, aiblins, I’ll be lang, lang dead and gane,
An’ few remember there was sick a ane."


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