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Significant Scots
David Vedder


VEDDER, DAVID.—This warm-hearted enthusiastic sailor-poet, whose open countenance and massive form have so recently disappeared from among us, was born in the parish of Burness, Orkney, in 1790. His father was a small proprietor near Kirkwall; but of him he was bereaved in early boyhood; his widowed mother, however, directed the first steps of his education with singular ability, and carefully led him into that good path which he followed out to the end of his days. Being left an orphan at the age of twelve, David chose the occupation most natural to an island boy and Orcadian—it was that of a sailor, and in the first instance as a cabin-boy; but at the age of eighteen he rose to the rank of mate, and only two years after to the command of a ship, in which he made several voyages to Greenland and other places. Afterwards he entered the revenue service, as first officer of an armed cruiser, in which he continued till 1820, when he obtained the government appointment of tide-surveyor of customs, and officiated in that capacity at the ports of Montrose, Kirkcaldy, Dundee, and Leith, till the close of his active and well-spent life.

Although the tempest-beaten shores and incessantly shifting skies of Orkney are so fitted to inspire poetical emotions—though its wild scenery is fraught with such romantic historical remembrances—and though its children are the descendants of those Vikings and Jaris, who wrought such wondrous deeds in their day, and of those Scalds who recorded them in song—yet it is singular that so few Orcadians of the modern stock have distinguished themselves in the walks of poetry. A veritable Orkney poet, therefore, is the more valuable, on account of the rarity of the species—and one of these few, as well as the choicest specimen of the whole, was David Vedder. The maternal education, although so early terminated, had not only made him a reader and a thinker, but had cultivated his poetical tendencies, so that the ocean storms, by which they might have been otherwise extinguished, only seem to have nursed them into full maturity. Even while a young sailor, and amidst the boisterous navigation of the Northern seas, his chief recreation as well as delight was poetry, so that he ventured at the early age of twenty-one to launch his first published poem into the pages of a magazine. Thus committed to the destinies of the press, other similar attempts quickly followed; and encouraged by the favourable reception they experienced, he commenced authorship in earnest, with a volume entitled the "Covenanter’s Communion, and other Poems," which was published by Blackwood in 1820. This work was so favourably received, that the whole impression was soon exhausted.

We can only give a brief enumeration of David Vedder’s other works. To the "Covenanter’s Communion" succeeded his "Orcadian Sketches"—a production of prose and verse intermixed, in the strong sonorous poetry of which the ringing of his native storms predominates, while many of the events are reminiscences of his own early life. This was followed by a "Life of Sir Walter Scott," which was much read and admired, until it was superseded by the able and ample narrative of Lockhart. In 1841 he published a volume of his collected pieces, under the title of "Poems—Legendary, Lyrical, and Descriptive." In 1848 he published, in conjunction with his son-in-law, Mr. Frederick Schenck, the distinguished lithographer, a splendidly illustrated volume, entitled "Lays and Lithographs," the whole of the letter-press of which was supplied by Mr. Vedder. His last principal work was a new English version of the quaint old German story of "Reynard the Fox," adorned with similar illustrations.

Besides these entire productions, Mr. Vedder was considerably employed, over a course of years, as a coadjutor in other literary undertakings. These, independently of numerous contributions to newspapers and magazines, consisted of additions to George Thomson’s "Musical Miscellany," Blackie’s "Book of Scottish Song," and Robertson’s "Whistlebinkie." He also contributed the greater part of the letter-press to Geikie’s well-known volume of "Etchings." As his authorship had commenced, in like manner it terminated, with the Covenanters; for during his last illness he was employed in the composition of a beautiful ballad, descriptive of their sufferings, founded upon an incident in the life of Andrew Gray, of Chryston, in Ayrshire.

The estimate of Vedder’s literary and intellectual character has been justly and briefly expressed by the Rev. George Gilfillan in the following words—"As a poet and prose writer his powers were of no ordinary kind. He added to strong unrestrained sense much fancy and humour. If not a ‘maker’ in the full extent of that name, he had unquestionably a true natural vein. Dr. Chalmers used actually to electrify his class-room by reading those lines of Vedder’s entitled ‘All Nature worships there;’ and many parts of his ‘Covenater’s Communion’ and his ‘Orcadin Sketches’ display similar power and truth of genius. Although in a great degree self-taught, he managed not only to acquire an excellent English style, but an extensive knowledge of foreign tongues, and his translations from the German are understood to be exceedingly faithful and spirited."

The death of Mr. Vedder occurred at his residence in Newington, near Edinburgh, on the 11th of February, 1854, when he had reached his sixty-fourth year. His funeral was attended by most of the literary men of Edinburgh, who thus rendered public honour to his talents and worth; and a selection from his writings, edited by that distinguished young poet, Alexander Smith, is expected to be published, the profits of which are to be devoted to the erection of a monument over the grave of Vedder, in the Southern Cemetery at the Grange.


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