poet in a golden clime was born,
With golden stars above;
Dower'd with the hate of hate, the scorn of scorn,
The love of love."
Poet's eye, in a fine frenzy rolling,
Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;
And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name."
According to Macpherson, the Ossianic poems were produced in the third century. There has been a controversy as to whether the son of Fingal was a Highlander or an Irishman. It is undeniable that there are traditions relating to Ossian in both countries, and that strains precisely similar to those which have been gleaned in the Gaelic Highlands have been recovered in those districts of Ireland where the Irish language is still spoken. The Irish confidently claim Ossian, or Oisin, as a native of Erin. They describe him as the son of Fionn, one of the Fenii, from whom the modern Fenians derive their name. But Scotland claims to have given him, as well as St. Patrick, a burial-place. In the centre of the "Sma' Glen," a stupendous pass of the Grampian Mountains, there is a huge stone of cubical form, designated Clach Ossian, or Ossian's Stone. It is believed to have formed the primitive memorial stone of the great Celtic bard. When General Wade was constructing in 1746 the Highland road which passes through the glen, his men ascertained that Ossian's Stone was resting on four large slab stones placed edgewise. On the removal of the formidable cover a chamber was discovered about two feet square, in which were contained the debris of bones and fragments of coins. The opening of the tomb caused the natives to assemble from vast distances. They took up the slabs, and the relics which they enclosed, and carried them in solemn procession to a sequestered spot among the hills, where they reinterred them amidst the sound of martial music. The spot where the remains were discovered, indicated by the stone, has been celebrated by Wordsworth in these lines:—
this still place, remote from men,
Sleeps Ossian, in the Narrow Glen;
In this place, where murmurs on
But one meek streamlet,1—only one.
* * * * *
then the bard sleep here indeed?
Or is it but a groundless creed? .
What matters it? I blame them not
Whose fancy in this lonely spot
Was moved, and in such way exprest
Their notion of its perfect rest.
* * * * *
not quiet, it is not ease;
But something deeper far than these.
The separation that is here
Is of the grave, and of austere
Yet happy feelings of the dead;
And therefore was it rightly said
That Ossian, last of all his race,
Lies buried in this lonely place."
The banks of the Carron, Stirlingshire, are celebrated in the Ossianic poems. There, according to the bard, Fingal fought with Caracal, son of the King of the World, understood to be Caracalla, son of Severus, the Roman emperor, who, in the year 211, headed an expedition against the Caledonians. The poem of Comala contains the following:—"Roll, streamy Carun, roll in joy, the sons of battle fled. The steed is not seen in our fields, and the wings of their pride spread in other lands. The sun will now rise in peace, and the shadows descend in joy. The voice of the chase will be heard, and the shield hang in the hall. Our delight will be in the war of the ocean, and our hands be red in the blood of Lochlin. Roll, streamy Carun, roll in joy, the sons of battle fled." The Irish regard these and similar strains as spurious, maintaining that they are not older than the eleventh or twelfth century.
There is an anecdote in connection with the controversy respecting the authenticity of Ossian's poems which has never been recorded. The father of the writer received the story from his friend, George Dempster, of Dunnichen, the celebrated member of Parliament, who was intimately acquainted with Mr. Macpherson, the accomplished editor of Ossian. Shortly after the publication of Dr. Johnson's "Tour to the Hebrides," in which the authenticity of the Ossianic Poems was so forcibly impugned, the literary world in London was strongly impressed with the conviction that the origin ascribed to the compositions was fabulous. The production of the original MSS. would alone satisfy doubters. The request was an unreasonable one, since the compositions had been recovered from tradition, and the Gaelic had only been a written language within a period comparatively recent. But it was deemed prudent, in order to preserve the popularity of the poems, that a little craft should be practised on southern sceptics. A landowner—one of the Macleods—in the Isle of Skye, gave the loan of old leases and other documents from his charter chest. These were deposited with Messrs. Cadell and Davies, the well-known publishers, and were exhibited at their shop for some months as the originals of Ossian!
The origin of Lowland minstrelsy is as unlikely to be determined as is the age of Ossian. There probably were songs and music in Lowland Scotland in ages prior to the period of written history. The spirit of the national lyre seems to have been evoked during the war of independence, and the ardour of the strain has not diminished since. Wyntoun has preserved a stanza lamenting the death of Alexander III. It is presented here in a modernized form:—
Alexander our king was dead,
That Scotland held in love and le,
Away went sons of ale and bread,
Of wine and wax, of game and glee.
Our gold was changed into lead:
Christ, born into virginity,
Succour Scotland, and remeid
That stands in such perplexity."
Songs were sung by the populace in celebration of the doughty deeds of the brave Wallace. Some minstrel verses were composed in celebration of the victory at Bannockburn.
The first Scottish poet, whose compositions have been preserved otherwise than in scraps and fragments, is James I. He was unquestionably the originator of Scottish music. The elder strains were mere rants, which disappeared on the introduction of proper melodies. James had acquired his musical tastes at the Court of England, where he was fourteen years detained in captivity. By his grandson, James III., the minstrel arts were considerably promoted. He pensioned Henry the Minstrel, cherished the poet Dunbar, and personally composed verses. To the cultivation of music he imparted a decided impulse by pensioning at his court William Roger, or Rogers, an eminent English musician, who had visited Scotland in the train of the English ambassador. This person founded a school of music, which led to the scientific study of the art. He was afterwards knighted and constituted a member of the privy council,—distinctions which so enraged the nobility, that they caused him, with the other favourites of the monarch, to be ignominiously executed. The author of this work claims to be the representative of this ingenious but ill-fated musician.
The popular ballads of "The Gaberlunzie Man" and "The Jollie Beggar" were composed by James V. Queen Mary loved music, and wrote verses in French; and James VI. sought reputation as the writer of Latin poetry and of English psalms. Whatever were his defects as a sovereign, James YI. is entitled to approbation as a patron of the poets. The Earl of Stirling, Sir William Drummond of Hawthornden, and Sir Robert Aytoun, were severally honoured with his protection. They were the first Scotsmen who composed in English verse.
Among the various expedients to which James VI. had recourse for promoting the aggrandizement of his favourite, Sir William Alexander, afterwards Lord Stirling, was the privilege which he bestowed upon him of issuing base coins, denominated turners.
This description of money, though of inferior value to the coin issued from the Royal mint, was decreed to pass current; but the decree was extremely unpopular. In 1632, Lord Stirling built a house on the Castle Hill of Stirling, and having inscribed upon it his family shield, with the motto, "Per mare, per terras," some one satirically parodied it with the words "Per metre, per turners."
Sir William Drummond composed serious poetry, but he was essentially a humorist. His macaronic poem, "Polemo-Middinia, or the Battle of the Dunghill," is the most amusing composition of the sort in the language. It is a severe satire on some of the author's contemporaries. Happening to be in London, he proceeded to a tavern where several of his brother poets were in the habit of convening. Before presenting himself, he peeped into the apartment to discover who were present. He was observed, and the party called on him to enter. He found assembled Sir William Alexander, Sir Robert Kerr, Michael Drayton, and Ben Jonson. After an evening's enjoyment, the bards fell a-rhyming about the reckoning. They owned that all their verses were inferior to Drummond's, which ran thus:—
See you four sheep,
And each of you his fleece.
The reckoning is five shilling;
If each of you he willing,
It's fifteen pence apiece."
In 1645, when the plague was raging in Scotland, Drummond happened to arrive at the town of Forfar. Consequent on the regulations of the corporation, he was as a stranger refused admission into the place. He proceeded to the neighbouring town of Kirriemuir, where he was kindly entertained. The incivility which he had experienced at Forfar determined him to resent the affront. Learning that a feud existed between the towns respecting the right to a portion of common styled Muir Moss, he despatched a letter to the Provost of Forfar, which the messenger requested might at once be communicated to the corporation. The Estates of Parliament were sitting at St. Andrews, and the Provost, conceiving that the letter had proceeded from that quarter, ordered the Town Council to meet in the town-house. The parish minister was sent for, that his advice might be available. The communication was opened with much ceremony by the chief magistrate, and handed to the town-clerk, who was requested to read it aloud. The writing proceeded as follows:—
The insult was bitterly felt by every member of the corporation, who resolved to make individual exertion for the detection of the perpetrator.
Sir Robert Aytoun composed verses in several languages, but was not ambitious of fame as a poet. Many of his English poems remained in manuscript, and were supposed to be lost till about twenty-five years ago, when they were incidentally discovered by the author of the present work. Aytoun was the writer of "Old Long Syne," which, modernized by Burns, has become a universal favourite. Sir Robert Aytoun's satirical stanzas on a man dying for love are among his happiest efforts. The first stanza is charming:—
is no worldly pleasure here below,
Which by experience doth not folly prove;
But among all the follies that I know,
The sweetest folly in the world is love."
Sir Robert was a cadet of the same family which produced Professor "William Edmonstoune Aytoun, whose poetical abilities as displayed in his "Scottish Cavaliers" and the "Bon Gualtier Ballads," together with his personal amenities, have caused a universal feeling of regret for his premature decease.
An anecdote of Professor Aytoun may not be unacceptable. Some years ago the writer met him at dinner at a fashionable watering-place. The guests were nearly all strangers to each other. Professor Aytoun was known only to a few. He took a leading part in the conversation, but chiefly directed his discourse to an elderly gentleman who had unadvisedly stated that he held the position of a county magistrate. The professor, conceiving that his new acquaintance valued himself on his magisterial status, seemed bent on obtaining a little harmless diversion at his expense. The robberies perpetrated by Italian brigands were then occupying public attention, and the county magistrate introduced the subject with the observation that the entire body of brigands should be exterminated. The professor took an opposite view, —considered that brigandage was not an unmitigated evil, and conceived that some of the brigand chiefs merited praise for their spirit of adventure. Besides, their system, he conceived, was a brave method of earning a livelihood. "Suppose," he proceeded, "you and I were to-morrow morning proceeding to the railway station with a brace of pistols in our vest pockets. What could be more easy than, by presenting these to the heads of well-to-do looking people in first-class carriages, to earn a number of purses easily, and without the possibility of detection?" "You may attempt this," responded the astonished magistrate, "but, for my part, I shall have nothing to do with it whatever." The subject changed. The administration of the Poor Law became a theme of discussion. The justice, of the peace related that when he was on the bench he decided the cases referred to in a particular manner. "When I am on the bench," said the professor, "I decide quite in the opposite way." "Then I would not give much for your law," said the justice. The matter dropped, and the company soon proceeded to the drawing-room.
There, the writer having entered into conversation with Professor Aytoun, the county magistrate asked him aside, and inquired of him whether he knew the gentleman with whom he had been talking. He added, "I fear his principles are very lax." " Not at all, he is quite sound every way. He is the sheriff and vice-admiral of the Orkneys, a Doctor of the Civil Law, the Professor of Rhetoric in the University of Edinburgh, an Advocate at the Scottish Bar, and a leading contributor to Blackwood's Magazine." "Oh, I see! Professor Aytoun, of course. What a facetious dog he is!" said the magistrate. "Pray introduce me to him."
When Professor Aytoun was making proposals of marriage to his first wife, a daughter of the celebrated Professor Wilson, the lady reminded him that it would be necessary to ask the approval of her sire. "Certainly," said Aytoun; "but as I am a little diffident in speaking to him on this subject, you must just go and tell him my proposals yourself." The lady proceeded to the library, and taking her father affectionately by the hand, mentioned that Professor Aytoun had asked her to become his wife. She added, "Shall I accept his offer, papa? He says he is too diffident to name the subject to you himself." "Then," said old Christopher, "I had better write my reply and pin it to your back." He did so, and the lady returned to the drawing-room. There the anxious suitor read the answer to his message, which was in these words,—"With the author's compliments!"
Professor Wilson was one of the most eccentric of the Scottish poets. He was uncommonly athletic, and was often tempted to afford indication of his physical powers. Shortly after his appointment to the Chair of Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh, he happened to be on a sporting excursion in the south of Scotland. He reached the border town of Hawick on a fair day. The people of this place were formerly celebrated for their pugnacity. As Wilson passed through the market-place two combatants were dealing blows at each other. He saw that one was a practised pugilist, and was disposed to deal unfairly with his opponent. His love of fair play led him to interfere. He called oil the habitual pugilist to act fairly, which immediately drew upon him the ire of the bully, who threatened him with assault. With a single blow the Professor laid him prostrate, and then quietly walked on.
The Professor was in the course of a pedestrian tour in the Perthshire Highlands. A severe storm came on. Evening was drawing on, and there was no hotel or tavern near. The mansion of a surly old laird was not far off; but the cottagers reported that he lived in a state of seclusion, and was the most inhospitable of mankind. Wilson resolved to make an attempt at obtaining shelter under his roof. He proceeded to the mansion, and knocked loudly. The laird was alarmed, and presented himself in the hall, "Who are you?" stuttered the irate gentleman, surveying the stranger's unshaven countenance and mud-bespattered costume. "I am Professor Wilson, of Edinburgh," said the stranger. "Being overtaken by this terrible storm, I have-" "You—you," interrupted the laird, "are nothing of the sort. An impostor, no doubt, looking after plunder. Get you gone." The Professor persevered, pouring forth eloquent sentences on the hospitality of Highland gentlemen. The laird, who was a reader of Blackwood's Magazine, was overpowered by the torrent of animated talk. "Come in, come in," he said; "for certainly you are either Professor Wilson or the d—l." The laird became delighted with his visitor.
The Professor, when in his holiday rambles, dressed very plainly. The late Principal Haldane, of St. Andrews, was travelling inside a stage-coach from Perth to Dunkeld. The only other inside passenger was a lady of prepossessing appearance and elegant manners. When the coach drew up at Dunkeld Hotel, the Principal was astonished to observe that a rough-looking personage, an outside passenger of the coach, handed the lady from the carriage, and familiarly proceeded with her into the hotel. He remembered stories of young ladies eloping with their fathers' grooms, and an apprehension of such an occurrence happening now passed across his mind. He called the landlord and inquired about the lady who had been his fellow-passenger. "Oh," said the landlord, "she is Mrs. Wilson; she has gone up-stairs with her husband, the Professor. May be ye ken him. He is sometimes called Christopher North." "Take my card to Mr. Wilson," said the Principal, quite relieved from his alarm. Principal Haldane was heartily welcomed by his fellow-travellers, and used to relate with much joviality his first impressions of the Edinburgh Professor of Ethics in his sporting jacket.
The late Lord Robertson, of Edinburgh, published two volumes of poems which did not sustain his reputation. Some time subsequent to the publication of his volumes, he met in company his old friend John Gibson Lockhart. "If you survive me, Lockhart," said the poetical judge, "you must write my epitaph." "I'll do it now," said the reviewer; "it will run thus:—
lies a paper Lord,— The poet Peter;
Who broke the laws of God, Of man, and metre.'"
Robertson was eminently facetious. His wit procured a happy retort on one occasion from Sir Walter Scott. Soon after the publication of "Peveril of the Peak," Sir Walter chanced to enter the Parliament House, the promenade room of the Edinburgh Law Courts, when Robertson, then an advocate, was amusing a number of his friends around the fireplace by the scintillations of his wit. As Scott came forward, Robertson exclaimed, "Hush, boys! here comes old Peveril—I see his peak!" There was a general laugh when Scott joined the circle. He asked his friend Lockhart to inform him as to the cause of the merriment. Lockhart related what had been said. Surveying Robertson's protuberant form, Scott said quietly, "Ay, ay, my man, as weel Peveril o' the Peak ony day as Peter o' the Paunch." The laugh was turned.
At a period considerably prior to his acknowledging the authorship of the Waverley Novels, Scott was spending an afternoon with the Ettrick Shepherd at Altrive Lake. The Shepherd was not one of the select few who were entrusted with the secret of the authorship ; but he had never entertained a doubt as to the source whence these novels had proceeded. He had accordingly instructed his bookseller to enclose the Waverley series in a uniform style of binding, and to entitle each volume, "Scott's Novels." In examining the shelves of the Shepherd's library, Sir Walter's eye rested on the long line of handsomely bound volumes, one of which he took down. "I see," said he to his host, "your binder spells Scots with two it's." "In this case," said the Shepherd, "I believe he has spelt correctly." Sir Walter smiled. The story was related to the writer by Mrs. Hogg, the Shepherd's widow.
When a youth of sixteen, Sir Walter Scott met Robert Burns. The great rustic bard had accompanied Professor Dugald Stewart to a conversazione at the residence of Professor Eerguson. There being several strangers present, Burns did not join in the general conversation, but proceeded to examine the. pictures in the room. His attention was arrested by a print of Bunbury's, representing a soldier lying dead on the snow, his dog sitting by his side, and on the other his widow, with a child in her arms. Under the print were inscribed several lines of verse, descriptive of the scene; and Burns, who was melted to tears by the ideas suggested in the representation, inquired as to the authorship of the poetry. The philosophers were silent, or admitted their inability to make answer. Young Scott said, diffidently, "They're written by one Langhorne." On further inquiry, the pale-faced boy gave the name of the work from which the lines were quoted. He received in return a commendatory look from the bard of Coila, with these approving words,—"You'll be a man yet." This little speech, remarks a popular writer, constituted Scott's literary ordination.
Sir Walter retained a vivid recollection of his interview with the Ayrshire poet. He was particularly struck with his large dark eye. He writes, "It literally glowed. I never saw such another eye in a human head, though I have seen the most distinguished men in my time." The writer was informed by Mrs. Begg, the poet's sister, that the expression of her brother's eye, once seen, was never to be forgotten. She added, "His entire countenance beamed with genius. So striking was his look, that a stranger passing him on the highway would, though ignorant who he was, have turned round to look at him a second time."
Burns possessed the power of a crushing sarcasm, which he was not loth, on fitting occasion, to administer. He was standing on the quay at Greenock, when a prosperous merchant of the place happened to fall into the water. Being unable to swim, he had certainly perished had not a sailor at once plunged after him, and, at the risk of his own life, rescued him from his perilous situation. The merchant drew his purse, and gave the sailor a shilling. The bystanders protested as to the contemptible nature of the reward, when Burns, coming forward, entreated them to refrain. "Surely," said he, with a smile of scorn, "the gentleman is the best judge of the value of his own life."
An English commercial traveller, named Turner, met Burns in the King's Arms Hotel, Dumfries. Understanding that his new acquaintance was a poet, he professed attachment to his fraternity, and offered to treat him with a bottle of wine. But his conversation was chiefly about himself and his own merits. As Burns rose to take leave, the traveller asked him for a specimen of his versifying. Procuring a slip of paper, the poet wrote the following stanza, which he handed to his friend, and at once retired:—
seventeen hundred forty-nine,
Satan took stuff to make a swine,
And cast it in a corner:
But wilily he changed his plan,
And shaped it something like a man,
And ca'd it Andrew Turner."
Burns was dining with Mr. Miller, of Dalswinton. He was informed that one of the Lords of Justiciary had dined at Dalswinton the day before, and that, on entering the drawing-room, his lordship's vision being affected by his potations, he had pointed to one of his host's daughters, saying, "Wha's yon howlet-faced thing in the corner?" Burns tore off the blank leaf of a letter, and inscribed upon it these lines, which he presented to Miss Miller:—
daur ye ca' me howlet-faced,
Ye ugly, glowering spectre?
My face was but the keekin' glass,
And there ye saw your picture."
In a company where Burns was present some one had characterized the adherents of the Solemn League and Covenant as ridiculous and fanatical. He wrote and handed these lines to the sneerer:—
Solemn League and Covenant
Cost Scotland blood—cost Scotland tears;
But it sealed Freedom's sacred cause:—
If thou'rt a slave, indulge thy sneers."
The following anecdote of the bard has not been recorded hitherto. It was obtained by the writer's father from a personal associate of the poet. Burns, at a public entertainment, was seated opposite a young foppish nobleman, who, to evince his contempt for one whom he regarded as a literary upstart, filliped some of his wine in the direction of the poet.
"We do it much better in our country," said the bard, as he raised his glass, and threw the entire contents in the face of the aggressor.
It is an error to suppose that Burns was not generally appreciated in his lifetime. He was eminently so. Before he had composed any of those exquisite songs which he contributed to Johnson's "Musical Museum," and Thomson's "Collection," he was hailed as a prodigy. He visited Edinburgh direct from the plough, and was received with honours and hospitalities by the leading persons of that lettered capital. His subsequent provincial tour was a continued ovation. "When he was passing the second edition of his poems through Mr. Smellie's press at Edinburgh, the stool on which he usually sat while correcting his proof-sheets he found one day occupied. He looked annoyed, and the foreman, perceiving the cause, asked him to step a moment into the composing-room. Sir John Dalrymple, who was seated on the stool, was now asked to resign it for a chair, which was handed to him. "What!" said Sir John, "do you suppose I'll resign my seat to yon impudent, staring fellow?" "That is Robert Burns," said the foreman. "Robert Burns!" responded Sir John, at once dismounting from the stool; "that quite alters the case. Give him all the seats in the place."
Owing to his occasional excesses, Burns latterly forfeited the friendship of some who, at a former period, were proud to cherish his society. When keenly suffering from the loss of certain friendships, he began to apprehend, as Byron did afterwards, that his poetical fame was about to suffer an eclipse. On such occasions he would say to his wife, "Jean, they'll ken me better a hunder years after I'm gane than they do now." This anecdote is related by Colonel William Mcol Burns, the poet's surviving son.
Though abundantly conscious of his powers, Burns was free from the vanity so common to untravelled bards. His sister, Mrs. Begg, related to the writer that he was most attentive to the domestic duties, and entirely unobtrusive with his verses at the family circle. By his eldest son, Robert, who had a distinct remembrance of his father, the writer was informed that he encouraged his children to read poetry, but never presented to them his own. "My father died," said Robert, "when I was about ten years old; and though I had already read the compositions of the best English poets, I did not know that my father had written verses till considerably after the period of his death."
To the relics of Burns an extraordinary interest has attached. They have been dispersed over the habitable globe. Not a few of them have been made the subjects of special bequests. On this subject Mr. Bennoch, of London, relates, in the " Year-book," an interesting anecdote. Bacon, the host of the posting inn at Brownhill, twelve miles north of Dumfries, was an associate of the poet. From the bard he had received a snuff-box,—a horn neatly turned at the point, and mounted with silver. The landlord carried it to his dying day, out of respect for the ingenious donor. He died in 1825, when his effects were exposed to sale. The snuff-box was put up, and was being knocked down for a shilling, when the auctioneer, happening to look on the lid, discovered the inscription, which he read aloud,— "Robert Burns, officer of the excise." The words had just been pronounced, when rapid bidding followed, till the box was ultimately disposed of for five pounds. The writer was shown by his friend, Mr. Joseph Mayer, of Liverpool (whose collection of Burns's relics is unrivalled), a plain round "mull," inscribed with the poet's initials, for which an offer of five pounds had been declined.
A blacksmith at St. Ninians, Stirlingshire, is possessed of a sword-cane, which was gifted by the bard to a brother exciseman. For this relic the blacksmith has refused a tender of twenty pounds.
At the period of the Centenary celebration, the late Dr. Gillies, Roman Catholic Bishop of Edinburgh, presented to the Society of Scottish Antiquaries a pair of pistols which were said to have been used by the poet. A public notification of the event was followed by a statement in the Illustrated London News to the effect that the relics presented by the bishop were not genuine, the poet's pistols having been acquired by Allan Cunningham, and retained by his representatives. This announcement was acutely felt by Dr. Gillies, who determined to establish the genuineness of his gift. A thorough examination of the subject led to an unexpected result. It was proved that the pistols possessed by Allan Cunningham's representatives and those which the Catholic bishop had presented to the Antiquaries, had not belonged to the Scottish bard! But the genuine pistols turned up, and being acquired by Bishop Gillies, were by him deposited in the Antiquarian Museum.
A relic of the Ayrshire bard, of curious interest, may be mentioned. A son of the late Mr. James Gracie, banker, Dumfries, who was a kind benefactor of the bard, possesses a volume of Dr. Blair's Sermons, presented to Burns by the author. It contains numerous pencil-markings by the poet. Some years ago the writer examined this volume. A sermon on calumny was in many parts marked with approving sentences, as were passages in other discourses, referring to the ingratitude of the world, and the uncertainty of human friendship. The poet, it is easy to perceive, had been smarting under the sting of wounded pride and the desertions of friends.
Another interesting relic may be named. After composing his celebrated ode of "Bruce's Address to his Army at Bannockburn," he addressed a copy to his friend, Mr. Miller of Dalswinton. That copy, along with the poet's letter which accompanied it, was presented by a son of Mr. Miller to the late Mr. Wallace, of Kelly, as head of the Wallace family.
On the death of Mr. Wallace, the document descended to his younger brother, the writer's late friend, Lieutenant-General Sir James Maxwell Wallace, who indicated his intention to bequeath it for preservation in the National Wallace Monument, so soon as that structure was completed.
In certain modern editions of his works, that eminently beautiful lyric, "The Land o' the Leal," has been ascribed to Burns. Several of his recent biographers allege that it .was composed by him on his death-bed, and addressed to his wife. This is an error. The lyric was written by Carolina, Baroness Nairn, author of "The Lays of Strathearn." She wrote it for two married relatives of her own who had sustained bereavement in the death of a child. The original MS. has been in the hands of the writer. The correct version begins, "I'm wearin' awa', John," not "Jean."
Lady Nairn composed many other popular songs. In this respect she ranks next to Burns. From her pen proceeded such well-known compositions as "Will ye gang ower the lea-rig?" "Kind Robin loes me," "Oh weel's me on my ain Man," "Saw ye nae my Peggy?" "There's Cauld Kail in Aberdeen," "He's ower the hills that I loe weel," "The Lass o' Gowrie," "He's, a terrible man, John Tod," "Bonnie Charlie's now awa'," "The Hundred Pipers," "Caller Herrin'," and "The Laird o' Cockpen." Several of these are attributed to Burns, and have been latterly included in his works. But Lady Nairn's MSS. prove her title.
The song "Caller Herrin'" was a favourite of John Wilson, the eminent vocalist. "The Laird o' Cockpen " was composed at the beginning of the century. The last two stanzas were added by Miss Ferrier.
When the late distinguished Marquis of Dalhousie, who owned Cockpen estate, was a rejected candidate for the representation of Edinburgh, he amused both his friends and opponents by quoting, in a hustings speech, a line of Lady Nairn's song. "I may only remark of Edinburgh," said his lordship, "that—
' he's daft to refuse the Laird o' Cockpen.'"
This song was founded on an older composition, beginning, "When she came ben she bobbit." That ditty was composed in the reign of Charles II. The Laird of Cockpen, hero of the piece, was an associate and military follower of the king. He was engaged on his side at the battle of Worcester, and afterwards accompanied the monarch to Holland, where he formed one of his little court. The laird excelled as a musician, and greatly delighted the king by his skilful playing. For the tune "Brose and Butter " Charles conceived a particular favour, and his companion gratified his royal wish in lulling him asleep at night, and awakening him in the morning, by playing that enchanting air.
At the Restoration, Cockpen found that his estate had been confiscated, and he had the mortification to discover that he had suffered on behalf of an ungrateful prince, who gave no response to his many entreaties for the restoration of his possessions. Visiting London, he was denied an audience, but he still entertained a hope that, by a personal conference with the king, he might gain his object. To accomplish this design he had recourse to artifice. He formed the acquaintance of the organist in the Chapel Royal, and obtained permission to officiate as his substitute when the king came to service. He did so with becoming propriety till the close of the service, when, instead of the solemn departing air, he struck up the king's old favourite "Brose and Butter." The scheme succeeded in the manner intended. The king, proceeding hastily to the organ gallery, discovered Cockpen, whom he saluted familiarly, declaring he had "almost made him dance." "I could dance too," said Cockpen, "if I had my lands again." The request to which every entreaty, on the score of humanity and justice, could not gain a response, was granted by the power of music. Cockpen was restored to his inheritance.
Lady Nairn was descended from the old Jacobite house of Oliphant, of Gask. Her father, Laurence Oliphant, of Gask, christened her Carolina in honour of Charles Edward; his father had attended the prince as aide-de-camp during his disastrous campaign of 1745-6, and his mother had indicated her deep sympathy in his cause by begging a lock of his hair on his accepting the family hospitalities. Lady Nairn has celebrated this incident in her beautiful song of "The Auld House." She sings,—
leddy, too, sae genty
There sheltered Scotland's heir,
An' dipt a lock wi' her ain hand
Frae his lang yellow hair."
Lady Nairn's father would never permit the toast of the reigning family to be drunk in his presence. When he was old, and impaired eyesight compelled him to seek the assistance of his family in reading the newspapers, he would have angrily reproved the reader if "the German lairdie and his leddy" were designated otherwise than as "K. and Q."
Some one related to George the Third that there was a person in his dominions who would not drink to his Majesty's health, referring to the peculiarity of Mr. Oliphant, of Gask. "I respect that man," said the king.
Baroness Nairn was enthusiastic in her admiration of the genius of Burns, and began to compose verses to the older Scottish melodies on remarking the success of the Ayrshire bard in remodelling the elder ditties. She published all her compositions anonymously, or under the nom de plume of "Mrs. Bogan," and her identity was only made known after her decease.
The diffidence evinced by Lady Nairn on the subject of authorship was shared by two contemporary poetesses. Lady Anne Barnard, nee Lindsay, eldest daughter of James, Earl of Balcarras, composed many precious lyrics, but she so dreaded publicity that she could never persuade herself to make them public. There was a single exception. The ballad of "Auld Robin Gray," composed in her twenty-first year, was printed by a member of her family, and speedily attained popularity. The hero of the ballad was the old herdman of Balcarras.
So great an interest was excited by the question as to the authorship of "Auld Robin Gray," which remained undetermined upwards of half a century, that the Society of Scottish Antiquaries made it a subject of investigation. The author was advertised for in the newspapers, a reward being offered for such information as might lead to his discovery. At length, in her seventy-third year, Lady Nairn revealed her secret to Sir Walter Scott, who printed an original copy of the ballad as his contribution to the Bannatyne Club.
Mrs. Agnes Lyon, like the preceding, is known only as the writer of a single composition. She composed the words of "Neil Gow's Farewell to Whisky." The MS. of the song, in Mrs. Lyon's handwriting, and attested as her composition, is now in the possession of a relative of the writer. Mrs. Lyon composed many poems and songs, which are still in MS. She has specified, in her MS. book that the compositions are to be published only when the family funds are short.
It is well known that Burns was an enthusiastic admirer of the poet Robert Fergusson, to whom he erected a tombstone in the Canongate Churchyard, Edinburgh. Fergusson is now almost forgotten, being eclipsed by the superior powers of the Ayrshire bard. As a true Scottish poet he is entitled to commemoration. He was singularly impulsive, and ultimately became a victim to mental disease. When a youth, he was residing with a maternal uncle, in the vicinity of Aberdeen. This gentleman was factor to a nobleman, and being a kind-hearted man, desired to introduce him to his noble constituent, who happened to be dining with him one day. Instead of appearing in a manner befitting the occasion, the juvenile poet entered the room in a state of deshabille, his clothes being torn from the effects of a ramble in the neighbouring plantation. Mortified by the youth's indifference, his uncle expressed himself indignantly, Fergusson proudly walked off. Hearing that he had left the premises, his uncle despatched after him a messenger on horseback. He was overtaken, but he doggedly refused to return. He walked to Edinburgh, a distance of two hundred miles, subsisting by the way as he best could.
He studied at the United College, St. Andrews. Here his poetical abilities recommended him to several of the professors, and preserved him from the effects of his occasional indiscretions. The father of the writer occupied the same rooms in the college which had been tenanted by Fergusson about fifteen years previously. He found the walls covered with rhymes, generally of a satirical order, both at the expense of the professors and certain of his less brilliant contemporaries. Two of the latter had been employed in agricultural operations before aspiring to academic honours. He inscribed one morning with red chalk, on the staircase conducting to their apartments, the couplet,—
Cobb and William Moodie
Left the plough and came to study."
He thus completed the verse in the evening:—
"William Moodie and poet Cobb
Never tried a worse job."
On one occasion the professors were made heavily to feel the bitter irony and reckless sarcasm of their poetical alumnus. The bursars, or students residing within the college, and entitled to be maintained by the institution, dined together daily in the common hall. The fare was mean, consisting generally of rabbits, from a warren in the neighbourhood. The bursars had often grumbled, but as a professor presided at table, none ventured openly to complain. Each bursar asked the blessing by turns. It was Eergusson's turn. He rose up reverently, and repeated the following:—
rabbits young and for rabbits old,
For rabbits hot and for rabbits cold,
For rabbits tender and for rabbits tough,
Our thanks we render, for we've had enough."
The presiding professor reported, as nearly as he could remember, the words of "the grace" to his colleagues, and a meeting of the Senatus Academicus was convened. It was ascertained that extensive dissatisfaction prevailed, and that Fergusson was the spokesman of many. His punishment might therefore have been attended with general insubordination. It was resolved to overlook the offence, and to provide a greater variety of food.
When Allan Ramsay commenced business in Edinburgh, he experienced the difficulties which usually attend the first step on the ladder of life. He was unable to meet his first half-year's rent. Some time after the rent had become due he chanced to meet his landlord, a country farmer, who was attending the Hallow Fair. The farmer hailed him to a neighbouring tavern. When they sat down, Allan referred to the subject of the rent, and expressed his distress of mind that he was unable to satisfy it. The farmer told him not to vex himself about the matter; he saw he was a lad of some genius, and would give him time. "Indeed," proceeded the farmer, "if you'll give me a rhyming answer to four questions in as many minutes, I'll quit you the rent altogether." Allan said he would try. The questions put were these:—"What does God love? What does the devil love? What does the world love? What do I love?" Within the specified time Ramsay produced the following verse:—
loves man when he refrains from sin;
The devil loves man when he persists therein;
The world loves man when riches on him flow,
And you'd love me could I pay what I owe."
"The rent is paid," said the farmer, giving his young tenant a hearty slap across the shoulders, in token of high approval.
The distinguished author of "The Pleasures of Hope" was prone to some of the eccentricities which characterize men of genius. The late Professor Pillans, of Edinburgh, used to relate the following narrative concerning his early friend. When a student at Edinburgh University, Pillans happened to meet Thomas Campbell, who was then prosecuting his studies at the University at Glasgow. The youths became at once fast friends. Pillans invited his Glasgow friend to visit him in his father's house at Edinburgh, at the close of the session. The young poet accepted the invitation, but he proved a most unsocial visitor. Nothing could arouse him from a meditative mood; he seemed to have fallen into a condition of entire dejection—a sort of mental depression which could not be overcome. Mr. Pillans's father, an intelligent master printer, remonstrated with his son for bringing such "a woe-begone" person to the house. "I should not be surprised," he said, "though he would put an end to himself before morning." The future professor had likewise his misgivings as to his friend's sanity. But Campbell was then deep in the composition of "The Pleasures of Hope," which, on its appearance, at once established his claim to the highest poetical honours.
Campbell was singularly impulsive, and, as Dryden describes fortune, always in extremes. Attending the coronation of Queen Victoria in Westminster Abbey, he was moved to tears by the manner, so dignified and admirably self-possessed, in which her Majesty comported herself during the ceremonial. Returning home, he resolved to give expression to his sentiments by begging her Majesty's acceptance of a complete set of his works. He got his volumes bound in an appropriate style, and personally placed them in the hands of her Majesty's private secretary. He was informed by the secretary that the Queen was unwilling to receive gifts, since these placed her under obligations which she desired to avoid. The poet responded that there was nothing in her Majesty's dominions which he coveted, and that he simply claimed the privilege of rendering, as a subject, his devotion to his Sovereign. The secretary promised to place the volumes and his statement before the Queen. Next day a parcel from the palace was received at the poet's residence. He hesitated to open it. When he did he found his volumes returned, accompanied by a note. The Queen had graciously accepted the gift, but desired the author's autograph upon them. Campbell immediately complied with the royal wish, and in two days received another parcel from the palace, which contained an elegant engraving of her Majesty's portrait, inscribed with the royal autograph. The poet delighted to relate the anecdote and exhibit the engraving.
Campbell was walking down Regent Street, in company with the poet Southey. A poor woman with a child in her arms, and another half-clad little creature by her side, came up and solicited relief. Southey found he had no money, and Campbell, to whom such an appeal was at all times irresistible, had no smaller coin than a sovereign. He hastened into a mercer's shop, and presenting the sovereign, asked abruptly for change. The shopman was attending to a customer, but Campbell, unmindful of the fact in his desire to relieve the poor woman, insisted on his demand being complied with at once. His excited manner so alarmed the master of the shop, that after some words of an angry kind on both sides, he leaped over his counter and seized the poet by the collar. "You have come, both of you," said the irate mercer, "to make a disturbance for a dishonest purpose, and both of you shall go out at once." Campbell roared out, "Thrash the fellow! thrash him!" "You will not go out, then?" said the mercer. "Never till you apologize," said the poet. "Go, John, to Vine Street, and fetch the police," said the mercer to his assistant. Two policemen appeared forthwith, these at once placing themselves in ominous juxtaposition to the two poets. Campbell was unable to articulate from indignation. The Poet Laureate calmly explained the state of the case, adding, "This is Mr. Thomas Campbell, the distinguished poet, a man who would not hurt a fly, much less act with dishonesty." "Gudeness, man," said one of the policemen, starting back, "is this Maister Cammell, the Lord Rector o' Glasgow?" "Yes, he is; there is Mr. Campbell's card," said Southey. The mercer was appeased at once. "Had I known the gentleman," said he, "I would have changed fifty sovereigns for him." "My dear fellow," said Campbell, "I am not at all offended." And they shook hands, and parted excellent friends.
The poet's whimsical impulsiveness got him, on another occasion, into a kind of scrape. He was remarkable for his love of beautiful children. According to Mr. Jerdan, he was one day struck by the beauty of a child which he had seen in St. James's Park. To discover the abode of the young beauty, he put an advertisement in the newspapers. He had related what he had done to some persons, who could not resist the opportunity of indulging a joke at his expense. They answered the appeal, giving an address in Sloane Street. Next morning Campbell presented his card at the house, and was shown into the drawing-room. A middle-aged lady appeared, when the visitor proceeded to state that his errand was to see her lovely offspring. The lady made no reply, but rung the bell violently, and requested that the stranger might be conducted out. The poet had been sent to the house of a spinster!
At an argument, Campbell was apt to betray an embarrassing keenness of speech. Dr. John Leyden, the eminent poet and Orientalist, was afflicted with similar impatience. The bards had quarrelled, but they remained, amidst their disputes, warm admirers of each other's genius. Sir Walter Scott relates how he repeated "Hohenlinden" to Leyden, who immediately said, in his own peculiar style, "Dash it, man, tell the fellow that I hate him; but dash him, he has written the finest verses that have been published these fifty years." Scott communicated this singular message, and received from the bard of Hope the reply, "Tell Leyden that I detest him, but I know the value of his critical approbation."
Repartee was not Campbell's forte; he occasionally succeeded. A poet, who had fancied his deserts overlooked, remarked to him one day, "I blush for the ignorance of the public; they have no taste—no perception of merit." "Ay," said the poet of Hope, "merit like yours, my friend, was born to blush unseen." He was fairly overcome at this species of banter by Turner, the celebrated painter. Meeting Turner at dinner one day, Campbell, with a view to his complimenting his brother artist, was asked to propose a toast. "I'll give you the painters and glaziers," said Campbell. There was the expected laugh; but Turner's turn came. He looked significantly at the bard of Hope, and proposed "The Paper-stainers."
Dr. Leyden was as impulsive as his poetical adversary. He could not be deterred from carrying out any resolution he had formed. His studies being at one period of a highly miscellaneous character, some one remonstrated with him on the circumstance. He replied, using his usual interjection, " Dash it, man, never mind ; if you have the scaffolding ready, you can run up the masonry when you please." On board an Indian vessel he was boasting of his agility, when two gentlemen betted twenty gold mohrs that he could not go aloft. Leyden at once took to the shrouds and speedily reached the maintop. It was intended to inflict upon him the practical joke of tying him up till he should consent to pay a price for his liberty. Perceiving their intention, he seized a rope, and swung himself down— though at the cost of removing the skin from both his hands. He threw into the sea the order for the money which he had won.
On the eve of his departure for India, Leyden bid adieu to his friends at Edinburgh, with the intention of paying a farewell visit to his parents in Roxburghshire en route for London. A sudden impulse induced him to return to the Scottish capital, after he had proceeded some miles on his journey. He arrived in the city late of an evening, and proceeded at once to the residence of a friend, who chanced to be entertaining a party who had been toasting his health, and in kindly speeches regretting his departure. Sudden as an apparition, Leyden burst into the room with his familiar "Dash it, boys, I am here again."
James Hogg possessed the power of conjuring up ghosts, hobgoblins, and other frightful phantasmagoria, so as not only to exercise a spell over his auditors, but to haunt his own mind with viewless horrors. At the "Gordon Arms" inn, in the vicinity of his own residence of Altrive, he was one evening discoursing to willing listeners of phantoms and apparitions associated with a tale of terror. The riveted attention of the party induced him to call forth his utmost energies in depicting the frightful supernatural of his story, when a screeching female voice called into the room, "Maister Hougg, there's ane wantin' ye." "Preserve us, lassie! wha can want me at this time o' nicht?" exclaimed the bewildered poet, who started up, horror-stricken by the terrors of his own story.
During his visit to London a few years before his death, Hogg was feted with hospitalities. At an entertainment given by Macleod of Macleod, he responded to an invitation to sing by chanting one of his Jacobite songs. When he had finished, some one remarked to him, jestingly, that he had surely forgotten that the Duke of Argyle was present. "Oh, your Grace!" exclaimed the shepherd, "never mind, I'll give you another." And he proceeded to sing "Donald Macgillivray," much to the amusement of the company.
Allan Cunningham, like the author of "The Pleasures of Hope," resided chiefly in the metropolis. His entree to the literary world was somewhat after the manner of Chatterton. When a stonemason in Dumfriesshire, he had been introduced to Cromek, a London engraver, who was then collecting materials for his "Reliques of Robert Burns." Cunningham produced to Cromek some specimens of ballads apparently of an ancient origin, and so determined the enthusiastic engraver to publish another work, entitled "The Remains of Nithsdale and Galloway Song." The better portion of these Remains were composed by Allan himself. Cromek invited him to London, and entertained him at his residence. Trusting to his generosity, Cunningham at length revealed to his Mecsenas his real connection with the collected poetry. Cromek, who was a man of narrow views, could not endure the idea of having been deceived. He indignantly threw off his protege, who was obliged to resume his trade as a stonemason. But fortune attended him, and he soon obtained in Chantrey's studio a position worthy of his artistic skill and literary accomplishments.
Leyden and Hogg both practised on Sir Walter Scott the same species of imposture which Cromek suffered at the hands of Allan Cunningham. But Scott was gratified, rather than indignant, when, on the confession of the delinquents, he found that the spirit of the older ballad-writers had been transmitted to their descendants.
The Rev. James Grahame, author of "The Sabbath," occupied much of his time in verse-making, to the vexation of his excellent wife, who conceived that he was more likely to excel as a writer of prose and in other pursuits. From Mrs. Grahame he carefully concealed that he was composing a poem on the Sabbath. When the poem appeared in a handsome volume, he placed a copy on the drawing-room table, remarking to Mrs. Grahame that it was the latest poetical work which had been published. She proceeded to read a portion, and at length exclaimed, "Ah, James, if you could but produce a poem like this!" With feelings which may be imagined, Mr. Grahame proceeded to reveal the authorship.
The short-lived but most ingenious brothers, Alexander and John Bethune, the peasant poets, possessed, in the earlier portion of their career, a remarkable degree of diffidence. They were most careful in concealing from their neighbours their turn for verse-making. On the entrance of any stranger into their cottage, they hid their MSS., and removed all traces of literary occupation. This continued until the appearance of several of their volumes led to their being publicly recognized as men of letters.
A strong consciousness of power would seem to have been a characteristic of those Scottish bards whose genius early attained maturity. Bobert Fergusson was painfully conscious of his poetical powers; the conviction was a burden to him, and ultimately upset his mind. On the approach of dissolution, Michael Bruce cherished the resignation of the Christian, but felt deeply that the extinction of "life's taper" would blunt his hope of the poetic wreath. Pollok was eminently pious, and gently resigned his harp. He died conscious of great powers; in his own words, he—
from far the voice of fame,—
Heard and was charmed."
Burns, we have seen, felt, amidst the unkindness of inconstant friendship, that his genius would, sunlike, rise above every obscuring cloud, and gain immortality. David Gray, the short-lived author of "The Luggie," wrote to his friend, Sydney Dobell, "I tell you that if I live, my name and fame shall be second to few of any age, and to none of my own. I speak thus because I feel power." When he had entered on the duties of his public office in Edinburgh, the late amiable Alexander Smith said to the writer, "If I live, I know that I shall make the. name of Alexander Smith known from one end of the world to the other." He died at the age of thirty-seven, but fulfilled his prediction.
As a remarkable offset to these examples of a just self-consciousness of genius, it is sufficiently remarkable that several persons of transcendent literary and philosophic powers have entirely misapprehended where their strength lay. Hugh Miller published a volume of poems before he became known as a classic prose writer and an accomplished geologist. He was indifferent to reputation in the departments in which he excelled, but was covetous of fame as a poet, which his verses did not justify. Dr. Thomas Brown, the celebrated metaphysician, published a number of poetical volumes, all of which were still-born. The result was mortifying to him, for he would willingly have renounced his fame as a philosopher to have gained the credit of composing one popular poem. Lord Robertson has been named as the author of two volumes of poems. For a niche in the poetic temple, this highly accomplished person would have sacrificed his literary, judicial, and other honours; but his poetical efforts were universally condemned. Dr. William Tennant made many attempts to excel his first effort in "Anster Fair." He believed he had often succeeded, but the public decided otherwise. Apart from "Anster Fair," his numerous poetical volumes scarcely obtained a purchaser. The late Professor Aytoun informed the writer, before the appearance of his "Bothwell," that he would be content that his fame should rest upon it. It proved his only unsuccessful composition.
A venerated Scottish clergyman, some years deceased, who enjoyed a high reputation as a theological scholar and an eloquent preacher, was subject to periodical attacks of erysipelas, which affected his brain. During these attacks he abandoned his usual studies, and busily composed verses, which he took delight in reading to his family and visitors. So soon as he recovered from the attack, he committed his verses to the flames.
The remarkable success of Robert Burns in obtaming an early recognition of his genius led some of his poetical successors to expect that their own compositions would be similarly hailed. Robert Tannahill, in a fit of despondency on account of the supposed indifference to his songs, destroyed his manuscripts and committed suicide. Robert Allan, the author of "There's nae Covenant noo," and many other beautiful songs, left Scotland for America in his sixty-seventh year, disgusted with his native country for overlooking his merits as a poet. Elliot Aitchison, the Hawick bard, a person of remarkable^ poetical talent, was overcome by the neglect of his contemporaries. He ultimately dreaded that his name would be mentioned as a poet, and desired that after his decease he should be forgotten.
The humble circumstances of Scottish poets furnish some curious biographical particulars. Alexander Wilson, afterwards more distinguished as an ornithologist than a poet, composed his songs and ballads while carrying a wallet. James Macfarlan, whose extraordinary merits are not yet fully recognized, likewise commenced life as a pedlar. William Nicholson, author of "The Brownie of Blednoch," was a pedlar and gaberlunzie. Andrew Scott, who composed the popular ballad of "Symon and Janet," was a parish sexton. William Thom, author of "The Mitherless Bairn," was a poor handloom weaver. John Younger, a respectable poet, and author of the prize essay on the Sabbath, was an operative shoemaker. Nearly all the bards have been poor,—the children of misfortune. Some have brought discomfort upon themselves by that love of whisky which is so inherent in Scottish minstrels of the lowlier rank.