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A Group of Scottish Women
Mrs. Alison Cockburn (1713 - 1796)


It is not easy to believe that the name of Alison Cockburn would have become a household word in Scotland had her only claim to fame rested upon the song with which it is always associated. “Flowers of the Forest” is surely not worthy of the excessive praise that has been lavished upon it by most of the compilers of Scottish song-books. Its success supplies but another instance of how little need there is for a song to possess unusual literary merit in order to become popular. The original words – for the ballad is of very ancient date – have been lost long ago, but the simple air to which they were wedded, after being handed down from generation to generation, has inspired several writers to compose appropriate lyrics. Mrs. Cockburn’s attempt is perhaps the most successful, but it would not be hard to pick holes in her poem. The very obvious flaws in its scansion and rhyme are sufficiently apparent.

THE FLOWERS OF THE FOREST

I hae seen the smiling o’ fortune beguiling;
I hae felt all its favours, and found its decay:
Sweet was its blessing, kind its caressing:
But now ‘tis fled – fled far, far away.

I hae seen the forest, adorned the foremost,
With flowers of the fairest, most pleasant and gay,
Sae bonnie was their blooming; their scent the air perfuming;
But now they are wither’d and a’ wede away.

I hae seen the morning with gold the hills adorning,
And loud tempest storming before the mid-day.
I hae seen Tweed’s siller streams, glittering in the sunny beams,
Grow drumly and dark as they row’d on their way.

O fickle fortune! Why this cruel sporting?
Oh, why still torment us, poor sons of a day!
Nae mair your smiles can cheer me, nae mair your frowns can fear me;
For the Flowers of the Forest are a’ wede away.

Walter Scott and Robert Burns unite in praising this poem to the skies, so it is perhaps rather presumptuous to find fault with it. “A fine set of verses,” Scott calls it in one of his letters. But then Sir Walter was prejudiced in its favour by being personally acquainted with the author. He was forced, indeed, to admit that Mrs. Cockburn’s with and conversational talents made a stronger impression upon her contemporaries than her writings were ever likely to produce upon her descendants.

Burns, too, was a not altogether impartial critic. “‘Flowers of the Forest’ is charming as a poem,” he wrote, in 1793, to Thomson, when the latter had asked his advice as to the projected publication of a series of songs to suit a collection of the best Scottish airs. “The three stanzas beginning –

“’I hae seen the smiling of fortune beguiling’

Are worthy of a place, were it but to immortalise the author of them, who is an old lady of my acquaintance.” (Once more we note the velvet glove of the friend lightening the touch of the critic’s iron hand.) “What a charming apostrophe,” he adds, “is

            “’O fickle fortune! Why this cruel sporting?
            Why, why torment us – poor sons of a day!’”

A charming apostrophe perhaps; but the rhyming of “fortune and “sporting” is distinctly less charming. Burns, however, could not well avoid feeling a kindly interest in this poem without exposing himself to a charge of gross ingratitude. He had known it from the days of his youth. He entertained, in fact, a sort of semi-paternal interest in it; for he himself had once made use of it as the foundation of a juvenile set of verses. It was therefore natural that he should keep a warm corner in his heart for a song which he had plagiarised at the early age of seventeen when he wrote:-

“I dream’d I lay where flowers were springing
Gaily in the sunny beam;
List’ning to the wild birds singing,
By a falling, crystal stream;
Straight the sky grew black and daring;
Thro’ the woods the whirlwinds rave;
Trees with aged arms are warring,
O’er the swelling, drumlie wave.

Such was my life’s deceitful morning,
Such the pleasure I enjoy’d;
But lang or noon, loud tempests storming,
A’ my flowery bliss destroy’d.
Tho’ fickle fortune has deceived me,
She promis’d fair, and perform’d but ill;
Of monie a joy and hope bereav’d me,
I bear a heart shall support me still.”

A comparison of those verses with those of Mrs. Cockburn, which had appeared, eleven years earlier, in a paper called The Lark, shows that not only did Burns steal the idea of his poem from “Flowers of the Forest,” but that many of the actual words were taken bodily from the text of that song. The most that can be said for this offspring of his youthful pen is that it was quite as good, and as much deserving of immortality, as the source of its inspiration. After all, the same thing is true of songs as of verses, of which Dr. Johnson very truly said that it was easy enough to write them; the difficulty was to know when you had written a good one!

Had Mrs. Cockburn done nothing beyond writing “Flowers of the Forest” her name would have been forgotten years ago. Had this ballad been written by a less noteworthy woman, it would not long have survived the date of its birth. But Mrs. Cockburn made her mark upon the social history of her day by other and far more effectual means than as a mere writer of songs. She was for many years one of the best known and best loved characters in Edinburgh society. Her house was the rendezvous of all the interesting persons who inhabited or visited the Scottish capital. Her parties were characterised by an absence of formality, which did not detract form their charm; he hospitality was of that simple kind which insures the comfort of guests without laying them under too deep and obligation. The distinguished company she kept made up for an occasional scarcity of food, and she herself was fond of saying that her little repasts, at which such men as David Hume and Lord Monboddo were often to be met, resembled those of Stella:-

“A supper like her mighty self,
Four nothings on four plates of delf.”

People were not then so particular on the subject of cooking as they are nowadays, and Edinburgh society flocked to Mrs. Cockburn’s door in search of the rich mental fare that she supplied, which her friends infinitely preferred to the material food of many of her wealthier neighbours. In those days, as Lockhart tells us, people “did not deal in six weeks’ invitations and formal dinners; but they formed, at a few hours notice, little snug supper-parties, which, without costing any comparative expense, afforded opportunities a thousandfold for all manner of friendly communication between the sexes.” [Peter’s Letters to his Kinfolk, vol. i. p.107] David Hume, the historian, arriving at Mrs. Cockburn’s house one evening when most of the supper dishes had been consumed, his hostess at once made Herculean efforts to cater for his needs. He stopped her with a smile. “Trouble yourself very little about what you have, or how it appears,” said he. “You know I am no epicure, but only a glutton!” [Life of David Hume, vol. ii. p.449.] And her other guests were equally easy to please. They asked for nothing but the stimulating society of their hostess and the witty conversation of her friends.

Alison Rutherford was the daughter of Robert Rutherford of Fairnilee, and of his second wife, Alison Ker of Shaw. She was born in 1713 at Fairnilee in Selkirkshire, that Tweedside country which Scott has immortalised in “Marmion.” Her childhood was not marked by any event of particular interest. One of the most vivid of her youthful recollections was of the old blind gardener at Fairnilee, to whom she paid a visit regularly every Saturday in order to clip his long white beard, a task which gave the child a satisfactory feeling of self-importance. Another early reminiscence to which she loved to look back was a summons from the minister of Galashiels, [The Rev. H. Davidson, author of  Letters to Christian Friends, &c.] who begged her to come and see him when he lay dying. Alison at once mounted her pony and rode over from Fairnilee at six o’clock in the morning. She found the old gentleman in bed, wearing a Holland nightcap, and lying between sheets as white as his bushy hair. He embraced the girl and thanked her warmly for coming, assuring her that she would never forget the loss of a few hours’ sleep, since it had enabled her to see the last of an old man who was “going home.” The minister was about to give her that meticulous description of his various ailments which it is the pardonable weakness of chronic invalids to inflict upon their friends, when he checked himself, declaring that it was a shame to complain of a bad road which led to such a happy home. “And there,” he added, pointing to an open Bible which lay on a table by his side, “there is my passport. Let me beg, my young friend, you will study it. You are not yet a Christian,” he continued – (“He spoke true,” said Alison afterwards) – “but you have an enquiring mind, and cannot fail to be one.” With that and his blessing the old man dismissed her. Never, she subsequently affirmed, did she feel so happy as on that morning when she rode home from the deathbed which she had brightened for a few moments by the sunshine of her presence. [Letters and Memoirs of Mrs. Alison Rutherford or Cockburn, edited by T. Craig-Brown, p.173. (D. Douglas, Edin.,)]

Before Alison Rutherford had reached the age of seventeen, a young man of her own age, who was eventually destined to suffer a premature and tragic death, had fallen deeply in love with her. This was John Aikman, son of William Aikman, the artist friend of Pope, who painted Lady Grisell Baillie and John, Duke of Argyll, and whose portrait of Duncan Forbes still hangs in our National Portrait Gallery. “John Aikman’s affection, kindness, and sympathy for me surpassed the love of women,” wrote Mrs. Cockburn to a friend, more than forty years later; and she seems always to have kept one little corner of her heart, “empty and hush’d and safe apart,” sacred to his memory. For some reason or other – perhaps owing to the state of the young man’s health; perhaps because she did not return his love – Alison was prevented from wedding this youthful admirer. And in 1731 we find her marrying Patrick Cockburn, a young lawyer, who had been called to the Scottish bar a few years before, and was the son of old Lord Ormiston. [Adam Cockburn, Lord-Justice-Clerk, afterwards appointed a Lord of Session with the title of Lord Ormiston.] Within a month of her marriage with Cockburn, her friend John Aikman died, his death being promptly followed by that of his father, who only survived him a few days. [The following epitaph is inscribed on the tombstone of this unfortunate pair in the Greyfriars’ Churchyard:-

“Of virtue, as by nature, close allied,
The painter’s genius, but without the pride;
With unambitious wit afraid to shine,
Honour’s dear light, and friendship’s warmth divine;
The son, fair rising, knew too short a date,
But oh! much more severe the father’s fate;
He saw him torn unkindly from his side,
Felt all a father’s anguish, wept and died.”
]

Alison Cockburn’s married life was as happy as she or anybody else could possibly have desired. In her youth, as she states in her Memoirs, she had had several “matrimonial, as well as dancing lovers.” But from the moment when she gave her heart as well as her hand to Patrick Cockburn, she never glanced aside or had cause to regret the step which was to bring her two-and-twenty years of wedded bliss.

For the first four years of their married life the Cockburns lived with Alison’s father-in-law, the old Lord Justice-Clerk. “The good old man’s affection for me,” wrote Mrs. Cockburn in after years, “Was infinitely more pleasing than all the adulation I ever met with, and I still remember it with pleasure.” [Her Memoirs, p.4.] That the charms of this amiable relative did not impress everybody to the same favourable extent may be gathered from the fact that he was popularly known as “The Curse of Scotland,” a sobriquet which he earned by his ruthless zeal in harrying and oppressing those unfortunate people who took part in the rebellion of 1715.

It is curious to think that the whole income of the Patrick Cockburns when they married was only £150 a year – a modest competence in these luxurious days – upon which they managed to live comfortably without ever incurring a single debt. We moderns who, occupying a social position similar to theirs, think twice before we marry upon £1000 a year, may look back with something akin to envy at days when it was still possible to keep up appearances upon less than a quarter of that sum. But then we should probably turn up our noses in disgust at the style of living which more than satisfied our ancestors. Mrs. Cockburn’s little parties would be voted “slow,” unless they included a concert given by operatic “stars,” or a dramatic performance by exponents of the latest music-hall sensation. We must all have our box at the opera, where we can sleep peacefully through the second act of Lohengrin. We must own a motor-car, in which we can escape from our friends, or pay surprise visits to other friends who cannot escape from us. We are not “gluttons” like Hume, but it is to be feared that we are all “epicures” nowadays. (This, however, is an unpardonable digression.)

Mrs. Cockburn had an only son to whom both she and her husband were much attached, and when the boy was old enough to be sent to school, his parents moved to Edinburgh so as to be near him. It was in September 1745, during their residence in the capital, that “Bonnie Prince Charlie” made his triumphal entry into Edinburgh, on his way to a week’s lodging at Holyrood, an occasion upon which Mrs. Cockburn distinguished herself and very nearly got into serious trouble by allowing her sense of humour to outrun her discretion. The Cockburns of Ormiston were Whigs and Presbyterians, and strongly disapproved of the Pretender and his claims. This disapproval was voiced by Mrs. Cockburn in a set of verses parodying Prince Charlie’s proclamation, and beginning:-

“Have you any laws to mend,
Or have you any grievance?
I’m a hero at my trade,
And truly a most leal prince.
Would you have war, would you have peace?
Would you be free from taxes?
Come chapping to my father’s door,
You need not doubt of access.” [Songstresses of Scotland, vol. i. p80.]

The author of this parody had watched the prince’s state procession from her window with much secret amusement. She had listened with a smile while the heralds proclaimed King James the Eighth of Scotland and Third of Great Britain. When the cavalcades of Highland chieftains, of lovely ladies distributing Stuart favours to the crowd, of hardy veterans bristling with claymores, had passed, she drove out of the city to make a call at Ravelston, where lived her relatives the Keiths. Their political views, as she well knew, were antagonistic to those of her husband, and, doubtless with the object of chaffing her Jacobite relations, she carried her newly-written verses with her to Ravelston. On her return to Edinburgh, the Keith carriage in which she was driving was suddenly stopped at the City Gate by an officious captain of the Highland Guard, who declared that he had orders to search every incoming vehicle for hidden Whig papers. The position was an awkward one for Mrs. Cockburn. If the satirical verses were found upon her person it would be very difficult to prove their harmless character to a zealous Jacobite captain of the guard, who was unlikely to see the humour of any joke at the expense of his prince. Fortunately the danger was averted by the curiosity of a subordinate officer. Just as things were looking grave, this man happened to catch sight of the friendly Ravelston arms on the panel of the coach, pointed them out to his superior, and the carriage was at once allowed to pass unsearched upon its way. It is to be hoped that the bad quarter-of-an-hour which Alison Cockburn suffered at the City Gate was compensated for by the many subsequent hours of pleasure she gave her friends by her amusing descriptions of the adventure. The incident may not have cured her of writing political squibs, but it must certainly have taught her the folly of carrying them about on her person at times of popular excitement.

Somewhere about this time Patrick Cockburn was appointed commissioner – or, as we should call it nowadays, agent – to James, 6th Duke of Hamilton who never seems to have treated him with the consideration he deserved. The ducal affairs were in a bad state, and it was hoped that the new commissioner would be able to place them upon a sounder financial footing. The duke owed his agent a debt of gratitude for having dissuaded him from joining the rebels in 1745, and was consequently more of less disposed to listen to the good counsel of so sage an adviser. In accordance, therefore, with Cockburn’s advice, he promised to go abroad and remain away for five years in order that in his absence his expenses might be restricted and his affairs satisfactorily arranged. This promise was destined to be broken almost immediately. Within eighteen months of his going abroad, the Duke of Hamilton found prolonged exile from England unbearable. He thereupon wrote a letter of profound apology to his commissioner, explaining his inability to keep his pledge, and begging to be provided with sufficient credit to enable him to return. This done, he hastened home, and became engaged to the beautiful Miss Gunning, whom he married in a great hurry, and with that useful article, a curtain-ring, which has done duty on more than one similar occasion. One of the first things the duke did upon his return was to dismiss his agent, and turn the Cockburns out of the house they were then occupying. [The Dukes of Hamilton seem all to have been somewhat impetuous and eccentric young man. It was a descendant of this duke’s, Archibald, ninth of his line, who advertised for a hermit as an ornament for his park, stipulating that the holy man should only shave once a year. Archibald also had a fancy for peculiar pets, and once when a friend who was paying an afternoon call happened to ask if it were true that he kept a tame tiger, he whistled, and the animal came out from underneath the sofa. The friend immediately recollected a pressing engagement with his dentist, and left the house without stopping to take his hat.] Luckily for them, an old bachelor friend of Patrick’s, who lived in the neighbourhood, came to their assistance, and offered them a temporary asylum in his own home.

Within a year or two of his leaving the Duke of Hamilton’s service, Patrick Cockburn developed a serious illness, and moved with his family to Musselburgh in search of health. Here the best physicians were consulted, among them Sir Walter Scott’s grandfather, Dr. Rutherford, and an eminent surgeon, popularly known as “Kind old Sandy Wood,” famous as being the first man to carry an umbrella in the streets of Edinburgh.

In spite of the treatment prescribed by these able doctors, Patrick Cockburn grew rapidly worse, and finally died in 1753, offering up with his last breath a prayer to heaven to preserve “the dearest and best of wives.” She, poor soul, was heart-broken at the loss she had sustained, and for the next year lived in retirement at the house of her brother-in-law, Sir John Inglis of Cramond. She refused, however, to wear mourning – thereby no doubt shocking the feelings of her more conventional relatives – declaring that such a sorrow as hers was too sacred to be paraded with crape and all the usual paraphernalia of domestic woe.

Mrs. Cockburn subsequently moved to Edinburgh, and settled in a house in Blair’s Close, Castle Hill, which had once been the residence of the first Duke of Gordon, whose coronet was still to be seen emblazoned above the doorway. From this house she subsequently moved to another in Crichton Street, where for fifteen years she and her sister Katherine (Mrs. Swinton) and the latter’s son, who had both joined her in the meantime, lived happily together.

Of Mrs. Cockburn’s friendship with David Hume we have already heard. The numerous letters that passed between them at this time show that they were on affectionate terms which permitted either to indulge in much good-natured chaff at the other’s expense. “Idol of Gaul,” she wrote to her famous friend, when he was in France, in 1764, “I worship thee not… I remember that, in spite of vain philosophy, of dark doubts, of toilsome learning, God had stamped his image of benignity so strong upon thy heart that not all the labours of thy head could efface it. Idol of a foolish people, be not puffed up!” [Life of David Hume, by J.H. Burton, vol. ii. p.231.] One of “these foolish people,” however, she seems to have held in the profoundest regard. Rousseau, that sublime egoist, who was now at the very zenith of his literary fame, made a deep impression upon Mrs. Cockburn’s sensitive heart. She delighted in his masterly but paradoxical condemnations of the ethics of civilisation. Like Hazlitt, another of the Frenchman’s admirers, she too perhaps shed tears “as fast as the Arabian trees their medicinal gums” over the Nouvelle Héloise. “Lord bless you,” she wrote to Hume in 1766, “bring Rousseau here. Sweet old man, he shall sit beneath an oak and hear the Druids’ song… O bring him with you; the English are not worthy of him; I will have him! I cannot speak to him, but I know his heart, and am certain I could please it.” “This is a high pitch of vanity,” she adds, “but I am sure of it; and it’s the only coquetry I’m mad about. Were Voltaire to call at my door, I would say, I will not see him. Bring my dear old Rousseau; I am sure he is like my John Aikman.” [Letters of Eminent Persons to David Hume, edited by J.H. Burton, p.125. (1849.)] Mrs. Cockburn can have had but little knowledge of the domestic life of her hero or she would never have compared him to that early love whose memory was always so dear to her. The publication of Rousseau’s Confessions some twelve years before her death may perhaps have altered her opinion of the philosopher, but in her letters to Hume she can find no praise too strong for this her idol. “In every article I am him,” she writes on another occasion, “except peevishness, which, God willing, men oppressing, and time serving, may bring about. A feeling heart is apt to sour; a cool philosopher who has no guide but reason, no aim but truth, no passions, no follies, but love of fame (a breath blown over his tomb), cannot possibly grow peevish. They only live for their sort of eternity; which we people of fancy, of warmth and imagination, who never will cease from ideas of enjoyment, cannot indulge in; we grow impatient, we do not meet with that perfection we are born with the ideas of, and we grow peevish for want of them; we forget we are in the nursery, and long for the dining-room.” [Ibid., pp.123-4.] Mrs. Cockburn need not have been under any such apprehension as regards her own character, for she never grew peevish or impatient. Sorrow only served to increase her tolerance, and with advancing years she became more and more kindly and broad-minded.

In this pleasant, easy fashion Mrs. Cockburn kept up a voluminous correspondence with a number of friends, many of whom she christened with various appropriate nicknames and bantered unmercifully. One of these was “Bobbie” Chalmers, whom she always addressed as “Brownie,” an Edinburgh solicitor whose combination of simplicity and conceit caused his friends a great deal of amusement. When Chalmers paid his first visit to London, an acquaintance who chanced to meet him at a ball took the opportunity of chalking on his back a notice which ran: “I’m little Bobbie Chalmers from Edinburgh!” The result of this practical joke was that every wag who read the inscription hastened to greet the bearer of it with a cordial “Halloa, Bobbie Chalmers, how are you?” and inquired anxiously for the latest news from Edinburgh. Chalmers was much impressed with the affability of London folk, and not a little puffed up to think that the reputation that had already preceded him was sufficient to insure so hearty a welcome at the hands of complete strangers.

Another of Mrs. Cockburn’s correspondents was Miss Henrietta Cumming, a strange, romantic, hysterical creature, for a long time governess to the Balcarres family, and, like many governesses, very jealous of her position and careful of her sacred dignity. Lady Anne Lindsay describes her as being “so perfectly fantastic, unlike to others, and wild, that when Nature made her, she broke the mould.” [Lives of the Lindsays, vol. ii. p.312] But Mrs. Cockburn was apparently very fond of this curious woman, and obtained much amusement from her various eccentricities of character and conduct. She was also devoted to the whole Lindsay family. Lady Balcarres, indeed, looked upon her, as Lady Anne tells us, as a second mother. “She was ten years her senior, but her mind was so gay, enthusiastic, and ardent, her visions were for ever decked with such powers of fancy, and such infinite goodness of heart, her manners to young people so conciliatory, and her tenets so mild, though plentifully Utopian, that she was an invaluable friend between the mother and the daughters.” [Lives of the Lindsays, ii. p.312.]

Mrs. Cockburn’s peaceful life in Edinburgh was fated ere long to be rudely interrupted by a series of tragedies. Her sister Katherine, who in early life had been almost a mother to Alison, became seriously ill, and died in 1770. In the same year Mrs. Cockburn’s nephew fixed upon her house as a suitable spot in which to attempt suicide. But the chief sorrow of her life was the sudden death of the son whom she worshipped, for whose sake she had made endless sacrifices, and whose happiness, now that her husband was dead, had become the chief object of her existence. He had entered the army as a cornet in the 11th Regiment of Dragoons, but, owing to an illness which temporarily deprived him of the use of his limbs, resigned his commission and came to live with his mother in Edinburgh. Here he fell in love with a girl named Anne Pringle, whose father had married Mrs. Cockburn’s niece. Unfortunately for the two lovers, the girl’s father was utterly opposed to the match, and she herself, like a dutiful daughter, declined to marry without his consent. Mrs. Cockburn did all she could to smooth matters over, and very nearly succeeded in doing so. In fact, a date was eventually fixed for the wedding, and everything promised well for the happiness of the engaged couple. On the very morning of the ceremony, however, Anne suddenly arrived at Mrs. Cockburn’s house, dressed in black from head to foot – she evidently possessed a strong dramatic sense – and after a lengthy private interview with her lover, summarily broke off the engagement. The unfortunate young man’s feelings were so harrowed by this incident that he at once took to his bed and never again quitted it alive.

His mother was now left alone in the world. She was still, however, the centre of an ever-widening circle of sympathetic friends, only too anxious to mitigate her grief, who delighted in her society. After a time, when the first poignancy of her sorrow had worn off, she gradually began to entertain again in a quiet, simple way, and was to be met once more at small parties given in the houses of intimates, where her strong sense of humour, which adversity could not destroy, added greatly to the general enjoyment of her fellow-guests.

Sir Walter Scott declares that Mrs. Cockburn maintained in the society of Edinburgh the rank which French women of talent usually held in that of Paris. Her little parlour used to assemble a very distinguished and accomplished circle of eminent men, and resounded with the conversation of the choicest wits of the day. Laughter was no stranger in her house. One evening, a relative of hers who had slightly exceeded his share of the wine provided by his hostess, locked the door of the room where the hats and coats of the other guests had been left, and went away with the key. When the time came for the party to break up, it was found impossible to gain entrance into this cloakroom, and the guests had to go round to neighbouring houses and borrow suitable attire in which to walk home. The ludicrous effect produced by David Hume’s appearance, in a hat which was much too small for him and boots several sizes too large, was the cause of much hilarity among his fellow-guests, and perhaps made them feel less intolerant of the practical joker and his doubtful humour. [Life of David Hume, vol. ii. p.449. (Hume, by the way, seems to have possessed a peculiar talent for placing himself in ridiculous situations. He used often to tell the story of his falling into a swamp at the back of Edinburgh Castle, and imploring an old Scottish woman who was passing to help him out. “Are na ye Hume the Atheist?” she inquired. “Well, well, no matter,” said the philosopher; “Christian charity commands you to do good to every one.” “Christian charity here, or Christian charity there,” replied the old woman, “I’ll do naething for ye till ye turn Christian yersel’. Ye maun repeat the Lord’s Prayer and the Creed, or faith I’ll let ye grovel there as I found ye!” Hume, the sceptic, who was by this time up to his armpits in the marsh, readily rehearsed the required formulae, and so saved his life.]

Mrs. Cockburn was always very proud of her hair which, like that of Lady Grisell Baillie, was of a rich auburn colour, and never turned grey. She declined to wear a cap such as other old ladies wore, but instead tied a lace hood over her head and under her chin. Her features somewhat resembled those of Queen Elizabeth. This likeness she heightened by wearing sleeves puffed out in the Elizabethan fashion, which was uncommon then, became popular some years ago, has since grown unfashionable, but will very likely regain its place in the affections of the dressmaker before another decade has elapsed.

During the course of a long life she came across many of the most distinguished men of the day, and could count Lord Monboddo and Adam Ferguson among her friends. A letter she wrote to the Rev. Robert Douglas, minister of Galashiels, who was Sir Walter Scott’s friend and sold the first acres of Abbotsford to its future owner, is famous as containing one of the earliest descriptions of the great novelist. It is facetiously dated “!5th Nov., 1777, Saturday night 15 of the gloomy month in which people of England Hang and drown themselves,” and contains the following notice of the lad who was afterwards to make such a name for himself in the world of letters:-

“I last night sup’d in Mr. Walter Scot’s. He has the most extraordinary genius of a boy I ever saw. He was reading a poem to his mother when I went in. I made him read on. It was a description of a shipwreck. His passion rose with the storm: he lifted his eyes and hands. ‘There’s the mast gone,’ says he, ‘I had better read you somewhat more amusing.’”

The young author, who was not yet six years old, then chatted freely and intelligently with Mrs. Cockburn, gave her his opinion on Milton, and observed how strange it was that Adam, just new into the world, should know everything. “He reads like a Garrick,” said the amazed old lady. “You will allow this an uncommon exotick.” [Lockhart’s Life of Scott, p.126. (1853)]

Lockhart attributes to Mrs. Cockburn the authorship of those “lines to Mr. Walter Scott – on reading his poem of ‘Guiscard and Matilda,’” written when the future novelist was only fourteen years old, which show that the writer possessed the true prophetic instinct:-

“Go on, dear youth, the glorious path pursue
Which bounteous nature kindly smoothed for you;
Go, bid the seeds her hand hath sown arise;
By timely culture, to their native skies;
Go, and employ the poet’s heavenly art,
Not merely to delight, but mend the heart.
Than other poets happier mayst thou prove,
More blest in friendship, fortunate in love,
Whilst fame, who longs to make true merit known,
Impatient waits, to claim thee as her own.”

Robert Burns was another of the men, afterwards destined to become famous, whom Mrs. Cockburn met during the last years of her life. “The town is at present agog with the ploughman poet,” she wrote, in 1786, “who receives adulation with native dignity and is the very figure of his profession – coarse and strong – but has a most enthusastick heart of LOVE. He has seen dutchess Gordon and all the gay world. His favrite for looks and manners is Bess Burnet – no bad judge indeed.” [The lady in question was Lord Monboddo’s lovely daughter, of whom Burns wrote:-

“Fair Burnet strikes the adoring eye,
Heaven’s beauties on my fancy shine;
I see the Sire of Love on high,
And own his work divine.”
]

Of Robert burn’s own work Mrs. Cockburn admired “The Cottar’s Saturday Night” the most. She predicted that its author would most certainly be spoilt by the worship of the fashionable world, though she was forced to admit that his manners were simple enough and that he had hitherto apparently succeeded in keeping perfectly sober in society.

This was certainly a most interesting period in the social and literary history of Scotland, when so many young eagles were testing their flying powers. Edinburgh had always been the centre of literary thought. Sir Walter Scott has declared that the vieille cour of the northern capital was more like that of Paris than that of St. James’s. There was an absence of formality and ostentation about the social gatherings of Edinburgh in which they resembled the little French parties where “wit and brilliant conversation superseded all occasion for display.”

The ideas of entertaining one’s friends were different then from what they are today. There was more genuine hospitality and less make-believe. Guests stayed at country houses for weeks on end, instead of arriving by the last train on Saturday night and leaving by the first on Monday morning as they do now. Poor relations quartered themselves indefinitely upon their kindred, after a fashion that is only followed to-day by the mothers-in-law of screaming farce. Indeed, it was not always easy for a good-natured hostess to get rid of her guests when they showed signs of outstaying their welcome. One old Scottish lady, noted for her extreme hospitality, was much imposed upon by unscrupulous friends who paid her interminable visits. At length, when she had determined that the moment had arrived to accelerate their departure, she would come downstairs in the morning and remark with a smile, “Mak’ a gude breakfast, Mr………., while yer aboot it; ye dinna ken whaur ye’ll get your dinner!” Even the most thick-skinned guest could scarcely fail to take such a broad hint as this, and hurried away to pack his portmanteau. Society was, of course, much smaller then. Its gates were not necessarily open to the man with the largest banking account. Nor yet was it so select – to use the word in its modern sense – as to preclude the admission of anyone whose pedigree was not as long as that of a prize bulldog. Intellect and humour were two safe passports to this land of pleasant literary friendships and frank social intercourse. Both of these Mrs. Cockburn possessed to an unusual extent, and was consequently sure of a warm welcome wherever she went.

In this society women – and especially elderly women – were most conspicuous. Foremost among these was Alison Cockburn. “Even at an age advanced beyond the usual bounds of humanity,” wrote Sir Walter Scott, “she retained a play of imagination and an activity of intellect, which must have been attractive and delightful in youth, but are almost preternatural at her period of life. Her active benevolence keeping pace with her genius rendered her equally an object of love and admiration.” [Lives of the Lindsays, vol. ii. p.317.] So it was that Mrs. Cockburn found herself, at the age of eighty, the very centre of the most interesting element in Edinburgh society, and that when she died two years later she left a gap which it was not easy to fill, and a reputation for brilliancy of intellect and kindliness of disposition which has survived until to-day.


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