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Women in History of Scots Descent
Song Writers


In these stories of notable women in Scotland, we have frequently made Edinburgh the centre of our thoughts. Let us look back for a few minutes at some of the stages of its life and growth; the eleventh-century village of Queen Margaret’s day, straggling along the ridge which sloped upwards, from east to west and ended in the towering Castle Rock, perhaps a Roman fortress, even centuries before Queen Margaret. That rock was, and still is the sentinel watching over the town which grew and spread beneath it, the village road becoming a paved street, the cottages of mud and wattle giving place to picturesque little houses of wooden boarding with gable-ends facing the street, and added to till some showed four storeys, slightly overhanging each other. Some of these survived till the nineteenth century at the very base of the castle. But most of the wooden houses were swept away in the great burning of Edinburgh in the time of the Regent, Mary of Guise; and thereafter arose strong stone buildings, with walls often four feet thick, and pointed turrets to the flanking towers. The entrance gates led into stone-paved courtyards where the clatter of horse hooves and the ring of arms were often heard; for these were the dwellings of nobles, often in feud with each other and with men of England and of France. The rooms within were large, but little light could penetrate, because the windows had tiny panes between the heavy wooden frames; these dwellings were for protection rather than for pleasant hours of leisure. The stairways from storey to storey were narrow and winding, the landings small and dark; and even now, in the twentieth century we may look up at these tall gloomy buildings, which still tower above the narrow ‘wynds’ and ‘closes’, no longer the habitation of noblemen, but of the poorest of the poor.

What have these great gloomy dwellings got to do with our light and cheerful subject, ‘Women Song-writers of Scotland’? Much, indeed, because as the years went on and the Act of Union (1707) brought greater peace and order to Scotland, the noble families who still lived in the baronial houses of Edinburgh knew how to enjoy life in gay and peaceful fashion. It was still a little city in the mid-eighteenth century, and crowded with folk who were used to country houses and wide prospects at some seasons of the year. But when they came to Edinburgh there was dancing and singing in the gathering of young folks; great ladies in hoops and powdered hair were borne along the streets in their sedan chairs to these ‘Assemblies’ in order to chaperone their daughters; and in the lofty rooms behind those tiny windows, there were often simple parties where only a single piper gave the tune, and where, between the dances, ladies sang Scottish ballads till some of their listeners wept. Let us imagine ourselves able to watch and listen to some of these musical gatherings.

Even as early as in the thirties of this eighteenth century (about the time when heroic Helen Walker made her pilgrimage to London), we may look in to a house in ‘Bell’s Close’ where a tall old lady with a face showing sweetness and strength is watching the dancing; for she loves nothing better than to help to make other people happy; has she not been doing just that and nought else all her life? And now, in her closing years, her heart is still young; it was she who wrote that haunting line

‘Were na my heart licht, I wad dee.

We know this old friend; it is Lady Grizel Baillie, who loved to write verses in those days in Holland, no matter how full the hours were of household work. Two only of her songs are fully preserved; the one always known by that line with which each of its ten verses ends, and the last verse of which has the distinction of being once quoted by the poet Burns when he was sadly reminded of the past gaiety of his life.

‘Were I but young for thee, as I hae been,
We should hae been gallopin’ doun in yon green,
And linkin’ it owre the lily-white lea—
And wow, gin I were but young for thee!’

Or listen again to the pictures of country life, with the wistful refrain which may well have been wrung from her in those days of waiting for her lover George Baillie.

O the ewe buchtin’s [folding] bonnie, baith evening and morn,
When our blithe shepherds play on the bog-reed and horn;
While we’re milking, they’re lilting baith pleasant and dear,
But my heart’s like to break when I think on my dear.

O the shepherds take pleasure to blow on the horn,
To raise up their flocks and sheep soon i’ the morn;
On the bonnie green banks they feed pleasant and free
But, alas, my dear heart, all my sighing’s for thee!

And at one of these same gatherings in ‘Bell’s Wynd’ we may see another lady famous for one song, and perhaps even more famous for her genial humorous spirits, in the society of Edinburgh.

Miss Alison Rutherford was a gay young woman in the years when Lady Grizel played the part of chaperone; and she was only nineteen when in 1731 she married Mr. Patrick Cockburn of Ormiston. So poor was Mr. Patrick that he and his bride had to live for a time in the house of his elderly father, ‘an old Presbyterian of the deepest dye’ condemning as ungodly cards, plays, and dancing. So, notes young Mrs. Cockburn with her unvarying humour, ‘I was married, properly speaking, to my father-in-law, a man of seventy-five. I lived with him four years, and knowing nothing could please his son so much as to make him fond of me I bestowed all my study to gain his approbation. He disapproved of plays and assemblies; I never went to one.’

And what a giving up was this for a girl in her early twenties, passionately fond of society and admirably fitted for it!

However, after the old judge’s death there was more freedom, but on marvellously small means between the two of them. Nevertheless Mrs. Alison appeared at the ‘Assemblies’ in Edinburgh, up dark winding stairs to flats where dancing and music were going on, and where her handsome face and sprightly form—not quite so splendidly attired, we may guess, as some of the richer guests—was always welcome.

And after her husband’s death, in spite of her small income and the 1oss of her only son in his early life, ‘she never lost her liveliness,’ we are told, ‘her insatiable love of mischief, mockery and match-making,’ everywhere welcome, both in town and country, a good companion, a wise friend, ready to jest over her own ailments.

And when she is too old to visit any longer her friend Mrs. Scott in George Square, ‘young Walter Scott comes to hear her old tales.’

Of the origin of her best known poem we have no exact knowledge: only very varying conjectures. But that some sad memory is at the root of it we cannot doubt; possibly that of her first and unfulfilled love-story. It is called like another which we shall discuss presently ‘The Flowers of the Forest’ : there are four verses only: we quote here the last two.

‘I’ve seen the morning
With gold the hills adorning,
And loud tempest storming before the midday;
I’ve seen Tweed’s sillar streams,
Glittering in the sunny beams,
Grow drumly and dark as they rowed on their way.

‘O fickle fortune
Why this cruel sporting?
Oh! why still perplex 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’ wide away.’

MISS JEAN ELLIOT (1727-1805)

AND what about the other version of the same theme, bringing in that same unforgettable line? Let us look at it before we discuss its origin.

It has a slightly different metre, and a wholly different spirit, for whereas Mrs. Cockburn’s seems to express the sadness of personal regrets, this, by Miss Jean Elliot, is the sorrowing outcry of an entire people, the people of that Border country whose young men marched with King James to Flodden Field, but to return no more.

I’ve heard them lilting at our yowe-milking,
Lasses a-lilting before dawn o’ day:
But now they are moaning on ilka green loaning—
The Flowers of the Forest are a’ wede away.

Dule and wae for the order sent our lads to the Border,
The English, for ance, by guile wan the day;
The Flowers of the Forest, that foucht aye the foremost,
The prime o’ our land, are cauld in the clay.

We’ll hear nae mair lilting at the yowe-milking,
Women and bairns are heartless and wae;
Sighing and moaning on ilka green loaning—
The Flowers of the Forest are a’ wede away.

* * * * * *

And to this day, wherever the sorrows of Scotland are foremost in the minds of her folk—or where honour is paid to those who have died—no words can express so fully the heart-ache of those who stand by, as

The Flowers of the Forest are a’ wede away.’

* * * * * *

Was it the echoes of country laments, old snatches of song lingering in the memories of those whose ancestors had mourned for Flodden Field? Echoes caught up by Jean Elliot as she wandered round the country-side of Minto, where Teviot flows northward to join the Tweed, and to the south, the softly rounded Cheviot hills drop with gentle slopes to the plain?

Or, is it true that, riding home one night with her brother Gilbert in the family coach, in that lonely ‘Forest,’ he wagered her a pair of gloves or a set of ribbons that she could not write a ballad on the subject of Flodden Field.

She accepted the challenge, and when her brother saw the poem, he knew ‘that he had lost his wager and Scotland had gained a ballad which would never die.’

We do not really know whether this story is true; but like other ladies of her day, ‘she kept her secret, and the family gave no sign.’ When her lovely lines were sung at Edinburgh gatherings, Miss Jean Elliot, with her sensible but not beautiful face, her slender figure and air of dignity, would listen and show no feeling. Very different from gay, sociable Mrs. Cockburn, Miss Elliot had few friends, but she had confided to just one of her acquaintances that the poem was hers, and, as ‘Miss Elliot never told lies’, this became gradually well-known—though none would have dared to tax the authoress with it. Always one of the notable figures in these Edinburgh gatherings, though not a popular one, Miss Elliot used to sally forth from her house in Brown Square to join the dances or the music, riding in a sedan chair long after this mode of conveyance had ceased to be fashionable.

And when old age crept on her, she went back to the dale of Teviot, to die at Minto House, looking perhaps, from her window at the great rocky pile of Minto crags, where once, in her girlhood, during the march of Prince Charlie southwards, her father had hidden for fear of arrest, while she with fine dignity and self control entertained the Jacobite officers who had come to interview a staunch Hanoverian laird.

What a link of remembrance here with Flora Macdonald, when she baffled the curiosity of a Hanoverian Captain of Militia who enquired too bluntly about the doings of the fugitive Prince Charles!

LADY ANNE LINDSAY (1750-1825)

Lady Anne Lindsay In the years which followed the tragic happenings of the ‘45, the hopes of Jacobites were falling very low. They still loyally toasted ‘The King over the water’, but the wisest men knew best the difficulties, and only less thinking enthusiasts talked wildly of the Stuart restoration.

There had, however, long existed a prophecy which connected the House of Balcarres with such a restoration; and when James, the Earl of the mid-eighteenth century, married at the ripe age of sixty, a young and blooming Miss Dalrymple, all Jacobite tongues were wagging as to the chances of an heir who should in some way help to bring back the exiled line of kings. But the first child to be born, in 1750, was a daughter, Anne, whose birth, as she herself records in her charming letter, ‘disconcerted and enraged all partisans of the Pretender, soothsayers, fortune-tellers and old ladies.’

The parents, however, were wisely content, and thereafter welcomed each one of the numerous family, eventually amounting to eight boys and three girls.

It was a queer rambling old mansion – the home of this bonny family – placed on that edge of the coast of Fife which looks southward across the Firth of Forth, the Bass Rock looming upon the horizon, and the fresh salt wind of the North Sea playing through the woods which surrounded the house. It was a rollicking set of young folks who laughed and cried by turns in Balcarres, for ‘My Lady’ had the strictest view of discipline, strict even for the eighteenth century. There were days when ‘every cupboard held its culprit, some sobbing and repeating verbs—others eating their bread and water, some preparing to be whipped, some enjoying an enviable nap after a flogging.’

The old earl, indeed, far wiser than her ladyship, would remonstrate with her: ‘Odsfish, madam, you will break the spirits of my young troops: I will not have it so.’ But there was not much fear of spirit-breaking when little Robert could cry sturdily: ‘Oh! my Lady, my Lady, whip me and let me go, if you please,’ or when more daring John, losing a plaything for a repeated fault, declared to his mother, ‘Woman, I told you I would do the same, and I will do the same again to-morrow.’

It was Margaret, however, the third in order, who once set up the standard:, of rebellion by inciting her five brothers and sisters to leave home and take refuge from ‘this horrious life’ in the house of kindly neighbours, without children of their own. In due time, a little procession set off from Balcarres, unobserved at first, Cummerland, the eldest boy, with baby James on his shoulders, Anne, Margaret, Robert, and Colin; but Robin Gray, the shepherd, delivered this information at the house; ‘All the young gentlemen, and all the young ladies, and all the dogs are run away, my Lady.’

For this crime, whipping was declared too slight a punishment; a dose of tincture of rhubarb was considered more likely to sober the unruly.

Yet was life by no means all so ‘horrious’; there was paddling in the brook in the glen, rides on fat oxen in the farmyard with a munch of their raw turnips; secret feastings on fruits and sweetmeats, somehow purloined, probably with the connivance of ‘Mammy Bell’, the housekeeper. Even Sundays had their joys, few lessons, and after the mid-day meal eleven heaps of sweetmeats, ‘of all sorts and shapes, piled up by one of us, to teach us to calculate, the compiler having the last heap.’

This may seem rather pitiful to us in our twentieth-century softness, but let us note that all these children were devoted to each other and as they grew up, to both parents; all turned out well, the boys mostly soldiers or sailors serving with courage and distinction, one, Charles, became a bishop, and a particularly sweet and gentle character. Of the three daughters all married, but only Elizabeth had children of her own, a large fine family.

The severe countess grew softer as her children grew up so good (believing, of course, that this was due to her own stern discipline), and in her old age she went to live with Robert and his wife, where she died after many peaceful years.

It is with Lady Anne that we are chiefly concerned. She was a devoted companion to her deaf and gouty, but kindly old father, helping him with his books and manuscripts and carrying on, after his death, the family history which he loved to write.

Two years after his death, which took place in 1768, Margaret, Anne’s chief love, married an Englishman and as the elder brothers had gone out into life, the home was not so jolly as it once had been.

Lady Anne had a little room of her own at the top of the ‘turn-pike stairs’; its small window faced the sea, so that the wide view woke her imagination, quickening her desire to write. ‘Why not some verses’, said she to herself, ‘verses to fit that lovely air which Sophy Johnstone sings? I hate the words she puts to it; they are not worthy of the tune.’

It is enough to quote two verses of this well-known ballad. There are many different versions: the following are taken from the Oxford Book of Verse.

When the sheep are in the fauld, and the kye at hame,
And a’ the wand to rest are gane,
The waes o’ my heart fa’ in showers frae my e’e,
While my gudeman lies sound by me.

I gang like a ghaist, and I carena to spin;
I daurna think on Jamie, for that wad be a sin;
But I’ll do my best a gude wife aye to be,
For auld Robin Gray he is kind unto me.

It was to be a tale of humble life full of sorrows; the third verse baffled her, even after the rest was done. Then, little Elizabeth, the nine-year-old, stole into the room. Said Anne, ‘I’ve been writing a ballad, my dear, and I’m oppressing my heroine with misfortunes. I’ve sent her Jamie to sea, broken her father’s arm, made her mother fall sick, and given her old Robin Gray as a lover; but I wish to load her with a fifth sorrow in the four lines, poor thing! Help me, I pray.’ ‘Steal the cow, sister Annie’, suggested Elizabeth; and forthwith the cow was stolen, and the song ‘Auld Robin Gray’ completed.

Thus tells Lady Anne the charming story of her ballad’s birth. But it was not till years and years afterwards that the world knew of it: she showed it to her mother only; members of the family copied it out. Lady Anne herself sang it (to Sophy Johnstone’s tune) in her beautiful rich voice; it became famous in her own countryside and in Edinburgh. There was much curiosity, and shrewd guessing, but the exact truth was not known, or at least not owned to by the authoress, till two years before her own death. Then, it so happened that she read a passage in Sir Walter Scott’s ‘The Pirate’ in which he compared the condition of one of his characters to ‘that of Jeanie Gray, the village-heroine in Lady Anne Lindsay’s beautiful ballad.’ Then, at last, did Lady Anne feel that she ought to declare herself, and so, taking her courage in both hands, she wrote to Sir Walter telling him the whole story of the birth of the ballad.

She told him also how it was she had tried to write a continuation of it, though this was not a success.

A certain old friend, the Laird of Dalzell, on reading the poem broke out angrily: ‘Oh! the villain! Oh! the auld rascal! I ken wha stealt the puir lassie’s coo. It was auld Robin Gray himself.’ And the authoress, thinking this a bright idea, made it part of another ballad, a continuation of the first. It was popular at the time, but was not worthy of the original, and has been described as ‘a grievous blunder.’

It is pleasant to know that Lady Anne lived a very gay and varied life; when her sister Margaret became a widow, she went to live with her in London where the two sisters became intimate with all the literary and brilliant people of that time; the playwright Sheridan, Horace Walpole, the great Edmund Burke, and many others; the Prince Regent himself had the good taste to be extremely attracted by ‘Sister Anne’ as he chose to call her.

In 1791 Lady Anne married Mr. Andrew Barnard, and went with him to the Cape of Good Hope where he was Secretary to the Governor of England’s newly acquired colony. She at once adapted herself to the very different kind of society, that of Dutch and English colonists; went on visits in the interior of the country to Dutch farm houses in their quaint homesteads; and climbed Table mountain, with her husband, in a man’s attire.

After her husband’s death in 1808 she lived once more with her sister in London, dying there at the age of seventy-five.

But her beautiful ballad will never die, as long as there is an English, or Lowland Scots language to carry it on.

CAROLINA, BARONESS NAIRNE (1766-1845)

Lady Nairne and her son If we travel westwards from the coast of Fife, we come to the strath, or valley, of the river Earn. We are now near the edge of the Scottish Highlands, the land of mountains and steep glens; and this is the kind of country in which lived the Highland clans who remained loyal to the Stuart Kings and followed Prince Charlie in the ‘45.

The Oliphants of Gask, in Strathearn, were a Jacobite family, whose members had intermarried with other families of like loyalty. Lawrence Oliphant, the father of the Carolina we are now concerned with, had been exiled and living in Paris till King George III. was reigning in England, and he never spoke of the King otherwise than as ‘The Elector of Hanover’.

Carolina was born in 1766, the third of six children, all of whom had their early education from a governess, one of whose duties was to teach the children ‘to talk tolerable English’, which reminds us that the use of Scots was universal even among well-born people in the eighteenth century, and it must have been indeed a forcible, fluent and expressive tongue.

Carolina grew up handsome in a remarkable degree; from ‘pretty Miss Car.’ as a little girl, she became noticeable everywhere for her fine features and dignified personality. She has given us an amusing picture of the ‘county meetings’ at which she often figured for she had a keen sense of humour, and many of her poems are light and jovial. We may wonder that in spite of her gay life, for there were a good many social doings among the Jacobite lairds of that neighbourhood, she did not marry till she was forty-one: during the twenty years of her life when many must have admired her, she was betrothed to a cousin, Captain Nairne, a soldier too poor to marry. She employed herself in those years in verse making, for her idea was to give better words to fit the charming airs which she heard sung about the countryside.

After her marriage to Major Nairne they went to live in a suburb of Edinburgh, and there she joined a society of ladies who were helping a publisher to bring out a collection of national airs with good words; Lady Nairne was the most gifted and the most capable of this society, but she did all her work anonymously, calling herself ‘Mrs. Bogan of Bogan’, and even dressing herself in a disguising costume when she had to interview the publisher.

We give here three of her poems representing three very different moods; the gay humour of ‘The County Meeting’; the street sellers’ charming cry, and, best known of all, the lovely pathetic lines which, first written to show sympathy with a bereaved mother, must have been helpful to her own soul when her son and only child was taken from her as still a young man. It is a well-known and beautiful thing:

THE LAND O’ THE LEAL

I’m wearin’ awa’, John,
Like snaw-wreaths in thaw, John;
I’m wearin’ awa’
To the land o’ the leal.
There’s nae sorrow there, John
There’s neither cauld nor care, John,
The day is aye fair
In the land o’ the leal.

Our bonnie bairn’s there, John,
She was baith gude and fair, John;
And oh! we grudged her sair
To the land o’ the leal.
But sorrow’s sel’ wears past, John,
And joy’s a-coming fast, John—
The joy that’s aye to last
In the land o’ the leal.

CALLER HERRIN’

Wha’ll buy my caller herrin’?
They’re bonnie fish and halesome farin’;
Wha’ll buy my caller herrin’
New drawn frae the Forth?

When ye were sleepin’ on your pillows,
Dreamed ye aught o’ our puir fellows,
Darkling as they faced the billows,
A’ to fill the woven willows,
New drawn frae the Forth.

THE COUNTY MEETING

Ye’re welcome, leddies, ane and a’
Ye’re welcome to our County Ha’;
Sae wee! ye look when buskit braw
To grace our County Meeting!

An’ gentlemen ye’re welcome too,
In waistcoats white and tartan too
Gae seek a partner, mak’ yer bold,
Syne dance our County Meeting.

And so, through six more verses with picture after picture of the human drolleries which gave mirth to those who danced at the county meetings.

It is pleasant to record that in the end Lady Nairne went back to her old home to die peacefully under the care of her nephew, Lawrence Oliphant.


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