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Scots Humour and Heroism
Chapter VIII - Something about Scottish Literature


Text-books on English Literature generally allot a Chapter, here and there, to what they call "Scottish Writers". Possibly this may be as good a plan as any for dealing with the problem of the relation between Scotland and England in literary matters. Here, as else where, the life of the North Briton is a good deal mixed up with that of the South Briton; and it is well nigh impossible to draw hard and fast lines of demarcation. Yet it must not be forgotten that the Scottish mind has a distinct note. Where it is most characteristic it differs from the English mind; and the common school-training in both countries has been, since John Knox's time at least, widely dissimilar.

Scottish reasoning resembles French reasoning rather than English. The Englishman is practical, and lives in a spirit of compromise. It is that which has built up the British Constitution. Whatever works well the Englishman regards as good enough for him. He has a profound distrust of theory, when it is merely theory. Now, that distrust your typical Scot scarcely shares. He really wants a scheme to hang together. Logic - consistency - plan - he genuinely likes these for their own sakes, though he won't break up any going concern to secure them. But he leans towards them. He thinks clearly - systematically - on all sides of his subject - before he talks about it. And before he acts, before he enters on any path, he must have some sort of mapped out idea in his mind, and know whither he is going.

Walter Bagehot, in his Essays on Macaulay and on Scott, has a great deal to say about the "Scotch intellect" - which, he adds, is a curious matter to explain.

"Any one who will study Scott's description of the Highland clans in Waverley, or his plans for dealing with the poor of his own time - will be struck not only with a plain sagacity, which we could equal in England, but with the digested accuracy and theoretical completeness which they show. You might cut paragraphs, even from his lighter writings, which would be thought acute in Adam Smith's `Wealth of Nations'. There appears to be in the genius of the Scotch people - fostered, no doubt, by the abstract metaphysical education of their Universities, but, also, by way of natural taste, supporting that education, and rendering it possible and popular - a power of reducing human actions to formulae or principles. An instance is now in high place. (Bagehot writes in 1858; but his criticism is still up-to-date). Lord Campbell, the Chief Justice of England, has, in spite of a hundred defects, the Scottish faculties in perfection. He reduces legal matters to a sound broad principle better than any man who is now a judge.

"He has a steady, comprehensive, abstract, distinct consistency, which elaborates a formula and adheres to a formula; and it is this which has raised him from a plain - a very plain - Scotch lawyer to be Lord Chief Justice of England. Macaulay has this too."

These qualities of the Scottish intellect, as Bagehot portrays them, inevitably reflect themselves in any literature derived from the Northern part of the island.

A peculiar breadth and clarity of thinking characterises it. The constructive reason is always at work; so that, the architectonics (as it has been called) of Scottish writers is mostly very good, and in many instances almost perfect. The historians and essayists, the philosophers and theologians, but especially the metaphysicians have, all of them, whether good or bad, the attractiveness which comes from a first rate systematic oversight of their matter, and a first rate arrangement of it. Too great emphasis can hardly be laid on this. If a student is taking up a new language or a new science, or if he is only reading up some fresh subject to write a paper on it, he would be well advised to begin with a text-book issued in the North. It will save him much time, and give him a clear intellectual foundation for everything he may do afterwards. This is eminently the case in regard to any study filled with a multiplicity of confusing details. The clear-headed Scot instinctively refuses to put pen to paper on such a subject, or even perhaps to discuss it, unless he sees some way plain through the morass. If a youth with a thirst for knowledge were eager to know what Einstein has been talking about, or how many different flavours and nuances of Hegelianism there might possibly be; or if conceivably he were devoured by a passion for writing modern Arabic with ease and precision; you couldn't do better than hunt up for him some good Scottish manual dealing with the theme that has interested him. You have deserved his life-long gratitude, if you do.

It is this national clarity of insight and breadth of conception that enabled the marvellous genius of Sir Walter Scott - which has never yet, perhaps received its due appreciation - to accomplish the work he did. For he founded, or at least rejuvenated, three different literary schools - the novel of Adventure - the Historic Romance - the Story of Local Character and Description. It is not enough to say he was brilliant and voluminous. He was all that - and, in addition, he was what the Americans call a Big Man.

And his bigness was rendered possible by this width of mind - as well as by his well known greatness of heart and force of character.

We may say, then, that comprehensive and orderly Reason, lies at the one pole of Scottish Literature. At the other pole there is something altogether different, and quite as important - Passion.

Of course it is Passion under control - when it is at its best; but it is Passion, all the same. Love, loyalty, patriotism are felt intensely. Scotland has produced little if any drawing-room poetry, though Burns is master of effective humour. The nearest approach to actual Vers de la societe is Lady Nairne's "Laird of Cockpen" the sly mockery of which goes with a swing to an old rollicking tune.

The Laird o'Cockpen, O, he's proud, an' he's great;
His mind's a' Wen up wi' the things o' the State.
He wanted a wife his braw (braw = fine) hoose to keep;
But favour wi' wooin' was fasheous (fasheous = troublesome) to seek.

Doon by the dyke-side a lady did dwell,
At the heid o' his table he thogt (thogt = thought) she'd look well,
M'Clish's ae ae (ae = one, sole) daughter o' Claverse-Ha'-Lee,
A penniless lass wi' a lang pedigree.

His wig was well pouthered, as gude as when new,
His waistcoat was white, his coat it was blue;
He put on a ring, a sword, an' cock'd hat, -
And wha could resist a laird wi' a' that?

He took the grey mare and rode cannily,
An' rapped at the yett (yett = door) o' Claverse-Ha'-Lee
'Gae tell Mistress Jean to come speedily ben -
She's wanted, to speak wi' the Laird o' Cockpen."

Mistress Jean she was makin' the elder-flower wine;
"O, what brings the laird at sic' a like time?"
She put off her apron and on her silk goon,
Her mutch (mutch = cap) wi' red ribbons, - and gaed (gaed - went) awa' doon.

Now when she cam' ben, he bowed fu' low;
An' what was his errand he soon let her know,
Amazed was the laird, when the lady said -
"Na;" An' wi' a laigh (laigh = low) curtsie she turned awa'.

Dumfounder'd was he! Nae sigh did he gie;
He mounted his mare - he rade cannily;
An' often he thogt, as he gaed thro' the glen,
She's daft (daft = mad) - to refuse the Laird o' Cockpen !

But this sort of verse is not the most characteristic. The finest efflorescence of Scottish poetry was the ballad that is filled with passion and is in deadly earnest.. It reaches often the supreme felicity of lyric song, - though its magic may not be prolonged beyond a single line.

In its highest estate it combines the most penetrating feeling with a haunting melody which is not only perfect, but which casts some strange spell across the mind. Passion is interpreted in language of naked directness and dramatic power. The stories in these old ballads are mainly those of blood-stained tragedies and the violent events and emotions in the lives of a people to whom strife and adventure were an integral part of existence. The impression of the soul of nature is strong in these Lowland songs, but not overpowering, as it is in the Highland lyrics. Landscape and sky form the setting of dramatic action; they do not interfere with it.

And the strength of Lowland language is that which belongs to the speech of a people when it is fresh and new. "The unsophisticated man," says Goethe, "is the more master of direct, effective expression than he who has had a regular training." Be this as it may, the perfervidum ingenium of the Scot has, generation after generation, expressed itself in words of poignant beauty and of unexpected force. Strong feeling behind habitual reserve has carved out its natural language.

One of the most famous of the ancient Scottish ballads is that entitled Waly, Waly gin Love be Bony.

O, waly, waly, up the bank;
And waly, waly, down the brae;
And waly, waly, yon burn-side,
Where I and my love wont to gae.

I leaned my baek unto an aik (aik = oak),
I thought it was a trusty tree;
But first it bowed, and syne (syne = afterwards) it brake.
Sae my true love did lightly me.

O, waly, waly, but love be bony,
A little time, while it is new;
But when it's auld it waxeth cauld,
And fades away like morning dew.

O, wherefore should I brush my head?
O, wherefore should I kaim my hair?
For my love has me forsook,
And says he'll never love me mair.

Now, Arthur's Seat shall be my bed,
The sheets shall ne'er be touched by me;
Saint Anton's well shall be my drink,
Since my true love's forsaken me.

Martinmas wind, when wilt thou blow,
And shake the green leaves off the tree?
O, gentle death, when wilt thou come,
For of my life I am wearie.

'Tis not the frost that freezes fell,
Nor blawing snaw's inclemency;
'Tis not the cauld that makes me cry,
But my love's heart grown cauld to me.

When we came in by Glasgow town,
We were a comelie sight to see;
My love was clad in black velvet,
And I myself in cramoisie.

But had I wist before I kist
That love had been sae ill to win;
I'd locked my heart in a case of gold,
And pinned it with a silver pin.

O, faith is gone, and truth is past,
And my true love's forsaken me;
If all be true that I hear say,
I'll mourn until the day I dee.

It is impossible, says Williams in his Studies in Folk-song, to analyze ethnologically the causes of the great superiority of the Scottish popular poetry, or to define how much of the elevation of feeling and appreciation of the magic of nature came from the greater admixture of the Celtic element. For this in turn was given force and vigour, directness of expression and coherence of construction by the stronger nature of the invading element, which, for the want of a more definite term, is called Saxon.

It can only be said that there was something in the national genius of the Lowland Scotch different from that of their more stolid neighbours at the south and their more mystical neighbours at the north, - something which fitted them for the production of popular poetry in song and balled at once elevated and impassioned, and which has resulted in a quantity and quality which no other province of the world has rivalled. It is known over the world, and has been translated into almost every literary language of Europe. It is only necessary to give the titles to recall the verses that cling to the memory, and express the deepest glow of passion and pathos in words whose magic melody is beyond the reach of art.

"These verses, and many like them, have sunk deep into the hearts of men, and will live until the speech in which they were created has passed away. The Flower of Yarrow will always utter her melodious lament so long as there is English poetry, and the Border moss-troopers will ride with spear in hand and `bent on spoil' until the valleys of the Tweed and the Tyne are inhabited by an alien race, and the songs in which they are sung have perished like those of the Assyrian shepherds.

"The collection and study of folk-song is being pursued with a vigour and a scholarly diligence which promises to leave no corner of the world unransacked and no people however remote, neglected. But none have as yet been discovered, or are likely to be, which have a stronger power of original poetry, passion, and Pathos, or which reveal a more vigorous and noble native genius than the ballads and songs which were produced within the limits of the little province between the Grampians and the Border."


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