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Lady Nairne
An article from the book Scottish Men of Letters


Lady Nairne

The House of Gask - the “auld house” of Lady Nairne’s song - in the middle of the eighteenth century stood upon a hill in the Strath of Earn, a curious, rambling house, which owed its interest to its quaintness and the picturesqueness of its situation. There lived Laurence Oliphant, the laird, descendant of an old family as proud as it was ancient, a Jacobite of the Jacobites, who loved the Stuarts with all the adoration of his absurd old soul. To win his undying favour it was only necessary for a neighbour to present him with a relic of the Royal house - a garter, a brogue, or spurs worn by His Royal Highness. To look at - but for heaven’s sake not to touch - the sacred memorials, a lock of Prince Charlie’s red hair, his bonnet, his cockade or crucifix, was with him almost a religious service. With indignation he bundled off Mr. Cruikshank the chaplain’s gown and books by carrier when he learned that he had, on the death of Prince Charles, begun to pray for George III.; for a “nominal” prayer - that is, one in which the Hanoverian usurper was mentioned by name - was an abomination. With what care had he and his wife conveyed to Florence the piece of seed-cake which the hands of Mrs. Forbes, the nonjuring bishop’s wife, had prepared for His Majesty’s delectation; and with what joy he reported that when his sacred Majesty took it in his hands, he opened a drawer and graciously said: “Here you see me deposit it, and no tooth shall go upon it but my own.” There was something so sturdy, so honest, so loyal in his disloyalty that King George sent him his fine message, couched in phrases to conciliate his heart: “The Elector of Hanover presents compliments to the laird of Gask, and wishes to tell him how much the Elector respects the laird for the steadiness of his principles.” [Oliphant’s Jacobite Lairds of Gask, p. 368.]

When Lady Gask died her last words to the children gathered round her were: “See which will be the best bairn to papa.” To that household came the governess whom the aunt provided, with this recommendation: “Mr. Oliphant joyns me in thinking there is no better sign than diffidence in what one knows nothing about, therefore has no doubt Mrs. Cramond (for you know I cannot call her Miss when a governess) will make herself usefull to ye children with a little practice in many things besides ye needle, particularly as to behaviour, principles of Religion and Loyalty, a good carriage and talking tolerable English which in ye countrie is necessarie that young folks may not appear clownish when presented to company.” [Oliphant’s Jacobite Lairds of Gask, p. 387.] From which it would appear that Lady Henrietta’s own accomplishments did not entitle her to be too exacting in the qualifications of a governess, especially as the remuneration was to be twelve guineas for the first year and ten guineas “ever after.” Mr. Marconchi, the foreign fiddler, walked over from Perth once a week to teach the art of dancing and the harpsichord to the family of two sons and four daughters.

Caroline - whose baptismal name veneration for Prince Charles had once more made popular in Jacobite circles - was born in 1766, the third of the family, and she grew up reserved and dignified into a tall beauty with dark eyes and hair, the toast of the country as the “Flower of Strathearn.” At the county balls she danced with so fine a grace and skill, that the eyes of little Neil Gow, the prince of fiddlers, would gleam with delight as he watched her threading the gladsome windings of a strathspey. In 1792 the laird of Gask died - the soldier of the ’45 who suffered long, though he was not long-suffering, from his aches and ails, which the abominable concoctions prescribed as sovereign cures by his friend the laird of Thriepland had helped to intensify. He was true to the end to the Stuart cause, and never forgot when proposing a toast to look at his handsome son Charles, and to say with significant accent: “The King - Charles.” Never had he permitted any who read the newspapers to him to mention George III. and his queen, except as “K” and “Q.” In such Jacobite associations his sons and daughters grew up.

It was at a tenantry dinner given by the new laird that Miss Caroline Oliphant heard sung “The Ploughman,” a coarse song with a good Scots air. Vexed at finding such songs pleasing the people at their rustic meetings, and disgusted, as she passed through a country fair, to notice the broadsides and ballads which were greedily bought from barrows and pedlars’ packs, she became filled with desire to make verses more wholesome, and not less attractive, to take their place on the people’s lips. This she did in secrecy. It was the ancestral enthusiasm for the good old cause which then and afterwards quickened her fancy to write such songs as “Charlie is my darling,” “Will you no come back again?” “A Hundred Pipers,” - with their romantic sentiment and martial strain that make the pulse beat faster - songs produced when the Jacobite cause was dead as Queen Anne, and when no romance or song could stir it to life again. Who imagined there could come from that stately damsel, and afterwards so proud a dame, with whom humour could scarce venture to dwell, the lively “John Tod” and “Laird o’ Cockpen,” which generations should sing with never-failing glee; or the humble “Caller Herrin’,” with its charming refrain caught from the sound of the chimes of St. Giles’ in Edinburgh? Fond recollection of Gask she enshrined in the “Auld House,” with its “auld laird, sae canty, kind, and crouse.”

But in the “Land o’ the Leal” the poet rose to her highest level, from the beginning “We’re wearin’ awa, John” to its close, in which the simplicity of true pathos moves with rare and tender touch.

In those days and for several years she was engaged to her cousin, Charles Nairne; but they were both poor, the young man having remote prospects of promotion in the army. “Miss Car the pretty,” as she was called by the people, was no longer the beauty at every county ball, the bloom of the “Flower of Strathearn” became somewhat faded as she matured into the staid, stately, handsome lady of forty. It was then, however, when her cousin, at the mature age of fifty, became a major, that the long engagement issued in a happy marriage, and life in Edinburgh in a frugal home called “Caroline Cottage.” They were poor, that high-bred couple, and they were pronouncedly proud; they belonged to the exclusive aristocratic set which was dwindling away in that city as London became the resistless centre of attraction for all who had claims to rank or position. Sydney Smith’s description of Edinburgh society as “a pack of cards without honours” was becoming true.

The new century had gone on its way some years when one day there called on Mr. Purdie, the music-seller, a lady giving the name of Mrs. Bogan of Bogan, who had already corresponded with him, transmitting songs in a feigned handwriting. Mrs. Nairne appeared before the worthy tradesman in the guise of an old lady of a bygone generation - which after all was on her part no very great deception - and told him of songs she had got to publish. This was good news, because the Scottish Minstrel was being compiled by him; and accordingly with extraordinary mystery verses set to well-known airs by “Mrs. Bogan of Bogan” were produced. [Songstresses of Scotland, ii. 130.] For years the exquisite song, the “Land o’ the Leal,” had been familiar throughout the land; the pathos of Scots hearts seemed voiced by it as by no other song, and to the strains of “We’re wearin’ awa, John, To the Land o’ the Leal,” eyes had grown dim with tears. Mrs. Nairne had heard them praised and seen them bewept; and had noticed with a fret the words changed to “Wearin’ awa, Jean,” but she said nothing. With inexplicable reticence she even kept the secret of authorship from her own husband, spreading a newspaper over her manuscripts if he came into the room. This may have been caused by doubts as to her husband’s powers of keeping a secret; but it was due also to that self-contained nature, that resolute reserve, which made her avoid with impatience the kiss which the bridegroom offered after the chaplain at Gask had married them.

In 1824 George IV. made his memorable visit to Scotland, when Sir Walter Scott worked himself up into grotesque enthusiasm in welcome of the not too respectable monarch. A memorial was prepared by Sir Walter praying His Majesty that the title forfeited by the Rebellion might be restored to Major Nairne. The petition was granted, and Major Nairne became a lord before he died in 1824.

In her later years Lady Nairne was involved in the atmosphere of pietism which began to prevail over Scotland, dating from the pious crusade of the Haldanes. Secular amusements - save painting - were no longer to her mind, the fashions of the world that pass away were no more to the taste of her who had in unregenerate days written the “Laird o’ Cockpen.” She had always been religious, though the humour would bubble over into fun in her songs. In later years the wave of evangelicalism went over her head, as it did over that of Susan Ferrier, who, it must with sadness be confessed, like Hannah More, degenerated as a writer as she became regenerated as a Christian. As years went on she returned to Gask, to which her nephew, the laird, had urged her to return. But it was not the “Auld House.” That had been knocked down, and a more pretentious dwelling built in expectation of a fortune that never came. With the quaint old home departed associations with the olden time. In the new house, amidst her kith and kin, Baroness Nairne died, and with her the last of the band of Scots songstresses of the eighteenth century passed away. [Rogers’s Life and Poems of Lady Nairne.]


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