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Significant Scots
Robert Ford

Robert Ford (1846-1904)

A 2006 literary magazine article about Glaswegians: Robert Ford and John Ord.

Robert Ford was the senior of the two and by far the more prolific author. The basic details of his life can be found in Henry Dryerre’s Blairgowrie, Stormont and Strathmore Worthies (1903). He was born on 18th July 1846 at Wolfhill, a tiny village in the parish of Cargill in Perthshire. His father was a pit sawyer who owned some land and served as a precentor in the local Free Church of Cargill. Robert was an able but unexceptional child who eventually commenced a career as a clerk, originally in Dundee and subsequently where he worked for J & W Campbell & Co for most of his adult life. He raised a large family, mostly on his own after the premature death of his wife. In his spare time, however, he penned a sequence of extremely popular books. These include collections of poetry, humorous stories and children’s songs, as well as edited collections of William Miller, Robert Burns, Sandy Rodger and Robert Fergusson . e.g. The Poetical Works of Robert Fergusson - Robert Fergusson , Robert Ford(1905). He was an uninspired poet in his own right, although his work was very much in the fashion of the times - similar to countless pieces that appeared in Whistlebinkie and other collections. This verse, from The Auld Beech Tree, published in his first collection, Hame-Spun Lays and Lyrics, is typical:

Despite his own fairly modest gifts as a writer, however, Ford was an excellent editor and collector, and his works, published latterly by Alexander Gardner of Paisley, were best-sellers both at home and abroad. Dryerre notes that his collection of anecdotes in the fashion of Dean Ramsay, Thistledown, inspired an expatriate Scot in Klerksop, South Africa, to name his estate after it. Ford was also particularly interested in children’s lore, and his Ballads of Bairnhood (1894) - dedicated ‘To my own five motherless children, for whose entertainment, in joy and in sorrow, most of the pieces have been read or sung’ - and his Children’s Rhymes, Games, Songs and Stories (1903) were especially popular.

There are interesting snippets of folksong and folklore in several of Ford’s collections. For example, Children’s Rhymes, Games, Songs and Stories contains an unusual example of an early mystery play, The Goloshans (supposedly ‘The Galatians’) common in the west of Scotland, and Thistledown has an intriguing version of an international folktale type known in the north of Scotland, ‘The Professor of Signs’.

However, Ford’s main contribution to folksong scholarship comes not in two fairly standard works - Song Histories (1900) and Auld Scots Ballants (1889) but in his Vagabond Songs and Ballads of Scotland (first published in 1899) a collection of around 150 Scottish folksongs with annotations and fully transcribed tunes. Vagabond Songs is, in fact, a meticulously edited and more genuinely traditional collection than any of the other various derivative and repetitive volumes of the same type.

However, its limitations should also be made clear. Unlike Greig or Duncan, Ford was an armchair collector. As he notes in his introduction to the second edition: ‘For a good long time I have practised the conceit of noting down these vagabond songs and ballads when and wherever I was favoured with the opportunity of hearing them. Some I secured through correspondence. Some from obscure publications. On the invitation of the proprietors of the People’s Journal, a selection of them recently appeared in the columns of that widely circulating periodical, with the result that I obtained fresh and interesting particulars about some, and additional verses to others.’

In fact, Ford was also regular contributor to the press at the turn of the century. The newspapers of the day encouraged a high standard of cultural and literary debate and many of the major writers of the Scottish renaissance contributed.


See our Poetry page for him

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