She was born Carolina Oliphant, at Gask House,
Perthshire on 16th August 1766. She had three sisters and two brothers, and fortunately,
her father was a progressive thinker for his time as he believed in education for girls as
well as boys. Her father, Laurence Oliphant, and her mother's family, the Robertsons of
Struan, were fierce supporters of the Jacobite movement. Both her father and grandfather
had to leave Scotland after Culloden. Their lands were bought by relatives in the ensuing
sales of forfeited estates.
suffered in poor health, brought on by his experiences whilst in exile, and to cheer him
and her uncle, Duncan Robertson, Chief of Struan, she composed Jacobite songs and set them
to old tunes. Charlie is my Darling, Will Ye no Come Back Again, and The Hundred Pipers
are examples of this.
In her younger years, she was pretty, energetic, and had a
keen fondness for dancing. Niel Gow, the famous fiddler, was a contemporary, and they no
doubt crossed paths. It was at this time that she adapted popular melodies with new
lyrics. The original lyrics would have been considered much too crude for society folk.
These included The Laird o' Cockpen, The County Meeting, and The Pleughman.
On June 2nd, 1806, at age 41, she married her second cousin,
Major William Murray Nairne, and they remained in Edinburgh until his death in 1830. It
was upon coming to Edinburgh that she became involved in her lifelong project to preserve
and foster the songs of Scotland. In those days, it was not considered proper for ladies
of her place in society to dabble in what she herself called "this queer trade of
song-writing". Her attempts at keeping her hobby a secret included not telling her
husband, publishing her books anonymously, or under the nom-de-plume: Mrs. Bogan of Bogan.
Much of her work was contributed in this form, to Robert Purdie's The Scottish Minstrel,
1821-24, in six volumes. When she went to visit him, she would wear an old, veiled cloak,
in the hopes she would not be recognized.
In 1824, following George IV's visit to Edinburgh in 1822 and
Walter Scott's endless petitioning, Parliament restored the forfeited Jacobite peerages
and Major Nairne regained the family Barony, and she and her husband became Baron and
Baron Nairne died in 1830, and from then on, she travelled
quite extensively with her invalid son, who was born in 1808, and her great niece. First,
she went to Bristol, then Ireland, and then travelled widely on the Continent. Her son
died in Brussels in 1837, and she finally relented to her relatives' pleas to return to
Scotland in 1845. Tired and sick, she came back to her home in Gask to die on October 26,
1845, at age 79. She was buried within the new chapel which had been completed only days
Two years after her death, a posthumous collection of verse,
Lays of Strathearn, was prepared by her sister, but this time her name subscribed to the
book. A granite cross was erected to her memory in the grounds of Gask House. Altogether,
she wrote or adapted nearly 100 songs and poems in her lifelong endeavor. Lady Carolina
Nairne deserves recognition today, because not only did she help to preserve many Scottish
tunes, but also, at a time when women's talents were expected to be merely domestic, she
managed to do her own thing.
Her creative ability, the secret part of her life, never
interfered with her position as a society lady. Lady Carolina Nairne has been sadly
neglected, but to her we owe immense gratitude, for, without her, much of the Scottish
musical heritage would have been lost.
Lady Nairne was an astute collector of song and wrote some of
Scotland's best-known songs, yet today there are few people that are familiar with her
work. It doesn't help that some of her songs and prose have have been attributed to Robert
Burns, James Hogg or Walter Scott.
from New Oxford
Dictionary of National Biography
Oliphant, Carolina, Lady
Nairne (1766–1845), songwriter, was born at the ‘Auld Hoose’ of Gask,
Perthshire, on 16 August 1766, and baptized Carolina in honour of the exiled
Prince Charles Edward Stuart. She was the fourth child of the three sons and
four daughters of Laurence Oliphant (1724–1792), laird of Gask, and his
wife, Margaret (1739–1774), the eldest daughter of Duncan Robertson of
Struan, the chief of clan Donnachie. Her parents were cousins, grandchildren
of the Lord Nairne who had narrowly escaped execution after the Jacobite
rising of 1715, and were married at Versailles on 9 June 1755 during
nineteen years of political exile following the failure of the Jacobite
rising of 1745. The Oliphants, the Robertsons, and the Nairnes had all been
attainted for high treason and lost their estates. A part of Gask was bought
back from the government and her parents were able to return two years
before Carolina's birth.
Laurence Oliphant was active
in Jacobite politics throughout his life and the children were carefully
reared to ‘keep them loyal’ (Rogers, 20). In their prayer books the names of
the Stuarts were pasted over those of the house of Hanover. The girls had a
governess who taught English, since it was felt that their ‘very broad Scots
… will not be gracefull in a young lady’ (Graham, 290), a tutor who was also
family chaplain, and a dancing-master whose teaching was supported by
regular visits from a traditional fiddle-player. Carolina's younger brother
Charles, writing in 1784, gives a glimpse of the resulting musical ethos:
‘Carolina is just now playing, “My wife's lying sick I wish she ne'er may
rise again, I'll put on my tartan trews And court another wife again”. It is
a very good tune …’ (Graham, 322). This song was one of the ‘Bonny Highland
Laddie’ group which had distinctly licentious connotations. But the days of
the old free song-culture, in which daughters of gentlefolk could bound
about waving ‘gully knives’ and singing ‘geld him, lassies, geld him’
(Crawford, 127) were passing. An evangelical revival was steadily making its
way among the Scottish gentry, which would banish the high-kilted muses to
the byre and the kitchen and transform the blithe and musical Carolina
Oliphant into the prim and pietistic Lady Nairne.
Scotland, popular art-song was the dominant literary form and it enjoyed a
rich interrelationship with the surrounding oral culture. But performance of
much of the traditional repertoire was becoming problematic in polite
society because of its explicitly sexual content and the decline in the
social segregation of men and women. Carolina Oliphant followed Robert
Burns's work with intense interest, particularly his gift for fashioning new
words to new tunes, and his editing of existing material beginning to be
considered unsuitable for mixed assemblies. One of her earliest pieces was a
bowdlerized version of ‘The Pleughman’ (Randall, 58–9; Rogers, 179–80), for
her brother to sing to his tenants at their annual dinner. Many of her songs
were set to classic traditional tunes in this way, including ‘The Land o'
the Leal’ (Rogers, 163–4) which was written for her friend Mary Erskine (Mrs
Campbell Colquhoun), on the death of her first child in 1797. Sometimes only
the tune was used and new lyrics were written for it; sometimes the verbal
text was a creative collage of existing versions. Contemporary song-making
was often a collective process, making individual attribution difficult.
Since anonymity also was the rule (strengthened in Carolina's case by the
urge to be taken seriously, which she felt might be compromised if her songs
were known to be by a woman), the exact extent of her work and its links
with the rest of the tradition have never been clearly established. There is
no reliable critical edition.
Jacobite songs probably make
up the largest thematic group. The genre had emerged during the later
seventeenth century, and by 1820 it was second in importance only to love
song in the traditional canon, attracting the attention of major songwriters
such as Robert Burns and James Hogg, and acting as a symbolic code for
continuing Scottish opposition to the Union. Hence, perhaps, the sense of
contemporary relevance that informs her song ‘Wha'll be King but Charlie?’:
Come thro' the heather,
around him gather,
Ye're a' the welcomer early;
Around him cling wi' a' your kin;
For wha'll be king but Charlie?
The social life of the
Perthshire gentry is another prominent theme. The best of her songs in this
vein, ‘The Laird o' Cockpen’, retains the outstanding old tune but takes no
more than a hint from the words traditionally associated with it, which show
the central male character forsake the daughter of a lord to go with a
collier lassie (Burns and Johnson, no. 353). The morganatic motif survives,
but is cleverly reversed in the curt negative response of a ‘penniless lass
wi' a lang pedigree’ to a casual proposal of marriage from a pompous
arriviste. But not all the tunes were old, and not all the verses
adaptations of existing material. The circle of balls and entertainments in
the country houses of Perthshire brought Carolina the acquaintance of the
master traditional fiddler Niel Gow and his gifted son Nathaniel who
furnished her with beautiful new airs which she matched with fresh and
Wha'll buy my caller
They're bonnie fish and halesome farin';
Wha'll buy my caller herrin',
New drawn frae the Forth?
Carolina's engagement to her
now landless cousin, William Murray Nairne (1757–1830), was lengthy, but
they were married at Gask on 2 June 1806, following his appointment as
assistant inspector-general of barracks in Scotland. They settled in
Edinburgh where their only child, William Murray Nairne (1808–1837), was
born two years later.
knowledge of Scottish music and song led to contact with the publisher
Robert Purdie who was planning ‘a collection of the national airs, with
words suited for refined circles’ (Rogers, 43), which later appeared as The
Scotish Minstrel (six vols., 1821–4) edited by Robert A. Smith (1780–1829),
precentor of St George's, and the leading church musician in Scotland. Since
such work was considered incompatible with her status as a gentlewoman,
elaborate steps were taken to conceal her identity. Contributions were sent
through intermediaries, either anonymously or as coming from the fictitious
Mrs Bogan of Bogan. When obliged to visit her publisher she did so in
disguise. Only in the posthumous volume, Lays from Strathearn (1846), were
they eventually avowed.
In 1824, after George IV's
visit to Scotland, William Nairne's title was restored. On his death in 1830
Carolina lived with her son in Ireland and on the continent. He died at
Brussels in 1837. Thereafter her main interests were charitable and
devotional. Lady Nairne became poet laureate of the aspiring and respectable
in Victorian Scotland but her efforts to chasten the merry muses with the
rod of moral rectitude (at one stage she even contemplated a bowdlerized
edition of Burns) began with the passage of time to seem merely quaint. Of
the more than eighty songs she made or re-made only a handful—‘The Hundred
Pipers’, ‘Wha'll be King but Charlie?’, ‘The Rowan Tree’, ‘The Auld Hoose’,
‘The Laird o' Cockpen’ and ‘Caller Herrin' ’—were to continue as part of the
common stock of Scottish expression during the following century.
Lady Nairne's life
illuminates the cultural transformation which overtook the Scottish gentry
in the century after the Jacobite rising of 1745. ‘I sometimes say to
myself,’ she wrote in 1840, ‘“This is no me,” so greatly have my feelings
and trains of thought changed since “auld lang syne” …’ (Wilson, 2.428).
Lady Nairne died at Gask on 26 October 1845, and was buried in the family
C. Rogers, Life and songs of the Baroness Nairne, first published 1869
(1905) [Rogers is by default the ‘standard’ edn, but his work is flawed in
several respects: biographical details are described as inaccurate by both
Kington Oliphant and Simpson, nor are the texts or attributions entirely
reliable] · T. L. Kington-Oliphant, The Jacobite lairds of Gask (1870) · E.
M. Graham, The Oliphants of Gask: records of a Jacobite family (1910) · S.
Tytler and J. L. Watson, The songstresses of Scotland, 2 vols. (1871) · R.
Burns and others, The Scots musical museum, ed. J. Johnson, 6 vols.
(1787–1803) · G. F. Graham, The songs of Scotland, 3 vols. (1861) · M. S.
Simpson, The Scottish songstress (1894) · J. G. Wilson, ed., The poets and
poetry of Scotland, 2 vols. in 4 (1876–7) · R. Forbes, The lyon in mourning,
or, A collection of speeches, letters, journals … relative to … Prince
Charles Edward Stuart, ed. H. Paton, 3 vols., Scottish History Society,
20–22 (1895–6) · T. Crawford, Society and the lyric (1979) · E. L. Randall,
The merry muses (1966) · W. Donaldson, The Jacobite song (1988) · G.
Henderson, Lady Nairne and her songs (1901) · journals, 1789–1845, NL Scot.,
NL Scot., corresp. · NL Scot., corresp., journals, and songs · NRA Scotland,
priv. coll., corresp. and verses
J. Watson-Gordon, oils, c.1815, Scot. NPG · British school, four miniatures,
priv. coll. · British school, silhouette, priv. coll. · J. Watson-Gordon,
double portrait, oils (with her son, William Murray Nairne), Scot. NPG [see
illus.] · photographic reproduction (after portrait of Lady Nairne as a
young woman), repro. in Simpson, Scottish songstress © Oxford University
Press 2004–6 All rights reserved: see legal notice Oxford University Press
William Donaldson, ‘Oliphant, Carolina, Lady Nairne (1766–1845)’, Oxford
Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/19723,
accessed 14 Sept 2006]
Carolina Oliphant (1766–1845): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/19723
Our thanks to Dr. Graeme
Morton for sending this into us.