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Significant Scots
Robert Gilfillan

GILFILLAN, ROBERT.—This amiable poet of domestic life, and popular song-writer, was born in Dunfermline, Fifeshire, on the 7th of July, 1798, and was the second of three sons. His father was a man of respectable condition, according to the reckoning of the times in provincial towns, for he was a master weaver, and kept several looms in full employment. His mother, who died in 1844, was justly characterized as "a woman of high intellectual powers, and one who, belonging to the middle classes of society, was distinguished by high literary acquirements, united to a modesty that rather fostered the talents of others than exhibited her own." Can we easily imagine a poet of good, current, lasting songs, born in a loftier position, or independent of such a maternity? Like most bards, and especially of this particular class, Robert Gilfillan’s natural tendency was called forth in early life, under the pressure of a stirring public impulse. While still a boy, he had joined a group of urchins like himself, to make merry during the Christmas holidays with the sport of guising, or guisarding—an old Saxon revel, scarcely yet disused in Scotland, but which is now generally supplanted by the drawing-room amusement of charades; and while employed in this merry street masquerade, instead of confining himself to the hundred-year-old hackneyed stanzas about Alexander the Great and Galatian, he chanted a song of his own composition on the death of Sir Ralph Abercromby, at that time a recent event, and by which the sympathies of every cottage in Scotland had been roused into full native vigour. Young Gilfillan on this occasion received more than the usual poet’s meed of pence and praise from the goodwives of Dunfermline, who listened at their doors in silent admiration.

After this sudden outburst of rhyme, a long interval succeeded: school-boy trials, and the succeeding cares and difficulties of apprenticeship, are generally sufficient to banish the muses for years, if not for life; and Robert Gilfillan, who at the age of thirteen removed with his parents to Leith, was employed during a seven years’ service in the unpoetical occupation of hammering tubs and barrels, having been bound apprentice for that period to a cooper. Although he manfully endured this probation, he abandoned the trade of a cooper as soon as his term of indenture had expired; and returning to Dunfermline in 1818, he was employed for nearly three years in the superintendence of a grocery establishment. Here his first love returned upon him in full vigour, and his attempts in songwriting were accompanied with the work of self-improvement, which he prosecuted not only by general reading, but associating with the young men of his neighbourhood who were like-minded with himself. In this way, not only his acquired knowledge, but his conversational power in the use of it, made him distinguished in Dunfermline society, and caused him to be regarded as one whose future career would surpass that of his companions. After this he again sett1ed in Leith where he was first employed in the warehouse of a firm of oil and colour merchants, and subsequently in that of a wine merchant, as confidential clerk, until 1837, when he was appointed collector of the police rates at Leith, which situation he held till the close of his life.

In this way Mr. Gilfillan held onward in his course, and fulfilled his mission as a useful member of society; but as a poet he had continued during his several changes of store-keeper, clerk, and tax-gatherer, to labour for a wider sphere and a more permanent memorial. The first earnest of this he enjoyed in the popularity of his songs, which, although still unpublished, were circulated over the whole of Scotland, and sung not only at public festivals, but also at social and domestic meetings. How was it possible, under such circumstances, to resist the temptations of the press? It speaks much, however, for his self-denial, that he did not yield until he had attained the matured reflective age of thirty-three, and when his songs had stood the test of years. In 1831, he became an author, by publishing a small volume of about 150 pages, under the title of "Original Songs," which he dedicated to Allan Cunningham, himself, next to Burns, the prince of Scottish song-poets. So successful was this appeal to public approbation, that in 1835 he brought out a new edition, increased by fifty additional pieces; and soon after its appearance, a public dinner was given to him in the Royal Exchange, Edinburgh, and a massive silver cup presented to him on the occasion, thus inscribed:--"Presented to Mr. Robert Gilfillan, by the admirers of native genius, in token of their high estimation of his poetical talents and private worth. Edinburgh, 1835." In 1839 he published a third and still larger edition of his original volume, sixty new songs being added to the collection; and by this completed work he will continue to hold an honoured place in the third rank of Scottish song-writers—-Burns being of the first and standing alone, and Hogg and Cunningham being taken as the representatives of the second. In addition to those warm, but simple and narrowed home affections, which formed the chief themes of his lyrics, and in the delineation of which he has not often been surpassed, there is a moral purity in the songs of Gilfillan in which he has very seldom been equalled. But how, indeed, could it be otherwise, when we take into account the ordeal to which he submitted them? "It was his practice," says his biographer, "to read to his mother and sister his songs as he wrote them; and he was entirely guided by their judgment regarding them." This was better still than the housekeeper of Moliere! One circumstance connected with this gentle home tribunal of criticism first gave him the hope that fame was within his reach. He was reading his "Fare thee well, for I must leave thee," when his sister, and a young lady, a cousin of his own, who was present, were so deeply affected, that they burst into tears. After such an incident, some of our readers might wish to know the song; it is as follows:—

"Fare thee well, for I must leave thee,
But, O! let not our parting grieve thee;
Happier days may yet be mine,
At least I wish them thine—believe me

"We part—but, by those dew-drops clear,
My love for thee will last for ever;
I leave thee—but thy image dear,
Thy tender smiles, will leave me never.

"O! dry those pearly tears that flow—
One farewell smile before we sever;
The only balm for parting woe
Is—fondly hope ‘tis not for ever.

"Though dark and dreary lowers the night,
Calm and serene may be the morrow;
The cup of pleasure ne’er shone bright,
Without some mingling drops of sorrow!

"Fare thee well, for I must leave thee,
But, O! let not our parting grieve thee;
Happier days may yet be mine,
At least I wish them thine—believe me!"

The rest of the incidents in Mr. Gilfillan’s tranquil life scarcely require commemoration. Independently of his devotion to poetry, which was his master affection, he took pleasure in the various departments of light and every-day literature, and was a frequent contributor to the "Edinburgh Journal," and the "Dublin University Magazine." Although he continued to the end of his days a bachelor, he was not the less subject to painful bereavements, and these, too, at that period of life when the affections are most confirmed; for his mother died in 1844, and his sister in 1849, and thus the voices that had hitherto cheered him onward were no longer heard. His own death occurred on the 4th of December, 1850, and was occasioned by a stroke of apoplexy. His remains were buried in the church-yard of South Leith, where a monument, by the subscription of his admirers, has been erected to his memory.

You can download this book of his poems here

Here is one of his poems...

The Sun Behind Yon Mountain
Robert Gilfillan

Tune—'The Rose Tree'

The sun, behind yon mountain
Is setting lovely, bright, and fair
While I, the moments counting
Am filled wi' anguish, grief, and care !

For, ere he beams to-morrow
An' streaks wi' gowd yon sky sae blue
I'll hear that word of sorrow
That fareweel parting word—adieu !

Had Willie wooed less kindly
Wi' nae sic truth an' witchin' power
Had I but lo'ed less fondly
I might have borne the parting hour !

On bygane joys I ponder
While future woes appear in view
'Twill break my heart asunder
To hear that parting word—adieu !

The ship is now in motion
That wafts my lover ower the sea
And soon the swelling ocean
Shall roll between my love an' me !

No that the waves can sever
His love an' mine, sae tender, true
But what if 'tis forever
I hear that parting word—adieu !

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