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Significant Scots
Allan Ramsay

Allan RamsayRAMSAY, ALLAN, the celebrated poet, was born at the village of Leadhills, in Lanarkshire, October 15, 1686. His parentage was highly respectable, and his ancestry even dignified. His father, Robert Ramsay, was manager of the lead mines in Crawfordmuir, belonging to the earl of Hopetoun; and his mother, Alice Bower, was the daughter of a gentleman who had been brought from Derbyshire, to introduce and oversee some improvements in the management of the mines. His grandfather, Robert Ramsay, writer or notary in Edinburgh, was the son of captain John Ramsay, a son of Ramsay of Cockpen, whose family was a branch of the Ramsays of Dalhousie, afterwards ennobled. [The laird of Cockpen here mentioned, is usually represented as a brother of Ramsay of Dalhousie; but the branch seems to have left the main stock at a much earlier period than that would imply. The first Ramsay of Cockpen was a son of Sir Alexander Ramsay, who was knighted at the coronation of James I., in 1424.] A grandmother of the poet, moreover, was Janet Douglas, daughter of Douglas of Muthil. Though thus well descended, he was reared in the midst of poverty. He had the misfortune to lose his father while he was yet an infant; and his mother seems almost immediately to have married a Mr Crighton, a small landholder in the neighbourhood. Whether this last circumstance was an additional misfortune, as has been generally assumed by his biographers, we think may reasonably be questioned. It is not at all probable that his father, dying at the age of twenty-five, could have much property; and the use and wont of even a small landholder’s house, is not likely to have been beneath that of a poor widow’s. His mother had a number of children to Mr Crighton; but the subject of this memoir seems to have been cared for in the same way as those were, and to have enjoyed all the advantages appropriate to the same station in life. He had the benefit of the parish school till he was in his fifteenth year; an extent of education not yet common in Scotland, except when attendance on the university is included. Of the progress he had made in his studies, we have unfortunately no particular account; it certainly made him acquainted with Horace, as is abundantly evident in his poems.

In the year 1700, Ramsay lost his mother; and in the following year his step-father carried him into Edinburgh, and apprenticed him to a periwig-maker, which appears to have been at that time a flourishing profession. Ramsay himself, it is said, wished to have been a painter; and his step-father has been reflected on as acting with niggardly sharp-sightedness, in refusing to comply with his wishes. There is not, however, in the numerous writings of Ramsay, one single hint that any violence was, on this occasion, done to his feelings; and we think the reflection might well have been spared. Those who have borne the burden of rearing a family upon limited means, know the impossibility of indulging either their own wishes, or those of their children in this respect, being often obliged to rest satisfied, not with what they would have wished, but with what they have been able to attain. There can be no doubt that Allan Ramsay served out his apprenticeship honourably, and afterwards for a number of years practised his trade as a master successfully; circumstances that, in our opinion, justify the discretion and good sense of his step-father, more powerfully than any reasoning could do. It is to be regretted that of this period of his life no accounts have been handed down to us; and the more so, that we have no doubt they would show his general good sense, and the steady character of his genius, more powerfully than even the later and more flourishing periods of his history. Unlike the greater number of men of poetical talent, Ramsay had the most perfect command over himself; and the blind gropings of the cyclops of ambition within, led him to no premature attempts to attain distinction. Though he must have entertained day-dreams of immortality, he enjoyed them with moderation; and, without indulging either despondency or dejection, he waited with patience for their realization. Prosecuting his business with diligence, he possessed independence; and, while, in the company of respectable fellow citizens, he indulged and improved his social qualities, he, by taking to wife an excellent woman, Christian Ross, the daughter of a writer in Edinburgh, laid the foundation of a lifetime of domestic felicity.

It was in the year 1712, and in the twenty-sixth year of his age, that he entered into the state of matrimony; and the earliest of his productions that can now be traced, is an epistle to the most happy members of the Easy Club, dated the same year. This club originated, as he himself, who was one of its members, informs us, "in the antipathy we all seemed to have at the ill humour and contradiction which arise from trifles, especially those that constitute Whig and Tory, without having the grand reason for it." This club was in fact formed of Jacobites, and the restoration of the Pretender was the "grand reason" here alluded to. In the club every member assumed a fictitious name, generally that of some celebrated writer. Ramsay, probably from the Tatler, which must have been a book much to his taste, pitched upon that of Isaac Bickerstaff, but afterwards exchanged it for that of Gawin Douglas. In the presence of this club, Ramsay was in the habit of reading his first productions, which, it would appear, were published by or under the patronage of the fraternity, probably in notices of its sittings, which would tend to give it celebrity and add to its influence. The elegy on Maggy Johnston seems to have been one of the earliest of his productions, and is highly characteristic of his genius. An Elegy on the death of Dr Pitcairne in 1715, was likewise, read before, and published by, the club: but being at once political and personal, it was rejected by the author, when he republished his poems. Allan had this year been elected Poet Laureate of the club. But the rising of Mar put an end to its meetings; and Ramsey, though still a keen Jacobite, felt it to be for his interest to be so in secret. It was now, however, that he commenced in earnest his poetical career, and speedily rose to a degree of popularity, which had been attained by no poet in Scotland since the days of Sir David Lindsay. For more than a century, indeed, Scottish poetry had been under an eclipse, while such poetical genius as the age afforded chose Latin as the medium of communication. Semple, however, and Hamilton of Gilbertfield had of late years revived the notes of the Doric reed; and it seems to have been some of their compositions, as published in Watson’s Collection in 1706, that first inspired Ramsay. Maggy Johnston’s Elegy was speedily followed by that on John Cowper, quite in the same strain of broad humour. The publication of king James’s "Christ’s Kirk on the Green," from an old manuscript, speedily followed, with an additional canto by the editor, which, possessing the same broad humour, in a dialect perfectly level to the comprehension of the vulgar, while its precursor could not be read even by them without the aid of explanatory notes, met with a most cordial reception. Commentators have since that period puzzled themselves not a little to explain the language of the supposed royal bard. Ramsay, however, saved himself the trouble, leaving every one to find it out the best way he might, for he gave no explanations; and at the same time, to impress his readers with admiration of his great learning, he printed his motto, taken from Gawin Douglas, in Greek characters. A second edition of this work was published in the year 1718, with the addition of a third canto, which increased its popularity so much, that, in the course of the four following years, it ran through five editions. It was previously to the publication of this work in its extended form, that Allan Ramsey had commenced the bookselling business, for it was "printed for the author, at the Mercury, opposite to Niddry’s Wynd;" but the exact time when or the manner how he changed his profession has not been recorded. At the Mercury, opposite to the head of Niddry’s Wynd, Ramsay seems to have prosecuted his business as an original author, editor, and bookseller, with great diligence for a considerable number of years. His own poems he continued to print as they were written, in single sheets or half sheets, in which shape they are reported to have found a ready sale, the citizens being in the habit of sending their children with a penny for "Allan Ramsey’s last piece." In this form were first published, besides those we have already mentioned, "The City of Edinburgh’s address to the Country," "The City of Edinburgh’s Salutation to the marquis of Caernarvon," "Elegy on Lucky Wood," "Familiar Epistles," &c. &c., which had been so well received by the public that in the year 1720, he issued proposals for republishing them, with additional poems, in one volume quarto. The estimation in which the poet was now held was clearly demonstrated by the rapid filling up of a list of subscribers, containing the names of all that were eminent for talents, learning, or dignity in Scotland. The volume, handsomely printed by Ruddiman, and ornamented by a portrait of the author, from the pencil of his friend Smibert, was published in the succeeding year, and the fortunate poet realized four hundred guineas by the speculation. This volume was, according to the fashion of the times, prefaced with several copies of recommendatory verses; and it contained the first scene of the Gentle Shepherd, under the title of " Patie and Roger," and apparently intended as a mere pastoral dialogue. Incited by his brilliant success, Ramsey redoubled his diligence, and in the year 1722, produced a volume of Fables and Tales; in 1723, the Fair Assembly; and, in I724, Health, a poem, inscribed to the earl of Stair. In the year 1719, he had published a volume of Scottish Songs, which had already run through two editions, by which he was encouraged to publish in January 1724, the first volume of "The Tea Table Miscellany," a collection of Songs, Scottish and English. This was soon followed by a second; in 1727, by a third; and some years afterwards by a fourth. The demand for this work was so great that, in the course of a few years, it ran through twelve editions. In later times Ramsay has been condemned for what he seems to have looked upon as a meritorious piece of labour. He had refitted about sixty of the old airs with new verses, partly by himself, and partly by others; which was perhaps absolutely necessary on account of the rudeness and indecency of the elder ditties. Modern antiquaries, however, finding that he has thus been the means of banishing the latter order of songs out of existence, declaim against him for a result which he perhaps never contemplated, and which, to say the least of it, could never have occurred, if the lost poems had possessed the least merit. That Ramsay, in publishing a work for the immediate use of his contemporaries, did not consult the taste or wishes of an age a century later, was certainly very natural; and though we may regret that the songs are lost, we cannot well see how the blame lies with him. Ramsay, let us also recollect, was at this very time evincing his desire to bring forward the really valuable productions of the elder muse. In the year 1724, he published the "Ever-Green, being a Collection of Scots Poems, wrote by the Ingenious before 1600." Ramsay, however, was neither a faithful, nor a well informed editor. He introduced into this collection, as ancient compositions, two pieces of his own, entitled, "The Vision," and "The Eagle and Robin Redbreast," the former being a political allegory with a reference to the Pretender.

Ramsay had already written and published, in his first volume of original poetry, "Patie and Roger," which he had followed up the following year with "Jenny and Maggy," a pastoral, being a sequel to "Patie and Roger." These sketches were so happily executed, as to excite in every reader a desire to see them extended. He therefore proceeded with additional colloquies in connexion with the former, so as to form in the end a dramatic pastoral in five acts. In the following letter, published here for the first time, it will be seen that he was engaged on this task in spring 1724, at a time when the duties of life were confining him to the centre of a busy city, and when, by his own confession, he had almost forgot the appearance of those natural scenes which he has nevertheless so admirably described:--


"Edinburgh, April 8th, 1724;

"Sir,—These come to bear you my very heartyest and grateful wishes. May you long enjoy your Marlefield, see many a returning spring pregnant with new beautys; may every thing that’s excellent in its kind continue to fill your extended soul with pleasure. Rejoyce in the beneficence of heaven, and let all about ye rejoyce—whilst we, alake, the laborious insects of a smoaky city, hurry about from place to place in one eternal maze of fatiguing cares, to secure this day our daylie bread—and something till’t. For me, I have almost forgot how springs gush from the earth. Once, I had a notion how fragrant the fields were after a soft shower; and often, time out of mind! the glowing blushes of the morning have fired my breast with raptures. Then it was that the mixture of rural music echo’d agreeable from the surrounding hills, and all nature appear’d in gayety.

"However, what is wanting to me of rural sweets I endeavour to make up by being continually at the acting of some new farce, for I’m grown, I know not how, so very wise, or at least think so (which is much about one), that the mob of mankind afford me a continual diversion; and this place, tho’ little, is crowded with merry-andrews, fools, and fops, of all sizes, (who) intermix’d with a few that can think, compose the comical medley of actors.

"Receive a sang made on the marriage of my young chief—I am, this vacation, going through with a Dramatick Pastoral, which I design to carry the length of five acts, in verse a’ the gate, and if I succeed according to my plan, I hope to tope with the authors of Pastor Fido and Aminta.

"God take care of you and yours, is the constant prayer of, sir, your faithful humble servant,


The poem was published in 1725, under the title of the Gentle Shepherd, and met with instant and triumphant success. A second edition was printed by Ruddiman for the author, who still resided at his shop opposite Niddry’s Wynd; but the same year he removed from this his original dwelling to a house in the east end of the Luckenbooths, which had formerly been the London Coffee house. Here, in place of Mercury, he adopted the heads of Ben Jonson and Drummond of Hawthornden, and in addition to his business as a bookseller, he commenced that of a circulating library. Ramsay was the first to establish such a business in Scotland, and it appears that he did so, not without some opposition from the more serious part of the community, who found fault with him for lending the loose plays of that age to persons whose morals were liable to be tainted by them. In this shop the wits of Edinburgh continued daily to meet for information and amusement during the days of Ramsay and his successors in trade. In the year 1728, he published by subscription the second volume of his poems in quarto, (including the Gentle Shepherd) which was equally successful with the first. Of this volume a second edition was printed in octavo in the succeeding year. In 1730, Ramsay published a collection of thirty fables, after which, though he wrote several copies of verses for the amusement of his friends, he gave nothing more to the public. His fame was now at the full, and though he had continued to issue a number of volumes every year, all equally good as those that preceded them, it could have received no real addition. Over all the three kingdoms, and over all their dependencies, the works of Ramsay were widely diffused, and warmly admired. The whole were republished by the London booksellers in the year 1731, and by the Dublin booksellers in 1733, all sterling proofs of extended popularity, to which the poet himself failed not on proper occasions to allude.

Ramsay had now risen to wealth and to high respectability, numbering among his familiar friends the best and the wisest men in the nation. By the greater part of the Scottish nobility he was caressed, and at the houses of some of the most distinguished of them, Hamilton palace, Loudoun castle, &c., was a frequent visitor. With Duncan Forbes, lord advocate, afterwards lord president, and the first of Scottish patriots, Sir John Clerk, Sir William Bennet, and Sir Alexander Dick, he lived in the habit of daily and familiar, and friendly intercourse. With contemporary poets his intercourse was extensive and of the most friendly kind. The two Hamiltons, of Bangour and Gilbertfield, were his most intimate friends. He addressed verses to Pope, to Gay, and to Somerville, the last of whom returned his poetical salutations in kind. Mitchell and Mallet shared also in his friendly greetings. Meston addressed to him verses highly complimentary, and William Scott of Thirlstane wrote Latin hexameters to his praise. Under so much good fortune he could not escape the malignant glances of envious and disappointed poetasters, and of morose and stern moralists. By the first he was annoyed with a "Block for Allan Ramsay’s wig or the Poet fallen in a trance;" by the latter, "Allan Ramsay metamorphosed to a Heather-bloter poet, in a pastoral between Algon and Meliboea," with "The flight of religious piety from Scotland upon the account of Ramsay’s lewd books and the hell-bred playhouse comedians, who debauch all the faculties of the souls of the rising generation," "A Looking-glass for Allan Ramsay," "Tbe Dying Words of Allan Ramsay," &c. The three last of these pieces were occasioned by a speculation which he entered into for the encouragement of the drama, to which he appears to have been strongly attached. For this purpose, about the year 1736, he built a playhouse in Carrubber’s close at vast expense, which, if it was ever opened, was immediately shut up by the act for licensing the stage, which was passed in the year 1737. Ramsay on this occasion addressed a rhyming complaint to the court of session, which was first printed in the Gentleman’s Magazine, and since in all the editions that have been given of his works. It does not, however, appear that he obtained any redress, and the pecuniary loss which he must have suffered probably affected him more than the lampoons to which we have alluded. He had previously to this published his "Reasons for not answering the Hackney Scribblers," which are sufficiently biting, and with which he seems to have remained satisfied through life. He has described himself in one of his epistles as a

"Little man that lo’ed his ease,
And never thol’d these passions lang
That rudely meant to do him wrang;"

which we think the following letter to his old friend Smibert, the painter, who had by this time emigrated to the western world, will abundantly confirm:—"My dear old friend, your health and happiness are ever ane addition to my satisfaction. God make your life easy and pleasant. Half a century of years have now rowed o’er my pow, that begins to be lyart; yet thanks to my author I eat, drink, and sleep as sound as I did twenty years syne, yea I laugh, heartily too, and find as many subjects to employ that faculty upon as ever; fools, fops, and knaves grow as rank as formerly, yet here and there are to be found good and worthy men who are one honour to human life. We have small hopes of seeing you again in our old world; then let us be virtuous and hope to meet in heaven. My good auld wife is still my bedfellow. My son Allan has been pursuing your science since he was a dozen years auld; was with Mr Hyffidg at London for some time about two years ago; has been since at home, painting here like a Raphael; sets out for the seat of the beast beyond the Alps within a month hence, to be away about two years. I’m sweer to part with him, but canna stem the current which flows from the advice of his patrons and his own inclination. I have three daughters, one of seventeen, one of sixteen, and one of twelve years old, and no ae wally dragle among them—all fine girls. These six or seven years past I have not written a line of poetry; I can give over in good time, before the coolness of fancy that attends advanced years should make me risk the reputation I had acquired.

"Frae twenty-five to five and forty,
My muse was neither sweer nor dorty,
My Pegasus would break his tether,
E’en at the shaking of a feather;
And through ideas scour like drift,
Streking his wings up to the lift
Then, then my soul was in a low,
That gart my numbers safely row;
But eild and judgment gin to say,
Let be your sangs, and learn to pray."

It is scarcely possible to conceive a more pleasing picture of ease and satisfaction than is exhibited in the above sketch; and, the affair of the theatre in Carrubber’s close excepted, Ramsay seems to have filled it up to the last. He lost his wife, Christian Ross, in the year 1743; but his three daughters, grown up to womanhood, in some measure supplied the want of her society, and much of his time in his latter years seems to have been spent with his friends in the country. It appears to have been about this period, and with the view of relinquishing his shop, the business of which still went on prosperously, that he erected a house on the north side of the Castle Hill, where he might spend the remainder of his days in dignified retirement. The site of this house was selected with the taste of a poet and the judgment of a painter. It commanded a reach of scenery probably not surpassed in Europe, extending from the mouth of the Forth on the east to the Grampians on the west, and stretching far across the green hills of Fife to the north; embracing in the including space every variety of beauty, of elegance, and of grandeur. The design for the building, however, which the poet adopted, was paltry in the extreme, and by the wags of the city was compared to a goose pye, of which complaining one day to lord Elibank, his lordship gayly remarked, that now seeing him in it he thought it an exceedingly apt comparison. Fantastic though the house was, Ramsay spent the last twelve years of his life in it, except when he was abroad with his friends, in a state of philosophic ease, which few literary men are able to attain. In the year 1755, he is supposed to have relinquished business. An Epistle which he wrote this year to James Clerk, Esq. of Pennycuick, "full of wise saws and modern instances," gives his determination on the subject, and a picture of himself more graphic than could be drawn by any other person:

"Tho’ born to no ae inch of ground,
I keep my conscience white and sound;
And though I ne’er was a rich keeper,
To make that up I live the cheaper;
By this ae knack I’ve made a shift
To drive ambitious care adrift;
And now in years and sense grown auld,
In ease I like my limbs to fauld.
Debts I abhor, and plan to be
From shackling trade and dangers free;
That I may, loosed frae care and strife,
With calmness view the edge of life;
And when a full ripe age shall crave
Slide easily into my grave;
Now seventy years are o’er my head,
And thirty more may lay me dead."

While he was thus planning schemes of ease and security, Ramsay seems to save forgotten the bitter irony of a line in one of his elegies,

The wily carl, he gathered gear,
But oh! he’s dead."

At the very time he was thus writing, he was deeply afflicted with the scurvy in his gums, by which he eventually lost all his teeth, and even a portion of one of his jaw bones. He died at Edinburgh on the 7th of January, 1757, in the 73rd year of his age. He was buried on the 9th of the month, without any particular honours, and with him for a time was buried Scottish poetry there not being so much as one poet found in Scotland to sing a requiem over his grave. His wife, Christian Ross, seems to have brought him seven children, three sons and four daughters; of these Allan, the eldest, and two daughters survived him. Of the character of Ramsay, the outlines we presume may be drawn from the comprehensive sketch which we have exhibited of the events of his life. Prudent self-control seems to have been his leading characteristic, and the acquisition of a competency the great object of his life. He was one of the few poets to whom, in a pecuniary point of view, poetry has been really a blessing, and who could combine poetic pursuits with those of ordinary business.

Our thanks to John Henderson for sending us in this scan which includes some of his poems.
















Allan Ramsay
by Smeaton, William Henry Oliphant (1896) (pdf)

The Works of Allan Ramsay
With Life of the Author by George Chalmers; An essay on his genius and writings by Lord Woodhouselee; and an appendix relative to his life and posthumous reputation in three volumes (1853)

Volume 1  |  Volume 2  |  Volume 3

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