In these stories of notable
women in Scotland, we have frequently made Edinburgh the centre of our
thoughts. Let us look back for a few minutes at some of the stages of its
life and growth; the eleventh-century village of Queen Margaret’s day,
straggling along the ridge which sloped upwards, from east to west and
ended in the towering Castle Rock, perhaps a Roman fortress, even
centuries before Queen Margaret. That rock was, and still is the sentinel
watching over the town which grew and spread beneath it, the village road
becoming a paved street, the cottages of mud and wattle giving place to
picturesque little houses of wooden boarding with gable-ends facing the
street, and added to till some showed four storeys, slightly overhanging
each other. Some of these survived till the nineteenth century at the very
base of the castle. But most of the wooden houses were swept away in the
great burning of Edinburgh in the time of the Regent, Mary of Guise; and
thereafter arose strong stone buildings, with walls often four feet thick,
and pointed turrets to the flanking towers. The entrance gates led into
stone-paved courtyards where the clatter of horse hooves and the ring of
arms were often heard; for these were the dwellings of nobles, often in
feud with each other and with men of England and of France. The rooms
within were large, but little light could penetrate, because the windows
had tiny panes between the heavy wooden frames; these dwellings were for
protection rather than for pleasant hours of leisure. The stairways from
storey to storey were narrow and winding, the landings small and dark; and
even now, in the twentieth century we may look up at these tall gloomy
buildings, which still tower above the narrow ‘wynds’ and ‘closes’, no
longer the habitation of noblemen, but of the poorest of the poor.
What have these great
gloomy dwellings got to do with our light and cheerful subject, ‘Women
Song-writers of Scotland’? Much, indeed, because as the years went on and
the Act of Union (1707) brought greater peace and order to Scotland, the
noble families who still lived in the baronial houses of Edinburgh knew
how to enjoy life in gay and peaceful fashion. It was still a little city
in the mid-eighteenth century, and crowded with folk who were used to
country houses and wide prospects at some seasons of the year. But when
they came to Edinburgh there was dancing and singing in the gathering of
young folks; great ladies in hoops and powdered hair were borne along the
streets in their sedan chairs to these ‘Assemblies’ in order to chaperone
their daughters; and in the lofty rooms behind those tiny windows, there
were often simple parties where only a single piper gave the tune, and
where, between the dances, ladies sang Scottish ballads till some of their
listeners wept. Let us imagine ourselves able to watch and listen to some
of these musical gatherings.
Even as early as in the thirties of
this eighteenth century (about the time when heroic Helen Walker made her
pilgrimage to London), we may look in to a house in ‘Bell’s Close’ where a
tall old lady with a face showing sweetness and strength is watching the
dancing; for she loves nothing better than to help to make other people
happy; has she not been doing just that and nought else all her life? And
now, in her closing years, her heart is still young; it was she who wrote
that haunting line
‘Were na my heart licht, I wad dee.
We know this old friend; it is Lady
Grizel Baillie, who loved to write verses in those days in Holland, no
matter how full the hours were of household work. Two only of her songs
are fully preserved; the one always known by that line with which each of
its ten verses ends, and the last verse of which has the distinction of
being once quoted by the poet Burns when he was sadly reminded of the past
gaiety of his life.
‘Were I but young for thee, as I hae
We should hae been gallopin’ doun in yon green,
And linkin’ it owre the lily-white lea—
And wow, gin I were but young for thee!’
Or listen again to the pictures of
country life, with the wistful refrain which may well have been wrung from
her in those days of waiting for her lover George Baillie.
O the ewe buchtin’s [folding] bonnie,
baith evening and morn,
When our blithe shepherds play on the bog-reed and horn;
While we’re milking, they’re lilting baith pleasant and dear,
But my heart’s like to break when I think on my dear.
O the shepherds take pleasure to blow
on the horn,
To raise up their flocks and sheep soon i’ the morn;
On the bonnie green banks they feed pleasant and free
But, alas, my dear heart, all my sighing’s for thee!
And at one of these same
gatherings in ‘Bell’s Wynd’ we may see another lady famous for one song,
and perhaps even more famous for her genial humorous spirits, in the
society of Edinburgh.
Miss Alison Rutherford was
a gay young woman in the years when Lady Grizel played the part of
chaperone; and she was only nineteen when in 1731 she married Mr. Patrick
Cockburn of Ormiston. So poor was Mr. Patrick that he and his bride had to
live for a time in the house of his elderly father, ‘an old Presbyterian
of the deepest dye’ condemning as ungodly cards, plays, and dancing. So,
notes young Mrs. Cockburn with her unvarying humour, ‘I was married,
properly speaking, to my father-in-law, a man of seventy-five. I lived
with him four years, and knowing nothing could please his son so much as
to make him fond of me I bestowed all my study to gain his approbation. He
disapproved of plays and assemblies; I never went to one.’
And what a giving up was this
for a girl in her early twenties, passionately fond of society and
admirably fitted for it!
However, after the old judge’s death
there was more freedom, but on marvellously small means between the two of
them. Nevertheless Mrs. Alison appeared at the ‘Assemblies’ in Edinburgh,
up dark winding stairs to flats where dancing and music were going on, and
where her handsome face and sprightly form—not quite so splendidly
attired, we may guess, as some of the richer guests—was always welcome.
And after her husband’s
death, in spite of her small income and the 1oss of her only son in his
early life, ‘she never lost her liveliness,’ we are told, ‘her insatiable
love of mischief, mockery and match-making,’ everywhere welcome, both in
town and country, a good companion, a wise friend, ready to jest over her
And when she is too old to
visit any longer her friend Mrs. Scott in George Square, ‘young Walter
Scott comes to hear her old tales.’
Of the origin of her best
known poem we have no exact knowledge: only very varying conjectures. But
that some sad memory is at the root of it we cannot doubt; possibly that
of her first and unfulfilled love-story. It is called like another which
we shall discuss presently ‘The Flowers of the Forest’ : there are four
verses only: we quote here the last two.
‘I’ve seen the morning
With gold the hills adorning,
And loud tempest storming before the midday;
I’ve seen Tweed’s sillar streams,
Glittering in the sunny beams,
Grow drumly and dark as they rowed on their way.
‘O fickle fortune
Why this cruel sporting?
Oh! why still perplex us, poor sons of a day?
Nae mair your smiles can cheer me,
Nae mair your frowns can fear me;
For the Flowers of the Forest are a’ wide away.’
MISS JEAN ELLIOT
AND what about the other
version of the same theme, bringing in that same unforgettable line? Let
us look at it before we discuss its origin.
It has a slightly different
metre, and a wholly different spirit, for whereas Mrs. Cockburn’s seems to
express the sadness of personal regrets, this, by Miss Jean Elliot, is the
sorrowing outcry of an entire people, the people of that Border country
whose young men marched with King James to Flodden Field, but to return no
I’ve heard them lilting at our yowe-milking,
Lasses a-lilting before dawn o’ day:
But now they are moaning on ilka green loaning—
The Flowers of the Forest are a’ wede away.
Dule and wae for the order sent our
lads to the Border,
The English, for ance, by guile wan the day;
The Flowers of the Forest, that foucht aye the foremost,
The prime o’ our land, are cauld in the clay.
We’ll hear nae mair lilting at the
Women and bairns are heartless and wae;
Sighing and moaning on ilka green loaning—
The Flowers of the Forest are a’ wede away.
* * * * * *
And to this day, wherever
the sorrows of Scotland are foremost in the minds of her folk—or where
honour is paid to those who have died—no words can express so fully the
heart-ache of those who stand by, as
The Flowers of the Forest are a’ wede
* * * * * *
Was it the echoes of
country laments, old snatches of song lingering in the memories of those
whose ancestors had mourned for Flodden Field? Echoes caught up by Jean
Elliot as she wandered round the country-side of Minto, where Teviot flows
northward to join the Tweed, and to the south, the softly rounded Cheviot
hills drop with gentle slopes to the plain?
Or, is it true that, riding
home one night with her brother Gilbert in the family coach, in that
lonely ‘Forest,’ he wagered her a pair of gloves or a set of ribbons that
she could not write a ballad on the subject of Flodden Field.
She accepted the challenge,
and when her brother saw the poem, he knew ‘that he had lost his wager and
Scotland had gained a ballad which would never die.’
We do not really know
whether this story is true; but like other ladies of her day, ‘she kept
her secret, and the family gave no sign.’ When her lovely lines were sung
at Edinburgh gatherings, Miss Jean Elliot, with her sensible but not
beautiful face, her slender figure and air of dignity, would listen and
show no feeling. Very different from gay, sociable Mrs. Cockburn, Miss
Elliot had few friends, but she had confided to just one of her
acquaintances that the poem was hers, and, as ‘Miss Elliot never told
lies’, this became gradually well-known—though none would have dared to
tax the authoress with it. Always one of the notable figures in these
Edinburgh gatherings, though not a popular one, Miss Elliot used to sally
forth from her house in Brown Square to join the dances or the music,
riding in a sedan chair long after this mode of conveyance had ceased to
And when old age crept on
her, she went back to the dale of Teviot, to die at Minto House, looking
perhaps, from her window at the great rocky pile of Minto crags, where
once, in her girlhood, during the march of Prince Charlie southwards, her
father had hidden for fear of arrest, while she with fine dignity and self
control entertained the Jacobite officers who had come to interview a
staunch Hanoverian laird.
What a link of remembrance
here with Flora Macdonald, when she baffled the curiosity of a Hanoverian
Captain of Militia who enquired too bluntly about the doings of the
fugitive Prince Charles!
LADY ANNE LINDSAY
the years which followed the tragic happenings of the ‘45, the hopes of
Jacobites were falling very low. They still loyally toasted ‘The King over
the water’, but the wisest men knew best the difficulties, and only less
thinking enthusiasts talked wildly of the Stuart restoration.
There had, however, long
existed a prophecy which connected the House of Balcarres with such a
restoration; and when James, the Earl of the mid-eighteenth century,
married at the ripe age of sixty, a young and blooming Miss Dalrymple, all
Jacobite tongues were wagging as to the chances of an heir who should in
some way help to bring back the exiled line of kings. But the first child
to be born, in 1750, was a daughter, Anne, whose birth, as she herself
records in her charming letter, ‘disconcerted and enraged all partisans of
the Pretender, soothsayers, fortune-tellers and old ladies.’
The parents, however, were
wisely content, and thereafter welcomed each one of the numerous family,
eventually amounting to eight boys and three girls.
It was a queer rambling old
mansion – the home of this bonny family – placed on that edge of the coast
of Fife which looks southward across the Firth of Forth, the Bass Rock
looming upon the horizon, and the fresh salt wind of the North Sea playing
through the woods which surrounded the house. It was a rollicking set of
young folks who laughed and cried by turns in Balcarres, for ‘My Lady’ had
the strictest view of discipline, strict even for the eighteenth century.
There were days when ‘every cupboard held its culprit, some sobbing and
repeating verbs—others eating their bread and water, some preparing to be
whipped, some enjoying an enviable nap after a flogging.’
The old earl, indeed, far
wiser than her ladyship, would remonstrate with her: ‘Odsfish, madam, you
will break the spirits of my young troops: I will not have it so.’ But
there was not much fear of spirit-breaking when little Robert could cry
sturdily: ‘Oh! my Lady, my Lady, whip me and let me go, if you please,’ or
when more daring John, losing a plaything for a repeated fault, declared
to his mother, ‘Woman, I told you I would do the same, and I will do the
same again to-morrow.’
It was Margaret, however,
the third in order, who once set up the standard:, of rebellion by
inciting her five brothers and sisters to leave home and take refuge from
‘this horrious life’ in the house of kindly neighbours, without
children of their own. In due time, a little procession set off from
Balcarres, unobserved at first, Cummerland, the eldest boy, with baby
James on his shoulders, Anne, Margaret, Robert, and Colin; but Robin Gray,
the shepherd, delivered this information at the house; ‘All the young
gentlemen, and all the young ladies, and all the dogs are run away, my
For this crime, whipping
was declared too slight a punishment; a dose of tincture of rhubarb was
considered more likely to sober the unruly.
Yet was life by no means
all so ‘horrious’; there was paddling in the brook in the glen, rides on
fat oxen in the farmyard with a munch of their raw turnips; secret
feastings on fruits and sweetmeats, somehow purloined, probably with the
connivance of ‘Mammy Bell’, the housekeeper. Even Sundays had their joys,
few lessons, and after the mid-day meal eleven heaps of sweetmeats, ‘of
all sorts and shapes, piled up by one of us, to teach us to calculate, the
compiler having the last heap.’
This may seem rather
pitiful to us in our twentieth-century softness, but let us note that all
these children were devoted to each other and as they grew up, to both
parents; all turned out well, the boys mostly soldiers or sailors serving
with courage and distinction, one, Charles, became a bishop, and a
particularly sweet and gentle character. Of the three daughters all
married, but only Elizabeth had children of her own, a large fine family.
The severe countess grew
softer as her children grew up so good (believing, of course, that this
was due to her own stern discipline), and in her old age she went to live
with Robert and his wife, where she died after many peaceful years.
It is with Lady Anne that
we are chiefly concerned. She was a devoted companion to her deaf and
gouty, but kindly old father, helping him with his books and manuscripts
and carrying on, after his death, the family history which he loved to
Two years after his death,
which took place in 1768, Margaret, Anne’s chief love, married an
Englishman and as the elder brothers had gone out into life, the home was
not so jolly as it once had been.
Lady Anne had a little room
of her own at the top of the ‘turn-pike stairs’; its small window faced
the sea, so that the wide view woke her imagination, quickening her desire
to write. ‘Why not some verses’, said she to herself, ‘verses to fit that
lovely air which Sophy Johnstone sings? I hate the words she puts to it;
they are not worthy of the tune.’
It is enough to quote two
verses of this well-known ballad. There are many different versions: the
following are taken from the Oxford Book of Verse.
When the sheep are in the fauld, and
the kye at hame,
And a’ the wand to rest are gane,
The waes o’ my heart fa’ in showers frae my e’e,
While my gudeman lies sound by me.
I gang like a ghaist, and I carena to
I daurna think on Jamie, for that wad be a sin;
But I’ll do my best a gude wife aye to be,
For auld Robin Gray he is kind unto me.
It was to be a tale of
humble life full of sorrows; the third verse baffled her, even after the
rest was done. Then, little Elizabeth, the nine-year-old, stole into the
room. Said Anne, ‘I’ve been writing a ballad, my dear, and I’m oppressing
my heroine with misfortunes. I’ve sent her Jamie to sea, broken her
father’s arm, made her mother fall sick, and given her old Robin Gray as a
lover; but I wish to load her with a fifth sorrow in the four lines, poor
thing! Help me, I pray.’ ‘Steal the cow, sister Annie’, suggested
Elizabeth; and forthwith the cow was stolen, and the song ‘Auld Robin
Thus tells Lady Anne the
charming story of her ballad’s birth. But it was not till years and years
afterwards that the world knew of it: she showed it to her mother only;
members of the family copied it out. Lady Anne herself sang it (to Sophy
Johnstone’s tune) in her beautiful rich voice; it became famous in
her own countryside and in Edinburgh. There was much curiosity, and shrewd
guessing, but the exact truth was not known, or at least not owned to by
the authoress, till two years before her own death. Then, it so happened
that she read a passage in Sir Walter Scott’s ‘The Pirate’ in which he
compared the condition of one of his characters to ‘that of Jeanie Gray,
the village-heroine in Lady Anne Lindsay’s beautiful ballad.’ Then, at
last, did Lady Anne feel that she ought to declare herself, and so, taking
her courage in both hands, she wrote to Sir Walter telling him the whole
story of the birth of the ballad.
She told him also how it
was she had tried to write a continuation of it, though this was not a
A certain old friend, the
Laird of Dalzell, on reading the poem broke out angrily: ‘Oh! the villain!
Oh! the auld rascal! I ken wha stealt the puir lassie’s coo. It was
auld Robin Gray himself.’ And the authoress, thinking this a bright idea,
made it part of another ballad, a continuation of the first. It was
popular at the time, but was not worthy of the original, and has been
described as ‘a grievous blunder.’
It is pleasant to know that
Lady Anne lived a very gay and varied life; when her sister Margaret
became a widow, she went to live with her in London where the two sisters
became intimate with all the literary and brilliant people of that time;
the playwright Sheridan, Horace Walpole, the great Edmund Burke, and many
others; the Prince Regent himself had the good taste to be extremely
attracted by ‘Sister Anne’ as he chose to call her.
In 1791 Lady Anne married
Mr. Andrew Barnard, and went with him to the Cape of Good Hope where he
was Secretary to the Governor of England’s newly acquired colony. She at
once adapted herself to the very different kind of society, that of Dutch
and English colonists; went on visits in the interior of the country to
Dutch farm houses in their quaint homesteads; and climbed Table mountain,
with her husband, in a man’s attire.
After her husband’s death
in 1808 she lived once more with her sister in London, dying there at the
age of seventy-five.
But her beautiful ballad
will never die, as long as there is an English, or Lowland Scots language
to carry it on.
CAROLINA, BARONESS NAIRNE
we travel westwards from the coast of Fife, we come to the strath, or
valley, of the river Earn. We are now near the edge of the Scottish
Highlands, the land of mountains and steep glens; and this is the kind of
country in which lived the Highland clans who remained loyal to the Stuart
Kings and followed Prince Charlie in the ‘45.
The Oliphants of Gask, in
Strathearn, were a Jacobite family, whose members had intermarried with
other families of like loyalty. Lawrence Oliphant, the father of the
Carolina we are now concerned with, had been exiled and living in Paris
till King George III. was reigning in England, and he never spoke of the
King otherwise than as ‘The Elector of Hanover’.
Carolina was born in 1766,
the third of six children, all of whom had their early education from a
governess, one of whose duties was to teach the children ‘to talk
tolerable English’, which reminds us that the use of Scots was universal
even among well-born people in the eighteenth century, and it must have
been indeed a forcible, fluent and expressive tongue.
Carolina grew up handsome
in a remarkable degree; from ‘pretty Miss Car.’ as a little girl, she
became noticeable everywhere for her fine features and dignified
personality. She has given us an amusing picture of the ‘county meetings’
at which she often figured for she had a keen sense of humour, and many of
her poems are light and jovial. We may wonder that in spite of her gay
life, for there were a good many social doings among the Jacobite lairds
of that neighbourhood, she did not marry till she was forty-one: during
the twenty years of her life when many must have admired her, she was
betrothed to a cousin, Captain Nairne, a soldier too poor to marry. She
employed herself in those years in verse making, for her idea was to give
better words to fit the charming airs which she heard sung about the
After her marriage to Major
Nairne they went to live in a suburb of Edinburgh, and there she joined a
society of ladies who were helping a publisher to bring out a collection
of national airs with good words; Lady Nairne was the most gifted and the
most capable of this society, but she did all her work anonymously,
calling herself ‘Mrs. Bogan of Bogan’, and even dressing herself in a
disguising costume when she had to interview the publisher.
We give here three of her
poems representing three very different moods; the gay humour of ‘The
County Meeting’; the street sellers’ charming cry, and, best known of all,
the lovely pathetic lines which, first written to show sympathy with a
bereaved mother, must have been helpful to her own soul when her son and
only child was taken from her as still a young man. It is a well-known and
THE LAND O’ THE LEAL
I’m wearin’ awa’, John,
Like snaw-wreaths in thaw, John;
I’m wearin’ awa’
To the land o’ the leal.
There’s nae sorrow there, John
There’s neither cauld nor care, John,
The day is aye fair
In the land o’ the leal.
Our bonnie bairn’s there, John,
She was baith gude and fair, John;
And oh! we grudged her sair
To the land o’ the leal.
But sorrow’s sel’ wears past, John,
And joy’s a-coming fast, John—
The joy that’s aye to last
In the land o’ the leal.
Wha’ll buy my caller herrin’?
They’re bonnie fish and halesome farin’;
Wha’ll buy my caller herrin’
New drawn frae the Forth?
When ye were sleepin’ on your
Dreamed ye aught o’ our puir fellows,
Darkling as they faced the billows,
A’ to fill the woven willows,
New drawn frae the Forth.
THE COUNTY MEETING
Ye’re welcome, leddies, ane and a’
Ye’re welcome to our County Ha’;
Sae wee! ye look when buskit braw
To grace our County Meeting!
An’ gentlemen ye’re welcome too,
In waistcoats white and tartan too
Gae seek a partner, mak’ yer bold,
Syne dance our County Meeting.
And so, through six more verses with
picture after picture of the human drolleries which gave mirth to those
who danced at the county meetings.
It is pleasant to record that in the
end Lady Nairne went back to her old home to die peacefully under the care
of her nephew, Lawrence Oliphant.