Thomas Humphry Ward, ed. The English Poets. 18801918. Vol. III. The Eighteenth Century: Addison to Blake
Critical Introduction by William Minto
Scotch Minor Song-writers in the Eighteenth Century
THE PASSION for song-writing which seized upon Scotland in the eighteenth century may be comparedif small things may be compared with greatwith the passion for play-writing which seized upon England in the latter days of Queen Elizabeth and throughout the reign of her successor. In both periods we have a supreme outcome, the plays of Shakespeare in the one case and the poetry of Burns in the other; but the excitement by which the powers of these central figures were stimulated was general. When Burns came into the world the competition was universal for the prize which fell to the lot of masterful genius, and throughout his lifetime all classes in Scotland were eager to distinguish themselves as song-writers. Ambition did not always light upon faculty, but the ambition was everywhere. If we look at the results of the lyric movement in Scotland during the eighteenth century, it is surprising to see how very various were the conditions in life of the authors and authoresses of the best songs, the songs which took root and still survive. Peers, members of the Supreme Court of Law, diplomatists, lairds, clergymen, schoolmasters, men of science, farmers, gardeners, compositors, pedlarsall were trying their hands at patching old songs and making new songs. The writer of Auld Robin Gray was a daughter of the Earl of Balcarres; the writer of Ca the Yowes to the Knowes, which stands first in Miss Aitkens Selection of the choicest lyrics of Scotland, was an Ayrshire lucky who kept an alehouse and sold whisky without a licence. And it was not merely in the south of Scotland that this passion for song-writing made itself felt; it was as active in the north of Scotland as in the south.
The contributors to Allan Ramsays Tea-Table Miscellany form one of the earliest groups of song-writers in the eighteenth century. They were not called into existence by Ramsays example; in fact Ramsay speaks of himself as the poetical disciple of one of the most notable of them, William Hamilton of Gilbertfield, a gay boisterous lieutenant, who is supposed to have left a picture of himself in the song Willie was a wanton wag. There was another William Hamilton in the set, Hamilton of Bangour, whose songs were of a more serious cast. The mournful ballad of The Braes of Yarrow is his composition. Another of Ramsays ingenious young gentlemen was Robert Crawfurd, of Drumsoy, who found words for the air of Tweedside which have become inseparable from that tender melody. David Mallet, who claimed to be the author of Edwin and Emma, made his beginning in letters as the author of The Birks of Invermay, a pastoral song, which has kept its place among less artificial favourites. Lady Grissell Baillie, daughter of the Earl of Marchmont, also contributed to the Tea-Table Miscellany. The humour of the song Were na my heart licht, as well as the subject, is one among many illustrations of the closeness of the sympathy between the Scotch aristocracy and the peasantry. Perhaps the example of the Stuart kings had something to do with establishing this tradition. The first and the fifth of the line had a pronounced liking for putting the humours of the vulgar into verse.
Very little of real worth, however, was produced by Allan Ramsays group. Their sentiment is affected, smirking, lackadaisical; and their humour, except when it takes the form of description, factitious and forced. Very few of the songs of the Tea-Table Miscellany took any lasting hold of the peoplea sure proof of their artificiality. Historically they are the result of studies in Restoration and Queen Anne literature, with selections from which the productions of the native poets challenged competition in the Miscellany; and we seem to be aware in reading them of a certain consciousness of imitation and pride of rivalry. The authors seem to have one eye on their subject and another on their models. There is much less of this in the writings of a somewhat later Northern group of singers, whether from temperament or because they were farther from the Modern Athens and its ambitions. The songs of George Halket, a Jacobite schoolmaster, author of Whirry, Whigs, awa, and Logie o Buchan; Alexander Ross, the author of The Fortunate Shepherdess, a stickit Minister and for fifty-two years a schoolmaster contented and tuneful on his stipend of twenty pounds a year; John Skinner, the author of Tullochgorum, a persecuted Episcopalian clergyman in Aberdeenshire; and Alexander Geddes, a Roman Catholic priest in Morayshire,the songs of these local poets were more spontaneous, and proved themselves to have a correspondingly greater vitality. Of Skinners songs in particular, few in number but all real in their impulse, full of verve and manly strength of heart and intellect, Burns was an ardent admirer. In one of those complimentary epistles which it was the fashion of the day for poets to interchange, Burns regretted that he had not been able to pay in person a younger brothers dutiful respect to the author of the best Scotch song Scotland ever sawTullochgorum s my delight! and hailed Skinner as the sole surviving possessor of that certain something which to his mind distinguished old Scotch songs not only from English songs but from the modern efforts of song-wrights, in our native manner and language. Burns was also much struck with the pathos of The Ewie wi the Crookit Horn; he would have seen another quality in it if he had been in the secret, preserved by tradition, that the Ewie lamented was a whisky still captured by the exciseman; but the fact that to any one not in this secret the lament should have seemed so natural and touching, is an evidence of the delicacy with which the humorous double-meaning is sustained.
Burns was perhaps prejudiced by the direct unaffected strength of Skinners songs, and the large-hearted philosophy of life which inspired them, into paying him a compliment that the technical excellence of his verse hardly warrants. Among Burnss contemporaries there were certainly others besides Skinner who possessed the secret of the certain indescribable something which makes a song a permanent addition to popular literature. Burns himself speaks of one of the most enduring of Scotch songs, There s nae luck about the house, which was first sung upon the streets and sold in a broadsheet about 1771 or 1772, as one of the most beautiful songs in the Scots or any other language. It is still one of the mainstays and props of homely sentiment in Scotland. Its authorship is uncertain, but the weight of evidence assigns it to a poor schoolmistress, Jean Adams, who closed an unfortunate career in an almshouse. Another song of equally enduring qualities, Auld Robin Gray, which became popular about the same date, was believed for some time by antiquaries to be as old as the time of David Rizzio, but proved to be the work of a girl hardly out of her teens, Lady Ann Lindsay, daughter of the Earl of Balcarres. The same mistake of ascribing popular songs to remote antiquity was made in the case of Ca the Yowes to the Knowes, a pastoral song in a very different key of sentiment, which was really written by Isabel, or Tibbie, Pagan, an Ayshire cottager, described as a woman of deformed person, saturnine temper, and dissolute habits, rendered formidable by her sarcastic wit and attractive by her powers of song. Two plaintive songs, to the air of The Flowers of the Forest, were from the first assigned to their true authors, Miss Jane Elliot, sister of the Sir Gilbert Elliot who afterwards became Lord Minto, and Miss Rutherford, afterwards Mrs. Cockburn, daughter of a Roxburghshire laird. Mrs. Cockburns version had reference to a contemporary commercial disaster of the same nature as the Glasgow Bank failure, but both have become associated in the popular mind with the defeat of Flodden. This may have contributed to their popularity, but the strength of their appeal to the melancholy romantic side of the Scotch character would probably have alone sufficed to preserve them. To the same period belongs the marching song of the 42nd Regiment, The Garb of Old Gaul. This stirring martial lyric was first printed in The Lark, a miscellany published in Edinburgh in 1765, and was the composition of a young officer, Harry Erskine, who afterwards entered political life, and whose son was promoted to the peerage as Earl of Rosslyn.
I have drawn attention to the various social positions of the song-writers of that period, to whom we owe the best and most enduring Scotch songs, the songs which have taken most hold of the people, and have moulded their character, in order to show how universal was the passion for song-writing in the eighteenth century. If we turn to the productions of less happy faculty, the works of ambition and ingenious endeavour, we find abundant evidence of the same fact. Before Burns the lyric tendency is everywhere conspicuous, and naturally after Burns it increased for a time rather than abated. We have seen that Sir Gilbert Elliots sister was a successful song-writer; the diplomatist and statesman himself in his youth contributed a pastoral to Yairs Charmer, My Sheep I neglectedI lost my sheep-hook, in which he vowed to wander from love and Amynta no more. This pastoral still holds its place in collections of Scotch songs. Andrew Erskine, a younger brother of the Earl of Kellie, wrote many songs, and one, How sweet this lone vale, which Burns pronounced divine. Sir John Clerk, a Baron of the Exchequer, did not consider it beneath his dignity to put tags to old songs, and words in his native dialect to old tunes. Dr. Austin, a fashionable physician in Edinburgh, consoled himself for the loss of a lady who jilted him in a song which has supported many in similar circumstances, For Lack of Gold. Alexander Wilson, who afterwards attained fame as an ornithologist, began life as a pedlar and strung breezy lyrics together as he wandered on cheerfully from door to door with his pack on his back. Balloon Tytlerso called from his aeronautic experimentschemist, mechanician, original editor and principal compiler of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, showed in Loch Erroch Side, and The Bonnie Brucket Lassie, that scientific pursuits had not dimmed his freshness of feeling. Blind Dr. Blacklock, who kept a boarding-school, warbled in the manner of Shenstone, about the harvest that waves in the breeze and the music that floats on the gale. Richard Hewitt, Blacklocks amanuensis, emulated the work of his master in the same vein. The famous song, Hey Johnnie Cope, which deserves to be ranked among the best songs of the period, was the composition of Adam Skirving, a wealthy Haddingtonshire farmer. John Lowe, a gardeners son, wrote Mary, weep no more for me. John Mayne, a compositor, wrote Logan Braes. A song-writer of wider culture was the Rev. John Logan, Minister of Leith, the writer of the most eloquent sermons which the Scotch Church has produced. It is difficult in reading Logans poetry to divest oneself of sympathy with the story of his unhappy life, but there seems to be more in his verse than mere general literary facility. He was a writer of sacred as well as profane songs, but his essays in the latter direction, though they disturbed his relations with his brethren, help to redeem the Ministers of the Scotch Kirk from the reproach of having contributed less than any other class in the community to the national lyric movement of the eighteenth century.