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Scots Wa Who? Forgotten poems of Scotland

Scotland has inspired much celebrated poetry over the ages, from the stirring verses of Robert Burns, to the imaginative tales of Robert Louis Stevenson and Walter Scott. These poets are now household names, but how many outside of Scotland have heard of William Dunbar or James Hogg? O Flower of Scotland is a tune joyously sung by many – but could you sing along to The Flowers of Scotland? For that matter, English poets such as William Cowper and William Wordsworth are known for their romantic descriptions of everyday life, but their odes to the land north of the border are less well known. With St. Andrews Day having just passed, we’re taking a look at some of OSEO’s lesser known Scots poets (and poetry), as well as the southerners inspired by this braw and bonnie land.

William Dunbar (c.1459-1530)

William Dunbar was a Scottish poet closely associated with the court of King James IV. He penned an astoundingly diverse body of work (roughly 90 poems, mostly in Scots dialect) which still provide inspiration today. Although he isn’t a well-known name outside of Scotland, Dunbar’s reputation amongst his contemporaries was great, and he was eulogised by Walter Scott, claiming he was “unrivalled by any which Scotland has produced.” Dunbar’s work, The Flyting of Dunbar and Kennedie, is the earliest surviving example of the Scots flyting genre, in which two rivals hurl insults at the other:

Bot wondir laith wer I to be ane baird,
Flyting to use for gritly I eschame;
For it is nowthir wynnyng nor rewaird
Bot tinsale baith of honour and of fame,
Incres of sorrow, sklander and evill name

William Cowper (1731-1800)

Although best remembered for his English nature poetry — writing about ordinary life and scenes from his homeland, Cowper often found time to describe events further afield. The poem below, A Tale, was inspired by a local news story from Glasgow — in which a Chaffinch’s nest was reported to have appeared at the head of a ship’s mast, whilst moored at Greenock. Despite being “occasionally lowered for the inspection of the curious” the birds never abandoned their nest:

In Scotland’s realm, where trees are few,
Nor even shrubs abound,
But where, however bleak the view,
Some better things are found,

For Husband there, and Wife may boast
Their union undefil’d,
And false ones are as rare almost
As hedge-rows in the wild

James Hogg (1770-1835)

Image Credit: “James Hogg, 1770 – 1835. Poet; ‘The Ettrick Shepherd,'” Scottish National Gallery. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

James Hogg was a largely self-educated Scottish poet and novelist, who worked as a shepherd and farmhand as a young man. Despite his lowly origins, Hogg was friends with many of the great writers and thinkers of the day, and indeed became known as the ‘Ettrick Shepherd’ — a pseudonym which he embraced. In 1801, Hogg was asked to collect ballads for Walter Scott’s The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, and he found a love of rousing songs and poetry. One such is Hogg’s The Hay-Makersan invigorating celebration of work and romance:

Then tak my hand, ye hae my heart;
There’s nane I like sae weel;
An’ Heaven grant I act my part
To ane sae true an’ leal.

This bonny day amang the hay,
I’ll mind till death us twine;
An’ often bless the happy day
That made my laddie mine.

William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

Wordsworth was one of the major English Romantic poets, whose Lyrical Ballads helped to launch the Romantic Movement in literature. Despite his fame, Wordsworth’s experiences in Scotland are less well-known. In 1803, he took a six-week, 663-mile journey through the Scottish Highlands with his sister, Dorothy Wordsworth. Whilst Dorothy memorialised the trip in her Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland (argued to be one of the best Scottish travel accounts of the period), Wordsworth left behind this enchanting poem To a Highland Girl — written in 1803 “upon Lock Lomond” and published four years later:

Nor am I loth, though pleased at heart,
Sweet Highland Girl! from thee to part;
For I, methinks, till I grow old,
As fair before me shall behold,
As I do now, the cabin small,
The lake, the bay, the waterfall;
And Thee, the Spirit of them all!

Robert Burns (1759-1796)

At the end of this briefest of round-ups, it would seem amiss to not give the final words to the most beloved of Scotland’s bards — Burns himself. Scots Wha Hae has served for centuries as the country’s unofficial national anthem — as the patriotic rallying cry of Robert Bruce facing the English army at the Battle of Bannockburn. Although tunes such as O Flower of Scotland and Scotland the Brave have often replaced it at major events, it remains one of the nation’s most stirring cries:

By Oppression’s woes & pains!
By your sons in servile chains!
We will drain our dearest veins,
But they shall be—shall be free!

Lay the proud usurpers low!
Tyrants fall in every foe!
Liberty’s in every blow!
Forward! Let us Do, or Die!!!

Featured Image Credit: ‘Scotland, Landscape, Scenic’ by tpsdave. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Stephanie Drown

    Could you please help me find a poem that I love but cannot remember? It is about a young man entreating a young nun to leave her convent and come away with him.

    Thank you so much.

  2. Sue

    Please could you help find a poem about a road mender. ‘Old Ben old Ben the road man his hammer slipped from sight. Across the heath they bore him one col December night…. old Ben old Ben the road man who’s life was full of stones and now he’s dead there’s not one to stand above his bones. These are the only bits of verse I recall singing it in the 50s and early 60s in a school song book. Thanks

  3. Eliane Blank

    Trying to find the rest of the words my granny used to say
    “If I was as little as you and you were as little as I”
    May not be a poem or song but old saying. Can you help?

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