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After Burns: recovering Scottish poetry by Daniel Cook, OUPblog

After Burns: recovering Scottish poetry

Scottish poetry produced in the long eighteenth century might strike you as at once familiar and unknown. Familiar because it includes among its ranks one of the world’s most iconic bards, Robert Burns, as well as one of the most influential novelists of all time, Sir Walter Scott. Unknown because Burns and Scott still overshadow their peers, some of whom have been out of print for decades, even centuries.

Struggling to make an impact on the cultural scene of their age, for a variety of personal and social reasons, some of these poets and songwriters published only a single and often small selection of works. A lot of the pieces even appeared posthumously, for the first time, years after the writers’ deaths. Some who were successful at the time, whether critically or commercially, have long fallen out of public view. A younger contemporary of Scott, Thomas Campbell has largely been sidelined, even though he once enjoyed great prestige across continental Europe—statues and clubs were raised in his honour. Largely forgotten, the Falconar sisters produced two joint collections of highly sophisticated poems when they were barely teenagers. What became of them after 1791 remains a tantalising mystery.

A hugely popular weaver poet, Robert Tannahill had a stylistic range that far extended beyond the admittedly unmissable influence of that ingenious fellow labouring poet, Burns. At the other end of the class spectrum, Lady Bury had her own thoughtful songs that will long stay with you (“On Seeing Some Withered Roses Thrown Away”: “Wipe off the yet impassion’d tear, / And turn my heart to peace”). Poets from all walks of life honoured their entire nation (under the labels of “Scotland”, “Scotia”, or “Caledonia”); others focused on local communities, whether it’s Lord Byron’s Aberdeenshire, Alexander Douglas’s Fife, Robert Fergusson’s Edinburgh (“Auld Reekie”), Richard Gall’s Ayrshire, Alexander Geddes’s Linton, John Mayne’s Glasgow, David Vedder’s Orkney, or Margaretta Wedderburn’s Dalkeith. Universal literary and real-world themes sustained their attention, just as they sustain ours, whether it’s the seasons (James Thomson’s “Winter”, Michael Bruce’s “Elegy: To Spring”, or Eóghann MacLachlainn’s “An t-Earrach”), nature (Duncan Ban Macintyre’s “Seachran Seilge” or Jean Glover’s “O’er the Muir Amang the Heather”), marriage (Janet Graham’s “Wayward Wife”, Joanna Baillie’s “Song, Woo’d and Married and a’’, or Robert Lochlore’s “Marriage and the Care o’t”), or—the ultimate one—death (Robert Blair’s The Grave or Burns’s “Death and Doctor Hornbook”). 

“Scottish poetry was—and is—a living tradition open to all.”

This period in literary history generated many leading songwriters whose lyrics were designed to be sung in the taverns, churches, or clubs, and even at events. Even popular songs needed a lot of help to reach print. “Auld Robin Gray” had appeared in David Herd’s indispensable Ancient and Modern Scottish Songs, Heroic Ballads, Etc. in 1776, and remained a fixture of Scottish anthologies throughout the ensuing decades. Not until Walter Scott produced an authoritative edition for the Bannatyne Club in 1825, having quoted it in his 1823 novel The Pirate, did its author Lady Anne Barnard receive the credit due to her. A conventional love ballad in some ways, its unfurling of plot over repeated units of sound creates an utterly captivating effect:

My heart it said na, and I look’d for Jamie back;

But hard blew the winds, and his ship was a wrack;

His ship was a wrack! Why didna Jenny dee?

Or, wherefore am I spared to cry out, Woe is me!

Another popular songwriter, Anne Hunter, had a canny knack for inhabiting all sorts of voices—among them, Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots (“I Sigh, and lament me in vain”) and even a mermaid (“Come with me, and we will go / Follow, follow, follow me”). A mainstay of nineteenth-century anthologies though she composed anonymously, Carolina Oliphant, Lady Nairne had set many of her most memorable songs to traditional tunes:

Sweet’s the laverock’s note and lang,

Lilting wildly up the glen;

But aye to me he sings ae sang,—

Will ye no come back again?   

(“Will ye no come back again?”)

Scottish poetry was—and is—a living tradition open to all. The unduly neglected Christian Milne excelled in this sort of seemingly artless but highly artful metapoetry. Printed in the disarmingly titled collection Simple Poems, on Simple Subjects (1805), her epistle “To a Lady who said it was Sinful to Read Novels”, begins “To love these Books, and harmless Tea, / Has always been my foible”, immediately pulling us onside against the bibliophobes. Apparent artlessness has caused us to overlook all sorts of quiet innovators. The hymnist James Montgomery and Margaret Maxwell Inglis penned charmingly solemn verses that more than merit renewed attention from historians of religion and poetry alike—“a purer glow of feeling / Has bid me to rejoice”, writes Inglis (“A Morning Sabbath Walk”). Among other achievements, Bean Torra Dhamh, marketed as The Religious Poetess of Badenoch, produced unconventional hymns with strong social commentary, as evidenced in “Beachd Gràis air an t-Saoghal” (“The Vantage Point of Grace”). 

Framed within the category of Scottish literature, these and other writers ought to be considered in the overlapping contexts of British, Irish, European, North American, and other literatures. They are at once Scots and citizens of the world, inhabiting multiple literary languages at once—Scots, English, and Gaelic, above all, as well as French, German, Italian, and Latin, among others. The pseudo-ancient Ossian poems “translated” into modern English prose by James Macpherson became a worldwide phenomenon amid a broader Celtomania that thrived in the second half of the eighteenth century and beyond—readers as diverse as Thomas Jefferson and Napoleon Bonaparte were avid fans. Reading Macpherson’s prose poems anew alongside contemporary Gaelic verse, as well as Scots and English imitations, reveals new things about the ebb and flow of literary culture across the Lowlands, Highlands, and Islands—indeed, the entire world.

Anthologies have long platformed the traditional “big six” male Gaelic poets of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, led by the colossally talented Alastair mac Mhaighstir Alastair (Alexander MacDonald). But non-Gaelic readers and scholars should become more aware of the genius of the alternative big six of female Gaelic writers, Cairistìona NicFhearghais (Christiana Fergusson) among them. Indeed, hundreds of poets, balladists, and songwriters born or raised in Scotland throughout the long eighteenth century need to find new readerships. Their time has come.

Featured image by Connor Mollison via Unsplash (public domain)

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