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Hogg, Traditional Culture, and The Mountain Bard

Hogg, Traditional Culture, & The Mountain Bard

Suzanne Gilbert

On 19 May 2006 a one-day symposium, on ‘James Hogg and the Scottish Song Tradition’, was held at the University of Stirling in connection with an AHRC research grant awarded to Professor Emeritus Douglas Mack (University of Stirling, Principal Investigator) and Dr Kirsteen McCue (University of Glasgow, Co-Investigator). The symposium was organised by Dr  Janette Currie (University of Stirling) and Dr McCue, and it focused on various aspects of the work on Hogg’s songs that has been undertaken by the Stirling / South Carolina (S/SC) Research Edition of James Hogg. The following article is a revised and expanded version of the presentation given at the symposium by Dr Suzanne Gilbert (University of Stirling). It is designed to complement Dr Gilbert’s S/SC edition of Hogg’s ballad and song collection, The Mountain Bard (December 2007), by pointing to some of the possible lines of future research on Hogg opened up by that edition.

The turn of the nineteenth century saw an explosion in the number of labouring-class writers in Britain, and James Hogg was among those whose roots in traditional culture played a major role in the development of their careers. Like Robert Burns, the most famous of the so-called ‘rustic’ poets, Hogg in his Ettrick-Shepherd persona initially attracted an audience in part because of his mediation between tradition and literature. Much analysis of labouring-class writers’ relationships to tradition tends to accept the premises set out by eighteenth-century antiquaries and by literary scholars, without adequate reference to the markedly different understanding of tradition among those closest to it. The purpose of this paper is to examine Hogg’s relationship to traditional song culture, with particular reference to his early collection of ballads and songs, The Mountain Bard. Living and working during a time of massive upheaval and irrevocable change in agricultural practice throughout Britain, Hogg presents a useful case for study: a writer with a prodigious knowledge of his cultural milieu, seeing it not in terms of a collection of ‘fragments’ or ‘relics’ of antiquity but as living tradition, and putting it to modern and creative uses.

As Elaine Petrie has observed, James Hogg was born into a family grounded in song, singing, and ballad-making.[1] His maternal grandfather William Laidlaw (Will o’ Phaup) was a tradition-bearer of renown, who passed on his repertoire to his children Margaret (Hogg’s mother) and William (Hogg’s uncle). As he grew up, Hogg was also in contact with good singers on his father’s side of the family, including his cousins Thomas and Frank Hogg. Furthermore, it seems that, beyond the family, there was a healthy traditional song culture in Ettrick during Hogg’s youth. In paratextual commentary to the ballads and songs of The Mountain Bard, for example, Hogg refers to well-known local tradition-bearers such as Andrew Moore.

Hogg’s autobiographical ‘Memoir of the Author’s Life’, published in Altrive Tales in 1832, has helped to shape our understanding of his relationship to the traditional culture of his youth. Earlier versions of the ‘Memoir’ had appeared (as ‘Memoir of the Life of James Hogg’) in the 1807 and 1821 editions of The Mountain Bard. In 1832, however, some new passages were added to the Altrive Tales ‘Memoir’, and in one of these passages Hogg looks back, at age 62, on the importance of songs and ballads

in his early efforts at writing during the closing years of the eighteenth century: ‘For several years my compositions consisted wholly of songs and ballads made up for the lasses to sing in chorus; and a proud man I was when I first heard the rosy nymphs chaunting my uncouth strains, and jeering me by the still dear appellation of “Jamie the Poeter”’. He adds, ‘I had no more difficulty in composing songs then than I have at present; and I was equally well pleased with them’.[2]

The passages added to the 1832 version of the ‘Memoir’ give a somewhat romanticised view of Hogg’s youth: passages from earlier versions of the ‘Memoir’ are harder-edged. Even in these earlier passages, however, it is clear that he was preoccupied with music during his childhood and youth. In the version of the ‘Memoir’ in the 1807 Mountain Bard, Hogg describes his early experience with the fiddle:

 When fourteen years of age, I saved five shillings of my wages, with which I bought an old violin. This occupied all my leisure hours, and hath been my favourite amusement ever since. I had commonly no spare time from labour during the day; but, when I was not over fatigued, I generally spent an hour or two every night in rubbing over my favourite old Scottish tunes;—my bed being always in stables and cow-houses, I disturbed nobody but myself.

One night, Hogg heard a musician playing at a dance:
When serving with Mr Scott of Singlee, there happened to be a dance one evening, at which a number of the friends and neighbours of the family were present. I being admitted into the room as a spectator, was all attention to the music; and, on the company breaking up, I retired to my stable-loft, and fell to essaying some of the tunes to which I had been listening: the musician, going out on some necessary business, and not being aware that another of the same craft was so near him, was not a little surprised when the tones of my old violin assailed his ears. At first, he took it for the late warbles of his own ringing through his head; but, on a little attention, he, to his mortification and astonishment, perceived that the sounds were real; and that the tunes which he had lately being playing with such skill, were now murdered by some invisible being hard by him. Such a circumstance, at that dead hour of the night, and when he was unable to discern from what quarter the sounds proceeded, convinced him all at once that it was a delusion of the devil; and, suspecting his intentions from so much familiarity, he fled precipitately into the hall, with disordered garments, and in the utmost horror, to the no small mirth of Mr Scott, who declared, that he had lately been considerably stunned himself by the same discordant sounds.[3]

There are, in fact, several versions of this anecdote. Indeed, Hogg’s ‘Memoir’ was an evolving thing, having its roots in biographical/autobiographical letters that appeared in the Scots Magazine in 1804 and 1805. My Stirling/South Carolina edition of The Mountain Bard includes these biographical/autobiographical letters, in addition to the ‘official’ versions of the ‘Memoir’ published in the 1807 and 1821 editions of The Mountain Bard.

A crucial factor in reading Hogg’s ‘Memoir’ is awareness of the time at which a particular anecdote was written. The early versions of Hogg’s ‘Memoir’ do not shy away from the grim realities of life in poverty during his childhood and youth, but passages added to the 1832 Altrive Tales ‘Memoir’ tend to romanticise certain aspects of his early years and his development as a writer. The 1832 version of the ‘Memoir’, for example, marks the first appearance of the famous, self-fashioning anecdote of Hogg’s first encounter with Burns’s ‘Tam o’ Shanter’. Significantly, this anecdote stresses orality: in it, Hogg does not read ‘Tam o’ Shanter’, but hears it recited and learns it by heart. Also notable is Hogg’s claim that his young self was able to ‘sing more old songs than ever ploughman could in the world’:

The first time I ever heard of Burns was in 1797, the year after he died. One day during that summer a half daft man, named John Scott, came to me on the hill, and to amuse me repeated Tam o’ Shanter. I was delighted! I was far more than delighted—I was ravished! I cannot describe my feelings; but, in short, before Jock Scott left me, I could recite the poem from beginning to end, and it has been my favourite poem ever since. He told me it was made by one Robert Burns, the sweetest poet that ever was born; but that he was now dead, and his place would never be supplied. He told me all about him, how he was born on the 25th of January, bred a ploughman, how many beautiful songs and poems he had composed, and that he had died last harvest, on the 21st of August.

This formed a new epoch of my life. Every day I pondered on the genius and fate of Burns. I wept, and always thought with myself—what is to hinder me from succeeding Burns? I too was born on the 25th of January, and I have much more time to read and compose than any ploughman could have, and can sing more old songs than ever ploughman could in the world. But then I wept again because I could not write. However, I resolved to be a poet, and to follow in the steps of Burns.

I remember in the year 1812, the year before the publication of the “Queen’s Wake,” that I told my friend, the Rev. James Nicol, that I had an inward consciousness that I should yet live to be compared with Burns; and though I might never equal him in some things, I thought I might excel him in others. He reprobated the idea, and thought the assumption so audacious, that he told it as a bitter jest against me in a party that same evening. But the rest seeing me mortified, there was not one joined in the laugh against me, and Mr. John Grieve replied in these words, which I will never forget, “After what he has done, there is no man can say what he may do.”[4]

It may well be that ‘a half daft man, named John Scott’ did indeed recite ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ to the young Hogg at some point. Nevertheless, Hogg was certainly writing poetry well before 1797, having had a poem published in The Scots Magazine in 1794. Also, he almost certainly was not born on Burns’s birthday, ‘the 25th of January’. The anecdote about ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ in the 1832 ‘Memoir’ was written about thirty-five years after the event it purports to describe, and seems to have been constructed with a view to dramatising Hogg’s ambitious decision to attempt to become Burns’s successor as the poet of the Scottish people. But though the link between this anecdote and historical fact is somewhat loose, it nevertheless reveals a good deal about Hogg’s own sense of how his poetic identity developed – his personal aspirations and struggle to gain entrance to the literary big house, so to speak.

Another Hogg anecdote has been crucial in shaping critical understanding of his relationship to the traditional oral culture of his Ettrick youth. This anecdote relates to his involvement as an informant for the third volume (1803) of Walter Scott’s collection of traditional ballads, Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, and it brings into focus a major preoccupation of Hogg’s life and work: the status of traditional culture in the context of Enlightenment ideas about antiquity and progress, tradition and literature.

The first time I ever saw Sir Walter was one fine day in the summer of 1801. I was busily engaged working in the field at Ettrick-house, when old Wat Shiel came posting over the water to me and told me that I boud to gang away down to the Ramsey-cleuch as fast as my feet could carry me, for there were some gentlemen there who wanted to see me directly.

“Wha can be at the Ramsey-cleuch that want to see me, Wat.”

“I coudna say, for it wasna me they spake to i’ the bygangin’, but I’m thinking it’s the Shirra an’ some o’ his gang.”

I was rejoiced to hear this, for I had seen the first volumes of the “Minstrelsy of the Border,” and had copied a number of ballads from my mother’s recital, or chaunt rather, and sent them to the editor preparatory to the publication of a third volume. I accordingly flung down my hoe and hasted away home to put on my Sunday clothes, but before reaching it I met the Shirra and Mr. William Laidlaw, coming to visit me. They alighted, and remained in our cottage a considerable time, perhaps, nearly two hours, and we were friends on the very first exchange of sentiments. It could not be otherwise, for Scott had no duplicity about him, he always said as he thought. My mother chaunted the ballad of Old Maitlan’ to him, with which he was highly delighted, and asked her if she thought it ever had been in print? And her answer was, “O na, na, sir, it never was printed i’ the world, for my brothers an’ me learned it an’ many mae frae auld Andrew Moor, and he learned it frae auld Baby Mettlin, wha was housekeeper to the first laird of Tushilaw. She was said to hae been another nor a gude ane, an’ there are many queer stories about hersel’, but O, she had been a grand singer o’ auld songs an’ ballads.”

“The first laird of Tushilaw, Margaret?” said he, “then that must be a very old story indeed?”

“Ay, it is that, sir! It is an auld story! But mair nor that, excepting George Warton an’ James Stewart, there war never ane o’ my sangs prentit till ye prentit them yoursel’, an’ ye hae spoilt them awthegither. They were made for singing an’ no for reading; but ye hae broken the charm now, an’ they’ll never be sung mair. An’ the worst thing of a’, they’re nouther right spell’d nor right setten down.”

“Take ye that, Mr. Scott,” said Laidlaw.

Scott answered with a hearty laugh, and the quotation of a stanza from Wordsworth, on which my mother gave him a hearty rap on the knee with her open hand, and said, “Ye’ll find, however, that it is a’ true that I’m tellin’ ye.” My mother has been too true a prophetess, for from that day to this, these songs, which were the amusement of every winter evening, have never been sung more.[5]

As in the case of the ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ anecdote, Hogg’s account of his mother’s scolding of Scott is retrospective, written long after the event it describes. There are reasons for thinking that Scott’s meeting with Hogg’s mother took place in 1802 (rather than 1801, the date Hogg gives); however, the anecdote first appeared in 1829 in the Edinburgh Literary Journal – 27 years later.[6] So the Hogg that witnessed the encounter between Margaret Laidlaw Hogg and the ‘Shirra’ (between antiquity and progress, tradition and literature) was a different man from the one who wrote about it from a distance of more than a quarter of a century.

In 1802 Hogg was complicit in the Enlightenment-inspired antiquarian quest for ‘reliques’, not yet fully aware of the implications of the dynamic he was helping to support. Indeed, at first Hogg was eager to help Scott find traditional ballads, and he and his family provided Scott with many for the third volume of the Minstrelsy. Not only is Margaret’s judgement presented decades later, but her words are reported by her son – a fact elided in nearly all discussions of the incident. Valentina Bold acknowledges the conjunction of reflection and agenda in Hogg’s account, rightly calling it ‘a vigorous anecdote from a great storyteller, reflecting the Hogg-Scott relationship as Hogg wished it remembered’.[7] But a wider implication usually attributed to the anecdote is the perceived death of orality faced with the onslaught of print.

In the essay ‘On the Changes in the Habits, Amusements, and Condition of the Scottish Peasantry’, published in the Quarterly Journal of Agriculture in the early 1830s, Hogg laments cultural loss in Ettrick and blames it on the Minstrelsy:

On looking back, the first great falling off is in song. This, to me, is not only astonishing, but unaccountable. They have ten times more opportunities of learning songs, yet song-singing is at an end, or only kept up by a few migratory tailors. In my young days, we had singing matches almost every night, and, if no other chance or opportunity offered, the young men attended at the ewe-bught or the cows milking, and listened and joined the girls in their melting lays. […] Where are those melting strains now? Gone, and for ever! […]

The publication of the Border Minstrelsy had a singular and unexpected effect in this respect. These songs had floated down on the stream of oral tradition, from generation to generation, and were regarded as a precious treasure belonging to the country; but when Mr Scott’s work appeared their areanum was laid open, and a deadening blow was inflicted on our rural literature and principal enjoyment by the very means adopted for their preservation.[8]

In the interim between assisting Scott with the Minstrelsy and this 1830s lament, Hogg had become aware of something that was profoundly disturbing to him. Around the time of the publication of the Minstrelsy, songs and poems by Hogg were being published in the Scots Magazine. This was seemingly a positive, esteem-building exercise. A perusal of the periodical’s contents reveals a wide variety of styles, including many poems in varying degrees of Scots, ranging in genre: ballads, songs, verse epistles, lyrics, heroic couplets drawing on neoclassical aesthetics. It was one thing to be a phenomenon in the Scots Magazine, however, but another to really break into the literary scene. Hogg’s assistance with the Minstrelsy opened the door for an attempt at a major breakthrough, when Scott agreed to help arrange for the publication of a collection of ballad imitations by Hogg. But when putting together The Mountain Bard, Hogg came up against a formidable, censorious force: the book-publishing world and Scott as sometimes helpful but often intrusive mediator between Hogg and that bigger world. Here the heart of their differences in understanding of traditional culture became fully evident. Reading Hogg’s letters of the period leading up to the publication of the 1807 Mountain Bard confirms the tension as Hogg struggled to adapt to criticism, much of it going against his deepest instincts.

By the time of The Queen’s Wake (1813), that distrust of literary handling of oral traditions had taken deep root. As Douglas Mack has shown, this emerges through the contrast between the two prize harps in The Queen’s Wake: Queen Mary’s jewel-encrusted harp is associated with an aristocratic tradition, while the Caledonian Harp, the voice of the people, is won by the Bard of Ettrick in the bardic contest.[9] The two harps symbolise two incompatible models for understanding tradition. The Enlightenment-based antiquarian grand narrative locates traditional material firmly in an aristocratic past and is concerned with retrieval, preservation, and ultimately containment of the ‘reliques’ of antiquity. Hogg approached what ethnologists or folklorists now call ‘fieldwork’ from a perspective different to that of Scott and other collectors. In Scott’s introduction to ‘Auld Maitland’ in the third volume of the Minstrelsy, for example, the ballad has lost its status as a song; for Scott it is a ‘poem’ from antiquity. Hogg, who was genuinely closer to oral sources than the literary ballad-hunters who sought to capture and contain the relics of a supposedly lost culture, had a strong sense of the ways in which tradition actually functions. Oral traditions have culturally specific origins, but also ‘temporal continuity’; the narratives are more than disembodied fragments of antiquity in that they continue into the present, and may thus be considered living and may be put to use. Over time a traditional narrative is shaped by its encounters with historical events, cultural shifts, individual tradition-bearers’ repertoires, and indeed, print culture; we may observe ballads and songs moving from oral tradition to print culture and back again. Change and variation are part of the process. William Motherwell was trying to mediate between these models with his Minstrelsy Ancient and Modern (1827), which privileges the voices of actual tradition-bearers while also maintaining an editorial distance.

Hogg’s understanding of oral culture carried into his work on The Mountain Bard, and his differences with Scott caused him much frustration. Scott’s title The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border and Hogg’s title The Mountain Bard illustrate a key difference in the writers’ relationships to their material. Scott’s title, like his paratextual apparatus, places him outside the tradition, as an observer examining the evidence. His introduction begins with a lengthy history of the Borders, closely linked to genealogy, underpinned by frequent references to historians such as Robert Lindsay of Pitscottie, David Hume of Godscroft, and John Spottiswood, and to legal documents related to the border reivers. Thus, authority and authenticity are vouched for most frequently by historical documentation from print sources. Scott’s prose is filled with phrases such as ‘our historians say’, and readers are repeatedly invited to compare historical accounts to the ballads themselves. Popular tradition is accorded far less authority, most often depersonalised and related in passive voice, for example in constructions such as ‘It is said…’, or ‘The spirit is supposed to haunt…’, or ‘The skirmish was long remembered’. Such a method effectively relieves the tradition-bearer of agency. For Scott, tradition is ‘a sort of perverted alchemy which converts gold into lead’. He laments what he calls ‘barbarisms’ in his informants’ rendering of the ballads and is dismayed by the ‘ignorance of the reciters’.[10]

In The Mountain Bard, Hogg presents an alternative to the Minstrelsy, by viewing tradition from the inside. Rather than editor, Hogg positions himself as bard, closer to the interpreter of a living tradition than to the erudite antiquary. This attitude is reinforced in the voice of his paratexts. His introduction is not a history of the Borders but a memoir of his own life, his justification for presuming bardship, and that of a very particular kind. A bard is a keeper of tradition, who must be steeped in that tradition in order to fulfil the role properly. His notes to the material are anchored in contemporary experience of Borders people; while the ballad imitations have their roots in the past, they are adapted to the times. The authorities that Hogg cites and his handling of them differ strikingly from Scott’s. While Hogg cites some documentary evidence, authority primarily rests with testimony from oral voices, actual people anchored in actual places. ‘Tradition’ is not a collection of relics, fixed in the past; it has continued into the present. For Hogg in The Mountain Bard, to return to Scott’s alchemy metaphor, the gold is still there in the oral traditions of Borders culture.

The antiquarian mindset is most concerned with the authenticity and stability of the text, looking for the ‘real’ ballad, the original, and fixing it in print. Oral traditions, on the other hand, have their own mechanisms for maintaining stability – formulaic diction, strong tradition-bearers, cultural familiarity – but variation is also a crucial element. With a balance of stability and variation, oral traditions are capable of adapting to new contexts.

In literary studies of oral traditions, the emphasis is often less on the traditions themselves than on the appropriation of them. As Susan Stewart argues,

In appropriating folklore genres, the literary tradition is able to create an idealization of itself through a separation of speech and writing. Such a separation, anchored in a mimetic theory of representation, always posits speech as a form of nature. Thus throughout the eighteenth century, the work of “untutored geniuses” becomes the paradigm for the last gasps of an oral culture, a culture now seen to be miming literary form—that is, producing a “natural” variant of it rather than simply imitating it. The taste for the fragment included this preference for individuals [...] severed from context and collected from the lower classes by an aristocracy eager to promote them. Yet this severance also depended upon the real contingencies of enclosure, industrialization, and the end of the old order of village culture [...] Theories of the ballad—from individual-genius positions to communal positions contending authorship by singing and dancing throngs—have always provided analogies to the prevailing conceptions of the folk held by the middle and upper classes. [...] Yet the nostalgia of the distressed genre is not a nostalgia for artefacts for their own sake; rather, it is a nostalgia for context, for the heroic past, for moral order, for childhood and the collective experiences of preindustrial life. [...] In fact, such genres point to the immateriality of all nostalgic objects.[11]

This provides insight into that mechanism of appropriation of traditional material by literary culture, but not into the dynamics operating within the oral traditions themselves, nor the cultures from which the ‘untutored geniuses’ come. Here I might turn to the social historian Isabel Hofmeyr on storytelling and oral history:

Much thinking on the production of oral tradition maintains that it thrives on fragments, and that its producers are like briocoleurs who go to work with material originally intended for another purpose. Given this method of working, a fragment of historical recollection unmoored from its geographical anchor could just as well be appropriated into some other story as disappear entirely. […] [O]ral forms not only exhibit an amazing tenacity, they can also transform the literate institutions they encounter.[12]

Here fragments, rather than sites of nostalgia – cultural or individual – are building blocks of other narratives. This may not be what Hogg had in mind concerning the survival of traditional culture, but it bears scrutiny nonetheless. I suggest that we have too readily bought into Enlightenment constructions of tradition, and that these ideas have somewhat limited our intellectual grasp of how tradition works in authors such as Hogg. Further, we often fall into considering Hogg’s work in terms of a development model. We may observe certain shifts in his work as he moved from the song-writing and song-collecting early days into his Edinburgh man-of-letters persona; but much may be gained by approaching the ‘folk’ elements of Hogg’s work, including his songs and ballads, from a framework that privileges variants, variation, and nonlinearity. Hogg’s recycling of narratives across genre and time certainly draw on the practices of oral traditions. Many of his narrative strategies, in all genres, are grounded in the characteristic features of traditional ballad narratives: circular structures, leaping/lingering movement, incremental repetition, abrupt introduction of perspectives through dialogue, recurring motifs, intertextuality through traditional formulae. These centuries-old techniques, intrinsic to the ways that oral traditions operate, nonetheless prefigure modern, and postmodern, techniques such as cinematic montage.

Hogg’s ballad imitation ‘Sir David Graeme’ in The Mountain Bard is Hogg’s literary ballad in response to ‘The Twa Corbies’, which had appeared in the third volume of the Minstrelsy. ‘Sir David Graham’ first appeared (signed ‘A Shepherd’) in the Scots Magazine number for September 1805, where it is presented straightforwardly as ‘a border ballad’. In it the dramatic focus is not on the birds; the ballad opens a window on the ‘lady fair’ suggested in the terse narrative of ‘The Twa Corbies’, who in Hogg’s ballad waits for her slain knight and eventually discovers his raven-pecked corpse, with the help of the bonny dove and faithful hound. The ballad next appears in the 1807 Mountain Bard, this time with an introduction and endnotes, Minstrelsy-style, though a sharp distinction between Scott’s and Hogg’s paratextual style may be observed. The introduction invokes ‘The Twa Corbies’ and draws attention to the emotional effect of its so-called ‘unfinished state’, which leaves ‘to the fancy of every reader to paint it what way he chose’. The endnote invokes another ballad in which a woman presides over the body of a slain knight: it is a Scottish variant of the medieval ‘Corpus Christi’ carol, as sung by Hogg’s mother, a contemporary tradition-bearer:

The heron flew east, the heron flew west,
The heron flew to the fair forest;
She flew o’er streams and meadows green,
And a’ to see what could be seen:
And when she saw the faithful pair,
Her breast grew sick, her head grew sair;
For there she saw a lovely bower,
Was a’ clad o’er wi’ lilly-flower;
And in the bower there was a bed
With silken sheets, and weel down spread;
And in the bed there lay a knight,
Whose wounds did bleed both day and night;
And by the bed there stood a stane,
And there was set a leal maiden,
With silver needle and silken thread,
Stemming the wounds when they did bleed.—[13]

Hogg’s ballad and Margaret’s ‘herone’ song are both echoed in another, very different text, Hogg’s novella ‘The Bridal of Polmood’, included in Winter Evening Tales (1820). Here the same lines appear as a building-block in a new narrative: they are now translated into Hogg’s ‘ancient stile’, his rendering of Middle Scots, and are sung by William the shepherd (metamorphosed into Sir William Moray) at the court of James IV.[14]

It was a common belief during Hogg’s time that oral culture – and the traditional expression that went with it – was on the brink of extinction. Fortunately, Hogg was at least partly wrong about the death of song. He was indeed living in a time of massive transition in areas of the country that had preserved tradition in particular ways, and this was bound to change. But many songs have survived. This is at least partly because of collectors ranging from immensely well-meaning antiquaries and authors such as Scott to culturally nationalistic song-preservers such as Burns and Hogg. It is in part because of efforts such as theirs that Hogg’s songs still form part of a living tradition. Given Hogg’s lament for the loss of Scottish song in the 1830s, he may have been astonished to hear the Borders shepherd-singer Willie Scott remembering when he was a child at the beginning of the twentieth century, ‘There was aye singin at the clippins, and at night the fiddle would come oot and they’d start dancin’. [15] Willie’s own repertoire included Hogg songs such as ‘When the Kye Cams Hame’ and ‘Lock the Door Lariston’, sung well into the 1980s and compiled, with musical notation, in a book published in 2006. What is apparent to any editor working on Hogg’s songs for the Stirling/South Carolina Edition of his work is that many of the songs remain in circulation.

There are still singers of traditional songs, and I want to close with comments from two ballad-singers whose sense of tradition is far removed from the concerns of antiquaries and, I might add, most academics. Their sense is that they are actively involved in tradition-bearing, rather than relic-recovery, and this offers a counter-narrative to that advanced by the minstrel-centric one put forward by Thomas Percy and Walter Scott. The first comment comes from Sheila Douglas:

At school I was told that ballads were passed on by word of mouth and the words changed because singers forgot the words. It was only in the Folk Song Revival of the 1960s that I came to realise what nonsense this was. People who sing ballads with anything up to a hundred verses or more don’t have bad memories.[16]

The second comment comes from Sheila Stewart:
Our ballads and stories were so precious to us that we had to sing them in a special way which was completely from the heart—not from the head. We also had to play with the words and put our identity into it. You know, I used to sit on my uncle’s knee and he would teach me the ballad. He would pause on a word that I would jump over [...] or I would pause on a word that he would jump over [...] dragging the words out [...] jumping over a word [...] making a word into two syllables [...] maybe words into three syllable [...] I’m no singing it exactly the way my mother sang it and I’m no singing the way that my uncle taught it to me. Because I have taken it played with the words and put my own identity into it.[17]

Undoubtedly, Hogg would be surprised to hear such evidence of the survival, and the adaptations, of oral tradition – but he would have approved.




[1] See Elaine E. Petrie, ‘Odd Characters: Traditional Informants in James Hogg’s Family’, Scottish Literary Journal, 10.1 (May 1983), 30–41; and Elaine E. Petrie, ‘James Hogg: A Study in the Transition from Folk Tradition to Literature’ (unpublished doctoral thesis, University of Stirling, 1980).

[2] Hogg, Altrive Tales, ed. by Gillian Hughes (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2003), p. 17.

[3] Hogg, The Mountain Bard, ed. by Suzanne Gilbert (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007), pp. 9–10.

[4] Altrive Tales, ed. Hughes, pp. 17–18.

[5] Hogg, Anecdotes of Scott, ed. by Jill Rubenstein (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999), pp. 37–38. Jill Rubenstein’s edition contains both Hogg’s Anecdotes of Sir W. Scott and his Familiar Anecdotes of Sir Walter Scott.

[6] Hogg’s anecdote first appeared in his article ‘Reminiscences of Former Days. My First Interview with Sir Walter Scott’, in the number of the Edinburgh Literary Journal for 29 June 1829, pp. 51–52. The anecdote then appeared in the ‘Reminiscences of Former Times’ section of Hogg’s Altrive Tales (1832), and in his Familiar Anecdotes of Sir Walter Scott (1834). In the present paper the anecdote is quoted in its final form, as it appeared in Familiar Anecdotes of Sir Walter Scott.

[7] Valentina Bold, ‘“Neither right spelt nor right setten doun”: Child, Scott and the Hogg family ballads’, in The Ballad in Scottish History, ed Ted Cowan, (Glasgow, 2000), pp. 116-41.

[8] Quoted from A Shepherd’s Delight: A James Hogg Anthology, ed. by Judy Steel (Edinburgh: Canongate, 1985), pp. 41–42.

[9] Hogg, The Queen’s Wake, ed. by Douglas S. Mack (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004), pp. xxv-xxxiii.

[10] Review of Reliques of Robert Burns, in Quarterly Review 1 (1809), p. 30.

[11] Susan Stewart, Crimes of Writing: Problems in the Containment of Representation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. 70, 86-87, 91.

[12] Isabel Hofmeyr, “We Spend Our Years as a Tale That Is Told”: Oral Historical Narrative in a South African Chiefdom (Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1993; Portsmouth, New Hampshire: Heinemann, 1994; London: James Currey, 1994), pp. 160-61.

[13] See The Mountain Bard, ed. Gilbert, pp. 25–26.

[14] Hogg, Winter Evening Tales, ed. by Ian Duncan (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002), p. 310.

[15] Willie Scott, Herd Laddie o the Glen: Songs of a Border Shepherd, 2nd edition, compiled by Alison McMorland (Scottish Borders Council, 2006), introduction by Hamish Henderson, p. 2.

[16] Sheila Douglas, ballad singer & scholar in ‘The Ballad Tree’.

[17] Sheila Stewart, from a conversation with Doc Rowe during a recording session in 1998, sleeve notes to From the Heart of the Tradition, Topic Records.