1876 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Alexander Ross

James Grant Wilson, in Poetry of Scotland (1876) 1:137-38.



ALEXANDER ROSS was born at Torphins, in the parish of Kincardine O'Neil, Aberdeenshire, April 13, 1699. He was the son of Andrew Ross, a small farmer in easy circumstances, and received his education at Marischal College, Aberdeen, where he took the degree of Master of Arts in 1718. Soon after leaving the university he was engaged as tutor in the family of Sir William Forbes, of Craiglevar and Fintray, and then as teacher at the parish school of Aboyne, subsequently at that of Laurencekirk. In 1726 he married Jane Catanach, the daughter of an Aberdeenshire farmer, and descended by her mother from the old family of Duguid of Auchinhove. In 1732 he was appointed schoolmaster of Lochlee, a wild and thinly-peopled district in Forfarshire, where he spent the remainder of his simple and uneventful life in the discharge of the duties simple and uneventful life in the discharge of the duties of his humble office. It was not until he had resided here for thirty-six years, that, in the year 1768, when he was nearly seventy, Ross appeared before the public as a poet. So early as his sixteenth year he had commenced writing verse; a translation from the Latin of Buchanan, composed at that age, having been published by his grandson, the Rev. Alexander Thomson, in a memoir of the poet, prefixed to an edition of his first work Helenore, or the Fortunate Shepherdess, printed at Dundee in 1812. This beautiful pastoral poem and some songs, among which were The Rock and the Wee Pickle Tow, and Woo'd and Married and a', was first published at Aberdeen in 1768. A second edition appeared in 1778, dedicated to the Duchess of Gordon, and the work has since been frequently reprinted. On its first publication a letter highly laudatory of the poem appeared in the Aberdeen Journal, under the fictitious signature of Oliver Oldcastle, accompanied by an epistle in verse to the author, from the pen of the poet Dr. Beattie, being the latter's only attempt in the Scots vernacular. We append the first stanza, of which there are sixteen in the epistle:—

O Ross, thou wale of hearty cocks,
Sae crouse and canty with thy jokes!
Thy hamely auld-warld muse provokes
Me for awhile
To aye our guid plain countra folks
In verse and stile.

In the north of Scotland, where the Buchan dialect in spoken, The Fortunate Shepherdess continues to be as popular as the productions of Ramsay and Burns, while some of his lyrics are universal favourites. In 1779, when eighty years of age, he was invited by the Duke and Duchess of Gordon to visit them at Gordon Castle. He accepted the invitation, extended to him through his friend Dr. Beattie, remaining at the castle some days. Says his grandson and biographer, "he was honoured with much attention and kindness both by the duke and duchess, and was presented by the latter with an elegant pocket-book, containing a handsome present, when he returned to Lochlee, in good health and with great satisfaction." The next year he lost his wife, who died at the advanced age of eighty-two, and to whose memory he erected a tombstone with a poetical epitaph. He himself did not long survive her: on May 20th, 1784, "worn out with age and infirmity, being in his eighty-sixth year, he breathed his last, with the composure, resignation, and hope becoming a Christian." He left in manuscript eight small volumes of poems and other compositions, an account of which is given in Campbell's Introduction to the History of Poetry in Scotland.

Ross's reputation must, however, rest upon his Fortunate Shepherdess, and the songs which were published with it, rather than upon his unpublished writings, which his friend Beattie advised should be suppressed. Burns has written of our author, "Our true brother Ross of Lochlee was a wild warlock;" and the celebrated Dr. Blacklock, says Irving, "as I have heard from one of his pupils, regarded it (The Fortunate Shepherdess) as equal to the pastoral of Ramsay." On the first appearance of Ross's principal poem Beattie predicted—

And ilka Mearns and Angus bairn
Thy tales and sangs by heart shall learn.

The prediction has been verified, and a hope which he expressed in one of his unpublished poems has been fully realized:—

Hence lang, perhaps lang hence may quoted be
My hamely proverbs lined wi' blythsome glee;
Some reader then may say, "Fair fa ye, Ross,"
When aiblins, I'll be lang, lang dead and gane,
An' few remember there was sic a name.