1896 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Alexander Ross

George Eyre-Todd, in Scottish Poetry in the Eighteenth Century (1896) 1:87-88.



The immediate successor and indeed imitator of Allan Ramsay as the writer of a Scottish pastoral was the teacher of a remote parish school among the Grampians. Son of an Aberdeenshire farmer, Alexander Ross was born at Kincardine O'Neil, on April 13, 1699. After taking his degree at Marischal College in 1718, he acted for a time, like many Scottish students, as a tutor. Afterwards he became schoolmaster successively at Aboyne and Laurencekirk, settling finally at the remote Lochlea in Forfarshire. There he remained, reared a large family on scanty means, and wrote the various poetical pieces by which he is remembered. In 1766 he carried the manuscript of his pastoral, Helenore, or the Fortunate Shepherdess, to Aberdeen. Beattie, the author of The Minstrel, at that time a professor there, took an interest in the rustic poet, helped his work to publication, and secured it a hearing. The piece proved successful, and brought its author no small local fame, with the, to him, not inconsiderable sum of 20. To the present day Helenore remains popular in the north, but in spite of its frequent touches of nature and the stamp of truth about its characters, its many incongruities destroy its effect as a work of art. The poem is written in the Buchan dialect, and possesses some interest on that account; but the reader is startled to find a Helenore and a Rosalind (in this case the hero's name) among the peasantry of Scotland, and still more so to come upon these high-sounding titles contracted with easy familiarity into "Nory" and "Lindy." The pastoral, however, has not been without an influence upon the work of later poets, and Burns has acknowledged that Scota, the muse to whom Ross addresses his invocation, afforded the suggestion for his own Coila.

It is by his songs, however, that Ross is most widely known. Wooed and married and a', The Rock and the wee pickle tow, The Bridal o't, What ails the lasses at me? and To the begging we will go! are rich in typical Scots humour, and full of spirit, while their homely sense, and the distinct individual tang which they possess, ensure them a place in every collection.

Ross died at Lochlea at a green old age in 1784. A life of him by his grandson, the Rev. Alexander Thomson, minister of Lentrathen, was prefixed to the fifth edition of his poems, published at Dundee in 1812; and to a more recent edition, published at Glasgow in 1868, a further memoir was written by Dr. John Longmuir. The poet at his death left some eight small volumes of verse and prose which still remain unprinted.