1903 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Anne Grant

George Eyre-Todd, in The Glasgow Poets (1903) 50-53.



In the middle of the eighteenth century the Goosedubs of Glasgow was a respectable quarter. There Anne M'Vicar was born. Her father was an officer in a Highland regiment, and on her mother's side she was descended from the Stewarts of Invernahyle. Soon after her birth her father's regiment was ordered across the Atlantic, and took part in the conquest of Canada. M'Vicar afterwards resigned his commission and settled in Vermont on his military grant of 2000 acres, which he added largely to by purchase of the grants of brother-officers. Misfortune, however, attended him. Forced by ill-health to return to Scotland in 1768, in 1776, on the outbreak of the War of Independence, he was deprived of his property and reduced to a meagre subsistence as barrackmaster at Fort Augustus in Glen More. There, in 1779, Anne married the Rev. James Grant, the military chaplain, who forthwith accepted the parish of Laggan close by. He was related to some of the best families in Badenoch, and there the pair led an uneventful life for twenty-two years.

Something of the metal the minister's wife was made of can be guessed from the fact that, in order to fit herself for her duty in the parish, she studied and mastered the Gaelic tongue. She had already acquired Dutch for the sake of the Dutch friends with whom she stayed in America. Her courage and force of character, however, were to be put to a sterner proof. She had been the mother of twelve children, and eight survived to her when in 1801 her husband died. She then found herself not only without means, but considerably in debt. Her home, too, the manse, must be given up to her husband's successor. Many women would have sunk in despair, but the minister's widow was made of stronger stuff. She took a small farm in the neighbourhood, and set to work to retrieve the position.

The most brilliant part of her life was yet to come. From her earliest days she had shown an instinct for letters. In the American colonies the sergeant of the regiment who had taught her writing had given her a copy of Henry the Minstrel's "Wallace," and helped her to read it. "I conned it so diligently," she wrote in after days in her memoir, that I not only understood the broad Scottish, but caught an admiration for heroism, and an enthusiasm for Scotland, that ever since has been like a principle of life." In her sixth year she had read the Old Testament, and pored with delight over Paradise Lost. At nine years of age she had made imitations of Milton; and at Glasgow, after the return from America, she had written several pieces of merit. Now, in 1803, at the urging of friends, she gathered her verses and published them. Three thousand copies were subscribed for, and she was able with the proceeds to pay all her debts. She moved then to Stirling; and in 1806 her "Letters from the Mountains," a collection of charming epistles describing Highland lore and character, which she had written to friends from Laggan; and in 1808 her Memoirs of an American Lady — a Madame Schuyler, with whom she had lived for several years at Albany — established her as an author. In 1810 she removed to Edinburgh, where her literary accomplishments and brilliant conversation made her house the resort of men of letters like Lord Jeffrey, Henry Mackenzie, and Sir Walter Scott. Her Essays on the Superstitions of the Highlands, Popular Models and Impressive Warnings, and other productions, were all successful books, and with the proceeds of them, with several legacies from friends, and with a pension of 100 a year granted her in 1825, she found a comfortable provision till her death at the age of 83.

In the Gentleman's Magazine for January, 1839, appeared a detailed account of her life and writings; and a collection of her letters, with a memoir by her son, was published at London in 1844. She was styled Mrs. Grant of Laggan to distinguish her from that other Mrs. Grant "of Carron," author of Roy's Wife of Aldivalloch. The preservation of many interesting Highland traditions was owed to her. One of these, quoted by Hill Burton in his Life of Lord Lovat, from a MS. of Mrs. Grant, gives an idea of her vivid style. It describes the last interview between Prince Charles and Lovat at the house of Gortuleg, near the Falls of Foyers, just after Culloden. "The Prince and a few of his followers came to the house; Lovat expressed attachment to him, but at the same time reproached him with great asperity for declaring his intention to abandon the enterprise entirely. 'Remember,' said he fiercely, 'your great ancestor, Robert Bruce, who lost eleven battles, and won Scotland by the twelfth.'" So great was the repute of Mrs. Grant's knowledge of Highland character, custom, and legend, and her power of depicting them, that for a time she was thought to be the author of Waverley and Rob Roy.