ALLAN CUNNINGHAM was born at Blackwood, in Nithside, Dumfriesshire, on the 7th December 1784. Of his ancestry, some account has been given in the memoir of his elder brother Thomas. He was the fourth son of his parents, and from both of them inherited shrewdness and strong talent. Receiving an ordinary elementary education at a school, taught by an enthusiastic Cameronian, he was apprenticed in his eleventh year to his eldest brother James as a stone-mason. His hours of leisure were applied to mental improvement; he read diligently the considerable collection of books possessed by his father, and listened to the numerous legendary tales which his mother took delight in narrating at the family hearth. A native love for verse-making, which he possessed in common with his brother Thomas, was fostered and strengthened by his being early brought into personal contact with the poet Burns. In 1790, his father removed to Dalswinton, in the capacity of land-steward to Mr Miller, the proprietor, and Burns' farm of Ellisland lay on the opposite side of the Nith. The two families in consequence met very frequently; and Allan, though a mere boy, was sufficiently sagacious to appreciate the merits of the great bard. Though, at the period of Burns' death, in 1796, he was only twelve years old, the appearance and habits of the poet had left an indelible impression on his mind.
In his fifteenth year, Allan had the misfortune to lose his father, who had sunk to the grave under the pressure of poverty and misfortune; he thus became necessitated to assist in the general support of the family. At the age of eighteen he obtained the acquaintance of the Ettrick Shepherd; Hogg was then tending the flocks of Mr Harkness of Mitchelslack, in Nithsdale, and Cunningham, who had read some of his stray ballads, formed a high estimate of his genius. Along with his elder brother James, he paid a visit to the Shepherd one autumn afternoon on the great hill of Queensberry; and the circumstances of the meeting, Hogg has been at pains minutely to record. James Cunningham came forward and frankly addressed the Shepherd, asking if his name was Hogg, and at the same time supplying his own; he then introduced his brother Allan, who diffidently lagged behind, and proceeded to assure the Shepherd that he had brought to see him "the greatest admirer he had on earth, and himself a young aspiring poet of some promise." Hogg warmly saluted his brother bard, and, taking both the strangers to his booth on the hill-side, the three spent the afternoon happily together, rejoicing over the viands of a small bag of provisions, and a bottle of milk, and another of whisky. Hogg often afterwards visited the Cunninghams at Dalswinton, and was forcibly struck with Allan's luxuriant though unpruned fancy. He had already written some ingenious imitations of Ossian, and of the elder Scottish bards.
On the publication of The Lay of the Last Minstrel, in 1805, Cunningham contrived to save twenty-four shillings of his wages to purchase it, and forthwith committed the poem to memory. On perusing the poem of Marmion, his enthusiasm was boundless; he undertook a journey to Edinburgh that he might look upon the person of the illustrious author. In a manner sufficiently singular, his wish was realised. Passing and repassing in front of Scott's house in North Castle Street, he was noticed by a lady from the window of the adjoining house, who addressed him by name, and caused her servant to admit him. The lady was a person of some consideration from his native district, who had fixed her residence in the capital. He had just explained to her the object of his Edinburgh visit, when Scott made his appearance in the street. Passing his own door, he knocked at that of the house from the window of which his young admirer was anxiously gazing on his stalwart figure. As the lady of the house had not made Scott's acquaintance, she gently laid hold on Allan's arm, inducing him to be silent, to notice the result of the proceeding. Scott, in a reverie of thought, had passed his own door; observing a number of children's bonnets in the lobby, he suddenly perceived his mistake, and, apologising to the servant, hastily withdrew.
Cunningham's elder brother Thomas, and his friend Hogg, were already contributors to The Scots' Magazine. Allan made offer of some poetical pieces to that periodical, which were accepted. He first appears in the magazine in 1807, under the signature of Hidallan. In 1809, Mr Cromek, the London engraver, visited Dumfries, in the course of collecting materials for his Reliques of Robert Burns; he was directed to Allan Cunningham, as one who, having known Burns personally, and being himself a poet, was likely to be useful in his researches. On forming his acquaintance, Cromek at once perceived his important acquisition with respect to his immediate object, but expressed a desire first to examine some of his own compositions. Allan acceded to the request, but received only a moderate share of praise from the pedantic antiquary. Cromek urged him to collect the elder minstrelsy of Nithsdale and Galloway as an exercise more profitable than the composition of verses. On returning to London, Cromek received from his young friend packets of "old songs," which called forth his warmest encomiums. He entreated him to come to London to push his fortune, — an invitation which was readily accepted. For some time Cunningham was an inmate of Cromek's house, when he was entrusted with passing through the press the materials which he had transmitted, with others collected from different sources; and which, formed into a volume, under the title of Remains of Nithsdale and Galloway Song, were published in 1810 by Messrs Cadell and Davies. The work excited no inconsiderable attention, though most of the readers perceived, what Cromek had not even suspected, that the greater part of the ballads were of modern origin. Cromek did not survive to be made cognizant of the amusing imposition which had been practiced on his credulity.
Fortune did not smile on Cunningham's first entrance into business in London. He was compelled to resume his former occupation as a mason, and is said to have laid pavement in Newgate Street. From this humble position he rose to a situation in the studio of Bubb, the sculptor; and through the counsel of Eugenius Roche, the former editor of the Literary Recreations, and then the conductor of The Day newspaper, he was induced to lay aside the trowel and undertake the duties of reporter to that journal. The Day soon falling into the hands of other proprietors, Cunningham felt his situation uncomfortable, and returned to his original vocation, attaching himself to Francis Chantey, then a young sculptor just commencing business. Chantrey soon rose, and ultimately attained the summit of professional reputation; Cunningham continued by him as the superintendent of his establishment till the period of his death, long afterwards.
Devoted to business, and not unfrequently occupied in the studio from eight o'clock morning till six o'clock evening, Cunningham perseveringly followed the career of a poet and man of letters. In 1813, he published a volume of lyrics, entitled Songs, chiefly in the Rural Language of Scotland. After an interval of nine years, sedulously improved by an ample course of reading, he produced in 1822 Sir Marmaduke Maxwell, a Dramatic Poem. In this work, which is much commended by Sir Walter Scott in the preface to The Fortunes of Nigel, he depicts the manners and traditions he had seen and heard on the banks of the Nith. In 1819, he began to contribute to Blackwood's Magazine, and from 1822 to 1824 wrote largely for the London Magazine. Two collected volumes of his contributions to these periodicals were afterwards published, under the title of Traditional Tales. In 1825, he gave to the world The Songs of Scotland, Ancient and Modern, with an Introduction and Notes, in four volumes 8vo. This work abounds in much valuable and curious criticism. Paul Jones, a romance in three volumes, was the product of 1826; it was eminently successful. A second romance from his pen, Sir Michael Scott, published in 1828, in three volumes, did not succeed. The Anniversary, a miscellany which appeared in the winter of that year, under his editorial superintendence, obtained an excellent reception. From 1829 to 1833, he produced for Murray's Family Library his most esteemed prose work, The Lives of the Most Eminent British Painters, Sculptors, and Architects, in six volumes. The Maid of Elvar, an epic poem in the Spenserian stanza, connected with the chivalrous enterprise displayed in the warfare between Scotland and England, during the reign of Henry VIII., was published in 1832. His admirable edition of the works of Robert Burns appeared in 1834, and 5000 copies were speedily sold. In 1836, he published Lord Roldan, a romance. From 1830 to 1834, he was a constant writer in The Athenaeum, to which, among many interesting articles, he contributed his sentiments regarding the literary characters of the times, in a series of papers entitled Literature of the Last Fifty Years.
He wrote a series of prose descriptions for Major's Cabinet Gallery, a History of the Rise and Progress of the Fine Arts, for the Popular Encyclopaedia; an introduction, and a few additional lives, for Pilkington's Painters, and a life of Thomson for Tilt's illustrated edition of The Seasons. He contemplated a great work, to be entitled Lives of the British Poets, and this design, which he did not live to accomplish, is likely to be realised by his son, Mr Peter Cunningham. His last publication was the Life of Sir David Wilkie, which he completed just two days before his death. He was suddenly seized with an apoplectic attack, and died after a brief illness on the 29th October 1842. His remains were interred in Kensal-green Cemetery. He had married, in July 1811, Miss Jane Walker of Preston Mill, near Dumfries, who still survives. Of a family of four sons and one daughter, three of the sons held military appointments in India, and the fourth, who fills a post in Somerset House, is well known for his contributions to literature.
Allan Cunningham ranks next to Hogg as a writer of Scottish song. He sung of the influences of beauty, and of the hills and vales of his own dear Scotland. His songs abound in warmth of expression, simplicity of sentiment, and luxuriousness of fancy. Of his skill as a Scottish poet, Hogg has thus testified his appreciation in the Queen's Wake:—
Of the old elm his harp was made,
That bent o'er Cluden's loneliest shade;
No gilded sculpture round her flamed,
For his own hand that harp had framed,
In stolen hours, when, labour done,
He stray'd to view the parting sun.
That harp could make the matron stare,
Bristle the peasant's hoary hair,
Make patriot breasts with ardour glow,
And warrior pant to meet the foe;
And long by Nith the maidens young
Shall chant the strains their minstrel sung.
At ewe-bught, or at evening fold,
When resting on the daisied word,
Combing their locks of waving gold,
Oft the fair group, enrapt, shall name
Their lost, their darling Cunninghame;
His was a song beloved in youth,
A tale of weir, a tale of truth.
As a prose writer, Cunningham was believed by Southey to have the best style ever attained by any one born north of the Tweed, Hume only excepted. His moral qualities were well appreciated by Sir Walter Scott, who commonly spoke of him as "Honest Allan." His person was broad and powerful, and his countenance wore a fine intelligence.