1903 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

William Glen

George Eyre-Todd, in The Glasgow Poets (1903) 195-98.



On one of the evenings when Queen Victoria was entertained at Taymouth Castle, in 1842, John Wilson, a famous Scottish singer of the day, was engaged to perform. The list of his songs was submitted beforehand to the Queen, and in place of one which he proposed, she asked that he should sing Wae's me for Prince Charlie. That request was the first intimation that Jacobite songs would no longer be taboo at Court.

Of all modern Jacobite lyrics there can be no doubt this of William Glen's remains the most popular. So constantly is it sung that it has completely appropriated the tune of the fine old Ayrshire ballad, Johnnie Faa. Indeed, it has eclipsed even its author's other work so far that it has come to be looked on generally as his solitary production. Far from remaining so sterile, however, Glen was one of the most prolific of song writers. The pity is that more care was not taken to preserve his work to the world.

The poet's life was unfortunate. Opening with the fairest promise, it was darkened early by one disaster after another, and if his conduct showed weakness in the later years he was not without excuse. Second son of a considerable West India merchant, and descended of a family which had some pride in its past, he was born in Queen Street, Glasgow, 14th November, 1789, and received a good education in his native city. His mother's brother, James Burns, was Provost of Renfrew, and an enthusiast for the old historical tales of Scotland. With him the future poet spent his summers, and from his lips heard the stories of Wallace wight, the royal Stewarts, and Bonnie Prince Charlie, which were to give their own turn to his poetry. The first outcome of this influence was an ardent patriotism. When a corps of Glasgow Sharpshooters was raised in 1803, Glen joined as a lieutenant; and he afterwards became an enthusiastic member of the Renfrewshire Yeomanry. His father, to begin with, hoped to leave him independent means, but a disastrous fire in Trinidad reduced the family fortunes, and the poet became a business man. In this career he prospered highly for a time. After spending several years in the West Indies, he began business in Glasgow on his own account as a manufacturer and trader with these colonies, and in 1814 was elected a manager of the Merchants' House and a director of the Chamber of Commerce.

At that date he made some figure in the life of the city. He was a member of the Coul Club and the Anderston Social Club, and at their weekly meetings produced many effusions, which were duly inscribed in the minutes. One of these, given on the 18th of April, 1814, after the abdication of Napoleon, was sung by Adam Grant, and is printed in Glasgow and its Clubs; and an earlier piece, The Battle of Vittoria, was long popular in that exciting time. On being first sung at the Glasgow theatre, the latter was received with wild applause, and it was called for nightly during the season.

But the crisis which overtook the country at the end of the Napoleonic wars proved disastrous, among many others in Glasgow, to the young merchant-poet. After Waterloo the Anderston Social Club, deprived of the patriotic motive which had been its chief reason for existence, presently ceased to meet, and its laureate, subjected to heavy business losses, found himself ruined. A broken man, enjoying indifferent health, he did not enter commercial life again. Instead, he turned for occupation to the publication of his collected compositions. Poems Chiefly Lyrical appeared in 1815, The Lonely Isle, a South Sea Island Tale, in 1816, and The Star of Brunswick, on the death of the Princess Charlotte of Wales, in 1818. In 1818, also, he married Catherine Macfarlane, daughter of a Glasgow merchant who rented a farm at Port of Menteith. His means of livelihood was a moderate allowance made him by his father and by an uncle in Russia, with such slight additions as he could compass by his pen. "In his latter days," says Dr. Strang, "he took severely to the bottle. He was extremely ready in his poetical compositions, and would throw off a number of verses in the course of a night, and sell them to a bookseller for a few shillings, to be printed as a broadsheet."

At last his wife induced him to retire to her childhood's district. There, at Rainagour, near Aberfoyle, on the banks of the lovely Loch Ard, he composed many of his sweetest songs, and there in the end it seemed that he was to die. A few weeks before that end, however he said to his wife, "Kate, I would like to go back to Glasgow." "Why, Willie," she asked, "are ye no as well here?" "It's no myself I'm thinking about," he answered. "It's of you, Kate, for I know well it's easier to take a living man there than a dead one." "So," says the writer who narrates the incident [J. G. Wilson], "the sorrowful woman with her dying husband departed from the place, and the warm Highland hearts missed and mourned for him, forgetting his faults, and remembering only his virtues." He, died in Gorbals, Glasgow, of consumption, and was buried in the Ramshorn Churchyard, in December, 1826.

Besides the pieces included in his own volumes, Glen was author of much occasional poetry. Several of his lyrics, as already remarked, were inscribed in the minutes of the Anderston Social Club. And later in his short life, while living at Aberfoyle, he contributed a number of pieces to the Literary Reporter, a Glasgow miscellany published in 1823. There is reason to believe, however, that he left a considerable mass of unpublished manuscript. Dr. Charles Rogers, in his Century of Scottish Life, says, "In a solitary nook at Aberfoyle resided, a few years ago, two females, where they were discovered by a clerical friend, who, at my request, obligingly sought them out. These were the widow and daughter of William Glen.... Glen was unfortunate in business, and the depressed condition of his affairs led to the dispersion of his MSS., and nearly bereft him of posthumous fame." When this was written one of the poet's manuscript volumes, inscribed Volume Third, was in the hands of Gabriel Neil, the editor of Zachary Boyd, and from it Rogers printed some pieces in his Modern Scottish Minstrel. Rogers also published at Edinburgh in 1874 a collection of Glen's poems, with a portrait and memoir. In the memoir he gave a history of the family of Glen from the days of Bruce, and derived the name from The Glen in Peebles-shire, once their property. But the pieces included had nearly all appeared already in the poet's own volumes. The manuscripts in the hands of Gabriel Neil remained for the most part unpublished, and after the antiquary's death in 1862 his MS. volume seems to have gone amissing. Another has come into the knowledge of the present writer. When the collection of the late Alexander Macdonald, who was a native of Gartmore, in the neighbourhood of Aberfoyle, was sold in 1897, this volume was acquired by Mr. D. Simpson, 23 Dunmore Street, South Side. It contains forty-three pieces, only two or three of which seem to have been printed before, in Dr. Rogers' collected edition and in Glen's own volume of 1815. Many of the poems deal with the district of Aberfoyle and Menteith, and from internal evidence there can be little doubt that all of them are the work of William Glen. Probably it is one of the series of which Gabriel Neil's book was Volume Third. Two of the pieces included below — The Highland Maid and the verses To the Memory of John Graham of Claverhouse—are taken from this volume by kind permission of Mr. Simpson.