James Hogg

Z, "Biographical Sketches of the Life of the Ettrick Shepherd" Scots Magazine 67 (January-November 1805) 14-16, 203-04, 501-03, 820-23.


For the further satisfaction of Mr. Welsh in particular, and to do justice to the country in general, I would wish you to insert, in the Scots Magazine for January, the few following biographical sketches of the Ettrick Shepherd.

The Ettrick Shepherd is a native of, and belongs to an honest and respectable family, in the parish of Ettrick. His father, who had acquired a considerable fortune in his younger years, about, or little after the birth of our Shepherd, unfortunately made a stretch in business beyond his capital. In consequence of this, his affairs went into confusion, and his creditors left little or nothing for the support of his family; but the parents' exertions being seconded by some of the principal men in that place, their circumstances got somewhat bettered, and they were enabled to give their family a tolerable education. I am certain, however, from local circumstances, that our Shepherd had not ten shillings laid out upon his education while about his father's house.

In this low and depressed situation his parents were under the necessity of sending their children to service as soon as possible, and our Shepherd among the rest. He was for several summers employed in herding cows, the lowest and most servile of all employments in a country life, but even during this period he discovered an invincible predilection for music and poetry; the former science he prosecuted with such diligence and unwearied eagerness, that he frequently spent whole nights in the study and learning of this most pleasant of all the arts; and is now among the best performers on the violin that I ever remember to have heard.

These amusements his parents discouraged as much as possible, from an apprehension that too much indulgence in them would cause a levity in the after part of life, and in the mean time lead to a neglect of his master's business. Neither of these bad consequences have followed; but in spite of every admonition to the contrary, in spite of every embarrassment they could throw in his way, he persisted with unabated energy in these favourite amusements, till he has now arrived at such perfection in both, as is scarcely to be found in another individual.

From the mean and servile duties of a cow-herd, he rose to the more honourable employment of a shepherd; and in this he continued till about a year and a half since; it being his good fortune to serve in a decent and respectable family, whose head and all its principal branches are eminently distinguished for their love of learning. These collateral helps, his constant reading some public library, and the great command he had of time, ripened apace the seeds of poetry with which his genius was so strongly impregnated. With a view still farther to expand his ideas, and enrich his mind; to shake off those prejudices which local circumstances insensibly naturalize to the mind, as well as to make observations on the different ways of managing sheep-farms he has made three extensive tours through the Highlands of Scotland, the Hebrides, &c. has examined with a shepherd's eye the qualities of their stocks, and nature of their soil, and all this at his own private expence, unless where the kindness and generosity of the gentlemen in that country interfere, at whose house he sometimes rested himself a day or two, and to whom he could not fail of being an agreeable companion. But the result of his observations on that long-neglected country, with the advantages and disadvantages it lies under as a sheep country, it is thought by some will be laid before the public. Its properties will then be more minutely and judiciously stated than ever they have been by any former tourist, who only travelled through the most populous districts, but seldom penetrated the interior of the country, or explored the nature of the soil as adapted for pasture.

Previous to the 1799, he had published several pieces of poetry in the Edinburgh Magazine, of which he was a constant reader, all of them evincing a vividness of fancy and sprightliness of style seldom met with.

He was there like a lark newly mounted, whose notes are acute and piercing, but not so perfect and steady as when she rises to a loftier flight; but these puerile attempts announced what he was capable of attaining, when his fancy was matured, and his ideas more enlarged.

I think it was about the year 1799 that he published a few pastorals, songs, &c. which were printed n Edinburgh. Though a lively genius, and intimate acquaintance with the feelings of the human mind, pervades, and no doubt dictated the whole of these pastorals, &c. yet one of them in particular, entitled Will and Kate, for the connectedness of its parts, propriety of thought, exprest in an easy style, is sufficient of itself to establish his reputation as a poet, and would even appear conspicuous among the writings of a Ferguson and a Burns.

Though the unity of this poem be among its principal beauties, and a repetition of any of the stanzas would make them appear with a disproportionate effect; yet I cannot help producing three or four verses as specimens of the energy with which he writes. When speaking of the symptoms that attend love, when that passion first seizes the mind of youth, he says,

Now my yellow hair I plaited,
Gae my downy chin a shave,
Thrice my tales of love repeated,
Fearing I should misbehave.

And when speaking of the place where he was left a few minutes till his mistress went away, and farther adjusted, and brought to a conclusion her day's work, he says,

Where the burn wi' many a turnie,
Wimpled though the sandy plain,
Willows louting kiss'd the burnie,
There I'm left to lie my lane.

His mistress being absent, he falls a gazing at, and meditating on the heavenly luminaries twinkling around him, then he thus addresses them,

Oft, to every care unus'd,
When the day light ceas'd to shine;
Oft or you I've gaz'd and mus'd,
Oft ador'd that Pow'r DIVINE;
Who those fluid films that wheeled
Loosely through primeval night,
By a breath to worlds congeal'd,
Masses of illuvid light.

The last verse, for grandeur and sublimity of sentiment, has seldom been equalled, and could have been no disgrace to the classic muse of a Pope or a Dryden; what then are its merits when uttered by an illiterate shepherd, that got barely as much education as to enable him to read his Bible! What force of thought, what illimitable stretch of ideas do they indicate! had a genius of such innate vigour been instructed, expanded, and matured, by learning, how boundless would have been its excursions, and how keen its perceptions!

The verse that follows, though grand and sublime, has not the invention, nor the originality of the preceding, it runs thus:

From his hand then bowl'd ye, flaming,
Through old dreary Night's domain,
Order straight through Nature reigning,
Dungeon darkness smil'd serene.

But the two verses taken in connection convey a lively idea of the instantaneous transition of primeval horror and darkness, to all the brightness and splendour emanating from these glorious luminaries running their amazing rounds.

In short, though his genius be bright, almost incomparably bright, yet every beauty in his poetry cannot be attributed to its own inherent fertility. I fancy to myself I could trace several places where he is fired by other poets, his ideas seem the same, tho' drest in a different garb; and how know I but the melody of "Ye Banks and Braes of bonny Doon," may have awakened that beautiful air of

Flow, my Yarrow, down the howe,
Forming bows of dazzling siller,
Meet your Tibby yont the know,
Wi' my love I'll join like you.
Flow, my Ettrick, it was thee
In life's mire first did drap me,
There I live, and when I die,
Ye will lend a sod to hap me:
There I'll doze till it be day,
While your banks shall smile for ay.

Banks of Ettrick, Dec. 7th, 1804.


As a constant reader of your valuable miscellany, I naturally read the very ingenious Biographical Sketches of the Ettrick Shepherd, which were published in your last number. Of the various kinds of biography, your correspondent's from the banks of the Ettrick is peculiar.

He has very happily hit upon a mode of writing the life of a poet, without once mentioning his name, or parentage: so, upon the whole, I was more pleased than instructed by your intelligent biographer: He has another happiness; he can raise, but not gratify curiosity. I should, therefore, be much obliged to you, if you would try to get me answers to the following queries:

1. What is the name of the Ettrick Shepherd, baptismal, and surname?

(Answer, — James Hogg.)

2. What are the names of his father, and of his mother?

3. In what parish was he born: on what day, month, and year?

(Answer, — He was born in the parish of Ettrick, in Selkirkshire.)

4. To what school was he sent; and who was his mistress, or master, at this school?

5. Where, and with whom, did he herd cows?

6. How old was he, when he began to write poetry? Did "he lisp in numbers;" where can one see his earliest poetry?

7. Has any collection been made of his poetry?

(Answer, — We believe not, except that mentioned by our correspondent as published in 1799. Since that time, numerous poems of his have appeared in this publication, sometimes with the signature of James Hogg, and sometimes with that of the Ettrick Shepherd. Two very ingenious pieces will appear in our next.)

I shall be obliged to you, Mr. Editor, if you will insert these queries in your next number, and I shall be still more obliged to your correspondent from the banks of Ettrick, if he will take the trouble to insert answers to them in your wide circulating Magazine.

A Constant Reader.

(Lest some of these queries should appear unnecessarily minute, it may be proper to mention, that they are received from a highly respectable gentleman, who is at present collecting materials for a history of Scottish poetry. We have answered such of the questions as could; and for the rest, must trust to our correspondent. — Editor.)


In compliance with the wishes of your correspondent, who signs himself A Constant Reader, I send you the following short Biographical Sketch of the Life of James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd.

He was born in the parish of Ettrick, and County of Selkirk, in the latter end of 1772; being the second son of Robert Hogg and Margaret Laidlaw, both natives of that parish. When but seven years of age, he was engaged by a farmer in the neighbourhood to serve as a cowherd. His whole stock of learning at that time consisted in having been taught to read in the Proverbs of Solomon, and Shorter Catechism, by Mr. Beattie, the parish schoolmaster. Next year he was put four months to a private school, kept by a young lad called William Ker, who was teaching a neighbouring farmer's children. Here he learned to write, and here his education was compleated! His constant employment far some years was herding cows, the lowest, and I believe the worst trade in several respects, in this part of the country. At the age of fourteen, finding himself in possession of five or six shillings, over and above what was necessary for covering his nakedness, he purchased an old violin, and assiduously applied himself to that branch of music. But having little or no leisure in the day-time, and in the night being obliged to sleep in a stable, or byre, and destitute of the means for procuring light, he was much more obliged to the ear than the eye for any advances he made, in what was at this time his favourite amusement. It will readily be perceived, that in such a situation he could make no very rapid advances in music, however high an opinion he might have of his own abilities. But while his self-taught ear was no doubt listening with pleasure to his supposed melodious notes, that they have at the same time produced sensations of a very different nature on others, the following anecdote will bear testimony: — His master coming home at a late hour one evening, and thinking all the servants were gone to rest, resolved to put his horse into the stable himself, but upon opening the stable door, he was saluted with a voice which to his astonished ears was so unharmonious, that he run into the house with the greatest precipitation, crying that he believed the devil was in the stable; and was with considerable difficulty convinced of his mistake by some of his family better acquainted with our musician's inclination and abilities than he was. James was very often changing places; I have heard him say, that at fifteen years of age he had served ten or a dozen masters; yet none of these ever refused to recommend him to another, and he never complained of having received bad usage from any, save a shepherd of the name of Grieve. He now went to serve with Mr Laidlaw, Elibank; and here from kind usage, and more agreeable employment, he used to say that he found his situation much better than it had hitherto been. After this he was entrusted with the charge of a hirsel by the above gentleman's father, the late Mr. Laidlaw, Willinslee, with whom he served two years. Hitherto he had read little, except on his Bible, with which by this time he was well acquainted; and he had got nearly the whole of the psalms of David by heart. But he had made still less progress in writing, for being obliged to write a letter to his elder brother William, he had so far forgot the way, that he actually was under the necessity of printing some of the letters as he saw them in the beginning of the Catechism.

This circumstance, although it may appear a little trifling, is yet a striking proof of the strength of his genius. Who could have thought, that one who, at the age of eighteen, had read little else than his bible, and could scarcely write a legible line with the pen, would with no other help, than a few books, and no more leisure than what in the ordinary course of things falls to the lot of servants, have attained to considerable celebrity as an author before he reached his thirtieth year? I may certainly be allowed to make the remark, that since some of his pieces have arrived at an excellence seldom surpassed, what might have been expected from him had a liberal education been added to his other rare accomplishments? — In 1790, he came to Mr. Laidlaw, Blackhouse, and served with him as a shepherd for ten years. It was by the attention of this gentleman, and his family, that he came to be first taken notice of, and as far as prudence would permit they have always shewn themselves his most zealous patrons, and they indeed have the merit of rescuing from obscurity one who seems fitted by nature for shining in a quite different sphere of life. Having here access to a considerable selection of books, he began now to read with eagerness and attention; and his mind seems to have been rapidly improving, for in 1793 he began to write no very despicable poetry. The first piece which he might have been said to have finished was intitled "An address to the Duke of Buccleugh, in behalf of myself and other poor folk:" but as I can rarely repeat any of his pieces, and as I have scarcely any copies of them in my possession, I can for the most part only mention them, without giving extracts. This year he also wrote a song, called "This is the way the world goes on," and "Willie and Geordie," which was published with some of his other poems in 1801. — He wrote "Glengyle and The happy swains," in 1794. These were in part founded on some stories told him by an old woman of the name of Cameron, who had been interested in the rebellion of 1745; the former of these is already before the public, and this last being of considerable length, shows that he now wrote with facility, for it filled about 150 pages: and that even at this early period his imagination was tolerably fertile, and his talent for versification by no means small. This year he had the satisfaction of seeing, for the first time, one of his pieces appear in print. It was called "the mistakes of a night," and was published in the Scots Magazine. In 1795 he was summoned to Selkirk for a witness against one of his acquaintances for fishing in close time, and being persuaded by several of his companions, interested in that business, that it was both sinful to swear, and base, and shameful to betray his acquaintance, he either evaded or refused to give direct answers to the questions put to him for some time; at length seeing there was no alternative, he reluctantly complied, but at the same time told his persecutors, that he would soon find a way to expose their ignorance and sacrilegious conduct to the world; and accordingly he immediately set about writing his Scots Gentleman, a comedy, in five acts, one of which was entirely occupied with the examination of the fishers. This piece, though it no doubt has its faults, yet in general is not destitute of merit; the last mentioned part in particular is so replete with blunt but natural answers, that it never fails to excite the most lively burst of laughter, when read to an Ettrick audience.

I thought, Mr. Editor, to have finished this hasty sketch, but I see its length will be improper. If you think this worthy of a place in your valuable miscellany, you shall soon hear from me again. In my next I shall make extracts from some of his pieces not yet published; and also give some account of his Journey through the Highlands, and the Mountain Bard; two publications of Mr. Hogg's nearly ready for the press. I am, Sir,

Yours, &c.


Banks of Ettrick,

June 8, 1805.


It has been remarked by a great philosopher, that, "The force of the passions can alone counterbalance, in the human mind, the effects of indolence and inactivity." Vanity, when mixed with a proper alloy of prudence, may be of the utmost service to us. Amongst the passions which at times roused from listless inactivity the subject of this article, that of harmless vanity was none of the least. Indeed, to vanity and love several of his best pieces maybe traced; but, to become more particular might, perhaps, hurt his feelings. — In 1796, having, in company with some friends, dropt a hint of his superior abilities as a poet, two of them for a small wager engaged to try him on any subject which was judged proper. Several being proposed, that of the stars was fixed on. The propriety of such a subject was never called in question; each went to work, and in a short time James finished his. The other two either did not finish theirs, or compromised matters privately, for they were never presented to those chosen to decide the wager. As a specimen of our poet's abilities at this time, I shall give an extract from this, which was entitled "Reflections on a view of the nocturnal heavens;" it begins thus:

'Tis solemn silence all, and not a breath,
In this sequestered solitude, I hear;
Save where the bird of night his mournful scream
Sends from the ruins of yon lofty dome.
Great Source of all perfection, how I'm lost
In wonder and amazement, when I view
That ample space, spread by thy potent arm;
Where worlds unnumbered float at thy controul. — &c.

Some time after this, one of his former antagonists and be tried a paraphrase on the 117th psalm. I shall here also repeat some lines, but as I quote from memory only, they are just as likely to be the worst as the best:

Ye straggling sons of Greenland's rigid wilds,
Y' inhabitants of Asia's distant isles,
With all between, make this your final aim,
Your great Creator's goodness to proclaim....

The highest seraph that in glory sings,
In heavenly strains; on earth the mighty kings,
The poor, the rich, the wicked, and the just,
The meanest reptile crawling in the dust,
All share his bounty, all his goodness prove,
And all proclaim him God of truth and love. — &c.

He was at times afflicted with a severe pain in his bowels, and at every attack it redoubled its fury, and had very nearly put an end to his days in November 1798. He happened to be from home, assisting a neighbouring farmer to smear his sheep; and though no doubt very kindly used, was certainly more uneasy on that account. I have often heard him since laugh heartily at a conversation he overheard when ill, and I believe by his attendants thought incapable of attending to any thing but the acute pain that racked his body. One person was telling another that Hogg's ghost (or wraith, as we call that nonentity,) had been seen, and from thence they inferred that he could not possibly live, and whispered something about sheets being got ready to lay him in when dead. However, as he observed, by the help of an able physician, and strength of a good constitution, he disappointed both them and the ghost. When recovering from this illness, he composed a song which begins, "Farewell ye grots, farewell ye glens," &c. His brother William, along with his father, possessed the farm of Ettrick House for some time; but having married about this time, he found the profits of the farm too small to maintain two families; accordingly he went away and James entered to the farm in 1800. This year he wrote a tragedy called The Castle in the Wood, which, though it shewed a ready fund of invention, and in several parts no very small degree of poetical merit, yet, however partial the author might be, to this the first fruits of his addresses to the tragic muse, it was so far from being unexceptionable in many parts, that it was thought quite unfit to meet the public eye. Finding the profits of the farm but small, and having some spare time, he thought he could not employ it better than in trying the jobbing: accordingly, he next year occasionally attended the markets as a dealer in sheep. But, in a short time he saw, that to succeed this way the utmost diligence and circumspection were requisite; and being naturally of an open, unsuspicious character, he was also too liable to be imposed upon by artful and designing men. These considerations, with his natural propensity to literary pursuits induced him to give it up entirely. When at Edinburgh market this year, being one day unable to dispose of all his sheep, and return to the country as usual, he took it into his head that his time could not be better employed till the next market day, than in writing a few of his poems, to get them printed. The thought thus hastily conceived, was instantly put in execution. In a few hours his papers were finished, and carried directly to the printer; and next day having disposed of his sheep, he returned home. It will easily be seen, that under these circumstances his poems would be very incorrect, especially as he wrote them entirely from memory. However, he inquired no more about them till he heard they were printed. He was now fully sensible of the impropriety of his conduct, but it was too late; yet, even under these unpropitious circumstances, they were partially taken notice of, and some parts of them transcribed, into one or two periodical publications. — He was much more happy in his next piece, ("Sandy Tod,") which was published in the Edinburgh Magazine, for May 1802. — The small farm of Ettrick House being taken from him by a more wealthy neighbour, he determined to try what could be done in the Highlands in the farming line; and accordingly traversed a great part of the North Highlands, but returned without doing any thing, save improving his acquaintance with men and manners. Some part of this journey was published in the Scots Magazine. His curiosity being rather heightened, than gratified by what he had seen, he next summer set out on another journey to the Highlands; and after seeing a great part of the interior, he visited most of the Hebrides. Having taken a lease of a farm in the isle of Harris, he returned home to prepare for going thither at the Whitsunday following; and in the interim composed his Farewell to Ettrick, in which he so pathetically unfolds his attachment to the place of his nativity.

But an' I kend my dying day,
Tho' distant, weary, pale, an' wan;
I'd take my staff and post away,
To yield my life where it began.

But I shall make no more extracts from it, as it is already before the public; being published in the Scots and Edinburgh Magazine. At Whitsunday 1804, James, with other two acquaintances went away again to Harris, to take possession of the farm; which they at length reached, after a long and dangerous voyage. But though the proprietor had shown considerable anxiety to see James, through an unlucky coincidence of misfortunes and disasters, this meeting was prevented, which no doubt led to consequences of the last import to him. Returning home again, he purchased a good many sheep, with which, when he was finally setting out for Harris, about the middle of July, he received notice that the tacksman's right to the subject was called in question, and a plea entered at the Court of Session accordingly. Thinking it unsafe to venture himself with so much property in a distant island, where the proprietor was likely to become his enemy, he immediately resolved on that step to which least apparent danger was attached. Thus were all his hopes of raising his fortune by this means entirely blasted; and finding that the old saying "He that gets the skaith gets ay the scorn," would be verified in him, he went off to the North of England for some time. He was afterwards employed in preparing for the press his first, second, and third journies through the Highlands; and in composing several pieces, some of which have been published in the Magazine, and which he intends to publish in a volume by themselves, as soon as a few illustrative notes are got ready. At Whitsunday 1805, he again chearfully undertook the charge of a hirsel, in which situation he still continues. I have now, Mr. Editor, given you a few particulars of Mr. Hogg's life, and as I have for the most part confined myself to a recital of such things as I have heard directly from him, or as have come under my own observation, I think they will be pretty correctly stated. If in any thing I am wrong, I hope Mr. Hogg will be so good as give a true statement, and that he will forgive the liberty I have thus taken with his character and writing. I am yours,


Banks of Ettrick,

Sept. 15, 1805.