1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Hector Macneill

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:488-90.



HECTOR MACNEILL (1746-1818) was brought up to a mercantile life, but was unsuccessful in most of his business affairs. He cultivated in secret an attachment to the muses, which at length brought him fame, though not wealth. In 1789 he published a legendary poem, The Harp, and in 1795 his moral tale, Scotland's Skaith, or the History o' Will and Jean. The object of this production was to depict the evil effects of intemperance. A happy rural pair are reduced to ruin, descending by gradual steps till the husband is obliged to enlist as a soldier, and the wife to beg with her children through the country. The situation of the little ale-house where Will begins his unlucky potations is finely described.

In a howm whose bonny burnie
Whimpering rowed its crystal flood,
Near the road where travellers turn aye,
Neat and beild a cot-house stood:

White the wa's wi' roof new theekit,
Window breads just painted red;
Lown 'mang trees and braes it reekit,
Haflins seen and haflins hid.

Up the gavel-end thick spreading
Crap the clasping ivy green,
Back owre firs the high craigs cleadin,
Raised a' round a cosey screen.

Down below a flowery meadow
Joined the burnie's rambling line;
Here it was that Howe the widow
That same day set up her sign.

Brattling down the brae, and near its
Bottom, Will first marvelling sees
"Porter, Ale, and British Spirits,"
Painted bright between twa trees.

"Godsaks, Tam! here's walth for drinking!
Wha can this new-comer be?"
"Hout," quo' Tam, "there's drouth in thinking—
Let's in, Will, and syne we'll see."

The rustic friends have a jolly meeting, and do not separate till "'tween twa and three" next morning. A weekly club is set up at Maggy Howe's, a newspaper is procured, and poor Will, the hero of the tale, becomes a pot-house politician, and soon goes to ruin. His wife also takes to drinking.

Wha was ance like Willie Gairlace?
Wha in neebouring town or farm?
Beauty's bloom shone in his fair face,
Deadly strength was in his arm.

Whan he first saw Jeanie Miller,
Wha wi' Jeanie could compare?
Thousands had mair braws and siller,
But war ony half sae fair?

See them now! — how changed wi' drinking!
A' their youthfu' beauty gane!
Davered, doited, daized, and blinking—
Worn to perfect skin and bane!

In the cauld month o' November
(Claise and cash and credit out),
Cowering o'er a dying ember,
Wi' ilk face as white's a clout!

Bond and bill and debts a' stoppit,
Ilka sheaf selt on the bent;
Cattle, beds, and blankets roupit
Now to pay the laird his rent.

No anither night to lodge here—
No a friend their cause to plead!
He's ta'en on to be a sodger,
She wi' weans to beg her bread!

The little domestic drama is happily wound up: Jeanie obtains a cottage and protection from the Duchess of Buccleuch; and Will, after losing a leg in battle, returns, "placed on Chelsea's bounty," and finds his wife and family.

Sometimes briskly, sometimes flaggin',
Sometimes helpit, Will gat forth;
On a cart, or in a wagon,
Hirpling aye towards the north.

Tired ae e'ening, stepping hooly,
Pondering on his thraward fate,
In the bonny month o' July,
Willie, heedless, tint his gate.

Saft the southland breeze was blawing,
Sweetly sughed the green aik wood;
Loud the din o' streams fast fa'ing,
Strack the ear wi' thundering thud:

Ewes and lambs on braes ran bleating;
Linties chirped on ilka tree;
Frae the west the sun, near setting,
Flamed on Roslin's towers sae hie.

Roslin's towers and braes sae bonny!
Craigs and water, woods and glen!
Roslin's banks unpeered by ony,
Save the Muses' Hawthornden!

Ilka sound and charm delighting,
Will (though hardly fit to gang)
Wandered on through scenes inviting,
Listening to the mavis' sang.

Faint at length, the day fast closing,
On a fragrant strawberry steep,
Esk's sweet dream to rest composing,
Wearied nature drapt asleep.

"Soldier, rise! — the dews o' e'ening
Gathering, fa' wi' deadly skaith!—
Wounded soldier! if complaining,
Sleep na here, and catch your death."

* * *

Silent stept he on, poor fallow!
Listening to his guide before,
O'er green knowe and flowery hallow,
Till they reached the cot-house door.

Laigh it was, yet sweet and humble;
Decked wi' honeysuckle round;
Clear below Esk's waters rumble,
Deep glens murmuring back the sound.

Melville's towers sae white and stately,
Dim by gloaming glint to view;
Through Lasswade's dark woods keek sweetly
Skies sae red and lift sae blue.

Entering now, in transport mingle
Mother fond and happy wean,
Smiling round a canty ingle
Bleezing on a clean hearthstane.

"Soldier welcome! come, be cheerie—
Here ye'se rest and tak' your bed-
Faint, waes me! ye seem, and weary,
Pale's your cheek sae lately red!"

"Changed I am," sighed Willie till her;
"Changed, nae doubt, as changed can be;
Yet, alas! does Jeanie Miller
Nought o' Willie Gairlace see?"

Hae ye marked the dews o' morning
Glittering in the sunny ray,
Quickly fa', when, without warning,
Rough blasts came and shook the spray?

Hae ye seen the bird fast fleeing,
Drap when pierced by death mair fleet?
Then see Jean wi' colour deeing,
Senseless drap at Willie's feet.

After three lang years' affliction
(A' their waes now hushed to rest),
Jean ance mair, in fond affection,
Clasps her Willie to her breast.

The simple truth and pathos of descriptions like these appealed to the heart, and soon rendered Macneill's poem universally popular in Scotland. Its moral tendency was also a strong recommendation, and the same causes still operate in procuring readers for the tale, especially in that class best fitted to appreciate its rural beauties and homely pictures, and to receive benefit from the lessons it inculcates. Macneill wrote several Scottish lyrics, but he wanted the true genius for song-writing — the pathos, artlessness, and simple gaiety which should accompany the flow of the music. He published a descriptive poem, entitled The Links of Forth, or a Parting Peep at the Carse of Stirling; and some prose tales, in which he laments the effect of modern change and improvement. The latter years of the poet were spent in comparative comfort at Edinburgh, where he enjoyed the refined and literary society of the Scottish capital till an advanced age.