1899 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Alexander Balfour

George Hay, in History of Arbroath to the Present Time (1899) 456-57.



Arbroath — the neighbouring district included — has during the last hundred years produced a fair proportion of the minor poets of our country. The first of these was Alexander Balfour. Balfour was not a native of the town, but was born within a few miles of it, in the parish of Monikie. He was born in humble life, and in his childhood he received but little education. His career was chequered, and mostly unfortunate. He was apprenticed to the weaving trade, afterwards he taught a school, and at the age of twenty-six years he became clerk to a manufacturer in Arbroath. Balfour subsequently changed his situation; but on the death of his first employer he carried on the business in partnership with his widow, during which time he resided in a house in Applegate. For a time he prospered in business, but subsequently suffered losses; and he then, in 1814, removed to Trottick, near Dundee, where he assumed the management of a branch of a London house. This house failed in the following year, and Balfour was under the necessity of accepting the situation of manager of a spinning-mill at Balgonie, in Fife. He removed to Edinburgh in 1818, and was employed as a clerk by Mr. Blackwood, the publisher. A few months afterwards he was seized with paralysis, and was in consequence obliged to relinquish his employment. He died at Edinburgh on 12th September 1829. Balfour had attempted composition at the early age of twelve years. At a more advanced age, but while still a young man, he was a frequent contributor of prose and verse to magazine of the day. He is the author of an account of Arbroath in Brewster's "Encyclopaedia," and he contributed papers to Tilloch's "Philosophical Journal." During the wars with France he wrote patriotic songs in a work called the "Northern Minstrel," published at Newcastle, and made similar contributions to the newspapers. Most of his songs were republished in London, and some of them, being set to music, were, in the patriotic fervour of the times, sung in the theatres. One of his patriotic pieces, published about this period, was entitled "The Genius of Caledonia; a Poem on the Threatened Invasion." After his removal to Edinburgh, Balfour published his principal work — a novel, "Campbell; or The Scottish Probationer." The last ten years of his life, although owing to disease he was unable to leave his chair, were years of much literary activity. In 1819 he edited an edition of the poems of his deceased friend, Robert Gall. In the following year he brought out his "Contemplation, and other Poems"; "The Farmer's Three Daughters," a three-volume novel, followed in 1822; and "The Founding of Glenthorn; or, The Smuggler's Cave," another novel, in 1823. "Characters omitted in Crabbe's Parish Register, with other Tales," was published in 1825. It is a volume of graceful poetry, and the subjects and scenery of several of the poems are connected with the district of Arbroath. From about 1830 to 1826, Balfour also contributed tales, sketches, and poems, chiefly illustrative of Scottish rural life, to "Constable's Edinburgh Magazine." In 1827, through the intervention of Mr. Joseph Hume, M.P., he received from the Treasury a donation of 100 as a recognition of his literary talent. He published his last novel, "Highland Mary," in the same year. A posthumous volume, entitled "Weeds and Wild Flowers," with memoir by Dr. Moir, the "Delta" of "Blackwood," completes the list of his literary labours. Balfour was an elegant writer of both prose and verse. Many of his stories and sketches reveal a fine vein of pathos.