Allan Ramsay, a native of Scotland, received his early education at the parish school, and, at the age of fifteen, became apprentice to a wigmaker. On finishing his apprenticeship he left this business entirely, and married in his twenty-fourth year the daughter of an attorney in Edinburgh, where he established a bookshop. In 1728, he published the drama of the Gentle Shepherd, which was soon admired and re-printed, even beyond the limits of Scotland, to which its obscure dialect would have seemed likely at first to confine its reputation. So early as 1750 the tenth edition of this comedy was printed at Glasgow.
His disposition was naturally kind, shrewd, and good humoured. He never was seduced, either by his fondness for poetical composition, or by his intimacy with men of rank and talents, to whom his genius gave him access, from a quiet and diligent attention to his trade, which thus yielded him a happy competence.
Ramsay's claims to a lasting poetical celebrity rest exclusively on the merits of The Gentle Shepherd. The moral tendency of this pastoral drama is generally excellent, though it contains some gross expressions and allusions, which detract much from the pleasure with which it may be perused. The plot is deeply interesting, and founded on occurrences growing out of the real state of the country, at the period in which it is laid; so that all its incidents are such as might have often happened in actual life. Nothing in it is foreign, imitated, or artificial, but every thing is national and unaffected. Its scenery is that of Scotland, and of Scotland alone; and it is drawn with so much freshness and truth to nature, that the peasants are said to delight in pointing out the very localities which it describes.
It possesses fine humour, and in some scenes a deep pathos. Its characters are all original, and depicted with the hand of a master. By a few artless and simple touches, they are made to stand out from the canvass with a verisimilitude and individuality, not inferior to those of Shakspeare. Its poetry, like that of Burns, has gone down into the heart of a whole nation. Its rural songs may be heard on every mountain-side and in every hamlet; and its sentences of practical wisdom have passed into proverbs among the Scottish peasantry.