A pastoral elegy signed "Scots Spy" "Occasioned by the late numerous Emigrations from the Highlands of Scotland." The poem was first published with Erskine's name in 1796, apparently without his permission. Erskine was the son of the earl of Buchan and the elder brother of the chancellor Thomas Erskine (1750-1823).
The speaker is a white-haired highland shepherd who, displaced by the clearances, prepares to set sail for America: "On whatsoever coast I may be thrown, | No lord can use me harder than my own. | Even they who tear the limbs and drink the gore | Of helpless strangers, what can they do more?" p. 400. The poem hints that in banishing the highlanders Britain is losing a vital component of its military prowess. "The Emigrant" echoes Virgil's first Eclogue in its theme of the just man deprived of his livelihood, recently popularized by Goldsmith's Deserted Village (often construed as a pastoral), and anticipates Robert Southey's treatment of the emigration theme in his Botany Bay Eclogues.
Headnote in The New Spectator: "Mr. Spectator, The following is an original poem, and such as, I trust, will not discredit the author, or the New Spectator. It is on a subject which owes nothing to fiction, and is yet capable of poetical embellishment. Yours, &c. L. S." The New Spectator, with the sage Opinions of John Bull (29 June 1784) 5.
Fast by the margin of a mossy rill,
That wander'd gurgling down a heath-clad hill,
An antient shepherd stood, that foam'd below,
Where, gently rocking on the rising tide,
A ship's unwonted form was seen to ride,
Unwonted well I ween, for ne'er before
Had touch'd one keel the solitary shore;
Nor had the swain's rude footsteps ever stray'd
Beyond the shelter of his native shade.
His few remaining hairs were silver grey,
And his rough face had seen a better day.
Around him, bleating, stray'd a scanty stock,
And a few goats o'erhung the neighbouring rock.
One faithful dog his sorrows seem'd to share,
And strove with many a trick to ease his care;
While o'er his furrow'd cheek the salt drops ran,
He turn'd his rustic reed, and thus began:
"Farewel! farewell! dear Caledonia's strand,
Rough tho' thou be, yet still my native land;
Exil'd from thee, I seek a foreign shore,
Friends, kindred, country to behold no more.
By hard oppression driven, my helpless age,
That should 'ere now have left life's bustling stage,
Is forc'd the ocean's boist'rous breast to crave,
In a far foreign land to seek a grave.
"And must I leave thee then, my little cot,
Mine and my father's poor but happy lot,
Where I have pass'd in innocence away,
Year after year, till age has turn'd me grey?
"Thou dear companion of my happier life,
Now to the grave gone down, my virtuous wife!
'Twas here you rear'd, with fond maternal pride,
Five comely sons; three for their country dy'd!
Two still remain, sad remnant of the wars,
Without one mark of honour but their scars;
They live to see their sire deny'd a grave,
In lands his much lov'd children dy'd to save.
Yet still in peace and safety did we live,
In peace and safety, more than wealth can give.
My two remaining boys with sturdy hands,
Rear'd the scant produce of our niggard lands;
Scant as it was, no more our hearts desir'd,
Nor more from us our gen'rous lord requir'd.
"But ah, sad change! those blessed days are o'er,
And peace, content, and safety, charm no more;
Another lord now rules these wide domains,
The avaricious tyrant of the plains:
Far, far from hence, he revels life away,
In guilty pleasures our poor means must pay.
The mossy plains, the mountains barren brow,
Must now be tortur'd by the tearing plow,
And, spite of nature, crops be taught to rise,
Which to these northern climes wise heav'n denies.
In vain with sweating brow, and weary hands,
We strive to earn the gold our lord demands;
While cold and hunger in the dungeon's gloom,
Await our failure as its certain doom.
"To shun these ills that threat my hoary head,
I seek, in foreign lands, precarious bread,
Forc'd, though my helpless age from guilt be pure,
The pangs of banish'd felons to endure,
And all, because these hands have vainly try'd
To force from art what nature had deny'd,
Because my little all will not suffice
To pay th' insatiate claims of barb'rous avarice.
"In vain, of richer climates I am told,
Whose hills are rich in gems, whose streams are gold;
I am contented here, I've never seen
A vale more fertile, or a hill more green;
Nor would I leave this sweet, tho' humble cot,
To share the richest monarch's envied lot.
Oh! would to Heav'n! th' alternative were mine,
Abroad to live, or here in want to pine,
Soon would I chuse: but e'er to-morrow's sun
Has o'er my head his radiant journey run,
I shall be rob'd, by what they justice call,
By legal ruffians, of my little all.
Driv'n out to hunger, nakedness, and grief,
Without one pitying hand to bring relief.
Then come, Oh! sad alternative to chuse!
Come, banishment I will no more refuse!
Go where I may, nor billow, rocks, nor wind,
Can add of horror to the pangs I find.
On whatsoever coast I may be thrown,
No lord can use me harder than my own.
Even they who tear the limbs and drink the gore
Of helpless strangers, what can they do more?
"For thee, insatiate Chief! whose ruthless hand
For ever drives me from my native land,
For thee I leave no greater curse behind,
Than the fell bodings of a guilty mind.
Or, what were harder to a soul like thine,
To find from avarice thy wealth decline.
"For you my friends, and neighbours of the vale,
Who now with kindly tears my fate bewail,
Soon may our king, whose breast paternal glows,
With tenderest feelings for his people's woes,
To ease your sorrows, stretch the helping hand;
Else soon, too soon, your hapless fate shall be,
Like me to suffer, and to fly like me.
"On you, dear native land, from whence I part,
Rest the best blessing of a broken heart.
If on some future hour the foe shall land
His hostile legions on Britannia's strand,
May she not, then, th' alarm sound in vain,
Or miss her banish'd thousands on the plain.
Still may she conquer, without aid of those
Who fly their friends, — but never fled their foes.
"Feed on my sheep; for when depriv'd of me,
My cruel foes, shall your protectors be;
For their own sakes, shall pen your straggling flocks,
And save your lambkins from the rav'ning fox.
"Feed on my goats, another now shall drain
Your streams that heal disease and soften pain.
No stream, alas! shall ever, ever flow,
To heal thy master's heart, or soothe his woe.
"Feed on, my flocks, ye harmless people feed,
The worst that ye can suffer is to bleed.
O! that the murd'rer's hand were all my fear!
How nofdly [sic] would I stay to perish here!
But hark, my sons loud call me from the vale,
And lo! the vessel spreads her swelling sail.
Farewel! farewel! a while his hands he wrung,
And o'er his crook in silent sorrow hung,
Then casting many a ling'ring look behind,
Down the steep mountain's brow began to wind."