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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

XIV. Scottish Popular Poetry before Burns

§ 2. Survival of Songs in the Puritan Period

Although, however, the age had become inimical to art of every kind, it is very difficult to tell what was the actual effect of the kirk’s repressive rule on the manners, morals, habits and ancient predilections of the people, or how far the hymnary of The Gude and Godly Ballatis—great as may have been the immediate vogue of the anti-papal portion of it—superseded the old songs which many of them parodied. While the relentless rigidity of the new ecclesiasticism is sufficiently disclosed in its official standards and its enactments, tractates, contemporary histories and session and presbytery records, the actual efficacy of its discipline is another matter. It had to deal with a very stubborn, self-willed and retentive people, and there is at least evidence that the old songs, if their popularity was, for a time, impaired, were by no means killed. Doubtless, many were certain, in any case, to lose their vogue and be gradually forgotten; but there is apparent evidence of the survival in Scotland of some verses which were parodied in The Gude and Godly Ballatis. How old are various songs in Ramsay’s Tea-Table Miscellany (1724, etc.), marked by him as “ancient”—such as Muirland Willie, Scornfu’ Nansie, Maggie’s Tocher, My Jocky blyth, Jocky said to Jeany, The Auld Guidman, In January last, John Ochiltree, Todlen Butt and Todlen Ben and Jocky met with Jenny fair—there is no definite means of knowing, though Fient a crum of thee she faws is a semi-modernisation of Alexander Scott’s When his Wife Left him, and may serve as a specimen of the liberties Ramsay took with the songs he termed “ancient.” Probably, however, most of them belong to the seventeenth century, and it may be that few are so old as The Auld Wife ayont the Fire, Jocky Fou and Jenny Fain, Jeany where has thou been and Auld Rob Morris—which Ramsay terms old songs with additions, the addition, sometimes, absorbing all the old song except fragments of stanzas or the chorus—nor so old as others for which he substituted an entirely new song under the old title. Next to Ramsay’s—and better in several respects than Ramsay’s—is the collection of David Herd, who, having amassed old songs from broadsides, and written down fragments of others from recital, without any attempt to alter or add to them, published a selection of them in 1769, an enlarged edition in two volumes appearing in 1776, and the remainder of the songs in his MSS., edited by Hans Hecht, in 1904. Some of these songs had been utilised by Burns, who sent others, modified by himself, to Johnson’s Scots Musical Museum (1787–1803): and various old songs, of an improper kind, are preserved with more modern ones in The Merry Muses, of the original and authentic edition of which only one or two copies now survive.

From the accession of James VI to the English throne, the rigidity of the kirk’s authority was coming to be more and more undermined; and, especially among the better classes, the puritan tendencies, never, in most cases, very deep, began to be greatly modified. It is to this class we evidently owe many of the old songs preserved by Ramsay. None of the old lyrical verse, though it has, and especially to us of a later generation, a popular aspect, is really of popular origin. When closely examined, it gives evidence of some cultured art; though exceedingly outspoken, it is never vulgar; nor is its standpoint that of the people, but similar, as its tone, with a difference, is similar, to that of the “makaris”: for example, to that of the author of The Wife of Auchtermychty and Rob’s Jok cam to woo our Jenny, preserved in the Bannatyne MS. But, while also intensely Scottish in tone and tenor, many of these songs are yet, in metre and style, largely modelled upon the forms of English verse, which, from the time of Alexander Scott, had begun to modify the old Scottish dialect and the medieval staves. The language of most of them is only semi-Scots, as is also most of the lyric verse of Scotland from Ramsay onwards.