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

§ 8. Allan Ramsay

The outstanding figure of the vernacular revival was Allan Ramsay, who was an unknown journeyman wigmaker, when, in 1706, Watson published his Choice Collection. The greatness of Ramsay’s pioneer work it is difficult for us to appreciate; and, if his early circumstances be considered, a parallel to his strenuous and successful literary career in very unpromising surroundings would be hard to find. Though of gentle descent, he was, through the early deaths of his father (a manager of lead-mines at Leadhills, Lanarkshire) and mother, left wholly dependent on his own exertions for a living. At the age of fourteen, he became apprentice to a wigmaker in Edinburgh, and, in the year after the appearance of Watson’s Collection, he opened a shop of his own. If we are to credit his own account, in one of his epistles to Hamilton, it was the perusal of the poet’s Bonnie Heck that “pierced” him with poetic emulation; and his earlier pieces were written in the stave of it and Habbie, and were elegiac—some, half-humorous half-pathetic, others, wholly satirical—in aim. They began with an elegy on Maggie Johnstone, who had a small farm and there sold ale to the golfers on Bruntsfield-links, a similar elegy on Lucky Wood, the landlady of a Canongate alehouse, and one on Pat Birnie, the fiddler of Kinghorn in Fife. Almost purely satirical are those on John Cowper or, rather, on his office of kirk-treasurer’s man, or tyrant of the eutty-stool, the disreputable Lucky Simpson’s Last Advice and The Last Speech of a Wretched Miser. This series of mock-elegies, with those by Alexander Pennecuick, are unique in Scottish, and, perhaps, in any, literature. From the nature of the subjects, the humour is broader and more incisive than that of their elegiac predecessors in Watson’s Collection, and some of the more caustically satirical pieces more than foreshadow those of Burns. With other pieces in similar vein, on street characters and incidents, they were sold as halfpenny or penny broadsides, and those now preserved form together a wonderfully realistic representation of some of the outstanding characteristics of a certain phase of Edinburgh life in the eighteenth century.