Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 19. Caroline Oliphant, Lady Nairne

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

X. Burns

§ 19. Caroline Oliphant, Lady Nairne

Caroline Oliphant, Lady Nairne, who began to write as the career of Burns was prematurely drawing to a close, outvies all other songstresses of Scotland in the average excellence and variety of her songs. Early though she began to write, most of her best-known songs were first published—under the signature B.B.—in The Scottish Minstrel. Though she was largely inspired by the example of Burns, and, like him, wrote many new versions of old songs, she has been likened to him rather inaptly; for the feminine strain is even more marked in most of her songs than it is in several of the songs of the women already mentioned. Such a strain in a woman writer is, of course, rather an excellence than a defect, just as the strong manliness of Burns lends a special compelling charm to his verse. At the same time, Lady Nairne’s love songs, such as The Lass of Gowrie and Hunting Tower, somewhat lack afflatus, and are rather hackneyed and conventional in their sentiment. On the other hand, pathetic feeling is finely expressed in such songs as The Auld Hoose, Here’s to Them that are Gane, The Rowan Tree and The Land of the Leal, though the last has not been improved by the traditional substitution of “Jean” for “John” as the person addressed—a change perpetuated, partly, because of the quite mistaken supposition that the song was meant to express the dying words of Burns—for the sentiment of the song is essentially that of a woman. Caller Herrin, a kind of blend of humour and pathos, is, as set to the air by Niel Gow, a very realistic representation of the cries of picturesque Newhaven fishwives in Edinburgh streets, mingled with the peal of bells in St. Andrew’s church, George street. John Tod and The Laird of Cockpen—the latter suggested by an older song—are wittily humorous portraits of antique eccentrics; and The Hundred Pipers is quite irresistible in its combination of Jacobite defiance and comical mirth. Though written when Jacobitism had become little more than a pious opinion or a romantic memory, Lady Nairne’s Jacobite songs are inspired by a fervent Jacobite ardour, derived from old family predilections. Among the best known are Wha’ll be King but Charlie, Will Ye no come back again?, He’s O’er the Hills that I lo’e weel and Charlie is My Darling, a more Jacobite, but very inferior, reading of the Burns adaptation in Johnson’s Museum.