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The Modern Scottish Minstrel

The following is from Volume VI of The Modern Scottish Minstrel; Or, The Songs of Scotland of the Past Half Century in Six Volumes:

Observations on Scottish Song: With Remarks on the Genius of Lady Nairn, the Ettrick Shepherd, and Robert Tannahill by Henry Scott Riddell

Songs are the household literature of the Scottish people; they are especially so as regards the rural portion of the population. Till of late years, when collections of song have become numerous, and can be procured at a limited price, a considerable trade was carried on by itinerant venders of halfpenny ballads. Children who were distant from school, learned to read on these; and the aged experienced satisfaction in listening to words and sentiments familiar to them from boyhood. That the Scots, a thoughtful and earnest people, should have evinced such a deep interest in minstrelsy, is explained in the observation of Mr Carlyle, that "serious nations--all nations that can still listen to the mandates of Nature--have prized song and music as the highest." Deep feeling, like powerful thought, seeks and finds relief in expression; the wisdom of Divine benevolence has so arranged, that what brings relief to one, generally affords peace or pleasure to another. And, further, where there is a susceptibility, a capacity of enjoyment, there will be efforts made in order to its gratification. The human heart loves the things of romance, and in the exercise of its native privilege, delights to feel. Scottish song has been written in harmony with nature, scenery, and circumstances; and fledged in its own melodies, which seem no less the outpouring of native sensibility, has borne itself onward from generation to generation.

Respecting these airs or melodies, a few remarks may be offered. The genius of our mountain land, as if prompted alike by thought and feeling, has in these wrought a spell of matchless power--a fascination, which, reaching the hearts both of old and young, maintains an imperishable sway over them. One has said,--

"'Tis not alone the scenes of glen and hill,
And haunts and homes beside the murmuring rill;
Nor all the varied beauties of the year,
That so can Scotland to our hearts endear--
The merry both and melancholy strain,
Their power assert, and o'er the spirit reign;
Indebted more to nature than to art,
They reach the ear to fascinate the heart;
And waken hope that, animating, cheers,
Or bathe our being in the flow of tears."

Native, as well as foreign writers, assert that King James the First was the inventor of a new kind of music, which they further characterise as being sweet and plaintive. These terms certainly indicate the leading features of Scottish music. There is something not only of wild sweetness, but touches of pathos even in its merriest measures. Though termed a new kind of music, however, it was not new. The king took up the key-note of the human heart--the primitive scale, or what has been defined the scale of nature, and produced some of those wild and plaintive strains which we now call Scottish melodies. His poetry was descriptive of, and adapted to the feelings, customs, and manners of his countrymen; and he followed, doubtless, the same course in the music which he composed. By his skill and education, he rendered his compositions more regular and palpable, than those songs and their airs which had been framed and sung by the sad-hearted swain on the hill, or the love-lorn maiden in the green wood.

Not in music only, but in the words of song, some of the Scottish kings had such a share as to stamp the art and practice of song-writing with royal sanction. Thus encouraged, the native minstrelsy was fostered by the whole community, receiving accessions from succeeding generations. A people who, along with their heroic leader, possessed sufficient courage to face, with such appalling odds, the foe at Bannockburn--who, at an after date, fought at Flodden against both their better wit and will, rather than gainsay their king--and who, in more recent times, protected him whom they regarded as their rightful prince, at the risk of life and fortune, were not likely to fail in advancing what royalty had loved, especially when it was deemed so essential to their happiness. The poetic spirit entered in and arose out of the heart of the people. The song and air produced in the court, represented the sentiment of the cottage. It is still the same. Rights and privileges have been lost, manners and customs have changed, but song, the forthgiving of the heart, does not on the heart quit its claim.

Within the modern period, the harp of Caledonia gives forth similar utterances in the hands of Lady Nairn, the Ettrick Shepherd, and Robert Tannahill. Different in station and occupations--even in motives to composition--these three great lyrists were each deeply influenced by that peculiar acquaintance with Scottish feeling which, brilliantly illustrated by their genius, has deeply impressed their names on the national heart.

Lady Nairn, highly born and educated, delighted to sympathise with the people. If among these she found the forthgivings of human nature less sophisticated, the principles upon which she proceeded impelled her to write for the humbler classes of society, and the result has been that she has written for all. In every class human nature is essentially the same; and though hearts may have wandered far from the primitive truths which belong to the life and character of mankind in common, they may yet be brought back by that which tells winningly upon them--by that which awakens native feeling and early associations. There is much of this kind of efficiency in song, when song is what it ought to be. If, when the true standard is adhered to by those who exercise their powers in producing it, and who have been born and bred in circumstances of life so different, it can establish a unity of sentiment--it must necessarily effect, in a greater or less degree, the same thing among those who learn and sing the lays which they produce. And, indeed, it would seem a truth that, by the congenial influences of song, the hearts of a nation are more united--more willing to be subdued into acquiescence and equality, than by any other merely human instrumentality.

If, in Scotland till of late years, writing for fortune was rather than otherwise regarded as disreputable, writing for fame was never so accounted. But even than for fame Lady Nairn had a higher motive. She knew that the minstrels of ruder times had composed, and, through the aid of the national melodies, transmitted to posterity strains ill fitted to promote the interests of sound morality, yet that the love of these sweet and wild airs made the people tenacious of the words to which they were wedded. Her principal, if not her sole object, was to disjoin these, and to supplant the impurer strains. Doubtless that capacity of genius, which enabled her to write as she has done, might, as an inherent stimulus, urge her to seek gratification in the exercise of it; but, even in this case, the virtue of her main motive underwent no diminution. She was well aware how deeply the Scottish heart imbibed the sentiments of song, so that these became a portion of its nature, or of the principles upon which the individuals acted, however unconsciously, amid the intercourse of life. Lessons could thus be taught, which could not, perhaps, be communicated with the same effect by any other means. This pleasing agency of education in the school of moral refinement Lady Nairn has exercised with genial tact and great beauty; and, liberally as she bestowed benefactions on her fellow-kind in many other respects, it may be said no gifts conferred could bear in their beneficial effects a comparison to the songs which she has written. Her strains thrilled along the chords of a common nature, beguiling ruder thought into a more tender and generous tone, and lifting up the lower towards the loftier feeling. If feeling constitutes the nursery of much that is desirable in national character, it is no less true that well assorted and confirmed nationality will always prove the most trustworthy and lasting safeguard of freedom. It is the combination of heart--the universal unity of sentiment--which renders a people powerful in the preservation of right and privilege, home and hearth; and few things of merely human origin will serve more thoroughly to promote such unity, than the songs of a song-loving people. The continual tendency of these is to imbue all with the same sentiment, and to awaken, and keep awake, those sympathies which lead mankind to a knowledge of themselves individually, and of one another in general, thus preventing the different grades of society from diverging into undue extremes of distinction. Nor ought the observation to be omitted, that if a lady of high standing in society, of genius, refined taste and feeling, and withal of singular purity of heart, could write songs that the inhabitants of her native land could so warmly appreciate as by their singing to render them popular, it would evince no inconsiderable worth in that people that she could so sympathise and so identify herself with them.

From the position and circumstances of Lady Nairn, those of the Ettrick Shepherd were entirely different. Hogg was one of the people. To write songs calculated to be popular, he needed only to embody forth in poetic shape what he felt and understood from the actual experiences of life amid the scenes and circumstances in which he had been born and bred; his compeers, forming that class of society in which it has been thought the nature of man wears least disguise, were his first patrons. He required, therefore, less than Lady Nairn the exercise of that sympathy by which we place ourselves in the circumstances of others, and know how in these, others think and feel. His poetic effusions were homely and graphic, both in their sprightful humour and more tender sentiment. They were sung by the shepherd on the hill, and the maiden at the hay-field, or when the kye cam' hame at "the farmer's ingle," and in the bien cottage of the but and ben, where at eventide the rustics delighted to meet. As experience gave him increased command over the hill harp, his ambition to produce strains of greater beauty and refinement also increased. By and by his minstrel numbers manifested a vigour and perfection which rendered them the admiration of persons of higher rank, and more competent powers of judgment.

If, with the very simple and seemingly insignificant weapon of Scottish song, the Baroness Nairn "stooped," the Shepherd stood up "to conquer." Both adhered to the dictates of nature, and in both cases the result was the same; nor could the most marked inconveniences which circumstances imposed hinder that result. A time comes when false things shew their futility, and things depending upon truth assert their supremacy. The difference between the authoress and the author lay in those external circumstances of station and position which could not long, much less always, be of avail. Their minds were directed by a power of nature to do essentially the same thing; the difference only being that each did it in her and his own way. We may suppose that while Lady Nairn in her baronial hall wrote--

"Bonnie Charlie's now awa',
  Safely ower the friendly main,
Mony a heart will break in twa
  Should he ne'er come back again;"

the Ettrick Shepherd seated on "a moss-gray stane," or a heather-bush, and substituting his knee for his writing desk, might be furnishing forth for the world's entertainment the lament, commencing--

"Far over yon hills of the heather sae green,
  And down by the corrie that sings to the sea,
The bonnie young Flora sat sighing alane,
  Wi' the dew on her plaid and the tear in her e'e."

Or when the lady was producing "The land o' the leal," a lay which has reached and sunk so deeply into all hearts, the Shepherd might be singing among the wild mountains the affecting and popular ditty, the truth of which touched his own heart so powerfully, of "The moon was a' waning," or saying to the skylark--

      "Bird of the wilderness,
      Blithesome and cumberless,
Sweet be thy matin o'er moorland and lea;
      Emblem of happiness,
      Blest is thy dwelling-place,
Oh! to abide in the desert with thee!"

Tannahill has likewise written a number of songs which have been deservedly admired, loved, and sung. Allan Cunningham used to say, that if he could only succeed in writing two songs which the inhabitants of his native land would continue to sing, he would account it sufficient fame. Tannahill has accomplished this, and much more. In temperament, as well as circumstances, he differed widely both from Lady Nairn and the Ettrick Shepherd. Amiable and good in all her ways, Lady Nairn's career appears to have been lovely and alluring as the serene summer eve; the Shepherd was rich as autumn, in the enjoyment of life itself, and all that life could bring; but Tannahill's nature was cloudy, sensitive, and uncertain as the April day. Lady Nairn, ambitious of doing good and promoting happiness, dwelt, in heart at least, "among her own people," giving and receiving alike those charms of unbroken delight which spring from the kindness of the kind, and fearing nothing so much as public notoriety. Hogg loved fame, yet took no pains to secure it. Fame, nevertheless, reached him; but when found, it was with him a possession much resembling the child's toy. His heart to the last appeared too deeply imbued with the unsuspicious simplicity and carelessness of the boy to have much concern about it. On this point Tannahill was morbidly sensitive; his was an unfortunate cast of temperament, which, deepening more and more, surrounded him with imaginary evils, and rendered life insupportable. Lady Nairn was too modest not to be distrustful of the extent of her genius, and presumed only to exercise it in composing words to favourite melodies. The genius of Tannahill was more circumscribed, and he was consequently more timid and painstaking. Hogg, ambitious of originality, was bold and reckless. He had the power of assuming many distinct varieties of style, his mind, taking the tone of the subject entered upon, as easily as the musician passes from one note to another. In education, Tannahill had the advantage over the Shepherd, but in nothing else. The Shepherd's occupation was much more calculated to inspire him with the feelings, and more fitted in everything to urge to the cultivation of poetry, than the employment at which Tannahill was doomed to labour. The beauty and grandeur of nature, solemn and sublime, surround the path of him who tends the flocks. Though occasionally called upon to face the blast, and wrestle with the storm, he still experiences a charm. But when the broad earth is green below, and the wide bending sky blue above, the voice of nature in the sounding of streams, the song of birds, and the bleating of sheep differ widely from what the susceptible and poetic mind is destined to experience amidst the clanking din of shuttles in the dingy, narrow workshop of the handloom weaver. Here the breath of the light hill breeze cannot come; the form is bowed down, and the cheek is pale. Life, however buoyant and aspiring at first, necessarily ere long becomes saddened and subdued. To poor Tannahill it became a burden--more than he could bear. Yet it was among these circumstances that he contrived to compose those chaste and beautiful songs which have delighted, and still continue to delight, the hearts of so many. Though not marked with much that can be termed strikingly original, this, instead of militating against them, may have told in their favour. Wayward conceits, fanciful thoughts and expressions in songs, are like the hectic hue on the cheek of the unhealthy; it may appear to give a surpassing beauty, but it is a beauty which forebodes decay. "Oh, are ye sleeping, Maggie?" may be regarded as the most original of Tannahill's songs. It is more ardent in tone, and in every respect more poetic, than his other lyrics. The imagery is not only striking, but true to nature, though in maintaining the simple and tender, it does more than approach the sublime. His style is uniformly distinguished by a chaste simplicity, and well sustained power.

In these observations, we have pointed to that affinity of mind which unites in sentiment those possessing it, in spite of worldly distinctions. And song, too, we have found, is a prevalent and far-pervading agency, which become the mean of binding together a nation's population on the ground of that which is true to nature. It, therefore, does so in a manner more congenial and pleasurable than most other ties which bind; those of interest and necessity may be stronger, indeed, but these ties being much more selfish, are also, in most instances, much less harmonious. Song-writing is the highest attribute of poetic genius. The epic poet has to do with the exercise of energies, which produce deeds that are decided, together with the operation of passions and feelings which are borne into excess. These are more easily depicted than the gentler sentiments and feelings, together with the lights and shades of national character which constitute the materials of song. Nor will strains which set forth the actions of mankind as operating in excess, ever be so popular as simple song. Though communities are liable to periods of excitement, this is not their natural condition. Songs founded upon such, may be popular while the excitement lasts, but not much longer. Philosophers and inquiring individuals may revert to and dwell upon them, but the generality of the people will renounce them. Those who linger over them, will do so through a disposition to ascertain the causes which gave them birth, and how far these were natural in the circumstances. He who sings, feels that the same ardour cannot be re-awakened; and the sentiments which the poet has expressed become as things that are false and foolish.

Nearly all the poems of Burns proceed on the same principles upon which popular song proceeds. He approved himself considerably original and singularly interesting, by taking up and saying, in the language best suited for the purpose, what his countrymen had either already, to one extent or other, thought and felt, or were, at his suggestion, fully prepared to think and feel. It is thus that song becomes the truest history of a people; they, properly speaking, have rarely any other historian than the poet. History, in its stateliness, does not deign to dwell upon their habits, their customs and manners, and, therefore, cannot unfold their usual modes of thinking and feeling; it only notices those more anomalous emergencies when the ebullitions of high passion and excitement prevail; and such not being the natural condition of any people, a true representation of their real character is not given. If song equally tends to strengthen the bonds of nationality, it is also that from which the true cast of a land's inhabitants can be gathered. From habits and training, together with the native shades of peculiar character, there is in human nature great variety; so, consequently, is there also in song, for perhaps it might be difficult to fix upon one of these peculiarities, whether of outward manner or inward disposition, which song has not taken up and illustrated in its own way. Every song, of course, has an aim or leading sentiment pervading it. It either tells a tale calculated to interest human nature and revive feeling, or sets forth a sentiment which human nature entertains, so that it shall be turned to better account. This involves the field which song has it in its power to cultivate and improve. But neither the pure moralist, nor the accomplished critic, must expect a very great deal to be done on this field at once. The song-writer has difficulties to contend with, both in regard to those by whom he would have his songs sung, and the airs to which he writes them. If in the latter case he would willingly substitute classical and sounding language for monosyllables and contracted words, the measures which the air require will not allow him; and should he suddenly lift up and bear high the standard of moral refinement, those who should attend may fail to appreciate the movement, and refuse to follow him. If he can contrive, therefore, to interest and entertain with what is at least harmless, it is much, considering how wide a field even one popular song occupies, and how many of an undesirable kind it may meanwhile displace and eventually supersede. The tide of evil communications cannot be barred back at once, and song remedy the evil which song in its impurer state has done. Nor is the critic, who weighs these disadvantages, likely to pronounce a very decided judgment upon the superiority and inferiority of songs, whether in general or individually.

Few of the different classes of society may view them in the same light, and estimate them on the same grounds that he does. If he thinks, the people feel; and they overturn his decisions by the songs which they adopt and render popular. It is by no means so much the correct beauty of the composition, as the suitableness of the sentiment, which insures their patronage. Few of the songs of Burns are so correctly and elegantly composed as "The lass of Ballochmyle;" yet few of his songs have been more rarely sung.


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