Document 1437

Women, Poetry and Song in Eighteenth-Century Lowland Scotland

Author(s): Margery Palmer McCulloch

Copyright holder(s): Margery Palmer McCulloch


In an essay contributed to “The Feminist Reader” in 1989, Dale Spender described her university education as ‘an introduction to the great men’ of literature (1): an experience many women would recognise. Spender’s essay addressed the neglect of the contribution by women to the developing novel form in the eighteenth century. Had she considered female poetic aspirations in that period, her findings would have been even more gloomy. As Roger Lonsdale has commented, ‘anyone admitting to an interest in eighteenth-century women poets will soon learn to live with the politely sceptical question, “Were there any?”’. (2)

Scotland, generally, has come late to the recognition of women writers and this is especially the case with regard to the contribution of eighteenth-century women. “The History of Scottish Literature” (1660-1800), published in 1987 and therefore contemporaneous with Spender’s essay, has no chapter devoted to women writers. Women’s names appear in ‘Lowland Song and Popular Tradition in the Eighteenth Century’ by Thomas Crawford; itself, however, only one chapter out of eighteen. “Scottish Literature”, published by Edinburgh University Press in 2002 - a teaching guide of 1269 pages - reflects the prevailing climate in Scottish university studies by continuing to give a male and predominantly print-based view of eighteenth-century Scottish culture, with the section ‘Women and Vernacular Poetry’ meriting no more than thirteen lines. Women fare better in “An Anthology of Scottish Women Poets” (1991) and “A History of Scottish Women’s Writing” (1997), but even in these accounts there are surprising omissions and some lack of discrimination among the various ‘traditional’ forms, while ballads and songs are discussed primarily as printed word-texts. In an attempt to further discussion of a neglected area, this essay will therefore focus on the nature of poetry and song-writing by a representative selection of women in eighteenth-century Lowland Scotland, and on the female perspectives to be gained from their work.

A provocative aspect of eighteenth-century Scottish culture is its transitional, interactive nature in relation to oral and written forms in literature, folk and classical music and the movement from Enlightenment values towards the new individualistic characteristics of Romanticism. This interaction includes a class dimension in the sense that educated, upper class women were still able to be in contact with and draw upon vernacular tradition in their ballad singing and song composition, although society was sufficiently hierarchical to prevent the upward social movement of the lowly-born.

One of the most notable, but still largely unrecognised, of the women of the period is the poet Janet Little, born in 1759, the same year as Burns, and employed as a servant in the household of Mrs Dunlop, Burns’s patron, who also became her own servant’s patron. Little is unusual in that she was neither an upper class poet such as Joanna Baillie, a song composer such as Lady Nairne nor an oral folk poet and singer such as Isobel Pagan or Jean Glover. Little was the daughter of a farm worker - a status, apart from her gender, only a little lower than that of Burns himself. However, as a result of becoming servant to a local clergyman, she was able to extend her basic education and her love of reading so that when she later sought a position with Mrs Dunlop, she already had a reputation as a local poet. What is so interesting about Little is that, like Burns, she was able to negotiate both Scots vernacular and Augustan English idiom and forms. As her poems demonstrate, she was knowledgeable about English authors as well as about the work of Burns and his predecessors. Her ‘courage’ in writing ‘An Epistle to Mr Burns’ suggests that she saw herself as his equal in poetic calling at least, if not in genius. Yet, as with Burns’s ‘heaven-taught ploughman’ epithet, Little’s lowly origins coloured the presentation and reception of her poetry, her collection of 1792 being described as being by ‘the Scotch Milkmaid’. (3)

Janet Little is recognised by North American scholars in particular as having a significant place in any study of eighteenth-century women’s writing and she is included in several eighteenth-century and (less relevantly) Romantic period anthologies and critical studies. In Scotland, however, she is still mostly untaught in universities. She is also absent from Catherine Kerrigan’s “Anthology of Scottish Women Poets” and Roderick Watson’s “The Poetry of Scotland” and is given a brief and largely undifferentiated reference among a number of lower-class women writers in “A History of Scottish Women Writers”. Yet, for the quality of her poetry, her unusual social and educational boundary crossing , and for the irony which informs her critiques of gender, class and nation, she deserves fuller recognition.

A pioneering account of Little’s poetry is the essay by the Canadian scholar Leith Davis. ‘Gender and the Nation in the Work of Robert Burns and Janet Little’ explores how both poets subvert the class and [British] national hegemonies of their time in their poetry, while showing also how Janet Little alone tackles the question of gender hegemony: something that Burns seemed happy to take as ‘given’. As Davis comments:

“Burns reflects the marginalization of being working-class and Scottish in his writing, but as a man, as a citizen of the nation, he is still entitled to publicly represent the nation. Little’s relationship is more complicated; as a woman, she is by definition excluded from the process of imagining the nation. [...] However, unlike Burns, Little critiques the patriarchal nature of the nation and its exclusion of women.” (4)

In addition to its investigation of issues relating to class and, especially, national representation in Little’s work, Davis’s essay provides a perceptive reading of the formal qualities of her poetry. This literary achievement and the various ways in which Little brings female perspectives into her poetry will be my own principal concern. Women attempting to make their way in poetry over the centuries have experienced not only a lack of ‘poetic grandmothers’ (5), but also a lack of objective, trustworthy patronage. Apart from her various and largely unsuccessful attempts to persuade Burns to take an interest in her work, Little most often calls on women for patronage, or names them as addressees and confidantes in her poems. Her only collection is dedicated to the young Countess of Loudon; her fears of the male critics she has to face are expressed (with humour and irony) in ‘To My Aunty’; and she takes pleasure - and perhaps comfort and solidarity - from reading the letters of Mrs Rowe and Lady Mary Montague, who suffered much herself at the vicious pen of Alexander Pope. Little’s ‘Upon a Young Lady’s Breaking a Looking-Glass’ could be seen as a female companion to Pope’s “Rape of the Lock”, less ambitious and complex in form and referential context, but manipulating mock-heroic form cleverly, although with a kinder tone. The young lady’s disaster, like the cutting-off of a lock of hair in Pope’s poem, is trivial, but Little’s poem is ultimately warm-hearted, its ‘insider’ criticism directed with a female perspective and without the male subtext present in the “Rape”. Similarly, ‘On Contentment’ and her lament for the absence of a young friend in ‘Nell’, point to the qualities considered important by a woman who knows the value of everyday, simple support systems.

One of the most formally sophisticated of these female-centred poems is ‘Given to a Lady Who Asked me To Write a Poem’ (JL114-15). Writing in iambic tetrameter rhyming couplets, Little employs an ironic register and the persona of a male critic in order to subvert and invert conventional literary hierarchies. As the poem proceeds, the persona reveals himself as a Scotch critic, at home with the English literary scene and more than a little perplexed that ‘a ploughman chiel’ should ‘souse his sonnets on the court;/An’ what is strange, they praise him for’t’. The register is initially high: ‘In royal Anna’s golden days,/Hard was the task to gain the bays’; but its decorum is soon undermined by the intrusion of metaphors which seem out of keeping with the ambition of ‘the votaries for poetic fame’ who find: ‘Hard was it then the hill to climb;/Some broke a neck, some lost a limb’. The great Pope himself only reaches the summit, it is suggested, with the help of his translation of Homer’s “Iliad”: ‘An’ Homer’s crutches he may thank,/Or down the brae he’d got a clank’ - the demotic, onomatopoeic ‘clank’ hammering one more nail into the coffin of elitist Augustan art.

In stanza two, the transition is made to the Scottish context through a gradual change in language register from English to Scots and through references to Dr Johnson who, we are given to understand, had kept inadequate literary upstarts in check. ‘But now he’s dead’ is the key phrase here - English as read on the printed page, but Scots when spoken aloud with Scottish pronunciation - and it leads into the Scots-language context of the remainder of the poem, until the final stanza, which returns to English.

In ‘Given to a Lady’, Little attacks all three eighteenth-century hierarchies in relation to literary recognition: class, gender and national. Her critic persona may be puzzled that a Scottish writer, of peasant origin, thinks he has the right to challenge the literary giants of English Augustan poetry, and be praised for it; but he is utterly overwhelmed when ‘a milkmaid must tak up her quill’. One of the features of Little’s best poems is the way in which she controls the discourse by allowing a number of viewpoints to co-exist and interact with each other, while at the same time directing her reader through ironic register and image towards what she considers the desired reading. Thus, after she has allowed her conventional critic to splutter over the thought of a milkmaid poet, she points to the way in which Burns has been able to convert his potentially suspicious countrymen by allowing the critic to muse positively on the qualities of Burns’s poetry. Irony is absent from this fifth stanza which offers an opportunity not only to her fictional critic but to the author herself to portray knowledge and appreciaton of Burns’s outstanding achievement (an outsider in class terms, like herself); and to point to what she considers the important qualities in his work, qualities which endorse Scottish Enlightenment values. In this account, Burns

Can wi’ uncommon glee impart
A usefu’ lesson to the heart;
Can ilka latent thought expose,
An’ Nature trace whare’er she goes;
Of politics can talk wi’ skill,
Nor dare the critics blame his quill.

After this brief pause in her ironic presentation, Little returns to her ‘feminist’ theme, with the critic’s scorn of the attempt by ‘a milkmaid poem-books to print’ marked by breaks in the flow of the lines which thus gives form to his incredulity and exasperation. Yet the scorned female author has the last word. Throughout the poem, inverted commas have signalled the critic’s persona and voice. Now, in the final stanza, these disappear and the poet speaks for herself. This is no victim author manqué, despite the conscious use of emotive verbs such as ‘slunk’ and ‘dread’. Just as the twentieth-century Liz Lochhead presents the Mary Shelley persona in ‘Dreaming Frankenstein’ as sitting down ‘in the reasonable sun of the morning [. . .] to quill and ink/and icy paper’ (6) after her male-inspired nightmare, so, two centuries earlier, Janet Little refuses to let patriarchy intimidate her, challenging her critic on his own English-language ground with her statement of intent: ‘My hand still trembles when I write.’ (my italics)

Little may have triumphed poetically over the establishment in ‘Given to a Lady’, but she was less successful in her attempts to persuade Burns that she merited his consideration, despite the pleading of her employer and patron. Mrs Dunlop wrote to Burns after he had once again avoided a meeting with Little: ‘I ought to tell you Jenny Little says you are very stupid, did not come and meet her when you were at Mauchline. She is sure she would not grudge going five times as far to see you.’ For his part, when asked by Mrs Dunlop to read Little’s poems, Burns reputedly answered: ‘Do I have to read them all?’ (7) He did, however, in the end add his name to the list of subscribers to her collection.

In her essays ‘Janet Little and Robert Burns: The Politics of the Heart’ and ‘Janet Little, the Ayrshire Dairywoman: Gender, Class, and Scottish National Identity’, Moira Ferguson finds in Little’s poetry both an attack on the ‘sexual conduct’ of Burns and a simultaneous sexual attraction on her part towards him. (8) This does not seem to me a credible reading of Little’s reponse to Burns as it is communicated in her poetry, and it is one which ignores the irony with which she delivers her critiques. Ferguson categorises her both as a Romantic period and an eighteenth-century poet. However, whereas Burns himself was transitional, moving between the Scottish Enlightenment and the beginnings of Romanticism, Little is more firmly situated in the Scottish eighteenth-century cultural context. In addition to her neglect of her irony, Ferguson undervalues Little’s employment of personae, inclining towards a more unequivocal relationship between author and speaker in her discussion of the poems.

Irony is very much the keynote of the poem ‘On A Visit to Mr Burns’ (JL111-12), in which, since the poet will not come to visit the ‘milkmaid’, she takes matters into her own hands and creates her own visit to him, with an outcome very different from what either might have envisaged. The breathless rhythms of the opening stanzas, their word-choice and rhetorical questioning all combine to present an exaggerated image of the supposedly unsophisticated visitor’s excitement and wonder as she approaches the place ‘where deigns to dwell/The honour of our isle’. One could perhaps find a sexual frisson in stanza three, where she recalls the ‘excursions made [. . . ] at midnight hour’ to him in her thoughts, but this is undercut by the self-mockery which follows: ‘This bliss in dream was premature,/And with my slumbers fled’. This admirer may tell us that the poet’s ‘lays have charm’d my heart’, but she shows that her head and poetic imagination are the faculties principally in control. The second half of the poem moves into the mock-heroic, as, instead of celebratory trumpets, ‘a dire alarm’ announces the poet’s advance. His winged horse Pegasus (the real-life name of Burns’s horse) has taken a fall, and the poet enters unheroically with a broken arm, thus laying himself open to the succour and sermonising of his supposed supplicant who reminds him and her readers of human frailty:

‘No cheering draught, with ills unmix’d,
Can mortals taste below;
All human fate by heav’n is fix’d
Alternate joy and wo.’

Wth beating breast I view’d the bard;
All trembling did him greet:
With sighs bewail’d his fate so hard,
Whose notes were ever sweet.

Again, however, we notice how she holds a balance between the mock-heroic portrait of the national poetic icon and a genuine, non-ironic acknowledgement of his achievement.

In her ‘Epistle to Mr Burns’, Little handles confidently ‘Standard Habbie’, the verse form which has become known as the ‘Burns Stanza’. The Epistle also demonstrates her knowledge of Burns’s characteristic poetic themes and her awareness of his significance as successor to Ramsay and Fergusson. Burns himself was often self-reductive in his conversational poems, describing himself in the ‘Epistle to J. Lapraik’, for example, as ‘a Rhymer like by chance’. (9) Little, too, is knowingly modest in her Epistle, commenting in its penultimate stanza that were she ‘to raise thy praise wi’swelling note’, then her ‘rude, unpolish’d strokes wad blot/Thy brilliant shine,/An’ ev’ry passage I would quote/Seem less sublime’. Knowledgeable and polished praise of Burns is, however, exactly what the previous stanzas have communicated, and it is this which stays with the reader, overtaking the ironic modesty and conscious self-reduction. Little is never an unequivocal subordinate or supplicant in her poems.

As we have seen, Little, like Burns, is able to use Augustan English language and idiom as well as Scots in her poetry. Her dedicatory poem to the Countess of Loudon and ‘Verses Written on a Foreigner’s Visiting the Grave of a Swiss Gentleman’ are both written in English and in the heroic couplet verse form of Pope’s ‘Essay on Man’ and his ‘Moral Essays’: a choice of stanza which indicates her acknowledgement of the solemn themes presented in her poems. Yet, although she borrows a patriarchal ‘high art’ form, the values presented in both poems are female-centred, domestic and humane, as opposed to elitist and heroic.

Although the title and opening stanzas of ‘Verses’ (JL142-43) offer references to Swiss and Scottish heroes - William Tell and the ‘insulted corse’ of William Wallace to whom ‘our ruin’d land no monument could raise’ - a female perspective quickly establishes control. The important characters here are the widow and mother, and man is mourned in his domestic capacity of husband, father, son and friend. These everyday, private, human values of ‘truth, love and friendship’ are also the values endorsed in the poem’s closing stanza, as opposed to the more usual patriarchal values of heroism and military and public success. Similarly, in the Scots-language poem ‘Halloween’ (JL168-70), the emphasis is on the friendship and sexual equality between the young men and women who gather to perform the folk traditions of Halloween night. This is a narrative of companionship as well as of mutual kissing. There are no male-observed ‘cutty sarks’ as in Burns’s ‘Tam o’ Shanter’, no exploitation of women as sex-objects or objects of longing and unfulfilled desire. Little’s scene is a rural scene of everyday life, full of popular culture references including the superstitious and supernatural. And she adopts as her poetic medium the ‘bob and wheel’ verse form which came into eighteenth-century use via Alan Ramsay’s collections of sixteenth and seventeenth-century poetry. There is also an interesting turning of the class tables in her dedicatory poem ‘To the Countess of Loudon’ (JL25-8). Here it is the noble family which is found to be in need of comfort and support and this support is given by the lowly-born servant/poet who brings consolation through her poems of remembrance and praise.

Janet Little’s poems are important for their witty modulation of modes and genres and for what they tell us about the social, gender and literary hierarchies of their period, including the difficulties of an intelligent, imaginative woman from the wrong class, who has literary ambition and the determination to persist in the attempt to fulfil that ambition. Her contribution, however, differs from that of many of her countrywomen - both lowly born and upper class - in that her poems make their impact through poetic forms on the printed page and without interaction with musical form. She would appear to have been neither a singer nor a song writer. Song, however, in its various forms was one of the treasures of this period in Scotland and, with the outstanding exception of Burns’s late song-collecting, women were at the heart of the transmission and composing of songs. In his study of the song culture of eighteenth-century Scotland, Thomas Crawford comments that ‘in countries with a strong tradition of puritanism there has always been a tendency to look down on sung lyrics because they do not take up much room on the page and their idea-content is often slight’. (10) To this one might well add: ‘and because the composers and transmitters are predominantly female’. This neglect is not only a gender issue, however, but represents, as Crawford’s comment suggests, the marginalisation of an important area of eighteenth-century cultural life.

As mentioned previously, the late eighteenth century in particular was a transitional period where folk traditions and high art could still co-exist in an interactive way. This was especially so in music where the violinist playing a sonata by Corelli or Sir John Clerk of Penicuik could quickly metamorphose into the fiddler playing a traditional dance tune. And while there were many oral tradition folk poets and singers, there were also upper class, educated women who had learned ballads and Scots songs in their youth from nurses and servants and who themselves became tradition-bearers in their singing of these ballads or in the composing of new songs which drew on traditional features. One result of the marginalisation of Scotland’s song culture over the centuries has been the loss of understanding of the varied nature of that culture, with ballads, oral tradition folk-songs and composed traditional songs increasingly being considered as belonging to the same genre and grouped together under the general heading of ‘folk’ or ‘traditional’ song.

The ballads are probably the oldest group of ‘traditional songs’, their precise origins unclear, but stretching back into medieval times. Unlike folk-songs of love or work, they are narrative, as opposed to lyric in nature, and are dramatic and suspenseful in their actions, their stories narrated through formulaic patterns of word-choice, imagery and repetition and frequently involving the supernatural. They are also ‘chanted’ as opposed to being sung to a tuneful melody as in the lyric folk-songs.

In his important study “The Ballad and the Folk”, David Buchan focuses his attention on the north-east of Scotland and, in particular, on the ballad corpus of Anna Gordon, Mrs Brown of Falkland. His choice of Aberdeenshire was conditioned by the fact that it was ‘substantially affected by literacy only in the later eighteenth century’ so that its strong ballad tradition and the processes of transmission could be studied ‘in both oral and post-oral states’. For Buchan, Mrs Brown’s ballads ‘constitute the oldest extant corpus (repertoire of one singer) in Anglo-Scottish balladry. They were mostly learned before 1759, at a time when the Northeast was still largely nonliterate, and the old conditions of life had not yet been disrupted by social upheaval’. Most importantly, ‘they exemplify the traditional mode of oral composition by which ballads were once created and transmitted.’ (11) By this Buchan means that Anna Gordon recreated her ballads at each singing in the traditional way, as opposed to singing them from a fixed (and in later times, printed) text. She herself is therefore an interesting example of a transitional figure: an educated woman, the daughter of a Professor and wife of a minister who learned her ballads partly from her mother and a maidservant, but principally from her aunt, who had herself learned them from the nurses and old women of her area. Although in recent years, Buchan’s insistence on the recreative element in Anna Gordon’s ballad-singing has been challenged by other oral tradition scholars, what is not susceptible to challenge is his comment that Anna Gordon’s repertoire consists of ‘stories of a woman’s tradition’. (12) For while women have traditionally been recognised as the transmitters of ballads, the material of which could be historical or magical/supernatural or romantic/tragic, it is only in recent times that it has been suggested that women might also have been the originators of ballads. This is certainly what is suggested by the female-centred nature of the ballads in Anna Gordon’s repertoire. It is ironic that when the ballads began to be collected and written down in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, men were the ones who wrote down the words from the women’s singing and eventually printed them. This meant that not only were women displaced from their position as tradition-bearers, but that words increasingly became divorced from their essential, complementary music. Anna Gordon’s own singing became transposed to printed text form through the words being written down and sent to collectors by her husband and her nephew.

Two ballads - ‘Fair Mary of Wallington’ and ‘The Twa Sisters’ (13) - may give some idea of the power of Gordon’s female repertoire which tells dramatic stories of human love, jealousy and physical and psychological suffering. ‘Fair Mary of Wallington’ (K132-34) is notable for its unequivocal presentation of the fears and suffering of childbirth, as well as for the lack of sympathy shown by a mother to her daughters. The nineteenth-century novel provides many examples of second marriages and motherless children brought about by death in childbed, but it is unusual to have the subject of childbirth addressed so specifically from a female perspective before the twentieth century, when women writers began to introduce new female perspectives into literary texts. ‘Fair Mary’ brings to us, in all its starkness, the fear, suffering and inevitability of childbirth which throughout the ages must have accompanied the more publicised joy of the safe delivery of an heir.

The narrative begins with dramatic immediacy as one of two remaining sisters out of seven addresses her sibling:

‘O we were sisters seven, Maisry,
And five are dead wi child;
There is nane but you and I, Maisry,
And we’ll go maidens mild.’

This resolve, however, is overtaken in stanza two, with the introduction of that sense of fatedness which is so much a part of the context of the ballads:

She hardly had the word spoken,
And turned her round about,
When the bonny Earl of Livingston
Was calling Maisry out.

Lady Maisry is carried off by her new husband to his castle home where she, in her turn, becomes ‘as big wi bairn/As any ladie could gae’. What makes this story so powerful is the emotion communicated through the direct speech of all the participants, including the girl who urges her page to ‘run wi speed’ for her mother; and her stricken husband who ‘wrang his milk-white hands,/Till the gowd rings flaw in three: [and cried] “Let ha’s and bowers and a’gae waste,/My bonny love’s taen frae me!”’. Powerful too is the imagery which communicates the intensity of the girl’s suffering: ‘The gaggs they were in Maisry’s mouth,/And the sharp sheers in her side’: the latter image suggesting both severe pain and, perhaps, a primitive forceps or other intrusive delivery. What is surprising is the attitude of the mother, who has no patience with either her son-in-law’s lamenting or her remaining daughter’s determination not to travel her sister’s road. To her daughter’s vow: ‘That man is not in Christendoom/Shall gar me die sicken dead’, the mother’s reponse is fatalistic and unsympathetic:

‘O hold your tongue, my ae daughter,
Let a’ your folly be,
For ye shall be married ere this day week
Tho the same death you should die.’

This is, perhaps, an attitude born out of the need to endure, to thole what cannot be changed; and until recent times marriage and childbearing - either enforced or accepted - was, of course, the role allotted to women by society. But there is also in the mother’s response a cold refusal even to question existing patterns. ‘Fair Mary’ opens with the youngest daughter’s determination to take her destiny into her own hands, but it closes with her mother’s uncompromising words which leave us little hope that this spirited girl will be able to escape the fate of her sisters.

The myth of female solidarity is again broken in ‘The Twa Sisters’ (K127-28). This is a tale of psychological suffering and murder, of the jealousy that consumes one sister as she realises that, although convention dictates that her knightly wooer should court her as the elder, it is the younger sister whom he really loves:

He courted the eldest wi glove an ring,
But he lovd the youngest above a’ thing.

He courted the eldest wi brotch an knife,
But lovd the youngest as his life.

A sense of the fateful tragedy to come is built up through repeated phrases and the relentless pace of the rhyming couplets. As in ‘Fair Mary’, tension is heightened by the use of direct speech: in the elder sister’s invitation to the younger to come with her ‘to yon sea stran’; and in the younger sister’s repeated pleas for help after she has been pushed into the water: ‘O sister, sister, tak my han [. . . ] O sister, sister, tak my middle [. . .] O sister, sister, save my life/An I swear Ise never be nae man’s wife.’ For the jealous sister, however, the damage has already been done and cannot be remedied:

‘Foul fa the han that I should tacke,
It twin’d me and my wardles make.

‘Your cherry cheeks and yallow hair
Gars me gae maiden for evermair.’

The tragedy in this ballad is not entirely unrelieved, however. The introduction of a magic or marvellous dimension allows the drowned sister to speak once more for herself and make her fate and her sister’s crime known. As her body lies by the mill dam, a travelling harper strings his harp with her golden hair and later harps at dinner to her father the King:

The first tune he did play and sing,
Was, ‘Farewell to my father the king.’

The nextin tune that he playd syne,
Was, ‘Farewell to my mother the queen.’

The lasten tune that he played then,
Was, ‘Wae to my sister, fair Ellen.’

In addition, the beauty of the younger sister is reinforced as we hear it repeatedly confirmed alongside the detail of her fine clothes and jewels by the miller who pulls her body out of the water. Despite its tragedy, therefore, this ballad is not entirely a victim’s story. Evidence of its continuing fascination can be found in its inclusion in the repertoire of the late twentieth-century popular music group Pentangle, renamed ‘Cruel Sister’ and sung by a young female voice in a more lively and melodic way than was probably the case with the traditional ‘chanting’ of Anna Gordon, but no less compelling in its tale of sisterly betrayal.

In contrast to Anna Gordon’s tradition-bearing, other well-born women of the period became song-composers, drawing on existing folk-song traditions to create songs that themselves became part of Scotland’s traditional music heritage. One of the most famous of such songs is ‘The Flowers of the Forest’ (14), with words composed in 1756 by Jean Elliot to an old traditional tune of the same title. Like Burns in his song-collecting and writing, Elliot used fragments of a lost original song which had once been sung to the tune: for example, the opening line: I’ve heard them lilting at our yowe-milking (WP118), and her repeated and various use of the title itself. Her song became so popular and appeared so truly ‘traditional’ that many people believed it did genuinely date from the Battle of Flodden in 1513 when the English defeated the Scots and the ‘flowers’ of many Scottish Lowland families were cut down in the heavy fighting. The song makes its impact not merely through its references to that historical defeat, but also through the important interactive relationship between its Scots-language words and idiom and the plaintive gapped-scale melody which, although not strictly in a minor mode, communicates a sense of minor modality which fits with its elegiac content. In addition, as in Janet Little’s ‘Verses’ poem, this content, although relating to death in battle, is essentially female-centred, focusing on women’s work patterns and on the women’s laments for the dead young men: ‘nae daffin, nae gabbin’/but sighing and sabbing’. The song’s emotional impact derives also from its evocation of a disappearing culture, significant in the increasingly Anglicised eighteenth century; and significant still in the early twentieth-century interwar period when Lewis Grassic Gibbon used ‘The Flowers of the Forest’ in his novel “Sunset Song” as a signifier of a dying peasant culture and as a lament for the young men killed in World War One.

A very different, although contemporaneous, composition to the same tune is that by Alison Rutherford, wife of the Edinburgh advocate Lord Cockburn, whose drawing-room was one of Edinburgh’s famous literary salons (WP119). A comparison of Lady Cockburn’s lament with that of Jean Elliot once again demonstrates the varied and interactive nature of eighteenth-century Scottish Lowland culture. What we have in this Edinburgh version is a rhetorical lament for the fickle nature of Fortune, which, like the changing Scottish weather, brings loss and decay after favours and blessings: ‘I’ve seen the smiling/Of Fortune beguiling;/I’ve felt all its favours and found its decay’. This time the language and idiom are mostly Augustan English and the singer who attempts it in the manner of Elliot’s ‘traditional’ song has soon to modify vowel sounds and voice production to accommodate its more obviously composed nature. Henry Mackenzie, editor of “The Lounger” and author of “The Man of Feeling”, wrote that ‘the ladies of Edinburgh used to sing these airs without any accompaniment [. . . ] at tea and after supper, their position at table not being interrupted as now by rising to the pianoforte’ (WP XI). This would indeed be the best way to sing Elliot’s lament. Lady Cockburn’s, on the other hand, seems to demand performance at the pianoforte.

Further evidence of the popularity of the ‘Flowers of the Forest’ air is given by its use by the folk poet Isobel Pagan. Pagan was a non-literate poet and singer from Muirkirk in Ayrshire whose verses celebrated - and sometimes castigated or mocked - the characters and activities of her local area. Many of the poems in her collection of 1808 (15) describe hunting and shooting parties or the stationing of soldiers in towns such as Cumnock, with the usual impact on local collier lads and their lassies. Many verses have the name of a tune attached. ‘The Flowers of the Forest’ air is used for two sets of verses: ‘McLellan’s Lament for his Master’s Death’ (IP54) and ‘A New Song’ (IP67) which celebrates a marriage based on choice. From a reading of the words on the page, as opposed to the way these verses were presumably adapted to the air when sung by Pagan, it is noticeable that the words do not fit their melody as well as those of Jean Elliot and, in her different context, Alison Cockburn, and their thought processes are very simple:

All men of every station now hear my lamentation
I am now so sorry, but little I can say.
I had the best master that every I served
But Providence lately called him away. (IP54)

There is a sense here of a local singer employing the popularity of a good tune for her own purposes. Similarly, the content of ‘A New Song’ does not match its plangent air and, although the speaker is a woman, glad to have replaced ‘youthful sporting’ with marriage to a carter and a man of her own choosing , unlike the literary poetry of Janet Little and the ballad singing of Anna Gordon, Pagan’s poems in general do not present female perspectives on human life and society, although they do give glimpses of the difficulties facing an unsupported, uneducated and ageing woman such as she herself was when her poems were written down and published.

Pagan’s name has become prominent in the twentieth century as a result of her increasingly being represented as the author of a version of ‘Ca’ the Yowes to the Knowes’, most usually the version Burns claimed to have had taken down from the singing of a Rev. Clunzie and to have ‘mended’ and sent to James Johnson for his Musical Museum. A comparison of the version attributed to Pagan in “An Anthology of Scottish Women Poets” (K164) with the later version of the song much reworked by Burns and sent to George Thomson (included in “Songs of Scotland”, WP32-3, where both versions are attributed to Burns), makes it clear that the Pagan version is in its nature an oral folk-song of the traditional love-dialogue or courtship type. Further comparison with Pagan’s “Collected Poems” (which does not include this song) suggests that, if the song was indeed in her repertoire, then she was the transmitter of an existing song as opposed to its composer or even adapter, for this courtship folksong is much more sophisticated in idea and expression that any of the verses printed under Pagan’s own name. To say this is not to denigrate Pagan or her contribution to the eighteenth-century song tradition. She is representative of good local folk poets and singers who worked in the tradition of transmitting and adapting existing songs and airs for their own local purposes. It shows, however, how misunderstandings and misinformation can arise as a result of the marginalisation and resultant declining knowledge of song traditions and their differences.

In contrast to Pagan, upper class educated women were the principal composers of ‘traditional’ song in the eighteenth century, and my final example of the song tradition returns to their work as represented by Carolina Oliphant, Lady Nairne, and in particular her song ‘The Land o’ the Leal’ (WP208-09), composed to the tune ‘Hey Tutti Taitie, previously used by Burns for his stirring song of national freedom ‘Scots Wha Hae wi’ Wallace Bled’ (WP2-3). Whether out of modesty or for class or gender reasons, Lady Nairne published her songs anonymously under the initials B.B., for Mrs Bogan of Bogan. Her songs were immensely popular and she had clearly learned from Burns, so that some of her songs were thought to have been written by Burns himself. The traditional music scholar Francis Collinson has described her songs such as ‘The Auld Hoose’ and the Jacobite ‘Will ye no come back again’ (WP50-51) as ‘treasures of Scots song for all time’. (16)

‘The Land o’ the Leal’ is especially interesting for the way in which Nairne transforms the melody of Burns’s heroic national song into one which can communicate the everyday human qualities of grief and sympathy. ‘Hey Tutti Taitie’, sometimes called ‘Robert Bruce’s March to Bannockburn’, was one of Burns’s favourite tunes and he used its martial tempo and dotted rhythms to create a rousing call to act for freedom in his ‘Scots Wha Hae’ composition.

When we turn to Nairne’s version in ‘The Land o’ the Leal’, we may at first not recognise that this is in fact the same tune. The tempo of the melody has been slowed, so that the dotted notes are not so staccato in nature and the word-choice provides long vowels which extend the musical phrases, allowing them to linger as opposed to being driven forward as in Burns’s martial rhythms. The sentiments in the song, which was written to comfort a friend after the death of her first child, draw on that Scottish Enlightenment belief in our capacity to empathise with those less fortunate than ourselves; and the mood, although full of sentiment and piety, is very different from later Victorian sentimentality and piousness. The emotional impact of the song is furthered by the repetition of the short, intimate ‘John’, breathed out at the end of the musical phrase: ‘I’m wearin’ awa’, John/Like snaw wreathes in thaw, John’: an effect which Nairne may well have learned from Burns’s ‘John Anderson my Jo’ (WP170-71), which also places the name ‘John’, like a catch in the breath, at the end of a musical phrase to create a feeling of tenderness and intimacy. It is therefore not surprising that ‘The Land o’ the Leal’, published anonymously, was long thought to have been written by Burns himself.

Lady Nairne’s composed songs are one part of a many-stranded tradition of the vocal music of Lowland Scotland which expressed itself in a particularly rich and interactive way in eighteenth-century Scottish life. In addition, as with the literary poetry of Janet Little, this vocal tradition makes available the voices of the women of the time. Listening to the women, then, not only means bringing back into the eighteenth-century world picture the place of song alongside Enlightenment philosophy, historical studies and the printed poetic forms of Ramsay, Fergusson and Burns. It also means listening to women’s perspectives on human life and society, bringing what Virginia Woolf called ‘women’s values’ (17) into our understanding of this important historical period.

1. Dale Spender, ‘Women and Literary History’, “The Feminist Reader”, ed by Catherine Belsey and Jane Moore (London: Macmillan, 1989), p.21.
2. Roger Lonsdale, ed., “Eighteenth Century Women Poets: An Oxford Anthology” (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), p.xxi.
3. “The Poetical Works of Janet Little, The Scotch Milkmaid” (Ayr: John & Peter Wilson, 1792). References will be given in the text by JL and page number. The collection is unfortunately mispaginated in places.
4. Leith Davis, “Studies in English Literature 1500-1900”, 38 (1998), 621-45 (pp.623, 630).
5. See Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s lament in “The Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning” ed by Frederick G. Kenyon, 2 vols (New York: Macmillan, 1899), I, pp.230-32.
6. Liz Lochhead, “Dreaming Frankenstein & Collected Poems” (Edinburgh: Polygon, 1984), p.12.
7. William Wallace, ed., “Robert Burns and Mrs Dunlop Correspondence Now Published in Full for the First Time” (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1898), p.96; James Mackay, “A Biography of Robert Burns” (Edinburgh: Mainstream, 1992), p.588.
8. Moira Ferguson, ed., “Eighteenth-Century Women Poets: Nation, Class and Gender” (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995), p.107; Moira Ferguson, ‘Janet Little and Robert Burns’ in “Romantic Women Writers” ed by Paula R. Feldman and Theresa M. Kelley (Hanover & London: University Press of New England, 1995), p.208.
9. Robert Burns, “Burns: Poems and Songs” ed by James Kinsley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1969), p.67.
10. Thomas Crawford, “Society and the Lyric” (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic press, 1979), p.1.
11. David Buchan, “The Ballad and the Folk” (London: Routledge, 1972), pp.4, 62.
12. Ibid, p.64.
13. Both ballads are in Catherine Kerrigan, ed., “An Anthology of Scottish Women Poets” (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991), pp.132-34 and 127-28. Page number will be given in the text prefaced by K.
14. The versions by Jean Elliot and Alison Rutherford are in Wilma Paterson, ed., “Songs of Scotland” (Edinburgh: Mainstream, 1997), pp.118-19. These will be referenced by WP and page number. The versions are also in Kerrigan, but Paterson’s inclusion of music and helpful notes makes her book a more useful source.
15. “A Collection of Songs and Poems on Several Occasions by Isobel Pagan” (Glasgow: Niven, Napier & Khull, 1808). References will be given by IP and page number.
16. Francis Collinson, “The Traditional and National Music of Scotland” (London: Routledge, 1970), p.131.
17. Virginia Woolf, “Women and Writing”, introd by Michèle Barrett (London: The Women’s Press, 1979), p.49.

This work is protected by copyright. All rights reserved.

The SCOTS Project and the University of Glasgow do not necessarily endorse, support or recommend the views expressed in this document.


Cite this Document

APA Style:

Women, Poetry and Song in Eighteenth-Century Lowland Scotland. 2024. In The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow. Retrieved 17 April 2024, from

MLA Style:

"Women, Poetry and Song in Eighteenth-Century Lowland Scotland." The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. Glasgow: University of Glasgow, 2024. Web. 17 April 2024.

Chicago Style

The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech, s.v., "Women, Poetry and Song in Eighteenth-Century Lowland Scotland," accessed 17 April 2024,

If your style guide prefers a single bibliography entry for this resource, we recommend:

The Scottish Corpus of Texts & Speech. 2024. Glasgow: University of Glasgow.


Information about Document 1437

Women, Poetry and Song in Eighteenth-Century Lowland Scotland


Text audience

Adults (18+)
Informed lay people
Audience size 1000+

Text details

Method of composition Wordprocessed
Year of composition 2003
Word count 7267

Text medium


Text publication details

Publication year 2003
ISBN/ISSN 0969-9082
Part of larger text
Contained in Women's Writing, 10.3, Special issue "Scottish Women's Writing"
Editor Dorothy McMillan
Page numbers 453-68

Text setting


Text type

Prose: nonfiction


Author details

Author id 42
Forenames Margery Palmer
Surname McCulloch
Gender Female
Educational attainment University
Age left school 17
Upbringing/religious beliefs Protestantism
Occupation Literary Scholar
Place of birth Glasgow
Region of birth Glasgow
Birthplace CSD dialect area Gsw
Country of birth Scotland
Place of residence Lenzie
Region of residence Dunbarton
Residence CSD dialect area Dnbt
Country of residence Scotland
Father's occupation Clerk
Father's place of birth Glasgow
Father's region of birth Glasgow
Father's birthplace CSD dialect area Gsw
Father's country of birth Scotland
Mother's occupation Housewife
Mother's place of birth Glasgow
Mother's region of birth Glasgow
Mother's birthplace CSD dialect area Gsw
Mother's country of birth Scotland


Language Speak Read Write Understand Circumstances
English Yes Yes Yes Yes First language - all purposes
French Yes Yes Yes Yes Leisure - reading, travel
German Yes Yes Yes Yes Leisure - reading, travel
Scots Yes Yes No Yes Literary purposes, singing, poetry, occ. Speech