Allan Ramsay, wigmaker, bookseller, poet, makar, playwright, publisher, literary antiquary, burgess, auctioneer, and founder of the first circulating library in the UK, was born on the 15th of October, 1686.
Allan Ramsay ‘the Elder’ was the famous father of the famous artist, Allan Ramsay ‘the Younger’. The elder Ramsay was a wigmaker turned bookseller and makar who achieved widespread literary fame and a certain notoriety in early 18th Century Scotland. The genial, and somewhat vain and be-turbaned Ramsay cut a familiar, dashing figure in Edinburgh’s Old Town, where he lived and worked not far from his statue that stands today overlooking Princes Street on the edge of the Gardens. He was immune to the envious and even malicious accusations of “upstart vanity” from dour Presbyterians and his entire life was a ‘poke in the eye’ for such as would deny life’s “joyous pleasures”. Ramsay was a collector of old Scottish songs and ballads, some of which he rewrote, but by his groundbreaking preservation of the work of earlier Scottish poets, he ensured that the Scots vernacular, so well utilised in later years by Burns and Fergusson, survived the ‘anglicisation’ that was a natural consequence of the Union of 1707. His own poetry was written in Scots and English, albeit he had more original style and success in the former. The popular success of his early ‘single sheets at a small price’ was such that Edinburgh ladies used to send out their children with a penny to buy ‘Ramsay's last piece’. By 1721, Ramsay was an ‘established man of letters’ and was able to abandon wig making for book selling and it was in that capacity that another of his ‘claims to fame’ arose. In 1725, he opened the new United Kingdom’s first ever circulating library, based out of his premises at the Luckenbooth in the High Street.
Ramsay’s work is an essential ingredient of Scottish literature and his contribution is vital on many levels. Although he is not regarded as a truly great poet, he made much subsequent Scots poetry possible and was, according to Leigh Hunt, “in some respects the best pastoral writer in the world” – referring to his masterpiece the ‘Gentle Shepherd’. In addition, he is the link between the ‘Makars’ of the 15th and 16th Centuries, and poets such as Fergusson and Burns, and the ballad collectors, notably Sir Walter Scott. Ramsay played a large part in the foundation of the 18th Century revival of the Scottish literary tradition and without his endeavours, many Scottish works would have been lost. He directly inspired the genius of his greater successors. Both Roberts, Fergusson and Burns, acknowledged a debt to Ramsay and if the latter drew more from the former in his satires and epistles, he drew on Ramsay as far as his songs were concerned. In his first ‘Commonplace Book’, Burns recorded his pleasure in “the works of our Scotch Poets, particularly the excellent Ramsay”. Here’s a snippety tribute:
“My senses wad be in a creel,
Should I but dare a hope to speel,
Wi' Allan, or wi' Gilbertfield,
The braes o' fame....”
Allan Ramsay was born in Scotland's highest village, Leadhills in Lanarkshire, on the 15th of October, 1686. He was educated at Crawfordmoor Parish School until he was in his fifteenth year. Interestingly, that was a lot longer than was common in Scotland at that time, unless attendance at a University was included. Ramsay moved to Edinburgh in 1701, when he was apprenticed to a wig maker and on the 19th of July, 1710, he became a Burgess of Edinburgh with his own shop in the Grassmarket. Many of Ramsay's early poems had their first outing at the ‘Easy Club’, a forum for intellectual, political and literary discussion that Ramsay helped to set up in Edinburgh. In 1715, he was humorously appointed its ‘poet-laureate’. One of his well known poems is ‘Elegy on Maggie Johnstone’, who was a famous brewer and vender of ale. Amusingly, upon her death, his verse mourns the loss of the ale rather than her passing. The club had nationalist and Jacobite sympathies and the 1715 Rising put an end to its meetings, but Ramsay’s support for the Stuart cause remains evident throughout his work.
By 1724, Ramsay was fully engaged in writing verse and collecting and editing older Scots literature. He published ‘The Ever Green, being a Collection of Scots Poems wrote by the Ingenious before 1600’ in that year and his five-volume ‘Tea Table Miscellany’ between 1724 and 1737. Although some folks have criticised Ramsay for his having had a tendency to edit traditional work to suit his own taste, Sir Walter Scott was surely grateful for his having restored to circulation many traditional songs and ballads of the medieval makars. Ramsay’s preface to his ‘Ever Green’ displays his patriotism and conviction that Scots poetry is a literary mode worthy of conservation and distribution. In it, Ramsay pleas for a return to simple Scottish tradition and protests against “imported trimming” and “foreign embroidery in our writings”. The 1720s were Ramsay’s busiest period and perhaps his greatest and most enduring success was with his Scots pastoral play, ‘The Gentle Shepherd’; published in 1725. Ramsay’s ‘poem as a play’ of five ‘acts’ gives a vivid description of rural scenery and was performed as a ballad-opera, in 1729. It later formed the basis of John Gay's ‘The Beggar's Opera’. It began life as a number of single-sheet ‘pastoral dialogues’, which Ramsay extended and to which he added songs to form his ‘dramatic pastoral’ after getting encouragement from his friends and public.
Famously, in 1736, due to his interest in drama and support of the ‘Company of Players’ for whom he sold tickets in his shop, Ramsay set about building a new theatre “at vast expense” in Carrubber's Close. His ‘New Theatre’, where he managed a Company, was shut down by order of the City Bailies in the following year. Under pressure from the Calvinist Kirk, the Magistrates misused the newly passed ‘Licence Act’, which was designed to prevent attacks on Walpole, and forced the closure of Ramsay's theatre. At that, Ramsay suffered financial loss and his antagonism to Presbyterian dourness was further incensed. He wrote numerous poems against its hypocrisy.
Alan Ramsay died of what was called 'scurvy of the gums' on the 7th of January, 1758, and was buried in Greyfriars' Kirkyard.