James Hogg, the poet and author known as the ‘Ettrick Shepherd’, died on the 21st of November, 1835.
James Hogg is famous as the ‘Ettrick Shepherd’, but not because he was any great shakes as a keeper of sheep, although he did write a book about the care of those wooly animals. He was a prolific writer of both prose and verse, and is justifiably considered one of Scotland’s best authors. Unlike Robert Burns, by whom he was influenced, but like Walter Scott, who was a contemporary, Hogg wrote and had published a profusion of pastoral poems, songs, magazine articles and books. You may toss a coin to decide if his poetry or his novels are more worthy of recognition, but certainly, he is very well known for what is widely regarded as his masterpiece, and the first piece, of modern Scottish fiction. That accolade goes to ‘The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner’, which Hogg published in 1824. It was initially published anonymously and got mixed reviews, but his satirical take on religious extremism undoubtedly resonates with the events of the present day, nearly two hundred years later.
Hogg’s poetry also resonates; with bardic and balladic elements from the great oral tradition of Borders’ folklore, which he learned at his mother’s knee. His early cultural experience stemmed from local tales; songs and stories of Border Reivers, Kings and Queens, knights and supernatural beings, including of his own grandfather, “the far-famed Will o’ Phaup”, who is reputed to have been able to talk to the fairies. Hogg began his literary career by transcribing and modifying such poems and songs, and the influence of those folk traditions was never lost. He was inspired to write poetry of his own after hearing Allan Ramsay’s ‘The Gentle Shepherd’, but Hogg is often thought of as the natural successor to Burns; being the shepherd to Burns’ “heaven taught ploughman”.
However, don’t fall into the trap of thinking Hogg was any sort of naïve rustic. That ‘Ettrick Shepherd’ sobriquet is misleading as Hogg was intimately involved with the intellectuals and literati of Edinburgh, which was – and still is – one of the major ‘Enlightenment’ centres of Europe. Much of Hogg’s output of poems and stories appeared in ‘Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine’ (or ‘Maga’). Hogg wrote under the alias of ‘The Shepherd’ and his work appeared alongside that of Christopher North (the alias of John Wilson) in Blackwood’s ‘Noctes Ambrosianae’; a series of satirical sketches. Hogg’s admirers ranged from Byron to Andre Gide, with the latter being largely responsible for the resurgence of interest in Hogg’s work after he described ‘Confessions’ as “this astounding book… this extraordinary and terrifying narrative… into which I at once plunged with a stupefaction and admiration that increased at every page”.
Hogg was a bit of a contrary figure in real life and almost bankrupted himself in attempts to become a successful shepherd. However, he knew enough about sheep to publish a practical guide to their husbandry, which appeared in 1807 as ‘Of the Diseases of Hoggs, or young Sheep’. Curiously, the word ‘hogg’ as used in Scotland and part of England at the time, refers to a sheep older than a lamb but before its first shearing. Hogg’s book was good enough to have received a prize from the Highland Society, but you’re better off seeking out his poems and songs, which include ‘The Poetic Mirror’, ‘Cam' ye by Athol?’ and ‘Bonny Kilmeny’ of which here is a wee taste:
“A land of love and a land of light,
Withouten sun, or moon, or night;
Where the river swa'd a living stream,
And the light a pure celestial beam;
The land of vision, it would seem,
A still, an everlasting dream.”
James Hogg was born in 1770, at Ettrick in the Scottish Border country and, although he was baptised in Ettrick Church on the 9th of December, 1770, the date of his birth went unrecorded. He left school after six months of formal education, mainly because, when he was seven, his father, a tenant sheep farmer, was declared bankrupt and James had to work as a cowherd to supplement his family’s income. James taught himself to read and write, and to play the fiddle, and began making songs and verses for local gatherings, where he was known as “Jamie the Poeter”. In the 1790s, he was employed by the Laidlaw family as a shepherd on their farm at Blackhouse in Yarrow. He gained access to the Laidlaw’s library, which helped with his education, and it was during that time Hogg first met Walter Scott, the newly appointed Sheriff of Selkirk and collector of folklore.
Hogg’s first published poem appeared anonymously in 1794, in the ‘Scots Magazine’ and, in 1801, he published at his own expense, his first collection called ‘Scottish Pastorals, Poems, Songs etc’. That didn’t set the hills on fire, but the publication of Scott’s ‘Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border’, to which Hogg contributed, encouraged Hogg to bring out ‘The Mountain Bard’, in 1807, and that did much to establish him as a poet. In 1810, Hogg moved to Edinburgh, determined to pursue a career as a full time ‘man of letters’, although he never quite gave up the idea of ‘making it’ as a sheep farmer. Another collection of songs, ‘The Forest Minstrel’, appeared that year and he also founded ‘The Spy’, which was a weekly magazine, with himself as its main contributor. It folded after a year and his next similarly doomed venture was ‘The Forum’, which ran weekly educational debates, foreshadowing the theme of his ‘Confessions’, on such subjects as ‘Whether the hope of Reward or Punishment tends most to the preservation of good order in Society?’. In 1813, his long and fantastically imaginative, narrative poem, ‘The Queen’s Wake’ turned Hogg, albeit still poor, into a celebrity.
James Hogg spent the latter half of his life, partly in Edinburgh and partly at the farm of Altrive in Yarrow, which he had been granted rent free in 1815, by the Duke of Buccleuch. He continued to write, publish and keep sheep until he died on his farm at Altrive, on the 21st of November, 1835. He was buried in Ettrick Churchyard, next to his fairy-grandfather.