Carolina Oliphant, Baroness Nairne, songwriter and song collector, was born on the 16th of August, 1766.
Lady Carolina Nairne or Carolina Oliphant, Baroness Nairne, was a secret poet and songwriter whose work is almost as unknown today as it remained unattributed during her life. She is perhaps, Scotland’s best kept secret. She was good at keeping secrets, hiding her song writing talents from everyone, including her husband. Her works were published, but under the pseudonym of ‘B.B.’ and mainly because it was not socially acceptable at that time, the late 18th Century, for ladies to write poetry. Her family were Jacobites and went through some harsh times as a result of their loyalty to Bonnie Prince Charlie. As a result, Carolina was inspired to write spirited poems, many of which were later turned into stirring Jacobean anthems.
Famous examples, known to many throughout the world, include: ‘Charlie is my darling’; ‘The Hundred Pipers’; and the emotive ‘Bonnie Charlie's noo awa’. Now, hands up those who thought Robert Burns or Sir Walter Scott wrote those songs.
Lady Nairne’s work was widely praised for its vivacity and eloquent style, and her songs were – are – second only to those of Burns himself in popularity. She deserves recognition alongside her male contemporaries; of that there’s no doubt. Lady Nairne was also a collector of songs and her legacy is important, because she wrote or adapted nearly one hundred songs and poems, and added contemporary lyrics to many popular Scottish melodies in the process. By so doing, she helped to preserve much of Scotland's musical heritage, which would otherwise have been lost. After she died, her sister published a posthumous collection of Carolina's work, entitled ‘Lays of Strathearn’. That collection marked the first time that Carolina, Lady Nairne, was publicly identified as the author of the eighty-seven poems and songs it contained.
Carolina Oliphant was born on the 16th of August, 1766, at Gask House, near Dunning in Perthshire. Her father was a fierce supporter of the Jacobite movement who went into exile for a while after the Battle of Culloden and her mother’s family forfeited their lands at that time for the same reason. Carolina was named after the Young Pretender, Bonnie Prince Charlie so, with that background, it’s perhaps not surprising that many of her songs were sympathetic to the Jacobite cause. She had three sisters and two brothers, and was fortunate enough to have a father who was a progressive thinker, for his time. He believed in providing an education for girls as well as boys, which was certainly unusual for the time. Her lessons provided opportunity and motivation with which she began to write poetry, mimicking the lyrics of traditional country songs, but improving upon their crude style in her own fashion and for them to be suitable to ‘society folk’.
Carolina gave a strong Jacobean slant to some of these poems as a means of helping to keep up the spirits of her ailing father and her uncle, who was Clan Chief of the Robertsons of Struan. Here we are, hundred of years later, and still many people, whether or not they have nostalgic Jacobite sympathies, find something of cheer, or something that strikes a personal chord, in her songs. In her younger years, Carolina was pretty and energetic, and had a liking for dancing. At school, she was known as ‘pretty Miss Car’, and in adult circles, her striking beauty and pleasing manners earned her the name ‘Flower of Strathearn’. She was a contemporary of Niel Gow, the famous fiddler, who put some of her best loved songs to music; now, there’s a combination to whet the appetite. Some of the popular melodies she adapted in those early days are preserved in songs such as, ‘The Laird o' Cockpen’, and ‘The Pleughman’.
When she was forty-one years old, Carolina Oliphant married her second cousin, Major William Murray Nairne, on the 2nd of June, 1806. In 1824, following George IV's visit to Edinburgh in 1822 and Sir Walter Scott's endless petitioning, Parliament restored the forfeited Jacobite peerages and Major Nairne was restored to the Barony of Nairne. Thereafter, Carolina became Baroness or Lady Nairne. However, prior to that and after getting married, the couple moved to Edinburgh, which was where she became involved in her lifelong project to preserve and foster the songs of Scotland. In those days, it was not considered proper for society ladies to dabble in what she herself called “this queer trade of song-writing.” Nevertheless, she set about following the example of Burns in the ‘Scots Musical Museum’.
Lady Nairne aimed to bring out a collection of national airs, set to appropriate words, to which she also contributed a large number of original songs under the pseudonym ‘B. B.’ or ‘Mrs Bogan of Bogan’. That nom-de-plume was in order to keep her poetry and songwriting secret from her husband, friends and relatives. She even went as far as to try to keep her true identity secret from the collection's editor, R. A. Smith. When she went to visit him, she used to wear an old, veiled cloak, in the hope that she wouldn’t be recognised. Her work appeared as part of a major collection published by Robert Purdie in Edinburgh between 1821 and 1824, and under the title of ‘The Scottish Minstrel’. Her own song ‘Caller Herring’, which was written to an air created by Neil Gow, is an excellent example of her genuine compassion and understanding of pathos.
Wha'll buy my caller herrin'?
They're bonnie fish and halesome farin';
Wha'll buy my caller herrin',
New drawn frae the Forth ?
Wha'll buy my caller herrin'?
They're no' brought here without brave darin',
Buy my caller herrin',
Haul'd through wind and rain.
Wha'll buy my caller herrin'?
Oh, ye may ca' them vulgar farin',
Wives and mithers maist despairin',
Ca' them lives o' men.
Lady Carolina Nairne died at the family home of Gask House on the 26th of October, 1845. She was buried within the new chapel, which had been completed only days earlier and a granite cross was erected to her memory in the grounds of Gask House.
The photograph is by Sam Perkins (check him out on Facebook at Sam Perkins Photography) and was taken near Oban.