the shepherd and the poet

James Hogg was one of Scotland’s major writers and is (especially in the Scottish Borders) a celebrated author of poetry, essays and novels, his books belong to the curriculum in the upper grades at schools and literature courses of universities. But internationally he is far less known as Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns or Robert Louis Stevenson.

grave James Hogg

Born in Ettrick in 1770, he lived here all his life. He died at the age of 64 and was buried in the kirkyard, just a stone’s throw away from the cottage where he lived. Not only did he write here in Ettrick, he also worked here, and that was also the attribute under which Hogg was known in Scotland “The Ettrick Shepherd”, the shepherd from Ettrick.

In his family, the men were either shepherds or forest workers, believing in simple country life and supernatural powers. His father was an active member of the Church, his mother told him stories of wizards, fairies, and the myths of the Borders, which she generously narrated and sang. Her name was Meg Laidlaw, like many Scottish women, she had kept her maiden name after the marriage and was not named Hogg. She gave her son her love for the old stories and ballads, and she later sang them to Walter Scott when he was collecting them for a book, he was to publish with the help of her son.

sun lichen gravestone

A Hogg is said to have even defeated the famous wizard Michael Scott and been the last to talk to the fairies, so the Hoggs were a locally well connected if not famous family.  Everything the young James had written, he had taught himself. As a boy he had left school at the age of seven.

sun moss gravestones

He and Walter Scott kept close contact, Hogg profited greatly from Scott’s contacts and his worldly manner, but Scott also benefited from Hogg, who did not admire but was part of the simple country life and involvement in the stories of the Borders. He did not just celebrate the simple things, he lived the simple life, much closer to what Scott was looking for than Scott himself.

Like Robert Burns, his background was simple, but Burns, whom Hogg greatly admired throughout his life, could easily move in the so-called better society. That was much hard er for Hogg, and may be one of the reasons why his fame never matched that of Scott or Burns. He simply lacked the right behaviour for the elite circles. He lived on the land of the Duke of Buccleuch and managed his Altrive farm in Yarrow, went fishing and practiced all sorts of sports, including wrestling and archery.

Hogg loved his Border Collies, the loyal helpers of every Scottislh shepherd. One of his poems is the wonderful declaration of love to his aging companion, his dog Hector, written in 1807.

Come, my auld, towzy trusty friend;

Waur gaurs ye look sae douth and wae?

D’ye think my favor’s at an end,

Because your head is turnin ‘gray?

(Alistair Moffat: The Borders)

This author was deeply rooted in his region and its customs but also critical of too devout Christians. Here he experienced soft summer evenings, when the orange of the sky turns dark and the white specks of sheep in the lush meadows on the shores of the Ettrick Water slowly merge with the first long shades of the night.

 

sources and further reading:

Alistair Moffat: The Borders. A History of the Borders From Earliest Time. Birlinn, Edinburgh, 2002

Nigel Tranter: Portrait of the Border Country. Hale, London, 1972

 

2 thoughts on “the shepherd and the poet

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  1. Wonderful – I haven’t heard the story about the wizard before, or that Hogg was ‘the last to speak to the fairies’. (I’m studying his poems about Scottish Covenanters but I’m going to read more about other aspects of his life now. Thank you!

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