In 1638, the sixth son of a Lord Advocate of Scotland acquired by marriage "five merklands of Waterhead of Overglengonnar in Crawfordmuir, known also as Leadhill". Someone having discovered that this blasted heath was sitting on huge loads of lead that could be shipped from Leith to the Low Countries at a considerable profit to its owner and the Crown, it was promptly transformed under the Great Seal into "the lands and barony of Hopetoun".
To set his mines in motion, Sir John Hope of Hopetoun recruited a mine master from Derbyshire to disembowel as much ore from his Clydesdale barony as the inclement climate and the risk of flooding would permit. His recruit was Allan Bower, who set up a "bargain" system whereby local sheep farmers could earn some extra money during the mining season by being windlassed twenty or more fathoms down the narrow sinks holding a candle and standing on one foot in a looped rope, before sending their output back to the surface in buckets.
Allan Bower's overseer in charge of the "bargains" was John Ramsay, grandson of the Hopetoun grieve and son of the Hopetoun factor in Edinburgh. John married his boss's daughter, Alice, who bore him two sons in 1680 and 1684, Robert and Allan. But he died suddenly in 1685, possibly in a mining accident. For several years, his two boys were cared for on the Hopetoun estate by their English grandfather. After his death, Alice contracted a second marriage with a Crawfordjohn farmer, with the result that Robert was shortly dispatched to Edinburgh as an apprentice to a wigmaker called Robertson—Alice's sister's husband—while young Allan attended the Crawfordjohn parish school until he too, after his mother's death, was eventually signed up by his Edinburgh uncle.
His training as a perukier doubtless provided Allan with a modest proficiency in French in addition to the three very basic Rs he had acquired in Crawfordjohn. He got the rest from books and bookmen. In the early 1700s, Edinburgh was well endowed with printers and booksellers. In the circles that gravitated around the Parliament House—judges, advocates, attorneys and politicians—books were in fashion. So were wigs. By bringing him into contact with the Scottish ruling class and its bright young sons just back from their tours of the European centres of learning and culture, Allan’s trade provided him with access to the means he needed to develop what his son later called his "uncultivated genius".
He completed his apprenticeship in 1709 and was admitted a burgess of Edinburgh in 1710. At this time or shortly afterwards, he set up shop at the sign of the Mercury on the north side of the High Street opposite Niddry’s Wynd and became a founder member of the Easy Club, a convivial society of twelve young Scotsmen who met over a bottle for their mutual improvement through conversation.
In December 1712, he married Christian Ross, eldest daughter of the late Robert Ross, an Edinburgh "writer" (lawyer's clerk or notary) like his paternal grandfather. Two years older than her husband, she remained his valiant bedfellow for over forty years, giving him a steady stream of children of whom only three girls and a boy outlived him. The son born in 1713 was Allan Ramsay the painter and essayist, who travelled widely in Europe and was very successful as a portrait painter in Edinburgh and London. The girls all stayed at home and died spinsters.
The first of Ramsay’s poems to be printed appears to have been a piece written for the Easy Club, who paid for it to go through the press in 1713. It is clear, however, that he had composed a number of pieces before that. The club Journal records that "being all acquaint with his Naturall abilities for poetry and some of his performances it was unnanimously agreed he should be honoured with ye Character of Poet Laureat to the Easy Club". Another of his early pieces, an emulation in standard English of Pope’s The Rape of the Lock transposed to Edinburgh, was printed anonymously in 1716 and sold by a bookseller in the Parliament Close. From then on, however, all of his sheets and pamphlets, some of them unsigned but transparently his, were issued under his own imprint and sold at his shop.
At thirty, he became a city constable, a sure sign that his business was prospering and his reputation growing. A year or so later, we find him in the orbit of The Phiz, a group of literati who met in a tavern in Leith to recite, converse, drink, sing and be merry. These well-connected and highly-educated young gentlemen, known by the Leith locals as "the Worthies", took him under their wing and provided him for the first time with competent criticism and influential patronage. For them he performed his mock elegies in broad Scots, his version of the Scots ballad Christ’s Kirk on the Green, the songs he had written to traditional Scottish tunes and, surprisingly, his repeated attempts at writing verse in English.
Most of Ramsay’s young patrons were members of the landed gentry trained to assume parliamentary and judicial responsibilities. John Forbes, son of Sir David Forbes of New Hall, was an advocate. So was his Aberdeen cousin, Duncan Forbes, son of Duncan Forbes of Culloden. Their cousin John Clerk, son of Sir John Clerk of Penicuik, was a baron of the Court of Exchequer. These three young men lived in neighbouring country seats within a few miles of Edinburgh and were connected privately with two of the wealthiest and most powerful families in Scotland, Duncan Forbes as factor to the Duke of Argyll, John Clerk as factor to the Duke of Queensberry. Between them, the young Argyll and the even younger Queensberry, through their allies and agents in England and Scotland, were determined to make the Union work. The poet Allan Ramsay, brimming with talent and ambition, became one of their guided weapons. The very numerous sheets and pamphlets he issued in Edinburgh between 1716 and 1720 duly made their way to London, where they became part of the unionists’ campaign to promote a positive image of Scotland after the disastrous Highland rebellion in 1715.
The idea spawned in this circle of producing a luxury subscription edition of Ramsay's poems, "to be beautifully printed in one Volume in large Quarto, on fine Paper and with a new Letter, with Notes at the bottom of each page, explaining the Scotch Phrases; and at the End, a compleat Glossary of all the Scotch Words made use of in this Work." The price was to be one guinea in sheets, half to be paid down, the other half on delivery. The entire unionist machine was launched to sell this consecration of a "Northern Bard". Argyll’s and Queensberry’s agents brought in a very impressive list of subscribers ranging from the dukes themselves and their families to noble lords (including the young Earl of Hopetoun), ladies, lairds, advocates, judges, members of parliament, soldiers, gentlemen, merchants, a distinguished essayist (Sir Richard Steele) and even a great poet (Alexander Pope). The king was represented by his "daily waiter", Sir George Brand, usher of the Green Rod. All of these people were committed to the notion of a Hanoverian Britain in which Scotland and England could be equal partners.
The book was a success. Ramsay reaped in possibly less gold than honour, but his fortune was made as an emblem of Scottish excellence. The myth of his "uncultivated genius" raised to fame from the wilds of Crawford Moor by the spirit and principles of Old Caledonia was firmly on the rails. All he had to do now was prove that he was a poet. Between 1721 and 1730, that was precisely his main agenda as an important part of his business activities.
Since the 1695 non-renewal of the Licensing Order and the enacting of the 1709/10 copyright law, the British book trade was soaring. Ramsay spotted his chance, abandoned wigmaking altogether and moved his shop a few yards west up the High Street to a fine old four-storey house in Brown’s Land opposite the Cross-well, where he operated as a fully-fledged bookseller, offering his own penny sheets and sixpenny pamphlets along with the latest books from the Edinburgh presses and those he received from London. As the post now linked the two capitals in two days thrice a week, he was in a position to provide his customers promptly with all the reading they could wish for. Before long, he was able to leave his assistants to deal with the everyday business of the shop and devote most of his time to writing and publishing, "shut in a study five foot square" as he wrote to Duncan Forbes in 1724.
The critical and convivial circle of his young patrons met in the summer on the Forbes estate at New Hall, near Carlops, where they were joined by John Forbes’s elderly neighbour and friend Dr Alexander Pennecuik, co-author with Forbes of a splendid monograph on the surrounding countryside. Ramsay was invited to join the Worthies for their walking, eating, reading, talking, drinking and singing sessions at New Hall. There is a picture in the New Hall library of one of the club’s sederunts in Leith at which Ramsay, standing by the window, is seen reading to five gentlemen while William Aikman draws his portrait and two attendants bring in a bowl of punch. The picture reveals that Ramsay’s social status at this time was still inferior to that of his audience: all of them wear the long periwigs appropriate to gentlemen of means, whereas he is topped with a short tie-wig such as worn by clerks and scholars. Nonetheless, he appears to have been accepted into the club as a pleasant and admired companion and not at all as a kind of laird’s fool.
William Tytler, the historian, tells how, as a boy, he witnessed sessions at New Hall during which Ramsay read early drafts of The Gentle Shepherd to his patrons. This famous five-act pastoral comedy set in the Pentland Hills is in one sense a poetic transposition of Pennecuik’s and Forbes’s Description of Tweedsdale, in that it attempts to depict the "real" country life of a small region of northern Britain with its natural scenery, its typical characters, its family histories, its languages and its essential timeless decency. When read in the unionist environment of New Hall, however, this apparently innocent rustic comedy was undoubtedly received as a satire of attitudes to the Union, depicted by Ramsay as three eventually successful wooings. The main plot revolves around the return of Sir William Worthy from exile at the restoration of Charles II. Sir William, a traditional laird, expects his world to function as it did under the old regime. However, his radical yet dutiful fifteen-year-old son, an alleged foundling raised as a shepherd during the laird’s exile by one of his faithful tenants, has taught himself a thing or two from books and openly prefers his milkmaid sweetheart to the "petted thing" his de-exiled father expects him to marry in return for "some few bags of cash". The situation is resolved by a coup de théâtre: the milkmaid is discovered to be as "gentle" as her shepherd and Sir William happily agrees to their union now that their equality of rank is assured.
Visions of the British union were among Ramsay’s main preoccupations at this time, probably under the influence of his New Hall patrons. The subject appears notably in a dramatized version of an earlier satire that he published anonymously in 1722 while working on The Gentle Shepherd. In this A Tale of Three Bonnets, the Act of Union is represented as an attempted annexation of Scotland by England. An English vamp seduces a silly Scotsman, promising to marry him if he brings her the permission bonnets, symbols of rank and independence, which he and his two brothers received from their worthy father on his deathbed. It takes the intervention of the father’s ghost to thwart the plan of the English temptress.
Marriage poems poured from Ramsay’s pen at this time, all of them with overtones of the British union and most of them stressing the need for equality between the spouses. His numerous death and birth poems celebrated the Scottish heritage and the future of Scotland in the new European order.
The twin themes of personal and social improvement apparent in The Gentle Shepherd were in the forefront of Ramsay’s thinking in the early 1720s. His shepherd hero, like himself, was largely self-taught. It is not known for sure where he sent his own boy to school, though it may have been to Haddington Grammar School, where John Leslie, its master, shared his belief in the educational value of the stage and where Sir John Clerk's twin sons were enrolled.
Ramsay’s imitations of the fables of La Motte and La Fontaine published in 1722 were naturally intended for school consumption, but also for a much broader readership. This short comic form sold in a sixpenny pamphlet was perfectly suited to his stance as a Scottish moral philosopher intent on uplifting his readers while entertaining them in their native tongue. It was also very good business. Several editions appeared in a space of a few months.
His popularity allowed him to approach the inner circles of civic power in Edinburgh, where Sir John Clerk’s former amanuensis George Drummond was his principal ally. At the same time as he spoke out for Scotland, Ramsay espoused the cause of Edinburgh, the bereaved and stinking capital which he dreamt of restoring to its former glory. That proud and golden past, or at least its myth, was upheld by the ancient Royal Company of Scottish Archers, an exclusive assembly of notables, of which he became an honorary member in 1724, acting the role of its bard.
By this time he had gained the confidence of Thomas Ruddiman, the assistant keeper of the library of the Faculty of Advocates, a general collection mainly in Latin that later became the nucleus of the National Library of Scotland. Ruddiman was a true scholar and an heroic worker who did his best to keep the wolf from the door by running a printing business established in 1715 with his brother Walter. They began printing Ramsay’s publications in 1718, but Ramsay must have encountered them fairly soon after his arrival in Edinburgh. It was certainly Thomas Ruddiman’s work on the 1710 Edinburgh edition of Gawin Douglas’s Scots translation of Virgil that inspired the young wigmaker to adopt Douglas as his Easy Club patron and to enrich his native dialect with borrowings from Middle Scots.
This antiquarian interest in the old language, which added prestige value to his own efforts in the vernacular, led Ramsay to request and obtain the loan of an invaluable manuscript compiled by George Bannatyne in the late 1500s, from which he extracted his two-volume anthology The Ever Green printed by Ruddiman in 1724. This he hoped would put the older Scottish poets on the map alongside their ubiquitous English counterparts Chaucer and Spenser and serve to revive Scots as a vehicle for literature in his own day.
In his preface to The Ever Green, Ramsay wrote: "The most part of our Gentlemen, who are generally Masters of the most useful and politest Languages, can take Pleasure (for a Change) to speak and read their own." An assumption was gaining ground after 1715 that English was somehow superior to Scots. This surely informed Ramsay’s fable The Eagle and Robin Red-breist, a satire on the scorn meted out in London on the first Scottish members of the Westminster parliament in 1708, one of whom had been the accomplished violinist and composer John Clerk, who was certainly a more fluent speaker of Latin and Scots than he was of English, a fact that the Baron himself frequently deplored in his memoirs.
Unfortunately, The Ever Green was one of Ramsay's few flops as a publisher and, inasmuch as he adapted rather than edited the poems to make them readable by the general public within the scope of his vision of Britain, it has exposed him to much adverse criticism from modern scholars imagining he worked on the same principles as themselves. Luckily his next venture, a collection of Scots songs entitled The Tea-Table Miscellany, was a commercial success, as was The Gentle Shepherd published in its wake.
From 1726, alongside his establishment in Brown’s Land, he operated splendid premises "on the East End of the Luckenbooths" that had formerly functioned as the London Coffee House. The view from his first-storey windows ran right down the High Street and over the Canongate and Holyrood House as far as the sea. He seems to have run the place as a kind of literary café where good conversation was to be had along with the latest books and papers from London and Edinburgh. The social exchange aspect of the new venture was emphasised by the signboard he put up "at Hawthornden’s and Ben Johnson’s Heads", a pun on Ruddiman’s Heads of a Conversation betwixt the famous Poet Ben Johnson and William Drummond of Hawthornden demonstrating the British union at work in 1629.
Ramsay's implication in the social life of Edinburgh was complete by the time he reached forty. Perhaps for the first time since ancient Rome, a poet was universally known and esteemed by his fellow citizens. He spoke for the city in a number of addresses, odes and epistles in which he contrived to flatter without pandering. By inclination as much as by interest, he wrote often of the "ladys" who governed the Edinburgh assemblies and tea-tables, tending to describe them all in the light of his idéal féminin (which his painter son inherited) of a pert young lass with rosy cheeks, full lips and an independent mind. He broadened his political base to include members of the squadrone like the Duke of Roxburghe while remaining close to his Argathelian friends. The Forbeses, the young Queensberrys and the admirable Sir John Clerk helped him to achieve this whiggish double-split without ever having to enter the political arena directly.
The only faction that challenged his civic reputation was the puritanical wing of the kirk aided and abetted by the university, which in those days was a mediocre college with only four "rectors" or professors, all renowned for their moral intransigence. In religious matters, Ramsay was a declared Christian and a devout anti-papist, a conforming pew-holder but, above all, a convinced opponent of kirk justice, seeing that Scottish history, with its sad record of witch-hunts and blasphemy killings, had shown the presbytery’s rod to be as severely twisted as the papacy’s had been before it. Ramsay’s faith and morals proceeded from philosophy, not from dogma, and the only law he observed strictly, apart from the universal law of charity or human-kindness, was that of the State. This liberal viewpoint inevitably exposed him to the censure of the presbyterian "high flyers", whose intolerance he often ridiculed in his mock elegies and public epistles and presumably in his everyday conversation. When he set up a lending library on his Luckenbooths site, the puritans tried to get it banned for immorality. The library was raided, but Ramsay was tipped off, and any books likely to cause trouble disappeared from his shelves before the vigilantes arrived.
Improvement was the keyword in Ramsay’s thinking in the late 1720s. His library was reportedly frequented by "young boyes, servant weemen of the better sort, and gentlemen" who paid "two pence a night" for the loan of a book—a modest token of social mixity and educational opportunity. Realizing that Edinburgh offered no training for budding artists, apart from a potentially frustrating apprenticeship to sign- or coach-painters, he helped to found the Academy of St. Luke, at which he enrolled his talented sixteen-year-old son. He may also have been the driving force behind The Eccho, an Edinburgh weekly that ran from 1729 to 1734. He was certainly close to Ruddiman’s Caledonian Mercury, in which he published poems, news items and advertisements.
Alongside all this civic activity, he published a second subscription volume on fine paper in 1728. His list of subscribers for this was as long and as distinguished as the one obtained for his first quarto seven years earlier. By now, however, he had attained a social position that allowed him to write, albeit jokingly, to Alexander Brodie of Brodie, the Lyon King of Arms, then in London: "Hook in as many as you can for me... By all means, you and my dear Ld Advocate [Duncan Forbes] maun get consent from Sir Robert Walpool, that I may mark him in my List."
Although Walpole remained prudently unhooked in, this second subscription volume amply confirmed Ramsay’s standing as a British poet. Though it was followed over the years by a fairly large number of reprints, it proved to be his final public appearance as the Northern Bard. His son explained this sudden retirement from the publishing arena in terms of a sense of fulfilment: "He had even formed a project of selecting as many of his principal pieces as would fill one Volume, leaving the rest to perish by neglect." In a letter to his painter friend John Smibert in 1736, Ramsay himself wrote: "These six or seven years past I have not wrote a line of poetry; I e’en gave o’er in good time, before the coolness of fancy that attends advanced years should make me risk the reputation I had acquired." In short, he had completed his agenda. Nonetheless, he continued to write verse for the entertainment of his friends, notably several tales that remained unpublished until quite recently, and he did reappear as a poet in the later 1730s to shoot two ultimate satires at the intolerant kirk and its ally the university.
This final poetic sally was provoked by the kirk’s opposition to his attempt to set up, at his own expense and investing all of his personal prestige, Edinburgh’s first permanent public theatre. He had been toying with the idea for many years, seeing the stage both as a means of improvement through entertainment and as a potentially viable business enterprise. He found suitable premises in Carrubber’s Close, planned and built the playhouse, hired a company of actors and opened on 8 November 1736 with a double bill of Dryden’s The Recruiting Officer and a ballad-opera by Farquhar entitled The Virgin Unmask’d, for which he wrote a new prologue. Shrieks were heard immediately and a tremendous battle of words, legal proceedings, petitions, counter-petitions and counter-counter-petitions pleading for and against the application of Walpole’s 1737 Licensing Act was engaged between the Edinburgh liberals and the presbyterian high-flyers.
Ultimately, the cause was lost by both sides. The Town Officer appeared at the theatre with a blank warrant on 10 January 1739 and the actors were forced to go into hiding in the Holyrood Sanctuary. Ramsay successfully fended off proceedings against himself as landlord of an illegal playhouse and organised a fighting fund to defend the actors. They lost their case, however, and eight of the actors received heavy fines, though a contrived delay in the issue of collecting powers gave them time to flee Edinburgh without paying up. In the meantime, Ramsay tried to organise an Act of Parliament instituting a legally-established theatre in Edinburgh, but his London lobbyists failed to push the bill through against opposition from Walpole, who feared the stage for political reasons, and all that was left for Ramsay to do was to count his losses, consoling himself by the knowledge that the Presbytery, by now unmasked and clearly perceived to be latterday Puritans, had also to face up to several hundred pounds in legal costs.
It is a measure of the outstanding success of his book business that he was able to absorb his theatre losses at the same time as he was building his famous "Goose-Pie" house on the Castle Bank. He moved in "against Whitsunday" in 1740, having let his house at the Cross to a young bookseller and auctioned off his stock. A year later, while arranging for his High Street property to go to his daughters, one of whom still owned it at the close of the century (when William Creech, Robert Burns’s publisher, was in business there), he disponed the new house and garden to his son. Ramsay junior was by now becoming quite well known as a portrait painter. He had just been on the grand tour as a young laird’s travelling companion, probably with a bursary provided by his father’s patrons, and the poet’s influential entourage had launched him both in Edinburgh and, more recently, in London on the periphery of the Court. When in Edinburgh, he used a garden room in the Castle Bank house as his studio, and his father’s cheerful disposition no doubt helped him to dispel his melancholy, which the deaths of his infant son, his young wife and his mother within a few months of each other did nothing to alleviate.
Ramsay père had by now acquired an easy relationship with death. He buried his wife, encouraged his bereaved son to paint "giglet lassies" instead of noble males, and applied himself to spending his widowerhood as philosophically as possible in his Castle Bank retreat with its cow, hens, sheep, lawns, trees, flowers and kail yard. He saw himself as a Scottish Horace, easy at last and contented in his bower, enjoying his books and the conversation of his friends, far from the general scramble after riches and power which he found ludicrous and unworthy. He spent most of his summers as the guest of friendly lords and lairds at their country seats a few miles from Edinburgh, entertaining them with party pieces that he performed in their common native tongue. At Mavisbank and Penicuik, where the classical scholar Sir John Clerk provided him with a practical model for the Horatian life of ease, he was regarded as one of the family, a member of the familia or patrician household. He remained untroubled whatever happened. His son wrote: "He was blest with an equality of mind, free from impatience or anxiety, and little elevated or cast down, with anything prosperous or adverse that befell him." When the Goose-Pie was requisitioned by Jacobite soldiery during the Forty-Five as a vantage point for firing at the walls of Edinburgh Castle, his only recorded reaction was his farcical tale ’Tis well that’s not worse.
Whether original or drawn from earlier Scottish, English or French models, his tales drew their inspiration from one of three sources: the learned satire, the Chaucerian tale, the tavern jest. His son tells how Ramsay read the satires of Sir David Lindsay as a boy and how he was fond, in his old age, of reading Chaucer in black letter print. His early exposure to folk tales and broadsheet ballads in Clydesdale and his apprenticeship as a convivial drinker in Edinburgh gave him plenty of opportunities to absorb the spirit of the fabliau that lived on in his Scotland. His tales, whatever their satirical bearing, are essentially vehicles for merriment. Even more patently than his fables, which he designed mainly for bookish reading, they are intended for performance in relaxed company.
Drinking, mirth and song were the three main attributes of Scottish male (and even mixed) festivities in the early eighteenth century, irrespective of class. Ramsay’s distinguished friend Duncan Forbes, who with the Earl of Islay virtually ruled Scotland from 1724 to 1746, was known at the grammar school in Inverness as one of the two "greatest bouzers in the North", the other being his elder brother John. According to his biographers, Duncan Forbes himself enjoyed telling how, when his mother Lady Forbes died in 1716, the several thousand mourners who turned up for the funeral got so drunk at Culloden House that they all rode off to the graveyard leaving the corpse behind, with the result that Duncan, who was in charge of the obsequies as the younger son, had to send back home for it.
Such was the social context in which Ramsay’s tales saw the light of day. Later generations found them coarse, forgetting that they were written for one of the most highly civilised companies of gentlemen in Scotland and that they belonged to an ancient tradition of courtly minstrelsy in which the spirit of farce was allowed to turn the knightly world topsy-turvy.
Sir John Clerk’s death in 1755, followed by Ramsay’s on 7 January 1758, brought the curtain down on a remarkable period of recovery and renewal during which Scotland came to equal, and in some fields surpass, England as a hotbed for improvement. All of the poet’s efforts, like those of the Clerks and Forbeses, tended towards the instauration of a true British union of equal nations. Ironically, it was when that union was most likely to succeed under George III that the Scottish intelligentsia, as prophesied by the dying Duniwhistle in A Tale of Three Bonnets, allowed their English seductress to enslave them. The generation of the so-called Scottish Enlightenment, whose peculiarities (of language, of manners...) made them a laughing stock in Dr Johnson’s London, became as ashamed of their heritage as their fathers had been proud of it. Hume and Boswell, for instance, did their best to erase those of their inherited characteristics that were mocked by the London wits, starting with their Scots syntax and pronunciation. Ramsay’s attempt to champion both the survival of Scots as such and the emergence of a new British language had failed. After him, though Fergusson still wrote in a distinctively Scots idiom, Burns knew he was using what was generally held to be a dialect of English.
As Sir Walter Scott wrote to his friend and business partner Constable in 1822: "Scotch was a language which we have heard spoken by the learnd and the wise & witty & the accomplished and which had not a trace of vulgarity in it but on the contrary sounded rather graceful and genteel. You remember how well Mrs Murray Keith—the late Lady Dumfries—my poor mother & other ladies of that day spoke their native language—it was as different from English as the Venetian is from the Tuscan dialect of Italy but it never occurd to any one that the Scotish any more than the Venetian was more vulgar than those who spoke the purer and more classical—But that is all gone & the remembrance will be drownd with us the elders of this existing generation." (Letters, ed. Grierson, vii, 63)