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A biographical dictionary of eminent Scotsmen/Bannatyne, George

BANNATYNE, George, takes his title to a place in this work from a source of fame participated by no other individual within the range of Scottish biography; it is to this person that we are indebted for the preservation of nearly all the productions of the Scottish poets of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Though the services he has thus rendered to his country were in some measure the result of accident, yet it is also evident that, if he had not been a person of eminent literary taste, and also partly a poet himself, we should never have had to celebrate him as a collector of poetry. The compound claim which he has thus established to our notice, and the curious antique picture which is presented to our eye by even the little that is known regarding his character and pursuits, will, it is hoped, amply justify his admission into this gallery of eminent Scotsmen.

George Bannatyne was born in an elevated rank of society. His father, James Bannatyne, of the Kirktown of Newtyle, in the county of Forfar, was a writer in Edinburgh, at a time when that profession must have been one of some distinction and rarity; and he was probably the person alluded to by Robert Semple, in "The Defens of Grissell Sandylands:"—

"For men of law I wait not quhair to luke:
James Bannatyne was anis a man of skill."

It also appears that James Bannatyne held the office of Tabular to the Lords of Session, in which office his eldest son (afterwards a Lord of Council and Session) was conjoined with him as successor, by royal precept dated May 2, 1583. James Bannatyne is further ascertained to have been connected with the very ancient and respectable family of Bannachtyne, or Bannatyne of Camys, [now Kames] in the island of Bute. He was the father, by his wife Katharine Tailliefer, of twenty-three children, nine of whom, who survived at the time of his death, in 1583, were "weill, and sufficiently provydit be him, under God."

George Bannatyne, the seventh child of his parents, was born on the 22nd day of February, 1545, and was bred up to trade.[1] It is, however, quite uncertain at what time he began to be engaged in business on his own account, or whether he spent his youth in business or not. Judging, however, as the world is apt to judge, we should suppose, from his taste for poetry, and his having been a writer of verses himself, that he was at least no zealous applicant to any commercial pursuit. Two poems of his, written before the age of twenty-three, are full of ardent though conceited affection towards some fair mistress, whom he describes in the most extravagantly complimentary terms. It is also to be supposed that, at this age, even though obliged to seek some amusement during a time of necessary seclusion, he could not have found the means to collect, or the taste to execute, such a mass of poetry as that which bears his name, if he had not previously been almost entirely abandoned to this particular pursuit. At the same time, there is some reason to suppose that he was not altogether an idle young man, given up to vain fancies, from the two first lines of his valedictory address at the end of his collection:

"Heir endis this Buik writtin in tyme of pest,
Quhen we fra labor was compel'd to rest."

Of the transaction on which the whole fame of George Bannatyne rests, we give the following interesting account from the Memoir just quoted:—

"It is seldom that the toils of the amanuensis are in themselves interesting or that, even while enjoying the advantages of the poor scribe's labour, we are disposed to allow him the merit of more than mere mechanical drudgery. But in the compilation of George Bannatyne's manuscript, there are particulars which rivet our attention on the writer, and raise him from a humble copyist into a national benefactor.

"Bannatyne's Manuscript is in a folio form, containing upwards of eight hundred pages, very neatly and closely written, and designed, as has been supposed, to be sent to the press. The labour of compiling so rich a collection was undertaken by the author during the time of pestilence, in the year 1568, when the dread of infection compelled men to forsake their usual employments, which could not be conducted without admitting the ordinary promiscuous intercourse between man and his kindred men.

"In this dreadful period, when hundreds, finding themselves surrounded by danger and death, renounced all care save that of selfish precaution for their own safety, and all thoughts save apprehensions of infection, George Bannatyne had the courageous energy to form and execute the plan of saving the literature of a whole nation; and, undisturbed by the universal mourning for the dead, and general fears of the living, to devote himself to the task of collecting and recording the triumphs of human genius;—thus, amid the wreck of all that was mortal, employing himself in preserving the lays by which immortality is at once given to others, and obtained for the writer himself. His task, he informs us, had its difficulties; for he complains that he had, even in his time, to contend with the disadvantage of copies old, maimed, and mutilated, and which long before our day must, but for this faithful transcriber, have perished entirely. The very labour of procuring the originals of the works which he transcribed, must have been attended with much trouble and some risk, at a time when all the usual intercourse of life was suspended, and when we can conceive that even so simple a circumstance as the borrowing and lending a book of ballads, was accompanied with some doubt and apprehension, and that probably the suspected volume was subjected to fumigation, and the precautions used in quarantine.[2]


"In the reign of James IV. and V., the fine arts, as they awakened in other countries, made some progress in Scotland also. Architecture and music were encouraged by both of those accomplished sovereigns; and poetry above all, seems to have been highly valued at the Scottish court. The King of Scotland, who, in point of power, seems to have been little more than the first baron of his kingdom, held a free and merry court, in which poetry and satire seem to have had unlimited range, even where their shafts glanced on royalty itself. The consequence of this general encouragement was the production of much poetry of various kinds, and concerning various persons, which the narrow exertions of the Scottish press could not convey to the public, or which, if printed at all, existed only in limited editions, which soon sunk to the rarity of manuscripts. There was therefore an ample mine out of which Bannntyne made his compilation, with the intention, doubtless, of putting the Lays of the Makers out of the reach of oblivion, by subjecting the collection to the press. But the bloody wars of Queen Mary's time[3] made that no period for literary adventure; and the tendency of the subsequent age to polemical discussion, discouraged lighter and gayer studies. There is, therefore, little doubt, that had Bannatyne lived later than he did, or had he been a man of less taste in selecting his materials, a great proportion of the poetry contained in his volume must have been lost to posterity; and, if the stock of northern literature had been diminished only by the loss of such of Dunbar's pieces as Bannatyne's Manuscript contains, the damage to posterity would have been infinite."

The pestilence which caused Bannatyne to go into retirement, commenced at Edinburgh upon the 8th of September, 1568, being introduced by a merchant of the name of Dalgleish. We have, however, no evidence to prove that Bannatyne resided at this time in the capital. We know, from his own information, that he wrote his manuscript during the subsequent months of October, November, and December; which might almost seem to imply that he had lived in some other town, to which the pestilence only extended at the end of the month in which it appeared in Edinburgh. Leaving this in uncertainty, it is not perhaps too much to suppose that he might have adopted this means of spending his time of seclusion, from the fictitious example held out by Boccacio, who represents the tales of his Decameron as having been told for mutual amusement, by a company of persons who had retired to the country to escape the plague. A person so eminently acquainted with the poetry of his own country, might well be familiar with the kindred work of that illustrious Italian.

The few remaining facts of George Bannatyne's life, which have been gathered up by the industry of Sir Walter Scott, may be briefly related. In 1572, he was provided with a tenement in the town of Leith, by a gift from his father. This would seem to imply that he was henceforward, at least, engaged in business, and resided either in Edinburgh or at its neighbouring port. It was not, however, till the 27th of October, 1587, that, being then in his forty-third year, he was admitted in due and competent form to the privileges of a merchant and guild-brother of the city of Edinburgh. "We have no means of knowing what branch of traffic George Bannatyne chiefly exercised; it is probable that, as usual in a Scottish burgh, his commerce was general and miscellaneous. We have reason to know that it was successful, as we find him in a few years possessed of a considerable capital, the time being considered, which he employed to advantage in various money-lending transactions. It must not be forgot that the penal laws of the Catholic period pronounced all direct taking of interest upon money, to be usurious and illegal. These denunciations did not decrease the desire of the wealthy to derive some profit from their capital, or diminish the necessity of the embarrassed land-holder who wished to borrow money. The mutual interest of the parties suggested various evasions of the law, of which the most common was, that the capitalist advanced to his debtor the sum wanted, as the price of a corresponding annuity, payable out of the lands and tenements of the debtor, which annuity was rendered redeemable upon the said debtor repaying the sum advanced. The moneyed man of those days, therefore, imitated the conduct imputed to the Jewish patriarch by Shylock. They did not take

—— interest—not as you would say
Directly interest,

but they retained payment of an annuity as long as the debtor retained the use of their capital, which came to much the same thing. A species of transaction was contrived, as affording a convenient mode of securing the lender's money. Our researches have discovered that George Bannatyne had sufficient funds to enter into various transactions of this kind, in the capacity of lender; and, as we have no reason to suppose that he profited unfairly by the necessities of the other party, he cannot be blamed for having recourse to the ordinary expedients, to avoid the penalty of an absurd law, and accomplish a fair transaction, dictated by mutual expediency."

Bannatyne, about the same time that he became a burgess of Edinburgh, appears to have married his spouse, Isobel Mawchan [apparently identical with the modern name Maughan], who was the relict of Bailie William Nisbett, and must have been about forty years of age at the time of her second nuptials, supposing 1586 to be the date of that event, which is only probable from the succeeding year having produced her first child by Bannatyne. This child was a daughter, by name Janet, or Jonet; she was born on the 3rd of May, 1587. A son, James, born on the 6th of September, 1589, and who died young, completes the sum of Bannatyne's family. The father of Bannatyne died in the year 1583, and was succeeded in his estate of Newtyle, by his eldest living son, Thomas, who became one of the Lords of Session by that designation, an appointment which forms an additional voucher for the general respectability of the family. George Bannatyne was, on the 27th of August, 1603, deprived of his affectionate helpmate, Isobel Mawchan, at the age of fifty-seven, She had lived, according to her husband's "Memoriall," "a godly, honourable, and virtuous life; was a wise, honest, and true matron, and departed in the Lord, in a peaceful and godly manner."

George Bannatyne himself deceased previous to the year 1608, leaving only one child, Janet, who had, in 1603, been married to George Foulis of Woodhall and Ravelstone, second son of James Foulis of Colingtoun. His valuable collection of Scottish poetry was preserved in his daughter's family till 1712, when his great-grandson, William Foulis of Woodhall, bestowed it upon the Honourable William Carmichael of Skirling, advocate, brother to the Earl of Hyndford, a gentleman who appears to have had an eminent taste for such monuments of antiquity. While in the possession of Mr Carmichael, it was borrowed by Allan Ramsay, who selected from its pages the materials of his popular collection, styled, "The Evergreen." Lord Hailes, in 1770, published a second and more correct selection from the Bannatyne Manuscript; and the venerable tome was, In 1772, by the liberality of John, third Earl of Hyndford, deposited in the Advocates' Library at Edinburgh, where it still remains.

We have already alluded to George Bannatyne as a poet; and it remains to be shown in what degree he was entitled to that designation. To tell the truth, his verses display little, in thought or imagery, that could be expected to interest the present generation; neither was he perhaps a versifier of great repute, even in his own time. He seems to have belonged to a class very numerous in private life, who are eminently capable of enjoying poetry, and possess, to appearance, all the sensibilities which are necessary to its production; but, wanting the active or creative power, rarely yield to the temptation of writing verse, without a signal defeat. Such persons, of whom George Bannatyne was certainly one, may be said to have negative, but not positive poetry. As it seems but fair, however, that he who has done so much to bring the poetry of others before the world, should not have his own altogether confined to the solitude of manuscript, or the unobvious print of his own bibliographical society, we subjoin a specimen from one of the very few pieces which have come down to our own time. The verses which follow are the quaint, but characteristic conclusion of a sonnet to his mistress' eyebrow. It is ludicrous to observe theology pressed by the venerable rhymester into the service of love.

"Na thing of rycht I ask, my Lady fair,
 Bot of fre will and mercy me to saif;
Your will is your awin, as ressoun wald it ware,
 Thairfoir of grace, and nocht of rycht I craif
 Of you mercy, as ye wald mercy haif
Off God our Lord, quhois mercyis infeneit
 Gois befoire all his workis, we may persaif,
To thame quhois handis with mercy ar repleit.

Now to conclude with wordis compendious;
 Wald God my tong wald to my will respond,
And eik my speich was so facundious,
 That I was full of rethore termys jocond!
 Than suld my lufe at moir length be exponed,
Than my cunnying can to you heir declair;
 For this my style inornetly compond,
Eschangs my pen your eiris to truble mair.

Go to my deir with hummill reverence,
 Thou bony bill, both rude and imperfeyte;
Go, nocht will forgit flattery to her presence,
 As is of falset the custome use and ryte;
 Causs me nocht Ban that evir I the indyte.
Na tyne my travell, turning all in vane;
 Bot with ane faithfull hairt, in word and wryte,
Declair my mind and bring me joy agane.

   My name quha list to knaw, let him tak tent
   Vnto this littill verse nixt presedent."

It only remains to be mentioned that the name of George Bannatyne has been appropriately adopted by a company of Scottish literary antiquaries, interested, like him, in the preservation of such curious memorials of the taste of past ages, as well as such monuments of history, as might otherwise run the hazard of total perdition.

  1. In a memoir of George Bannatyne, by Sir Walter Scott, prefixed to a collection of memorabilia regarding him, which has been printed for the Bannatyne Club, it is supposed that he was not early engaged in business. But this supposition seems only to rest on an uncertain inference from a passage in George Bannatyne's "Memoriall Buik," where it is mentioned that Katharine Tailliefer, at her death in 1570, left behind her eleven children, of whom eight were as yet "unput to proffeit." On a careful inspection of the family notices in this "memoriall buik," it appears as likely that George himself was one of those already "put to proffeit" as otherwise, more especially considering that he was then twenty-five years of age.
  2. With deference to Sir Walter, we would suggest that the suspicion under which books are always held at a time of pestilence, as a means of conveying the infection, gives great reason to suppose that George Bannatyne had previously collected his original manuscripts, and only took this opportunity of transcribing them. The writing of eight hundred folio pages in the careful and intricate style of caligraphy then practised, appears a sufficient task in itself for three months, without supposing that any part of the time was spent in collecting manuscripts. And hence we see the greater reason for supposing that a large part of the attention of George Bannatyne before his twenty-third year was devoted to Scottish poetry.
  3. The accomplished writer should rather have said, the minority of James VI., whose reign had commenced before the manuscript was written.