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Bruce, Michael (1746-1767) (DNB00)

BRUCE, MICHAEL (1746–1767), poet, the fifth of eight children of Alexander Bruce, weaver, was born at Kinnesswood, a hamlet in the parish of Portmoak, on the eastem shore of Lochleven, Kinross-shire, on 27 March 1746. His father was an elder of the seceding church which adhered to Thomas Mair of Orwell, Kinross-shire, elected from the anti-burgher synod for holding that ‘there is a sense in which Christ died for all men.’ Bruce, who was a quick and delicate boy, was early taught to read and write, and was made useful as a ‘wee herd loon’ in tending sheep. At the village school his great companion was William Arnot, to whose memory he wrote ‘Daphnis’ in May 1765. At the age of eleven he had resolved to be a minister. When he was about sixteen his father received a bequest of 200 merks Scots (11l. 2s. 2d.), which he devoted to his son’s education. Bruce was enrolled in the Greek class at Edinburgh University under Robert Hunter on 17 Dec 1762. He attended three sessions at Edinburgh, not confining himself to the arts course (for in 1763 he took Hebrew along with natural philosophy), and taking pleasure in belles lettres and poetry. He acquired as his letters show an admirable prose style and contributed some poems to the Literary Society. Leaving the university in 1765, he became schoolmaster at Gairney Bridge in the parish of Cleish, Kinross-shire on the western side of Lochleven. He had twenty eight pupils at the rate of 2s. a quarter and free board with their parents in rotation. He wrote a poetical appeal to the managers for a new table, and contemplated the publication of a volume of poems. While boarding in the house of one Grieve of Classlochie he fell in love with his pupil his host's daughter Magdalene. He celebrates her in his 'Alexis' (under the name of Eumelia) and in two songs. She married David Low. Still eager for the ministry Bruce found that the anti-burgher synod would not receive him as a student owing to his connection with Mair. Accordingly he applied to the burgher synod and was enrolled in the classes of John Swanston minister at Kinross. In 1766 he looked out for a new school and found one at Forrest Mill, near Tillicoultry, Clackmannanshire. To this period belongs his correspondence with his father's apprentice David Pearson, who had settled at Enster Balgedie, near Kinnesswood. He fell ill being in fact seized with consumption but was for the time restored through the skill of John Millar, M.D. to whom he addressed some grateful lines, enclosed to Pearson on 20 Nov 1766. On 7 Dec he mentions his 'Lochleven' as being 'now finished'. David Arnot (with whom Bruce had kept up a literary correspondence often in Latin) is portrayed in it as Agricola; Lælius is thought to be George Henderson, a college friend, who died in 1793. At length ill health forced him to resign his school in the course of the winter, and he made his way home on foot. In the spring he penned his touching 'Elegy' on his own approaching death. On 5 July (6 July, Anderson) 1767 he was found dead in his bed. His father (of whom there is a memoir by Pearson in the Edinburgh 'Missionary Chronicle,' 1797) followed him on 19 July 1772.

During Bruce's life his ballad of 'Sir James the Ross' was printed in a newspaper His 'Lochleven,' his 'Pastoral Song,' and his song 'Lochleven' no more (in both of which Peggy is Magdalene Grieve) appeared in the 'Edinburgh Magazine.' At the time of his death, John Logan his class fellow, then tutor in the family of Sir John Sinclair, undertook to bring out a volume of his friend's poems, and for this purpose got possession of most of Bruce's manuscripts, consisting of poems and letters, and especially a quarto volume into which, in his last illness he had transcribed his poems. Not till 1770 did Logan issue the small volume of 'Poems on several Occasions, by Michael Bruce,' Edinburgh 12mo, prefixing a very well written biographical preface. It contains but seventeen pieces, including some by different authors; 'the only other author ever specified by Logan was Sir John Foulis, bart., to whom the Vernal Ode is ascribed by Dr Anderson' (Grosart). Pearson maintains that the whole contents of the volume were known to him as Bruce's except this ode, the 'Ode to the Fountain,' 'Ode to Paoli,' 'Chorus of Elysian Bards,' and 'Danish Odes.' Moreover to Bruce's companions the volume appeared strangely defective. His father at once said 'Where are my son's Gospel sonnets?' He went to Edinburgh for the manuscripts and got some of the papers but never recovered the aforesaid quarto. The chagrin hastened the old man's death. In the 'Weekly Magazine or Edinburgh Amusement' of 5 May 1774 the 'Ode to the Cuckoo' from the 1770 book, appears as a contribution signed 'R.D.;' in the next number the piracy is exposed and the real initials of the thief are said to be 'B.M.' A charming paper in the 'Mirror' (No. 36, Saturday, 29 May 1779, signed 'P.,' and ascribed to William Craig, one of the lords of session drew public attention to Bruce's genius, as exhibited in the 1770 volume. Two years later Logan published 'Poems, by the Rev. Mr. Logan, one of the ministers of Leith,' 1781, 8vo. The first piece in this volume is the 'Ode to the Cuckoo,' with a few verbal changes from the 1770 issue; at the end are nine hymns, the first and fifth being revisions of hymns already in print. All these hymns and adaptations are claimed for Bruce by his brother James, who says he had heard them repeated. The Scottish kirk adopted them into its 'Paraphrases' in 1781, and from this source they have been introduced into innumerable hymn-books. With regard to the 'Ode to the Cuckoo' on which the controversy mainly turns, there is an accumulation of evidence. Bruce writes that he had composed a 'poem about a gowk.' A copy of the ode in Bruce's handwriting is said to have been seen by Dr. Davidson of Kinross, and by Principal Baird of Edinburgh. Pearson affirms that Alexander Bruce read the poem aloud from his son’s quarto book, a few days after Michael’s death. It was never seen in Logan’s handwriting before 1767, the year in which he obtained Bruce’s manuscripts. After publishing his own volume, Logan in 1781-2 tried to prevent by law a reprint of the 1770 book; but it was reprinted at Edinburgh for a Stirling bookseller in 1782. It was reprinted in 1784, 1796, and 1807. Against Logan it is urged that his posthumously published sermons (1790–1) show plagiarisms; and that he claimed as his own (using them as candidate for a chair at Edinburgh) a course of lectures afterwards published in his lifetime by Dr. W. Rutherford. The vindication of Bruce's authorship of the contested poems and hymns was ably undertaken by William Mackelvie, D.D., of Balgedie, in his ‘Lochleven and other Poems, by Michael Bruce; with Life of the Author from original sources,’ Edinburgh, 1837, 8vo, and has been further pursued by the Rev. Dr. Grosart, in his edition of Bruce’s ‘Works,’ 1865, 8vo, with memoir and notes. On the other hand, the claim of Logan is advocated in David Laing's ‘Ode to the Cuckoo, with remarks on its authorship, &c.,’ 1873 (privately printed). A strong point is that the Rev. Thomas Robertson, minister of Dalmeny, writes to Baird on 22 Feb. 1791, saying that he and Logan had looked over the manuscripts of Bruce together; and the cuckoo ode is not among those he identifies as Bruce's. In the article ‘Michael Bruce’ in the ‘Encyclopaedia Britannica’ (ninth edition, 1876, iv. 393) stress is laid on the admission of Logan's authorship of the ‘Ode to the Cuckoo’ by Isaac D’Israeli, Thomas Campbell, Robert Chambers, and David Laing The writer erroneously supposes that Bruce’s title to this ode was first (after Logan’s claim) brought forward by Mackelvie. The letters of Pearson (29 Aug. 1795) and Joseph Birrel (31 Aug. 1795), claiming the ode for Bruce, are given by Anderson in his life of Logan (1795). Later defences of Logan's claim will be found in the ‘Brit. and For. Evangelical Review,' 1877 and 1878, articles by John Small, M.A. reprinted separately) and Rev. R. Small. It is not easy to relieve Logan of the charge of having appropriated Bruce’s poem; at the same time his alterations, so for as they can be traced, appear to be improvements on the original work.

[Life, by Robert Anderson, M.D., in his British Poets, vol. ix. 1795. pp. 273 sq., 1029 sq., 1221 sq.; Miller’s Our Hymns, their Authors and Origin. 1866, pp. 242 sq., 247 sq.; Shairp, in Good Words, November 1873; authorities cited above.]

A. G.