Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Cunningham, Thomas Mounsey

CUNNINGHAM, THOMAS MOUNSEY (1776–1834), Scottish poet, second son of John Cunningham and Elizabeth Harley, daughter of a Dumfries merchant, was born at Culfaud, Kirkcudbrightshire, on 25 June 1776. He was an elder brother of Allan Cunningham [q. v.], the biographer of Burns. He received his early education at a dame's school and the village school of Colliston, after which he attended Dumfries Academy, where he acquired a knowledge of book-keeping and the elements of mathematics, French, and Latin. At sixteen he became clerk to John Maxwell of Terraughty, but remained with him only a short time. He was next apprenticed to a millwright, and on the conclusion of his apprenticeship in 1797 found employment at Rotherham. His master having become bankrupt, he went to London, and had formed a design of emigrating to the West Indies, when he learned that his master had set up in business at Lynn in Norfolk, upon which he joined him there. About 1800 he removed to Wiltshire, and soon afterwards to the neighbourhood of Cambridge. At an early age he had begun to compose songs and poetry in his native tongue, and in 1797 ‘The Har'st Kirn’ (Harvest Home) was published in ‘Brash and Reid's Poetry, original and selected.’ While at Cambridge he wrote ‘The Hills o' Gallowa,’ one of the most popular of his songs, and of so high merit that it was attributed by some to Burns, and appeared in a collected edition of his works published by Orphoot at Edinburgh in 1820; a satirical poem entitled ‘The Cambridgeshire Garland;’ and another of a similar cast, ‘The Unco Grave.’ In 1805 Cunningham was in Dover, and proceeding thence to London, he found employment in the establishment of Rennie the engineer. Subsequently he was for some time foreman superintendent of Fowler's chain cable manufactory, but in 1812 he again joined Rennie's establishment as a clerk, and latterly rose to be the chief clerk. In 1806 he began to contribute poetry to the ‘Scots Magazine,’ and in 1809 was invited by Hogg, who styled him ‘Nithsdale's lost and darling Cunningham,’ to contribute to his ‘Forest Minstrel.’ On the establishment of the ‘Edinburgh Magazine’ in 1817, he contributed to it not only poems and songs, but, under the title of a ‘Literary Legacy,’ several prose sketches on modern society, as well as stories of the olden time, and interesting information on antiquarian subjects. Latterly he became discouraged in his literary ambition, and destroyed all his manuscript tales and poems, including one of considerable length entitled ‘Braken Fell.’ His verses are characterised by humour and tenderness, and are chiefly descriptive of the peasant life of his native district. He died on 28 Oct. 1834 in Princes Street, Blackfriars Road, London.

[Chambers's Biog. Dict. of Eminent Scotsmen, ed. Thomson, i. 417–18; Charles Rogers's Modern Scottish Minstrel, ii. 223–39; Grant-Wilson's Poets and Poetry of Scotland, i. 537–8; Anderson's Scottish Nation; Hogg's Life of Allan Cunningham (1875), chap. i.]

T. F. H.