Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Hogg, James (1770-1835)

HOGG, JAMES (1770–1835), the Ettrick Shepherd, was born at Ettrick, Selkirkshire, near the parish school, towards the end of 1770, the parish register recording his baptism on 9 Dec. of that year. He was wrong in his belief that his birthday, like Burns's, was 25 Jan., and the year 1772. He was the second of four sons born to Robert Hogg and Margaret Laidlaw, both of old border families. Owing to his father's failure in farming he received, according to his own account, less than a year's education in all, though in that time he was able to read the Bible and the catechism. At the age of seven he began to herd ewes. For several years, in the course of which he fell in love for the first time and learned to play on the violin, he progressed in his calling, till he was fully qualified, in his sixteenth year, to act as shepherd at Willanslee. He now added to his scanty knowledge an acquaintance with Allan Ramsay's ‘Gentle Shepherd’ and Blind Harry's ‘Wallace,’ in Hamilton of Gilbertfield's version, regretting that they were not in prose or in the stanza of the metrical psalms.

From 1790 to 1800 Hogg was shepherd to Mr. Laidlaw of Blackhouse, on the Douglas Burn, Yarrow, having as companions the farmer's sons, of whom William Laidlaw [q. v.] became Scott's friend and the author of ‘Lucy's Flittin'.’ Hogg found books here that stimulated his intelligence, and the intercourse with his young friends was likewise valuable. He began to be known as ‘the poeter,’ having made songs, as he says in his ‘Autobiography,’ ‘for the lasses to sing in chorus.’ In 1793 he first saw the Perthshire highlands, having gone to Strathfillan with sheep, and he retained a lasting impression of their beauty. In 1796 he began with great difficulty to write his verses, his school training having merely introduced him to large text, and soon after Burns's death, in that year, hearing ‘a half daft man, Jock Scott by name,’ recite ‘Tam o' Shanter,’ and learning from the reciter that the poem was by the ‘sweetest poet that ever was born,’ whose place would never be filled, he conceived it possible that he might become Burns's successor as a Scottish singer. His first printed piece was the spirited patriotic song ‘Donald m'Donald,’ written in reference to Napoleon's project of invasion, and widely popular as soon as printed in 1800.

In this year, owing to his brother's marriage, Hogg settled at Ettrick, with his aged parents, to superintend their farm during the three remaining years of the lease. In 1801, while in Edinburgh with stock, he rashly collected his poetical pieces from memory, and they were roughly printed as ‘Scottish Pastorals, Poems, Songs, &c.’ In 1802 he made the acquaintance of Scott, who was in quest of further materials for his ‘Border Minstrelsy,’ of which two volumes had appeared. Both Hogg and his mother supplied him with ballads, the old lady being justifiably jealous of her rich store, and Hogg resolving to produce original material in the old style. When the lease of the farm expired in 1803, Hogg arranged with a neighbouring farmer to settle on a large sheep farm in Harris, writing in the prospect his ‘Farewell to Ettrick.’ The farm, however, turned out to be a disputed property, and possession was refused. Hogg, who lost much by this transaction, went to Mitchelstacks, Nithsdale, as a shepherd, and first met Allan Cunningham there. In 1807 Constable, through Scott's good offices, published for him his miscellaneous poems (the original ballads suggested by Scott's quest) under the title of ‘The Mountain Bard,’ and the proceeds of this and a treatise on diseases of sheep, published at the same time, amounted to about 300l., which he straightway lost in unsuccessful farming in Dumfriesshire. Failing to secure a commission in the militia, or a post in the excise, he returned a discredited bankrupt to Ettrick.

Finding himself shunned owing to his misfortunes, and seeing no prospect of occupation in his native district, Hogg determined to try a literary career, and in 1810 settled in Edinburgh. Here he received substantial help from various friends, especially Messrs. Grieve & Scott, hatters, Grieve being an Ettrick man, and an ardent admirer of Hogg. The first literary project was the publication in 1810 of ‘The Forest Minstrel,’ a miscellany of which he himself contributed about two-thirds—‘every ranting rhyme,’ he says, ‘that I had made in my youth’—the rest being furnished by Thomas M. Cunningham and other friends. The Countess of Dalkeith, to whom the work was dedicated, presented Hogg with one hundred guineas, which was all the money that came of the venture. In September 1810 he started ‘The Spy,’ a weekly critical journal, which deteriorated after its earlier numbers, and expired at the end of a year. Hogg now joined the Forum, an Edinburgh debating club, to which he attributed a considerable improvement in his literary style. As member of the club he composed several musical dramas and tragedies of no consequence. At Grieve's suggestion he wrote in 1813 his most picturesque and imaginative work, ‘The Queen's Wake,’ which was at once a great poetical if not financial success. In 1814 the third edition was published by John Blackwood. Hogg was thus brought into contact with Wilson and other literary men of Edinburgh, through whom he afterwards formed lifelong friendships with Wordsworth and Southey. He sent a copy of ‘The Queen's Wake’ to Byron, who recommended it to John Murray. Murray undertook the publication in England of that and other of Hogg's works, and from 1813 corresponded with the poet on very friendly terms, lending him money and entertaining him in London. In 1815 he published the ‘Pilgrims of the Sun,’ designed as the first of a series of ‘Midsummer Night Dreams’ (which he was not encouraged to continue), and in 1816 he issued ‘Madoc of the Moor,’ a poem in Spenserian stanza, embodying a slender narrative, but of fine descriptive quality, written two years before at Kinnaird House on the Tay, Perthshire. Neither produced much money; Hogg meditated a return to farming, and in an ingenious and characteristic letter endeavoured to enlist the sympathies of the Duchess of Buccleuch, who had patronised him as Countess of Dalkeith. After the duchess's death, five months later, the duke, explaining that he was simply administering her bequest, gave Hogg, at a nominal rent, the farm of Eltrive Lake in Yarrow.

To obtain the funds necessary for settling in Eltrive Lake, Hogg suggested a volume of poems by distinguished living poets. The proposal was unfavourably received by the coadjutors he selected, Scott sharply retorting that ‘every herring should hing by its ain head.’ Thereupon Hogg produced clever parodies of Wordsworth, Byron, Southey, Coleridge, Wilson, Scott, and himself (Thomas Pringle supplying an epistle in the manner of the ‘Marmion’ introductions), publishing them, with an ingenious preface, in 1816 as ‘The Poetic Mirror, or the Living Bards of Great Britain.’ This work is marked by real poetic power and ingenious imitative faculty, though there is an occasional tendency towards burlesque (specially noticeable in the Wordsworth parodies). Hogg followed this with two volumes of unsuccessful dramatic tales, and then Scott, Blackwood, and other friends helped him to produce a handsomely illustrated edition of ‘The Queen's Wake,’ dedicated to the Princess Charlotte (1818). To increase his reputation Scott sent Gifford in 1818 an article on his poems for the ‘Quarterly Review,’ but it never appeared (Smiles, Murray, ii. 5). Nevertheless Hogg prospered at Eltrive, hospitably receiving numerous visitors attracted by his character and fame, and keeping up his connection with literary circles in Edinburgh. In 1817 he assisted at the inauguration of ‘Blackwood's Magazine,’ contributing the kernel of the fateful Chaldee MS. He claimed his due credit in connection with this notorious document, though he cautiously admitted that the young lions in Edinburgh ‘interlarded it with a good deal of devilry of their own.’

In 1817 Hogg began his prose tales with ‘The Brownie of Bodsbeck and other Tales,’ in two volumes. This was followed in 1819 and 1820 by the two volumes of ‘Jacobite Relics of Scotland,’ containing not only poems belonging to the period of the Stuart fall, but many of Hogg's own best lyrics, which are to this day favourite Jacobite songs. Likewise in 1820 he published ‘Winter Evening Tales,’ drawn from his early experience, and charged with vivid reminiscences of border character and manners. In this year also he married Margaret Phillips, daughter of Mr. Phillips of Langbridgemoor, Annandale; and he presently leased, in addition to Eltrive Lake, the neighbouring farm of Mount Benger, which proved a disastrous venture. In 1822 he published ‘The Three Perils of Man: War, Women, and Witchcraft.’ This he followed in 1823 with a work in three volumes, entitled ‘The Three Perils of Women,’ which, though of inferior quality, brought him some money. He produced in 1824 ‘Confessions of a Fanatic,’ weighted at first with the repelling title, ‘Confessions of a Justified Sinner.’ Strong and original, the work never became popular. In 1826 appeared his somewhat ambitious epic ‘Queen Hynde,’ which, though not without ingenuity and poetic beauty, was coldly received, and discouraged Hogg from attempting another long poem. By this time he was the recognised ideal ‘Shepherd’ in ‘Blackwood's Magazine,’ alternately pleased and offended with Wilson's exuberant delineation.

Meanwhile, being quit of Mount Benger, Hogg settled quietly at Eltrive, manfully wrestling with hosts of visitors (with whom he helped to give fame to St. Mary's Lake and the romantic hostel on it kept by Tibbie Shiels), and rejoicing in his growing family and his literary work. He contributed much under his own hand to ‘Blackwood,’ and he made a collection of these articles in his ‘Shepherd's Calendar’ in 1829. Blackwood this year also published a collection of about 140 of his songs, which proved successful. In 1832 Hogg visited London to arrange for a cheap reissue of his works. He was enthusiastically received, and was entertained at a public dinner, with Sir John Malcolm in the chair. After three months he returned, having engaged James Cochrane, Pall Mall, as publisher. Carlyle, observing these doings, characteristically remarks (Letters of Thomas Carlyle, ii. 10, ed. Norton): ‘It is supposed to be a trick of his Bookseller (a hungry shark on the verge of bankruptcy), who wishes to attract the Cockney population.’ When the first volume of ‘Altrive Tales’ had appeared Cochrane failed, and the enterprise ended. In 1833 Hogg was entertained at Peebles to a public dinner, presided over by Wilson, when he asserted that having long sought fame he had found it at last. He still wrote for periodicals, and in 1834 published a series of ‘Lay Sermons’ and ‘The Domestic Manners and Private Life of Sir Walter Scott;’ the latter deeply offended Lockhart, who viewed it as an intrusion upon his special domain. This year also Hogg prepared a fresh series of his stories, to be called ‘Montrose Tales,’ and Cochrane, who was again in business, published them early in 1835. They were popular and likely to be profitable, when, at the end of the year, Cochrane again became bankrupt. Throughout the year Hogg had been in weak health, and before the failure of his publisher took place he died, 21 Nov. 1835, and was buried near his birthplace in Ettrick churchyard. His widow received a royal pension in 1853, and on 28 June 1860 a substantial monument to the Ettrick Shepherd was inaugurated, on the slope behind Tibbie Shiels's retreat, and overlooking St. Mary's Lake and the Loch o' the Lowes.

Hogg deserved the approbation he received from his distinguished compeers. Scott probably understood him best, and invariably advised him well, receiving him heartily after a period of alienation owing to the ‘Poetic Mirror,’ and acting as peacemaker when Hogg became exasperated with Blackwood and the magazine. Wilson had a real and deep affection for the Ettrick Shepherd, as the idealism of the ‘Noctes’ shows, and it is to be regretted that he did not write Hogg's biography, as at one time he intended. Southey's honest outspoken criticism and commendation were as heartily received by Hogg as they were given, and Wordsworth's memorial tribute strikes a true note of appreciation in crediting him with a ‘mighty minstrelsy.’ The spontaneity, freshness, and energy of Hogg's verse are readily apparent. Certain of his lyrics, such as ‘When the Kye comes Hame,’ ‘Auld Joe Nicholson's Nanny,’ ‘Flora Macdonald's Farewell,’ and those on Jacobite themes, come as readily to the Scottish peasantry as the songs of Burns. ‘The Queen's Wake’ is remarkable for its descriptive excellence and imaginative setting. The other poems, and the prose tales, especially those bearing on the people and the superstitions of the Scottish border land, are less known than they deserve.

A water-colour sketch of Hogg by S. P. Denning is in the National Portrait Gallery, London.

[Hogg's Autobiography; Lockhart's Life of Scott, passim; Memoir prefixed to Blackie's edition of Hogg's Works, 2 vols., 1865, by Rev. Thomas Thomson; Mrs. Garden's Memorials of James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd; Mrs. Gordon's Christopher North, i. 197, ii. 215–23; Ferrier's preface to Noctes Ambrosianæ and various notes; Professor Veitch's History and Poetry of the Scottish Border and Feeling for Nature in Scottish Poetry, ii. 229–45; Principal Shairp's Sketches in History and Poetry; Dr. S. Smiles's Life of John Murray, 1891, where much of Hogg's correspondence with Murray is printed; George Saintsbury's Essays, 1890.]

T. B.