Macneill, Hector (DNB00)


MACNEILL, HECTOR (1746–1818), Scottish poet, the son of James Macneill, a retired captain of the 42nd regiment, was born at Rosebank, near Roslin, Midlothian, 22 Oct. 1746. He passed his early youth in the neighbourhood of Loch Lomond, Stirlingshire, where his father tenanted a farm, and received his elementary education at Stirling grammar school, under the Dr. David Doig to whom he dedicated his 'Will and Jean.' In his fourteenth year he went to Bristol to a relative, a West Indian trader, who interested himself in him as his name-sake, and sent him as a prospective sailor in a vessel going to St. Christopher's. Disliking the sea, Macneill lived a year with his relative's son in St. Christopher's, and afterwards served three years with a merchant in Guadaloupe, which he left in 1763 for Antigua. Having occupied, among other subordinate posts, that of assistant to the provost-marsnal of Grenada for three years, he returned home about 1776, in consequence of the death of his mother and sister. Eighteen months later his father died, when he invested the small heritage he acquired in an annuity of 80l.

Circumstances soon constrained Macneill to find new employment, and he became in 1780 assistant secretary, first in Admiral Geary's flagship with the grand fleet; and secondly in the flagship of Sir Richard Bickerton [q. v.] in Indian waters, each engagement lasting three years. In an interval of peace he visited the caves of Cannara, Ambola, and Elephanta, and described them in vol. viii. of the 'Archæologia,' in 1787. His prospects in India being 'blasted by an unexpected change of administration at home' (author's note to 'Scottish Muse,' 1. 117), he returned to Scotland and hoped to live by literature. Settling for a time near Stirling, Macneill found literature unremunerative, and about 1786, receiving influential letters of introduction, he went to Jamaica, where he secured posts for two of his sons, but no satisfactory engagement for himself. Returning to Scotland, he spent several years with friends, chiefly with Major Spark, Viewforth House, Stirling, where he wrote some of his best songs and poems. He also contributed to the 'Scots Magazine,' of which for a short time, about 1790, he is said to have been editor. Troublesome health induced him in 1796 to revisit Jamaica, where his early friend, John Graham (memorialised in his 'Scottish Muse'), settled on him an annuity of 100l. Returning with restored health he settled in Edinburgh, where he became well-known and popular. He was a good conversationalist, somewhat acrid at times over changed customs, and strenuous in advising ambitious youths towards honest industry and against literature. He died in Edinburgh, 15 March 1818.

In his boyhood Macneill had attempted dramatic compositions in imitation of Gay. An address 'To Mrs. Pleydell, with a Pot of Honey,' 1779, makes tolerable fun over the Catholic Emancipation Bill. Interested in the Jamaica slave-trade—a legend making him a temporary slave-driver himself—Macneill published in 1788 a defensive pamphlet 'On the Treatment of the Negroes in Jamaica,' which he afterwards desired to suppress. His first characteristic poem, 'The Harp, a Legendary Tale,' appeared in 1789. Then came his ballad on drink, 'Scotland's Scaith, or the History of Will and Jean,'1795, followed in 1796 by 'The Waes o' War, or the Upshot of the History of Will and Jean.' Prompted, perhaps, by Alexander Wilson's rough but forcible ballad, ' Watty and Meg,' Macneill has related in these two poems an eventful and pathetic history. Both pieces have passed through many editions. 'The Links o' Forth, or a Parting Peep at the Carse of Stirling,' 1796, is somewhat heavy. 'The Memoirs of Charles Macpherson, Esq.,' a thinly veiled autobiographical novel, appeared in 1800. In 1801 Macneill published his poetical works in two volumes, of which the second edition appeared in 1806, and the third, with portrait and plates by Stothard, in 1812. They were reprinted in one volume in 1866. 'The Pastoral or Lyric Muse of Scotland,' afterwards called 'The Scottish Muse,' appeared in 1809. Two anonymous poems, conceived in a stern Nestorian spirit, are 'Town Fashions, or Modern Manners delineated,' 1810, and 'Bygane Times and Late-come Changes,' 1812. A novel, 'The Scottish Adventurers,' also belongs to 1812. Macneill is chiefly remembered by his 'Will and Jean,' and by such Scottish songs as 'My Boy Tammy,' 'I lo'ed ne'er a laddie but ane,' and 'Come under my Plaidie,' which have simplicity and sincerity of feeling, and graceful melody.

A portrait by John Henning is in the National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh.

[Macneill's manuscript Autobiog., abridged in Blackwood's Mag. vol. iv.; Scots Mag. 1818, i. 396; Rogers's Modern Scottish Minstrel; Chambers's Eminent Scotsmen; Anderson's Scottish Nation, iii. 68, with portrait.]

T. B.