Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Pagan, Isobel

PAGAN, ISOBEL (d. 1821), versifier, a native of New Cumnock, Ayrshire, passed her life mainly in the neighbourhood of Muirkirk in that county. She lived alone, in a hut previously used as a brick-store, and seems to have conducted unchallenged an unlicensed traffic in spirituous liquor. Convivial companions frequently caroused with her in the evenings, and enjoyed her singing and recitation of verses by herself and others. Lame from infancy, she was an exceedingly ungainly woman, and she was misanthropical both from temperament and slighted affections. Offenders dreaded her vituperation. Her quaint character and her undoubted abilities kept her popular, and secured her the means of livelihood. She died on 3 Nov. 1821, probably in her eightieth year, and was buried in Muirkirk churchyard, where an inscribed stone marks her grave.

A ‘Collection of Songs and Poems’ by Isobel Pagan was published in Glasgow about 1805. These uncouth lyrics consist largely of personal tributes and references to sport on the autumn moors, in which the singer delighted. Her name lives, however, because legend credits her with the songs ‘Ca' the Yowes to the Knowes’ and the ‘Crook and Plaid,’ which are not in her volume. Burns, who had the former song taken down in 1787 from the singing of the Rev. Mr. Clunie, seems to have revised and finished it for Johnson's ‘Musical Museum’ (iv. 249, 316, ed. 1853). Cunningham (Songs of Scotland, iii. 276) recklessly attributes it to ‘a gentleman of the name of Pagan,’ of whom there is no trace; Struthers, in ‘Harp of Caledonia,’ gives Isobel Pagan as the author; and the original form of the lyric is presumably hers. If, as seems to be unquestioned, she was capable of the ‘Crook and Plaid’—a simple and dainty pastoral, not to be confounded with H. S. Riddell's song with the same title—she clearly possessed qualities that would have enabled her to compose ‘Ca' the Yowes to the Knowes.’

[Contemporaries of Burns, and the More Recent Poets of Ayrshire; Johnson's Musical Museum; Rogers's Scottish Minstrel.]

T. B.