Sunday, April 3, 2016

The Good Grey Poet

Dundee Evening Telegraph - 08 November 1893 p.4

The Good Grey Poet
(Humbly Inscribed to William Robertson, Broughty Ferry, author of "Echoes of the Mountain Muse")

Old, grey poet of the hills!
I have thy verse by heart;
And give to thee the poet's name
As one who sings and doth not shame
The glorious, noble art.

With thee in fancy 'mong the heights,
I stood and watch'd the storm,
And heard the mighty thunders crash,
And saw the vivid lightnings flash
And Nature all transform.

My eye went sweeping down the vales,
And drank their beauty deep;
The streams, the rivers and the bens,
The fields, the forests and the glens,
The scaur, and rocky steep.

With thee I sigh'd for clansmen gone
And lands laid bare and lone,
And marvell'd how it all could be
'Mid freedom and democracy
And hearts not made of stone.

With thee I conjur'd up the past,
The grand historic page,
And heard again the clash of arms,
Beheld the battlefield's alarms
And sturdy warriors rage.

Old poet of the hills and streams,
I love thy manliness,
Thy want of cant, thy words sincere,
Thy pleading for the workers here,
Thy feeling for distress.

The flattering look, the toady smile,
The fawning beck and bow,
They are not thine; thou stand'st erect;
And for thy manhood hath respect,
And for thine aged brow.

The lords and kings, the crowns and thrones,
Whose glories some rehearse,
Are small unto a free-born soul
That soars and grasps the mighty whole
That makes the Universe.

The people for the most are gull'd
By lies and things unreal;
The poet's task's to preach aloud
And send his songs among the crowd,
And make them think and feel.

No sentimental strain we want
To be forgot and die,
But verse of energy and power
That last will longer than an hour
And rouse and edify.

Old poet of the hills and streams,
Thy head is grey with time;
Thine age hath been a blossoming;
A time of youth, a time of spring;
Of thought and song sublime.

Oh! When thou goest to the land
Where sleep so many brave,
May Fame no lasting wreath refuse;
For ever may the mountain muse
Sigh softly round thy grave.

Wormit, Fife        W.D.B

Saturday, April 2, 2016

William Robertson - Landscape Gardener

In his interview transcribed from The Inverness Courier - William Robertson describes himself as a "Landscape Gardener" and gives the name and address of the man whom he served during his apprenticeship. He says, "I was trained to be a gardener, and am what is known as a landscape gardener. I got my training at Lindertise, near Kirriemuir, as the servant of Mr. Gilbert Laing Masson (sic) , I have been engaged at Tullymet, Ballechin and lots of other places in Perthshire since then." A quick Google of the name Gilbert Laing Masson brought up Gilbert Laing Meason with the following information on Wikipedia.
"Gilbert Laing Meason - (3 July 1769 - 14 August 1832) a Scottish gentleman, best remembered as the originator of the term 'landscape architecture'. Laing Meason lived on an estate called Lindertis, in Forfar, and was a friend of Sir Walter Scott. He was interested in art history, and in 1828 published a book called On The Landscape Architecture of The Great Painters of Italy (London, 1828). It dealt with the way that buildings and structures were sited within landscapes to produce beautiful compositions. The book sold poorly. Although essentially a work of art criticism, Laing Meason touched on subjects, such as the placing of buildings and their surroundings, which form a central part of the modern landscape architect's work. Laing Meason had no reason to believe that the term he used would become popular. 
The term would probably have died out if it had not been taken up by the horticulturalist and planner John Claudius Loudon. Loudoun thought that the term had a wider application outside art theory, and explained this view in an article in the contemporaryGardener's Magazine. He felt that the phrase aptly described the composition of created landscapes, and cited the gardens of Deepdene as an exemplar.The term was picked up by Loudon's American admirer Andrew Jackson Downing, from whom Frederick Law Olmsted presumably first heard it. Olmsted was the first professional to describe himself as a 'landscape architect', and is considered to be the founder of the modern profession of landscape architecture."

Lindertis House

I found a great contemporary description transcribed on this website which I have copied here as websites come and go... 

Views of the seats of noblemen and gentlemen, in England, Wales ..., Volume 1  By John Preston Neale, Thomas Moule (1822)THE SEAT OF GILBERT LAING MEASON, ESQ.

This Mansion is situated on the rising ground, which forms the northern boundary of the fertile and beautiful Vale of Strathmore, seventy miles west of the county town, Forfar. The building, lately erected under the direction of Mr. Archibald Elliot, is a commodious family House; the material is free stone, that abounds in the Valley. The interior is finished in a handsome, but not florid, Gothic style. In the Ground Floor is comprised the living Rooms, consisting of a Dining Room, 30 feet long, by 21 feet broad; Library, 27 by 24; two Drawing Rooms, 30 by 21, and 21 by 16 feet. These Rooms are well connected, and form the east and west sides, and south front of the building. The Dining Room has a groined ceiling, those of the other Rooms have spandril fans in the corners, and a corresponding drop in the centre. The Gothic Staircase Hall, in particular, does great credit to the taste of the Architect.

The grounds are extensive, and the House, placed on an elevated situation, commands fine views of the Vale, yet is well sheltered by the extended woods to the north, west, and east. The approach to the House from the west, is carried in a direct line, for upwards of a mile, along a closely wooded bank. The approach from the south, winds through an open grove of nearly the same length. The whole domain has the advantage of being well sheltered from the cold northern winds, that sometimes blow from the elevated range of mountains called the Grampians. It is no trifling encouragement to the planters of Larchwood, to be informed, that the greater part of the wood employed in this Mansion is of that Fir, thinned out of the surrounding woods, and planted not more than forty-five years ago. The larchwood on this Estate thrives alike well on good deep arable land, on a dry rocky bank of freestone, on cool moorish ground, and on a gravelly soil. In the neighbourhood of Lindertis, are many interesting objects to the admirers of picturesque scenery: such as the grand fall of the river Isla, or the Reekie Lynn; the tremendous chasm, through which the Isla rushes, called the Slough of Auchraimie; the castle of Airley, a romantic seat of the Earl of Airley; and the venerable castle of Glammis, belonging to the Earl of Strathmore, whose extensive and well managed woods adorn the Vale.

Strathmore, or tbe great Vale, is one of tbe most fertile districts in Scotland, extending above 30 miles in length, and 7 miles in breadth. There is no part in the kingdom, in which the drilled turnip culture is carried on in greater perfection, and consequently the winter stall feeding of Cattle. The farms are large, the farm-buildings of tbe most approved and commodious arrangements, and the country in general well enclosed and wooded. For beauty, the Vale is deficient alone in a fine river or lake ; as its only stream is the Dean river, of no size, which flows through the Vale from the lake of Forfar, till it joins the river Isla.

According to a local Westmuir website - the grounds of the house were laid out by Gilbert Laing Meason himself and everything was done on such a grand scale, that when he died in 1832, his son fell into financial difficulties and the property was sold in 1838. Sadly the house fell into disuse and disrepair over the passing years and was demolished in 1987.

Long Interview with William Robertson Inverness Courier 01 September, 1891

The following is a transcription of an interview with William Robertson which gives some really detailed information on his life and movements around the Highlands from childhood to adulthood.
One of the most interesting personages in Broughty Ferry is Mr William Robertson, the almost nonogenarian poet, with whom a representative of this journal had an interview the other day. He found William in excellent spirits and hale and hearty in his body, - "all but a bad leg that sometimes troubles me " - was the poet's remark as he alluded to the cause of just a perceptible limp. He bears his age admirably, and is a keen, alert, intelligent, gentlemanly old man with whom a "twa-handed crack"is always interesting. The poetic fire still stirs his heart, poetic images still crowd his active brain, and poetic grace still turns his verse. He has the sturdy, hardy bearing of the country-bred Scot of a bygone generation.
"When were you born?" asked our representative, after William had been comfortably seated, and ready to plunge into reminiscences.
"In 1804," was the reply. "In Edwards' book of Scottish poets," he added, it is wrongly given as 1808, but I am now in my 87th year."
"And which is your 'calf ground?'"
"The Carse of Gowrie - in the Parish of Longforgan. My father was gamekeeper at Castle Huntly, and I was born there."
"Did you stay long in the Carse?"
"No, my father removed when I was a mere child to Invergarry, where he became the servant of Colonel Alexander Macdonell, the chief of Glengarry then. During my boyhood I resided just beside the mansion house close by Loch Oich."
"Were there many more people about Invergarry then than now? "
"Well, it's a long time since I left it ; but I should say that there were many more then than now. And they were a frugal, well-behaved people - although I must say it, a little lazy. "
"What did the common people live on chiefly in your young days?"
"A great dish was brochan, used often for breakfast, and there was often herring for dinner; then they had cakes and bannocks, an' they were awful fond o' whiskey. They considered it a panacea for a' diseases."
"Smuggled whisky, I suppose?"
"Ay, there was smuggling in those days," and there was a merry twinkle in William's eye as he added, "if it could be called smuggling as they did so openly. Man, I've seen a procession of 40 horses - a man attending on each- all carrying smuggled whisky, and all going quite openly along the road. Each man carried a stout cudgel over his shoulder, and all were as jovial as they could be."
"Yes, Glengarry was an ideal Highland Chief. He was one of the last of that grand old kind of men. He kept two bards and a piper, and on all festive occasions the bards chanted the praises of the clan, and narrated the brilliant deeds of the Macdonells. A favourite game in those days was shinty. It was played with great clubs, the men being stripped to shirt and kilt. Sometimes the contest would be between the lower and upper end of the glen, or between two adjacent straths; but whoever were the rivals the game was always fiercely contested. The Highland blood always got on fire, and it was really dangerous for anyone who got in the way of a player. Glengarry himself almost always attended these encounters, as chief of his sept, and it was his custom on such occasions to ride home with the bards chanting before him and the piper playing by turns. His door was always open to the poorest of his people, to whom he acted as patriarch."
"Were the people well off for food in those days?"
"Oh! no' so bad. There was no want of fish; plenty of herring and eggs. Eggs were considered very dear at 4d. a dozen. Oh, yes, there was oatmeal too; but mind you, the Highlandman didn't care so very much for oatmeal. If they took it, they preferred it in the form of brochan or brose.They turned up their nose at oatmeal porridge, and I've heard more than one say - 'What sort of dish is that to go to the hill with?' Potatoes mashed was a favourite dish and there was aye plenty of milk,"
"Yes, it was at Glengarry that I met with a hero of the Forty-Five. His name was Owen Macdonell, an active little man, who always went past at the run, and looked as fleet as a five year old. "
"What age would Owen be?"
"Oh, he was said to be a hundred at that time. The Chief made a great deal of him. Owen was at all the feasts of the Castle, and the Chief always spoke proudly of him as the man who had seen the first blood drawn for Prince Charlie at Prestonpans, and was afterwards present at Falkirk and Culloden."
"Was Macdonell the only Culloden man you knew?"
"No; I've known five altogether. There were two other Macdonells - the Black Forester and the Red Forester they were named, from the colour of their hair. The names of the other two I cannot remember. Owen was the oldest, but there were several who lived as long as he did - for James Grant, in his 'British Battles,' mentions one who died as late as 1830, at the age of 108. I was about sixteen at the time I knew Macdonell, and I believe there are few, if any, alive today who can say they ever met a Culloden hero."
"Had you ever had any particular conversation with him about the battle?"
"Nothing in particular."
"I suppose you know that the Macdonalds did not fight that day?"
"Yes; it was a difference about precedence of position, and they marched off the field without engaging. Owen, I suppose, was among them for the Macdonalds and Macdonells are just the same clan."
"Quite so. Have you ever been at Culloden field?"
"No. I've often wished to see it; but (regretfully) that's past hoping noo, I doot. But I've seen Killiecrankie!"
"Ay, but Killiecrankie's no Culloden!"
"No, no. That was a sorrowfu' day for the Stuarts, and sair, sair suffering it entailed upon many a good Highlander."
"No, I have not been able to do any regular work for some years (he said in answer to another question). I was trained to be a gardener, and am what is known as a landscape gardener. I got my training at Lindertise, near Kirriemuir, as the servant of Mr. Gilbert Laing Masson, I have been engaged at Tullymet, Ballechin and lots of other places in Perthshire since then. Man, I must tell you Invergarry was a bonnie place in my young days. You could have seen the yellow daffodils and columbine growing in acres - the columbine, you know, darts off in every variety of colour." - Dundee Evening Telegraph 

Friday, April 1, 2016

Glengarry and His Family

From the Dundee Evening Telegraph 02 September 1893 (page 2)

In an interesting article on "Glengarry and his Family" in  Blackwood for this month, there appears the following letter from the almost nonogenarian poet of Broughty Ferry - a volume of whose writings and in verse and prose is just now being issued from the press: -

"To Miss Macdonnel of Glengarry. Knight's Land, Church Street, Broughty Ferry, May 6th, '92.

"When your father was returning homeward from deer-hunting; I remember very well in passing my father's door he would pull up his horse, and stop his hunters, and call my mother and all her children to the door, and make mother and family were made to partake of and drink health rounds, your father good-humouredly telling us that 'Our teeth were longer than our beards.' The children were served with bread and cheese, and nothing delighted them more than to see Glengarry coming home and his followers from deer-stalking. My father's house was at the back of the gardens near the old castle. We use to see you all passing every morning with Miss Drysdale, your governess. I think that I can still see in my mind's eye Glengarry passing in full Highland costume. He had a grand stately step and a fine manly bearing, and always had a kindly joke with any of my brothers and myself whenever he happened to meet us.
"When George IV visited Edinburgh Glengarry presented the following gentlemen to the King: - Macdonald jnr of Dalness, Macdonell of Barrisdale, Macdonell Shian, and other gentlemen of the nameof  Macdonell, officers in the army.At banquet given by the Lord Provost and Magistrates in honour to the King, Glengarry made a warm speech, extolling the virtues and patriotism of one who had been the patron of his early life, then gave 'To the memory Henry, Lord Melville.' I find that Miss Ronaldson Macdonell of Glengarry was presented to the King by her mother and Miss Alpina Macdonell of Glengarry also. I will send other documents soon, Many thanks for the portrait I esteem highly. - I have the honour, Madam, to be your humble servant. "William Robertson".

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Reference to William Robertson "Songs And Sayings of Gowrie"

Songs And Sayings of Gowrie pp139-141
"It is but two or three years ago since there passed away, at the ripe age of ninety-seven, a native singer who long served as a link with the distant days of Culloden. Born at Castle Huntly in 1804, William Robertson spent much of his earlier years in the service of Glengarry. Here it was that, in 1820, he met Owen Macdonnell, one of the heroes of 1745, who had been present at the battles of Preston-pans, Falkirk and Culloden. With others, also, who had fought at Culloden, Robertson had the good fortune to converse. Possessed of a vigorous mind, he took kindly to the study of poetry, metaphysics and theology. Comparatively late in life he developed a considerable poetic faculty, the fruit of which is to be seen in two small volumes, The Mountain Muse and Echoes of The Mountain Muse, Dundee 1893. Many of the poems recall, the author tells us, sights and sounds with which he was familiar "when I roved, a young Highlander, o'er the dark heath." Among the more interesting are those that relate to Jacobite times - "A Culloden Jacobite", "Lines on a Culloden Field" (suggested by the remarks of heroes who had fought at the battle), "Culloden Field the Night Before The Battle". The last named piece may be taken as a specimen of Robertson's style."

Monday, April 13, 2009

More about the Macdonells of Glengarry

Further late night ferreting has uncovered a few more gleaned facts about William Robertson. There is a book called Songs and Sayings of Gowrie by Philip Adam written in the early 1900s which mentions William Robertson. It is not available as were the books below - but through sheer dogged determination and compounding search parameters I managed to find out some of what it said. Then I discovered that the University of Queensland had a copy and my sister Ann was able to request a copy as she works in another University. (Ahh - the lengths we'll go to!)

William Robertson is described on p140 as a "native singer who long served as a link with the distant days of Culloden. Born at Castle Huntly in 1804, William Robertson spent several of his earlier years in the service of Glengarry. Here it was that in 1820, he met Owen Macdonell, one of the heroes of 1745, who had been present at the battles of Preston-pans, Falkirk, and Culloden. With others, also, who fought at Culloden, Robertson had the good fortune to converse. Possessed of a vigorous mind, he took kindly to the study of poetry,metaphysics and theology. Comparatively late in life he developed a considerable poetic faculty, the fruit of which is to be seen in two small volumes, The Mountain Muse, and Echoes of the Mountain Muse, Dundee 1893."

So with the information already known from other books, it would appear that William was born at Castle Huntly near Longforgan in the Carse of Gowrie in 1808. At the age of seven (i.e. around 1817) his parents Robert and Elspeth Robertson, took up new situations with the Macdonells at Glengarry, Inverness-shire and it was there that he went to school (as described here). At around the age of 11 to 12 he met Owen Macdonell, the Culloden Jacobite of whom he wrote in his books. This association with the Macdonell's would also explain the number of stories in which members of this family feature.

An entry on Electric Scotland describes the Robertson's employer as "Colonel Alexander Ranaldson MacDonell of Glengarry, who, in January 1822, married Rebecca, second daughter of Sir William Forbes of Pitsligo, baronet, was the last genuine specimen of a Highland chief. His character in its more favourable features was drawn by Sir Walter Scott, in his romance of Waverley, as Fergus MacIvor. He always wore the dress and adhered to the style of living of his ancestors, and when away from home in any of the Highland towns, he was followed by a body of retainers, who were regularly posted as sentinels at his door. He revived the claims of his family to the chiefship of the MacDonalds, styling himself also of Clanranald."

It is not hard to imagine the impression this man must have made on the young William Robertson, seeing as this same man was used by Sir Walter Scott as the model for his character, Fergus MacIvor. Combined with the stories of Owen Macdonell, it must have enlivened his love for stories, poetry and singing.

Alexander Ranaldson MacDonell died in January 1828. The same website says "he perished in endeavouring to escape from a steamer which had gone ashore. As his estate was very much mortgaged and encumbered, his son was compelled to dispose of it, and to emigrate to Australia, with his family and clan. The estate was purchased by the Marquis of Huntly from the chief, and in 1840 it was sold to Lord Ward (Earl of Dudley, Feb. 13, 1860,) for £91,000. In 1860 his lordship sold it to Edward Ellice,Esq.q. of Glenquoich, for £120,000. "

Perhaps the Robertsons moved on from Glengarry when the estate was sold. We do know from other sources that the Robertson's eventually went to another situation in the Howe of Strathmore were William was apprenticed (family history says he was apprenticed to his father).
We do know that William was in Dunnichen in 1835 when he married Elisabeth Adam. And later he was in the Airlie district which is where he met his second wife Jean. All of this information gives a good picture of William's early life and explains both his love for Highland scenery and the many stories and tales he had about the Macdonnells of Glengarry.

Friday, December 26, 2008

The Three Wives of William Robertson

According to both oral family history and William's death certificate, William managed to outlive not one, nor two but three wives - quite a feat since he was significantly older than wife #2 and wife #3!

He married his first wife, Elisabeth Adam, at Dunnichen in 1835. She reportedly died soon after they were married - possibly the same year. I am not sure of the cause of death as she died prior to civil registration.
There is a poem in "The Mountain Muse" which I think he wrote about her because of the line "I ne'er can be your wife".

A Ballad

Oh, dinna look sae sad, Willie;
The truth I noo maun speak;
See summer roses bloom again,
But none upon my cheek.

I thocht when winter's cauld was gane,
And frost and snaw a' past,
That I wad gather strength again,
But find it ebbin' fast.

Lang you have had my heart, Willie,
Yours has been leal and true;
But, oh, I find mine sinkin' sair -
The grave maun keep it noo.

To me 'tis sad and ill to thole
To ken we sune maun part;
There's flowers and music in the dell,
But nane in my lane heart.

The rosy beams o'morn, Willie,
Bring nae sunshine to me;
The shades o' death are thickening fast
Before my weary e'e.

Tho' sune, sune I maun bid adieu
To a' beneath the sky,
I ken I'll live in ae fond heart
When 'neath the sod I lie.

The thocht o' happy days to come
Made mine a cheery life;
Alas! these days I'll never see -
ne'er can be your wife.

Noo grip my hand ance mair, Willie,
And kiss my burnin' broo;
And the last breath that leaves my lips
Will be a prayer for you.

If that poem was not about Elisabeth it would have been about his second wife Jean Thomson, who died from phthisis (tuberculosis) in 1865. The fact that the wife in the poem is clearly dying a slow death would be make it a little more likely to be about Jean.
Despite the age difference of about fourteen years, it seemed to have been a "love match". There is a rather passionate poem about Jean called "Twa Pawky Een". Twa is Two and Een is eyes (I am guessing). On a tape of Aunty Nell she struggles to translate "Pawky" - it seems to mean sly, double-meaning, teasing, cheeky, shrewd, cunning - in a humorous way - not a word with a direct translation.


It was on Airlie's bonnie braes
Whaur first I met my Jean;
That moment I became the thrall
O' her twa pawky een.

Their glamour made me rin maist wud,
And lanely paths I took;
For aye I thocht to licht on her,
In some sweet fairy nook.

A warmer pulse beat in my heart;
Love a' my views did flush;
Twa roguish een still haunted me,
And glanced from every bush.

I crazy grew, and cudna rest
Frae morn to dewy e'en;
A presence still my fancy thrilled -
The image o' my Jean.

A kingdom for a hinny kiss
Beneath the milk-white thorn,
When moon an' stars are lookin' doun
On fields of yellow corn.

Gang whaur I like, her glances aye
My wand'ring staps pursue;
As if an angel peered at me
Through blobs o' mountain dew.

From Mem'ry Airlie's braes and Den
And Isla's faemy streams
Can never fade; sae fondly yet
I visit them in dreams.

Tho' mony, mony years hae passed
Since first I met my Jean;
I never will nor can forget
Her twa sweet pawky een.

Image of Isla River in Airle - reused under the Creative Common Licence (c) Sylvia Barrow

The reference to Airlie is also picked up in a rather sadder poem which is clearly about Jean.


Though thou art low in lonesome grave -
That last and gloomy lair -
Thy love-lit eye for ever closed,
And soiled thy golden hair;

Still I can see within the pall
That o'er my soul is flung
The image of thy peerless form -
My beautiful and young.

Pure thou didst seem as liquid gem
That sparkles on the rose,
Or opening flower when vernal dawn
With pearly radiance glows.

Thy voice was like the dulcet tones
That rise on evening air,
Where tiny wavelets wanton round
The water-lilies fair.

I miss thee by the crystal spring
That bubbled up so clear;
The tripping of thy fairy feet,
Alas? no more I'll hear.

No more we'll meet in Airlie Den,
And list the rushing streams
Of Isla's waters flashing past,
Beneath the pale moonbeams.

Gem of my youth! life's morning star!
Thy beauty was it so
That Heaven claimed it as too fair
For mortal gaze below!

A year after Jean died, William married again to Betsy McKenzie. It would seem though that it was more of a marriage of convenience than love as William had small children to be cared for and, for a man of letters, it must have been hard to be married to someone who was illiterate (Betsy signed her mark on her wedding certificate).

According to Aunty Nell she was a "right step-mother" and her (Nell's) father (Thomas - the youngest) didn't like Betsy very much. William outlived Betsy too - she died sometime between 1871 and 1881 (she is in the 71 census but not in the 81 census) - but I have been unable to find her death registration.

I don't think William wrote any poems about poor Betsy but I have a feeling he took up his writing after she died - probably free in the evenings to write and compose his stories and songs.

In honour of all three wives here is another poem written by William:


OH! thou art health and wealth to me,
My everything in life,
And I am blessed indeed with thee,
My kind and loving wife.

Thy winsome smile and witchin' e'e,
And gentle words and kind;
In every way thou art to me
A helpmate to my mind.

Since thou wert mine, my pretty dear,
My pleasures hae been rife;
I think I'm younger ilka year
Wi' you, my lovin' wife.

The manly, brave, and kindly heart -
Pity is sae rare;
And mony play a silly part
Though they hae routh o' gear.

Weel may I bless my happy lot,
Frae sorrow free and strife;
Life's cares and troubles are forgot
To feel thou art my wife.

The prudent thocht and modest grace
That sit upon the brow
Did weel become the lassie's face,
The happy mither's now.

Tho' I had wealth and ca'd a lord,
The Kingdom, too, o' Fife,
There's something wad be mair adored -
My ain, my peerless wife.

To keep aglow love's sacred flame,
Still be our aim to fan;
Our pleasures ever be the same
As when they first began.