The author of the Pastoral The Gentle Shepherd proves the truth of the adage, "poeta nascitur non fit," for, though well born, he was reared under rather destitute circumstances, and, at an early age, forced to maintain himself by a humble profession. Still, the poetic fire which lay slumbering in his breast could not be extinguished; and he, like some of Scotland's other bards, gave forth, in his own peculiar dialect, those graphic pictures of Scottish scenery and manners, as they existed in the beginning of the eighteenth century, which still cheer and solace the heart of the peasant and the artisan, and have become equally acceptable to those of higher rank and superior taste.
Whilst the language in which it is written shall continue to be understood, and so long as a love of the beauties of nature, and truth with innocence be combined-shall the Gentle Shepherd be read and admired.
Allan Ramsay was born on the 15th October 1686 at Leadhills, in Lanarkshire. His parentage was highly respectable-a zealous genealogist has even traced his pedigree up to the noble house of Ramsay, first Earls of Dalhousie, and of this the poet was very proud. His father was manager of the Earl of Hopetoun's lead mines at Crawfordmoor, and his mother, Alice Brown, was the daughter of a gentleman, who had been brought from Derbyshire by Lord Hopetoun, to instruct the miners in their art. His father dying when the poet was in his childhood, and his mother having contracted a second marriage with a small landholder, by which she had a numerous family, young Ramsay is supposed, from these causes, to have been reared amidst great poverty, and to have been employed, till he reached his fifteenth year, with the children of the other miners, in washing and preparing the lead ore for smelting. He seems to have received no other education than what he acquired at the parish school, and we have unfortunately no particular account of the progress he made in his studies. After his mother's death, Ramsay was, in 1701, sent to Edinburgh by his stepfather, and apprenticed to a wig-maker, with whom he continued until he had finished his apprenticeship, when he commenced business on his own account.
At the age of twenty-six, he married Christian Ross, the daughter of a writer in Edinburgh, who, being an excellent woman, laid the foundation of a lifetime of domestic felicity. His eldest son Allan, the painter, was born the year after their marriage, and seven more children followed. In the parish register of their baptisms, he is called "Allan Ramsay, weeg-maker," until the notice of the last, on the 8th August 1725, when we find him then assuming the designation of "bookseller," one, more congenial to the literary turn of his mind. He, very prudently however, had stuck by his wigs, until his celebrity as an author had insured his success as a bookseller. Ramsay employed the early part of his life in studying nature, and learning his trade. He showed no propensity to poetry until he had passed the initiatory difficulties of life. His social temper led him to court admission into company; and his gaiety and good humour soon made him an acceptable guest at convivial meetings. Clubs were then almost universally frequented, and the taverns and oyster-houses in Edinburgh were every evening filled with men of all ranks. As Ramsay was always ambitious of associating with his superiors, his complaisance and inoffensive humour seconded his wishes, and enrolled him as a member of some of the most respectable clubs in the Scottish metropolis. In one of these called the Easy Club, he first displayed his poetic powers, in a poem which he presented to it in 1712--addressed to "The most happy members of the Easy Club." Three years afterwards, he was humorously appointed their poet-laureate. In the presence of this club, Ramsay was in the habit of reading his first productions, which were published by, or under the patronage of its members. The humorous "Elegy on Maggie Johnstone," a famous brewer and vender of ale near Edinburgh, and an elegy on the death of Dr. Pitcairn, in 1713, seem to have been amongst his earliest productions. Shortly afterwards, he published a second canto to King James' ludicrous poem "Christ's Kirk on the Green," which increased its popularity so much, that a second edition speedily made its appearance with an additional third canto. The rebellion in 1715 put an end to the clubs meeting, and Ramsay, though a keen Jacobite, felt it for his interest to be so in secret. From the year 1715, our poet seems to have written many petty poems, which were published in single sheets at a small price. In this form, his poetry was so attractive, that the women of Edinburgh used to send out their children with a penny, to buy "Ramsay's last piece." In a short time, both the poems and the poet were also appreciated by those in the higher ranks of life.
In 1721, he issued proposals to publish his poems in a quarto volume, and so great was the estimation in which he was now held as a poet, that all those who were eminent for talents, learning, or dignity in Scotland, became subscribers. The volume, handsomely printed by Ruddiman, and ornamented by a portrait of the author, was published in the succeeding year, and sold by Ramsay, at "the sign of the Mercury, opposite the head of Niddry's Wynd." It is said the fortunate poet realised four hundred guineas by this speculation.
After this, we hear no more of his wigs and razors. He now devoted his whole attention, to the business of "lining" the inside of his customers' "pashes," leaving the outside, to provide "theeking" for itself. His leading sentiment was the pleasure of pleasing, and his ruling passions were vanity and the love of fame. Always gay, always jocular, and sometimes ludicrous; honest, undesigning, obliging, and benevolent, he was equally agreeable to others as to himself. With astonishing versatility he suited himself to every taste, as well as his own, which his productions never failed to flatter and delight. Ramsay, as a favourite author and companion, and respectable bookseller, now numbered among his friends some of the best and wisest men in Scotland. With the families of Duncan Forbes Lord President, Sir John Clerk, Sir Alexander Dick, Sir William Bennet, and others, he lived in friendly intercourse; whilst at the houses of the most of our Scottish nobility, he was a welcome guest. With cotemporary poets his intercourse was extensive;--to Pope, Gay, Somerville, Hamilton, Miller, and others, he addressed verses, and received friendly poetical salutations in return. The celebrity of Ramsay was attended however, like the other felicities of life, with circumstances of mortification. He had to struggle with envious and disappointed cotemporary contenders for poetic fame. By their attacks in such stanzas as, "A block for Allan Ramsay's wigs," or, "Allan Ramsay metamorphosed to a Heather bloter Poet," he seems not to have been much moved, for, the "Tea-table Miscellany," a collection of Scottish songs, and the "Evergreen," a collection of old Scottish poetry, with several popular poems, were, to the delight of his numerous readers, successively published in the year 1724--works which, if they did not greatly add to his fame, must at least have tended greatly to the increase of his wealth--as the first work in a few years, ran through twelve editions.
Some time before the collection of his poems into a volume, Ramsay had published, as usual, in a single sheet, "A Pastoral Dialogue between Patie and Roger"--which he followed up in the succeeding year with "Jenny and Peggy." So delighted were the public with these two productions, that his friends urged on him to extend the sketches, and add appropriate songs, so as to form a Dramatic Pastoral. This he accomplished with unrivalled success. In 1725, his completed Pastoral was published under the title of the Gentle Shepherd, which met with instant and triumphant success, and its best encomium is, that it still holds its place in the affections, and is universally relished and admired, by that class of people whose habits and manners of life are there described.
As Ramsay had now attained to great poetical fame, he removed from his original shop opposite the head of Niddry's Wynd, to a house in the second floor of a building, now removed, in the High Street, called the Luckenbooths, which commanded a view of the public cross, a place where all the gaiety of the city used to assemble. With this change of situation, he altered his sign from Mercury, to the heads of the two poets, Drummond of Hawthornden, and Ben Jonson, and, in addition to his business as a bookseller, he commenced that of a circulating library, being the first who set up such an establishment in Scotland. In his shop the wits of Edinburgh used to meet for information and amusement.
It was in this society that Ramsay's passion for the drama was revived, and prompted him, at the age of fifty, to undertake, at a great expense, the building of a play-house in Carrubber's Close. But the spirit of the age, not coinciding with the poet's taste, his play-house was shut up by order of the magistrates, and, in addition to his pecuniary loss, his sufferings were aggravated by several lampoons published against him, entitled "The flight of religious piety from Scotland upon the account of Ramsay's lewd books," and the "Hellbred Play-House Comedians, who debauched all the faculties of the soul of our rising generation," "The dying words of Allan Ramsay," &c. Among other things, his humble beginning, his upstart vanity, and his fine house, were made the topics of censure as well as of laughter. The poet seems to have taken no farther notice of this outpouring of envy and malice against him, except by his verses, "Reasons for not answering the Hackney Scribblers." Continuing to prosper in business, he now ceased writing for the public; but, in the enjoyment of his celebrity, and retaining his good humour, he devoted his attention to his shop, his family, and his friends.
His "good auld wife," Christian Ross, died in 1743. Of the three sons and five daughters she had brought him, only one son and three daughters remained. In 1755 he gave up his shop, and about the same time lost one of his daughters. The celebrity of his son Allan, as a painter, appears however, to have been a source of great joy to the poet in his old age. The latter years of his life were spent in a neat house, which he erected on the north side of the Castle hill, commanding one of the finest prospects perhaps in Europe. For twelve years he lived here in a state of dignified retirement and philosophic ease, such as few literary men are ever able to obtain. For some time he had been afflicted with the scurvy in his gums, which had deprived him not only of his teeth, but also of a part of the jaw bone. He died at Edinburgh on the 7th day of January 1758, in the 73d year of his age, and was buried in the Greyfriar's churchyard. A monument was erected to him some years ago on the walls of the church, having the following inscription and verses.
Author of "the Gentle Shepherd" and other admirable poems in the Scottish dialect.
The poet, in his epistle to Arbuckill, in 1719, describes his personal appearance as
As he advanced in years his appearance no doubt changed. He is described by those who remember him as a squat man, with a big paunch, and a smiling countenance, who wore a fair round wig which was rather short--He thus describes his socialness and conviviality.
As to his religion he honestly avowed his creed.
With regard to politics, he says,
He also confesses himself fond of praise.
He speaks of his business and means.
As regards his learning, the poet confesses that the beauties of Horace he could only feast on through an English translation, and he is equally explicit in acknowledging his total ignorance of Greek.
Allan Ramsay seems to have possessed, in a high degree, the reputed characteristics of his countrymen, prudent self-control, with a strong desire to acquire wealth, and unpoetic though it may sound, he is one of those few, who, combining poetic pursuits with those of business, realized a competency.
A complete edition of his works, with his life, was published at London, in two volumes octavo, in 1800; and in 1808 there was published at Edinburgh, in two volumes octavo, an edition of the Gentle Shepherd, with illustrations of the scenery. In the biographical dictionary of eminent Scotsmen, there is a good portrait and life of the poet.