Cockburn, Alicia (DNB00)
|←Cockburn, Alexander||Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 11
COCKBURN, ALICIA or ALISON (1712?–1794), authoress of the exquisite Scottish lyric, 'I've seen the smiling of fortune beguiling' (printed in the 'Lark,' Edinburgh, 1765), one of the sets of the 'Flowers of the Forest,' was a daughter of Robert Rutherford of Fairnalee, Selkirkshire, and was born about 1710 or 1712. She was distantly related to the mother of Sir Walter Scott, with whom she lived on terms of intimate friendship. In her youth she is said to have been very beautiful, and in a book by Mr. Fairbairn, published at Edinburgh in 1727, entitled 'L'Eloge d'Ecosse et des Dames Ecossoises,' her name appears among a list of the most charming ladies of Edinburgh society. In 1731 she married Patrick Cockburn, advocate (son of Adam Cockburn of Ormiston, lord justice clerk of Scotland) [q. v.], commissioner of the Duke of Hamilton. He died 29 April 1753. She had an only son, a captain of dragoons, who died in 1780. In December 1777 Mrs. Cockburn spent an evening in George Square, the house of Sir Walter Scott's father, and, writing to Dr. Douglas of
Galashiels, describes the future romancist as 'the most extraordinary genius of a boy I ever saw.' The admiration was mutual, for when taken to bed that night the boy told his aunt he liked that lady, and on being asked what lady answered, ' Why, Mrs. Cockburn, for I think she is a virtuoso like myself' (Lockhart, Life of Scott). Lockhart prints in the 'Life of Scott' a copy of verses found among his mother's papers, headed ' Lines to Mr. Walter Scott on reading his poem of Guiscard and Matilda,' inscribed to Mrs. Keith of Ravels ton, which he supposes to have come 'from the pen of his old admirer, Mrs. Cockburn.' She also wrote lines on Sir Walter Scott's father, printed in the 'Life of Scott.' 'They made,' says Lockhart, 'one among a set of poetical characters which were given as toasts among a few friends, and we must hold them to contain a striking likeness, since the original was recognised as soon as they were read aloud.' Mrs. Cockburn is stated to have cultivated poetry from a very early period, and to have indulged in it to nearly the close of her life, but only comparatively few of her compositions have ever been published. In Stenhouse's notes to Johnson's 'Scots Musical Museum ' it is stated that she composed the lyric to the air of the 'Flowers of the Forest' at the request of a gentleman, who had heard the air played by a shepherd on a flute while passing through a sequestered glen. According to Sir Walter Scott, 'the occasion of the poem was a calamitous period in Selkirkshire or Ettrick Forest, when no fewer than seven lairds or proprietors, men of ancient family and inheritance, having been engaged in some imprudent speculations, became insolvent in one year.' Burns, in a letter to Thomson in 1793, expresses high admiration of the verses, and his sincerity in doing so is proved by the fact that he had imitated them closely in a poem 'I dreamed I lay,' written in 1776. Mrs. Cockburn met Burns in 1786, and wrote of him, he 'has a most enthusiastic heart of love.' In Stenhouse's edition of Johnson's 'Scots Musical Museum' two other songs of Mrs. Cockburn are inserted, both to the tune of ' All you ladies now at land ; ' the one entitled ' A Copy of Verses wrote by Mrs. Cockburn on the back of a picture by Sir Hew Dalrymple,' and the other a drinking song beginning ' All health be round Balcarras board.' During the rebellion of 1745 Mrs. Cockburn was a strong adherent of the government, and wrote a song on the Pretender's manifesto to the tune 'Clout the Caldron.' She is described in the following eulogistic terms by Sir Walter Scott : 'She was one of those persons whose talents for conversation made a stronger impression on her contemporaries than her writings can be expected to produce. In person and features she somewhat resembled Queen Elizabeth, but the nose was rather more aquiline. She was proud of her auburn hair, which remained unbleached by time even when she was upwards of eighty years old. She maintained the rank in the society of Edinburgh which French women of talents usually do in that of Paris, and in her little parlour used to assemble a very distinguished and accomplished circle, among whom David Hume, John Home, Lord Monboddo, and many other men of name were frequently to be found. Her evening parties were very frequent, and included society distinguished both for condition and talents. The petit souper, which always concluded the evening, was like that of Stella, which she used to quote on the occasion :—
A supper like her mighty self,
Four nothings on four plates of delf.
But they passed off more gaily than many costlier entertainments. She spoke both wittily and well, and maintained an extensive correspondence, which, if it continues to exist, must contain many things highly curious and interesting. My recollection is that her conversation brought her much nearer to a French woman than to a native of England.' Three letters of Mrs. Cockburn are published in 'Letters of Eminent Persons addressed to David Hume,' edited by J. Hill Burton, 1849. Their frank directness and playful wit indicate that she was with Hume on terms of cordial intimacy, and there are many expressions of warm esteem, notwithstanding a wide divergence from him in her religious views. She died at Edinburgh 22 Nov. 1794, when she was above eighty. 'Even at an age,' says Sir Walter Scott, 'advanced beyond the usual bounds of humanity, she retained a play of imagination and an activity of intellect which must have been attractive and delightful in youth, but were almost preternatural at her period of life.' In her will, an interesting document, confirmed 23 Jan. 1795, she bequeaths to Sir Walter Scott's mother her emerald ring. A letter from a lady to Charles Kilpatrick Sharpe, printed in Stenhouse's edition of Johnson's 'Scots Musical Museum,' thus describes her : 'She had a pleasing countenance and piqued herself upon always dressing according to her own taste, and not according to the dictates of fashion. Her brown hair never grew grey, and she wore it combed up upon a toupee, no cap, a lace hood tied under her chin, and her sleeves puffed out in the fashion of Queen Elizabeth, which is not uncommon now, but at that time was peculiar to herself.'