Bethune, Alexander (DNB00)

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BETHUNE, ALEXANDER (1804–1843), poet, the son of an agricultural day-labourer, was born at Upper Rankeillor, in the parish of Monimail, Fifeshire, about the end of July 1804. Owing to the poverty of his parents he received an extremely scanty education. Up to his twenty-second year he had been at school only from four to five months in all. But his mother was a woman of superior intellect and force of character. Her name was Alison Christie, and her sons Alexander and John [q.v.] owed her much.

In his fourteenth year Alexander was hired as a labourer. He describes himself as having been set to dig the stiff clayey soil ‘at raw fourteen,’ and says that for more than a year afterwards his joints on first attempting to move in the morning creaked like machinery lacking oil. Previous to this his parents had moved to the village of Lochend, near the Loch of Lindores. Here, in his twenty-first year, he gladly embraced the opportunity of attending a night-school, or school-classes held in the evening, taught by the Rev. John Adamson, afterwards of Dundee. Encouraged by the progress he made under this teacher, Bethune put himself under the instruction of his brother John, in order to learn weaving. The two expended their hard-won and still harder-saved earnings as labourers, on looms, &c.; but 1825 proved a disastrous year for the poor weavers all over Scotland, and their all went. In 1826 the two brothers were once more employed as outdoor labourers, with one shilling a day for wage. In 1829, while working in a quarry, Alexander was thrown into the air by a sudden blast of gunpowder. He was so mangled that his death was expected. But he recovered, and in about four months was again at his day-labouring. About three years later he met with an exactly similar accident. He recovered, but was much mutilated and disfigured, and carried his hurts with him through life. It was about this time he commenced author. Having won a place in the ‘Poet's Corner’ of several local newspapers, he published his ‘Tales and Sketches of the Scottish Peasantry’ in 1838. They brought him fame at once. His printer—a Mr. Shortrede, of Edinburgh—gave the author the sale-price of the first fifty copies disposed of, as copyright payment. This yielded him far more money than he had ever dreamed of possessing.

His brother John having about this time been appointed overseer on the estate of Inchtyre, Alexander became his assistant. But within a year the estate passed to another proprietor, and their engagement ended. Their home at Lochend, which formed part of Inchtyre, had likewise to be vacated. The brothers therefore came to the resolution of farming a piece of ground near Newburgh, Fifeshire, and of erecting a home for themselves. To raise funds for this purpose they published ‘Lectures on Practical Economy’ in 1839; but this work fell all but stillborn from the press. Alexander the same year lost his brother John — a great and lasting sorrow. He revised and edited his poems, and prefixed apathetic memoir. This proved a success; 750 copies were sold immediately, and a second edition was speedily called for. The little volume having fallen under the notice of Mrs. Hill, wife of Frederick Hill, inspector of prisons for Scotland, she wrote to Bethune, and a situation was procured for him as a turnkey in Glasgow. This post, however, he found utterly uncongenial, and in March 1841 he gave it up. In 1842 he visited Edinburgh, and arranged with Messrs. Adam and Charles Black for the publication of his most noticeable book, the 'Scottish Peasant's Fireside,' a presentation of Scottish character among the lower classes, of scenery, and of manners. The new volume was welcomed far and near, and especially among the Scottish emigrants of Canada. But Bethune's days were numbered. He took a fever, and, though he partially recovered from it, showed signs of pulmonary consumption. He was offered the post of editor of the 'Dumfries Standard,' a liberal and Free-church newspaper then being started. He conditionally accepted; but his disease made rapid progress, and he had to release himself from his engagement. He died at Newburgh on 13 June 1843, having consigned his manuscripts to his friend William M'Combie (then an Aberdeenshire farmer). M'Combie in 1845 published his 'Lift', with Selections from his Correspondence and Literary Remains.'

[Life by M'Combie; Anderson's Scottish Nation; local inquiries in Fifeshire and Perthshire.]

A. B. G.