Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Muirhead, James (1742-1808)

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1340991Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 39 — Muirhead, James (1742-1808)1894Thomas Wilson Bayne

MUIRHEAD, JAMES, D.D. (1742–1808), song-writer, son of Muirhead of Logan (representing an ancient family), was born in 1742 in the parish of Buittle, Kirkcudbrightshire. After elementary training at Dumfries grammar school, he studied for the church at Edinburgh University, and was ordained minister of the parish of Urr, Kirkcudbrightshire, 28, June 1770. As a proprietor and freeholder of the county, he was one of the aristocratic victims of Burns's unsparing satire in 'Ballads on Mr. Heron's Election, 1795,' and he retaliated in a brochure, in which he quoted and liberally translated into verse Martial's 'In Vacerram' (Martialis, liber, xi. ep. 66). He somewhat cleverly made out Vacerras to have been a gauger of very loose principles, and 'no publication in answer to the scurrilities of Burns ever did him so much harm in public opinion, or made Burns himself feel so sore' (manuscript of Alexander Young, quoted in Chamber's Burns, vol. iv. Library edit.) Burns further denounced Muirhead in his election song of 1796, 'Wha will buy my Troggin?' A scholarly man, Muirhead was specially known as a mathematician and a naturalist. In 1796 he received the degree of D.D. from Edinburgh University. He died at Spottes Hall, Dumfriesshire, 16 May 1808 (Scots Mag. lxx. 479). He married, 21 Aug. 1777, Jean Loudon (d. 1826), by whom he had two sons, William, an advocate, and Charles, and a daughter, wife of Captain Skirving, of the East India Company's service.

Muirhead's one published song is the shrewd and vivid pastoral, 'Bess the Gawkie' (i.e. fool or dupe). It first appeared in Herd's 'Scottish Songs,' 1776. Burns considered it equalled by few Scottish pastorals, pronouncing it 'a beautiful song, and in the genuine Scots taste' (Cromek, Reliques of Burns). Muirhead furnished particulars of the parish of Urr to Sinclair's 'Statistical Account of Scotland,' 1791-9.

[Murray's Literary Hist. of Galloway; Scots Musical Museum, ed. Laing; Rogers's Modern Scottish Minstrel; Harper's Bards of Galloway; Hew Scott's Fasti, pt. ii. pp. 608-9.]

T. B.