Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Ramsay, Allan (1686-1758)
RAMSAY, ALLAN (1686–1758), Scottish poet, was born on 15 Oct. 1686 at Leadhills, parish of Crawford, Lanarkshire. He was descended from the Ramsays of Cockpen, Midlothian, a collateral branch of the Ramsays of Dalhousie. ‘Dalhousie of an auld descent’ he proudly addressed as ‘my chief, my stoup, my ornament.’ His father, Robert Ramsay, the son of an Edinburgh lawyer, was manager of Lord Hopetoun's lead-mines in Crawford Moor. His mother, Alice Bowyer, was the daughter of a Derbyshire man, resident at Leadhills as instructor of the miners; her grandfather was Douglas of Muthil, Perthshire, and Ramsay was consequently able to call himself ‘a poet sprung from a Douglas loin.’ His father died while Allan was an infant, and his mother married a second husband, a small landholder in the neighbourhood, named Creighton. Ramsay was educated at the Crawford village school till his fifteenth year, when his mother died. Next year, in 1701, he was apprenticed by his stepfather to an Edinburgh wig-maker. There is an unsupported legend that Ramsay desired to devote himself to art.
Ramsay soon started in business as a wig-maker for himself, married in 1712, and speedily became a substantial citizen. Prudence in money matters, resourcefulness, and love of personal independence characterised him through life. Very early in its career he joined the Jacobite ‘Easy Club,’ founded in 1712, and he entertained his fellow-members with his earliest poetical effusions. An address by him to the club is dated 1712, and elegies on Maggy Johnstoun and Dr. Pitcairne followed; the latter, on account of political allusions, did not appear in his collected works. Under a rule directing that the members should adopt pseudonyms at club meetings, Ramsay figured first as Isaac Bickerstaff, and afterwards as Gawin Douglas. On 2 Feb. 1715 the club made him its laureate. In the course of the year its existence terminated, owing to political disturbance. One of its latest minutes (dated 10 May 1715) avers that ‘Dr. Pitcairn and Gawin Douglas, having behaved themselves three years as good members of this club, were adjudged to be gentlemen.’
After 1715 Ramsay regularly exercised his gift of rhyming. Occasional poems, issued in sheets or half-sheets at a penny a copy, were readily bought by the citizens, and it was soon a fashion to send out for ‘Ramsay's last piece.’ Between 1716 and 1718 he abandoned wig-making in favour of bookselling, and quickly formed a good connection at his house, under the sign of the Mercury in the High Street, where he had previously exercised his handicraft of wig-maker. About 1716 he published from the Bannatyne MS. ‘Chrysts-Kirke on the Greene,’ supplementing it with a vigorous and rollicking second canto. This he reissued in 1718 with a further canto, and the work thus completed reached a fifth edition in 1723. In 1719 he issued a volume of ‘Scots Songs,’ which was soon in a second edition. Meanwhile his metrical eulogies and occasional satires and moral discourses attracted influential patrons. He also entered into verse correspondence with poetical friends, notably with William Hamilton (1665?–1751) [q. v.] When at length he published his collected poems with an Horatian epilogue in 1721, he secured a strong list of subscribers, as well as the assistance of various friendly poets, whose commendatory verses increased his popularity. In his preface he thrusts with satirical pungency at certain detractors; their cavillings, he asserts, ‘are such that several of my friends allege I wrote them myself to make the world believe I have no foes but fools.’ His portrait by Smibert, ‘the Scottish Hogarth,’ was prefixed to the volume. The work realised four hundred guineas. It was followed in 1722 by ‘Fables and Tales,’ which was reissued with additions in 1730, with a preface in which Ramsay acknowledges indebtedness to La Fontaine and La Motte, but says nothing of what he owed to the ‘Freiris of Berwick’ (assigned to Dunbar) in his ‘Monk and Miller's Wife,’ the masterpiece of the collection. A ‘Tale of Three Bonnets’ of 1722 is a spirited if somewhat unpolished political allegory. In 1723 he published ‘The Fair Assembly,’ a poem of considerable independence of thought and expression, and in 1724 he dedicated to the Earl of Stair a well-conceived and vigorous piece on ‘Health,’ written in heroic couplets.
In 1724–7 Ramsay published three volumes of miscellaneous poems under the title of ‘The Tea-table Miscellany.’ A fourth volume is of doubtful origin. The ‘Miscellany’ includes several English and Scottish traditional ballads, lyrics by various Caroline singers, along with a number of songs and miscellaneous pieces by Ramsay himself and his friends the Hamiltons and others. Notable among Ramsay's songs for freshness and grace are ‘The Yellow-haired Laddie,’ ‘The Lass o'Patie's Mill,’ and ‘Lochaber no more.’ During the same years (1724–7) he published in two volumes, mainly from the Bannatyne MS., ‘The Evergreen,’ which reached a second edition in 1761. This anthology, which he describes as ‘Scots poems wrote by the ingenious before 1600,’ represents the author of ‘Chrysts-Kirke,’ Dunbar, and other Scottish ‘makaris;’ and contains one remarkable political satire, ‘The Vision,’ which, though disguised, is no doubt Ramsay's own, and is his best sustained lyric.
A pastoral entitled ‘Patie and Roger,’ inscribed to his patron and friend Josiah Burchet, prominently figured among his poems of 1721 along with other efforts in a like direction—romantic and elegiac pastorals, a pastoral ode, and a pastoral masque. His friends urged him to elaborate a systematic pastoral poem. In a letter of 8 April 1724, addressed to William Ramsay of Templehall, he dwelt on his reminiscences and love of the country, and stated that he was engaged on a ‘Dramatick Pastoral,’ which, if successful, might ‘cope with “Pastor Fido” and “Aminta”’ (Chambers, Biogr. Dict. of Eminent Scotsmen). The result was the appearance in 1725 of his pastoral drama, ‘The Gentle Shepherd,’ which achieved instant success. It reached a second edition in 1726, and a tenth in 1750. In 1729 it was represented in Edinburgh after ‘The Orphan,’ Ramsay furnishing an epilogue. It is better adapted for the study than the stage, in large measure because ideal actors for it are simply impossible. The action is slow and languid, and the interest aroused is mainly sentimental. At first it was without songs, and the lyrics afterwards interspersed are not brilliant. The poem is remarkable for its quick and subtle appreciation of rural scenery, customs, and characters; and, if the plot is slightly artificial, the development is skilful and satisfactory. In its honest, straightforward appreciation of beauty in nature and character, and its fascinating presentation of homely customs, it will bear comparison with its author's Italian models, or with similar efforts of Gay. Ramsay, as Leigh Hunt avers, ‘is in some respects the best pastoral writer in the world’ (A Jar of Honey, chap. viii.).
In 1726 Ramsay removed from the High Street to a shop in the Luckenbooths, where he displayed as his insignia models of the heads of Ben Jonson and Drummond of Hawthornden. Here he flourished as a bookseller, and started a circulating library, the first institution of the kind in Scotland.
In 1728 he published a second quarto volume of his poems, including ‘The Gentle Shepherd,’ and a masque with resonant lyrics on the ‘Nuptials of the Duke of Hamilton.’ An octavo edition of this work appeared in 1729, and it was reprinted with a new issue of the ‘Poems’ of 1721 in London in 1731 and in Dublin in 1733. A collection of Scots proverbs appeared in 1737. Meanwhile his shop was a favourite meeting-place for men of letters. He was visited by Gay when in Scotland with the Duke of Queensberry, and explained to him the hard Scotticisms in the ‘Gentle Shepherd,’ in order to assist Pope in reading the work, of which ‘he was a great admirer’ (Chalmers, Life of Ramsay). With Gay and Pope he thenceforth corresponded, and the Hamiltons of Bangour and Gilbertfield, and William Somerville, author of ‘The Chase,’ wrote to him regularly. At the same time the foremost citizens of Edinburgh, the aristocracy of the neighbourhood, and the noble owners of Hamilton Palace and Loudoun Castle treated him as a welcome guest.
Between 1719 and 1729 Ramsay furnished various prologues and epilogues to plays performed in London, and his interest in the drama determined him in 1736 to erect ‘a playhouse new, at vast expense,’ in Carrubber's Close, Edinburgh. But in the following year the provisions of the act for licensing the stage compelled him to close the house. The episode drew from Ramsay a vigorous protest in verse, addressed to the lords of session and the other judges. He was abused violently by the foes of the project, which was not accomplished for many years [see Ross, David].
After 1730 Ramsay practically ceased to write, fearing, he said, that ‘the coolness of fancy that attends advanced years should make me risk the reputation I had acquired.’ About 1755 he retired from business, and settled in an octagonal house, built to his own plans, on the north side of the Castle Rock. The wags of his acquaintance, he told Lord Elibank, called his residence a goose-pie, to which Elibank replied, ‘Indeed, Allan, now that I see you in it, I think the term is very properly applied.’ In a copy of playful autobiographical verses, addressed in 1755 to James Clerk of Penicuik, Midlothian, Ramsay described himself as a prudent, successful man of seventy, enjoying a comfortable age, and looking forward to thirty years more of life. He suffered, however, from acute scurvy in the gums, and he died at Edinburgh on 7 Jan. 1758, aged 72. He was buried in Old Greyfriars churchyard, where there is a monument to his memory. The ‘Scots Magazine’ (xix. 670) describes him as ‘well known for his “Gentle Shepherd,” and many other poetical pieces in the Scottish dialect, which he wrote and collected.’ The ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ of 1758 (p. 46) calls him ‘the celebrated poet.’ Sir William Scott of Thirlestane had enshrined him in a Latin poem as early as 1725, placing him with the elect in Apollo's temple (Poemata D. Gulielmi Scoti de Thirlestane, 1727). Sir John Clerk erected at Penicuik an obelisk to his memory, while A. Fraser-Tytler dedicated to him at Woodhouselee, Midlothian (near the scene of the ‘Gentle Shepherd’), a rustic temple inscribed with appropriate verse. In Prince's Street Gardens, Edinburgh, there is a statue of Ramsay, and his name is perpetuated by the title, Ramsay Gardens, given to the district of the city in which he spent his closing years.
Ramsay's portrait was painted by William Aikman and Smibert. The former, with a copy of the latter by Alexander Carse, and a third painting by an unknown hand are in the National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh.
In 1712 Ramsay married Christian Ross, daughter of an Edinburgh writer to the signet; she died in 1743. There was a family of three sons and five daughters. Allan, the eldest son (1713–1784) [q. v.], and two of the daughters survived him.
Ramsay's works show him as a capable Horatian lyrist, although he knew his model ‘but faintly in the original;’ a satirist of reach and pungency, standing between Dunbar and Lyndsay on the one hand and Burns on the other in lyrics like ‘The Vision,’ ‘Lucky Spence,’ and the ‘Wretched Miser;’ an epistolary poet, worthily admired and imitated by Burns himself (‘Pastoral Poetry’ and Epistles to Lapraik and William Simpson); a dainty, if not always melodious, song-writer; and a master of the pastoral in its simplest and most attractive form. He was unsatisfactory as an editor of ancient verse—he freely tampered with his texts—but his selection showed taste and appreciation, and stimulated other competent scholars.
The separate editions of the ‘Gentle Shepherd’ have been very numerous. In 1788 it was issued with illustrations by David Allan [q. v.] A reissue in 1807 included an appendix with Ramsay's collection of (over two thousand) proverbs. English versions appeared in 1777, 1785, and 1790. In 1880 there was published a royal 4to edition, with memoir, glossary, plates after Allan, and the original airs to the songs. A second edition of ‘The Evergreen’ was reprinted in Glasgow in 1824. The ‘Tea-table Miscellany’ has also been several times reprinted in various forms, in 1768, 1775, 1788, 1793, and 1876; music for the songs in this anthology was published in 1763 and 1775. In 1800 George Chalmers edited Ramsay's poems in two volumes, with a life by himself and a prefatory criticism by Lord Woodhouselee. This has been frequently reissued. A quarto volume of ‘Illustrations to the Poetical Works,’ with engravings by R. Scott, appeared in 1823.[Biographies mentioned in text; Campbell's Hist. of Poetry in Scotland; Lord Hailes's Ancient Scottish Poems; Irving's Lives of the Scottish Poets; Currie's Life of Burns; Lives of Eminent Scotsmen, by the Society of Ancient Scots; Chambers's Dict. of Eminent Scotsmen; Life of Thomas Ruddiman; Principal Shairp's Sketches in History and Poetry; Professor Veitch's Feeling for Nature in Scottish Poetry.]