Moffat Town :- James Hogg, The Ettrick Shepherd Poet
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James Hogg, The 'Ettrick Shepherd' (1770-1835) :
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James Hogg was the other great poet of the Borders other than Robert Burns, a man of humble birth who taught himself the love of the written word, then in it recorded the events of the land he lived in. He met with others in the 'Tibbie Shiels Inn', kept by a widow. Hogg and his fellows made the inn as much of a place of culture as did Burns his local in Dumfries.
James Hogg was born at Ettrick-hall cottage in 1770, his family's poverty making it difficult to get other than the most basic of education. Between 1790 to 1800, James Hogg was a shepherd to James Laidlaw, tenant of the farm of Blackhouse; Laidlaw's son William was for a long time connected with the great Sir Walter Scott, and his home at Abbottsford. Hogg decided to improve himself, discovered a talent for poetry, and composed a number of famous poems and ballads. 'Kilmeny' is probably the most famous, but 'Donald M'Donald' was certainly composed in 1800.
Hogg prospered enough to become widely respected, Charles, Duke of Buccleuch giving him free tenancy of the seventy-acre farm of Altrive Lake, in 1815. Hogg's poetry blossomed from then up to 1820, when he married Margaret Phillips. That was successful, but his next venture was not; he leased the farm of Mount Benger for £ 2,000 over nine years, and lost every penny. The couple had to return to Altrive, where Hogg lived until his death in 1835. Thomas Fairfoul considered that Hogg's hospitality to his many visitors had cost Hogg a great deal, both at Mount Benger and Altrive.
Hogg was fond of retelling the old legends of his area. The ballad of 'Mess John' concerned a wizardly priest who bewitched 'Bonny May of Craigieburn', compelling her to visit him once a month. Her cries of despair were the terror of the neighbourhood, until the Covenanters Hab Dab and Davie Din stopped her and shot the priest.
'Tibbie Shiels' was the maiden name of Mrs. Elizabeth Richardson, who became tenant of the St. Mary's Cottage, becoming known for her excellence as an alehouse keeper. Robert Chambers ('Picture of Scotland') is said to have given her an excellent review for his time, so visitors came. Amongst them were James Hogg, John Grieve, Professor Wilson, Aytoun and Sir Walter Scott. Tibbie Shiels died in 1878, so outliving the poet.
In his own time, Hogg was quite famous outside Scotland. The great William Wordsworth, travelling across into the Yarrow valley, wrote :-
When first descending from the moorlands
I saw the stream of Yarrow glide,
Along a bare and open valley,
The Ettrick Shepherd was my guide.'
James Hogg's Monument stands almost opposite St. Mary's Cottage. It was dedicated on June 28th 1860, having been made by a Mr. Andrew Currie, FSA. Sadly, for many it may be their only awareness of the poet.
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All text and images © 1999 Richard Edkins of Dalbeattie Internet.
Moffat Town Website started 9th June 1999.
Last updated 12th December 1999.