Regency Critics: ‘No Such Things as Ghosts’

James Hogg (1770-1835) was the son of a tenant farmer and largely self-taught, the Bible being his primer. He worked as a sheep drover for another farmer, Laidlaw, who gave him more books to read and his son Will as companion. He began to write plays and pastoral poems, taking walking tours in the summers.

So things might have remained thus but for the approach of that ‘Wizard of the North:’ Sir Walter Scott.

This was 1802 and well before Scott singlehandedly rescued Scotland’s literary past from an undeserved reputation for being “provincial and antiquated.” As the composer Ralph Vaughan Williams was to later do for English folk music (I’m listening to his Symphony No. 3 even now), Scott immortalized the history of Scotland’s literature, collecting rural ballads and other oral traditions of the countryside for publication.

He was doing so ostensibly to feed the growing appetite for Romanticism, but he was quite keen to seek out the rustic and historical, preferably from the lips of old women and, you guessed it, shepherds. What he got instead was a poem Auld Maitland, so finely written that it could not have had its birth among the hills and forests of the Borders.

Jamie in his plaid.

Jamie in his plaid.

The author was “Jamie the Poeter,” who was promptly fetched from the sheep herds “down Ettrick break.” When Hogg was brought into Scott’s presence, he was a braw young man, tall and guid-looking. No’ unlike the fair hero of Gabaldon’s Outlander when he took off his bonnet, ‘from which fell a mighty cataract of fine red hair that flooded his back and shoulders.’*

Still, he was a peasant with coarse manners. Worse, he was not in the least cowed by being among those better educated than he. Above all, he insisted the ballad of Auld Maitland was genuine, having been sung by his mother. Indeed, he was verra proud of his parentage:

“This Hogg came of interesting stock, for there had been witches on the paternal side, and his maternal grandfather, Will o’ Phawhope, was the last man on the Border who had spoken with the fairies.” — Sir Walter Scott, John Buchan (1932)

Having met with Scott’s approval, the shepherd was engaged to collect more ballads and continue his fledgling career as a published poet. Between lovers and financial troubles, this man of the earth with unrefined tastes eventually found himself taken up by Blackwood’s Magazine to co-author the infamous Chaldee Manuscript, the very work which threw Whig society in an uproar.

He might not have fully understood the scandal and subsequent withdrawal of something deemed libelous. In his mind, the satire that was Manuscript was a fine piece. Moreover, he was basking in the glow of working with powerful critics such as John Lockhart and John Wilson. Indeed, he became quite caught up in the whirlwind of satire and duplicity that was attendant in working with those fellows. It was exhilarating at first, even if he was rather spooked by Lockhart’s personality, so like that of a mischievous brownie:

‘I dreaded his eye terribly,’ (Hogg) says, ‘and it was not without reason, for he was very fond of playing tricks on me..’

Christopher North, A Memoir of John Wilson, by Mary Gordon (1862)

But if his forthright mind could not immediately perceive what was happening, his friends became rather alarmed, particularly as they recognized Hogg’s  Shepherd persona with broad Scots accent and buffoonery being used rather liberally to amuse others at his expense. It was becoming clear he was no match for the Scorpion and the Leopard, their cleverness confounding him. So he left the critics to return to writing of the countryside’s mysterious, dark beauty, with its abandoned towers and glimpses of fairies, and the supernatural stories he’d heard at his mother’s knee.

His collection of those stories was bound in a volume he entitled Shepherd’s Calendar — so well-received he was finally able to retire much of his debts and happily ignore the caricature his former colleagues had created of him, a character which went on years afterwards delighting readers of Maga. Let them make sport of him, for he was to turn the tables, publicly chiding them for their false pride and superiority.

One of the tales Hogg included in his Calendar concerned the strange spectre of a lovely girl. She wore a green bonnet, its crown could be seen bobbing just over the horizon of a lonely path but would disappear as her pursuer approached, a wealthy, landed gentleman who would have fit in well among posh Edinburgh society. He was thwarted, bewitched by that which he didn’t understand, trying to catch a phantom old women warned him to stay away from, a warning he ignored, leading to a frustration and fear ending in madness:

“A great number of people now-a-days are beginning broadly to insinuate that there are no such things as ghosts or spiritual beings visible to mortal sight. Even Sir Walter Scott is turned renegade, and, with his stories made up half-and-half, like Nathaniel Gow’s toddy, is trying to throw cold water on the most certain, though most impalpable, phenomena of human nature.” — The Mysterious Bride

It was a different kind of literary criticism, and readers found delight in how the Shepherd’s characters, without regard to their education or their sophistication, would fall prey to the supernatural that still lurked in the country he loved.

* (as reported in Carswell’s Sir Walter, a Four Part Study in Biography)

Ettrick Forest Castle