William Nicholson: Poet

Adapted from the introduction to William Nicholson's Collected Poems

William Nicholson was born at Tanimaus, in the parish of Borgue, near the town of Kirkcudbright in Galloway, South West Scotland, in August 1783. He was the youngest of eight children. His father was a carrier, then a farmer and finally a publican in the town of Red Lion, today Ringford, four miles north of Kirkcudbright.

His mother, we are told, loved to tell the young and apparently spoilt William stories beneath an old hawthorn tree, and in later life the poet credited his mother with inspiring his poetic gift. He was apparently a poor pupil, indolent and very shortsighted. We are told he attended Ringford school under the care of Mr. Kelly but other theories have searched for a mysterious pedagogue who may have inspired a precocious generation of Galloway writers from around this time. Mr. Heron of Borgue is a strong candidate. Whatever, the self-taught and nature inspired poet described by nineteenth century commentators needs, at least, to be brought into question.

By the age of 14 Nicholson adopted the trade of packman, buying a stock of wares and travelling from town to town and farm to farm and generating a steady business, no doubt enhanced by his story-telling and affable personality. However, business was not all plain sailing and fluctuations in the market, especially in the price of muslins, frequently meant his trade ran aground. According to accounts he was also in the habit of taking time out in order to play the pipes or compose, and the conflict of interest between poetry and money remained with Nicholson all his working life, as it does with so many poets.

In 1814 he managed to secure the publication of a volume of his poems and its success left him with a profit of £100. He invested it in muslin which promptly took a dive in value and the pedlar was back to square one. However, the book spread his fame and gained critical acclaim, so William Nicholson, the Bard of Galloway, was popular wherever he went. Success, however, played upon his weaknesses and drinking became a severe problem by all accounts. Soon after this he began to see demons that conversed with him on the ills of the world. They offered Nicholson answers to major problems, and armed with these and his own writings on universal redemption (and he a one-time Calvinist!), the poet travelled to London to inform the King of what needed to be done to cure the world's ills.

After being mugged and lost on too many occasions a group of Gallovidian's resident in London sent him back home. The Brownie of Blednoch was published in the Dumfries Magazine in 1825 and a second edition of his poems appeared in 1828. From hereon there is no clear detail concerning the poet's life. Some sources say he took up the life of a drover for a period. His friends say that they knew little of him in the last fifteen to twenty years of his life. Harper states that "for some years before his death the harp of the bard had been unstrung, and little was known of him beyond the bounds of his native parish, saving that he was leading a 'quiet, reflective, exemplary life'". He died at Kildarroch, Borgue, on 16th May 1849 and he is buried in the churchyard of Kirkandrews, by the Solway Firth. An inscription on the stone set up by his brother John contains the lines, "No future age shall see his name expire".

Perhaps. One hundred and fifty years ago William Nicholson died. It had been twenty-one years since the printing of the second edition of his collection. His friends, in the latter years of the poet's life and with an eye on posterity, wished Wull, as he was known, to put his work in order. They feared that much that was invaluable would be lost. It probably was, for William Nicholson equated scholarship with pedantry and lived day to day. Ironically, Nicholson's posterity-conscious friends are only remembered because of their association with a man who could hardly be bothered to inspect the proofs of his first edition. There was no collected edition, nor has there been since.

Two further editions, essentially the same, appeared during the second half of the nineteenth century, and a "new" edition, which in fact is the same as editions three and four but in a leaner format, appeared in 1914. Since then, the star of 2The Galloway Poet" has declined and the memory of his most famous poem, "The Brownie of Blednoch" has become the preserve of a generation who committed his poetry to memory but who are now almost all gone. The three editions since Nicholson's death are incomplete, excising many poems from editions one and two and leaving some hand-written pieces out, perhaps because the editor, Harper, did not know of their existence. Therefore, this edition is the first that can lay claim to achieving anything like the wish of Nicholson's immediate circle of friends and admirers during his lifetime. If Nicholson could be consulted upon this edition, I imagine he might be happy, wish it luck, shrug his shoulders and move on. But why is a poet of stature left to fade, almost from awareness altogether, especially in a country that prides itself on its letters?

The answer is complex, and in addressing it we come across many of the strengths and weaknesses of Scottish culture and its ongoing transition from a "people's culture" to a European-style state culture with its faith in centralisation, bureaucracy and archives. In editing and presenting this volume and also trying to address this problem, we are doing more than archiving something that is in danger of being lost, which, at the outset, seems to be the sum of it; we are looking in the face of an enormous change of identity that the modern psyche has undergone with relation to the individual and the state, a change that has been going on across Europe for several hundred years but seems to have undergone a rapid and dramatic occurrence in Scotland in the last two hundred years. As the changes continue so the words "heritage" and "preservation" crop up more and more in our cultural vocabulary; all things "past" are held in an almost (but not quite) golden light. Perhaps we feel unsteady and nervous before a rapidly changing tomorrow. So let's look back.

Nicholson belongs to an aural tradition even more than Burns, whose shadow across Galloway and Ayrshire has certainly put many nineteenth century poets in the shade. Burns was always aware of his literariness; Nicholson, as we suggested above, found it difficult to take the notion of literary posterity with any seriousness. For Nicholson it was the story and its truth that mattered and not the vehicle, i.e. the writer or presenter. The few anecdotes around his life (there is no real and reliable biography) paint a somewhat contradictory picture of a half-blind, avid reader who hated scholarship and loved gossip. Despite his apparent eagerness to read, he couldn't spell, nor had a full grasp of grammar and needed a scribe to record his poems. Yet we are told he corresponded in his own hand and wrote fine prose. All this is possible but the men who are telling these stories (and in fact it could well be one person regurgitated) are clearly members of the posterity-conscious middle and upper middle class nineteenth century bourgeoisie. When they refer to Nicholson's lack of learning they mean he had no classical learning, nor cared much over strict adherence to the "correct" literary models of form and meter. Nicholson worked by ear and by a hand-me-down imitation, transmuting the raw material of folklore and popular issues through story-telling, music-making and singing, into his own, recognisable style. Recognisable that is to the peasantry of Galloway; the written form of the poems that are inevitably contained in this volume show evidence of many different literary re-modelings. These re-modelings would not have concerned Nicholson overmuch because he himself would have re-worked his poems and songs according to his location and state of mind. Therefore one poem might be in Gallowegian, another in more central Scots, another in English; some might use what has become known as the apologetic apostrophe while others "ing" and "of" quite happily. This probably depends on the literary predilections of the person who wrote the poem down but it can only be a shadow of Nicholson. It presents an intractable problem if we are to take an archivist's standpoint; it is not so much of a problem if we regard these poems as part of a living tradition that, like photographs taken on different cameras by photographers of varied skill, capture a moment but, by virtue of their means, crop away the rest of the world around them.

An interesting example is to be had in a previously unpublished poem, "The Blacksmith of Blednoch". There are two handwritten versions in different hands in the library of artist E.A. Hornel at Broughton House, Kirkcudbright, run nowadays by the National Trust for Scotland. They seem to be transcriptions of an original and both involve much guess work. One version was certainly written during Nicholson's lifetime. Either one or probably both "correct" Nicholson's meter by removing an "and" here or a "but" there, changing a dancing anapest into a sturdy iamb, or changing the word order or phrase order in a line so that the colloquial becomes the lofty. These scribes had learning and used it to transform the energy of a land-based culture concerned with confronting it hopes and fears through its story-tellers into drawing-room respectability. Of course, they preserved the poems for us today. - Or they did up to a point.

Earlier we mentioned the dying generation that can still recite the "Brownie of Blednoch". I have heard it recited from memory, and it was recited not only in Galloway but also in Ireland. It's popularity, even today, when there are few left who can recite it, is mythical. Yet these later nineteenth century editions of Nicholson's poems didn't run to more than a few hundred copies, were printed across a wide area (Glasgow, Edinburgh and London, as well Wigtown, Kirkcudbright and Dalbeattie) and sold by subscription and were hardly, from the production standards, the property of "the peasantry". The versions of "The Brownie" that you might still hear on a Wigtownshire farm are not, therefore, derived from a book but have been handed down through the generations since Nicholson sang it for his food and keep as he travelled the countryside selling wares from Ayrshire to The Scottish Borders.

Another factor in reclaiming Nicholson for the people that Nicholson addressed, lies in issues over much of the mythologising by the poet's commentators. The picture of the rude peasant poet touched by genius, inspired rather than learned, not only sounds far too like Burns and Hogg to be entirely believable but reflects far too readily the inner tensions and contradictions of the educated middle classes of the time, and therefore has to be seriously questioned in relation to the truth about Nicholson, the man and poet. John MacDiarmid, Nicholson's biographer for the second, 1828 edition, at one point in a rambling and yet sometimes revealing essay, invokes the name of Rousseau so unselfconsciously that he may as well have been invoking the authority of the Bible. Nicholson is made to fit the gospel according to eighteenth century French idealism and, therefore, in many respects he is lost in it. We end up with that list of strange contradictions outlined above which reflects the nineteenth century's attempt to reconcile nature with learning. It was an uneasy partnership that led, in the worst instances, to opinionated moralising and a condescending misrepresentation of a rural, land-dependent culture that could never grasp the bourgeois aspirations of the French Revolution. Hence we are told that due to his short-sightedness Nicholson could not become a shepherd despite the fact that there is no suggestion he might ever have become a shepherd even if he had twenty-twenty vision. His elder brother became a respected publisher in Kirkcudbright, his father ended his days as a publican; why should Wull count sheep, except that being a shepherd was in accord with idealist models of the time? We are told that he rejected education and this explains the lack of wit or classical knowledge in his work. This overlooks the cleverly handled conceits which are very difficult and very literary devices that frequently occur in his work. He does, granted very occasionally, make classical references but then again he was performing to an audience for whom classical allusion would not have had much meaning. Their supernatural world was of "brownies, bogles, ghaists and wraiths"; they were real and not abstracted personifications of natural or moral powers. The thought of classical reference in the context of entertaining farm labourers is ludicrous. We are then told that Nicholson liked nothing more than to sit by a stream and read, an activity fired by passionate zeal and a genius challenged and hence inspired by adversity. A few paragraphs later this is cited as evidence of lack commercial drive, another paramount concern in the nineteenth century. But the former interpretation suits the commentators for our poet was, as fits the model, educated by nature. Then we are told he couldn't write or only rudimentarily, based on the phonetic model. One is reminded of Burns presented to Edinburgh society as the natural man, a myth that still persists to this day.

But there are more tantalising guesses that once again come from the intuitions of the local folk, and not from their "betterers". Nicholson was not alone in Galloway, not even in Borgue where he was brought up, in his passion for poetry and song. In fact, Galloway was in something of a literary renaissance, producing many now largely forgotten poets some of whom equal Nicholson in different ways, and offer Scotland a resource yet to be brought into the light of day. James Mactaggart (1791-1830), author of the remarkable "Scottish Gallovidian Encyclopaedia" and a poet was born an easy walk from the Nicholson household. John Gerrond (1765-1832), Alex Wilson, Samuel Wilson (1784-1863), were among many others in Galloway at the time. Trotter, Walter Scott's informant was a local and writer, albeit somewhat uninspired, in his own right. The Cunninghams, also contemporaries, were local, as was Dr. Alexander Murray, another half-blind, shepherd prodigy who became Professor of Oriental Languages at the University of Edinburgh and an unremarkable poet as well as advisor and friend to Nicholson. Revealingly, the sister of James Hogg lived in the Tongland Road, Kirkcudbright, not a few hundred yards from where the Nicholson family once lived and by which anyone entering Kirkcudbright from the north would have to pass. There are letters from Hogg to another Kirkcudbright poet Malcolmonson (1793-1848) where Hogg refers to his family and there is little doubt that he visited his sister. Hogg is said to have written four lines of Nicholson's "The Country Lass" and helped him get his first edition published. MacDiarmid, who clearly works on a great deal of hearsay and doesn't seem to know Nicholson personally that well, refers to Nicholson meeting Hogg in Edinburgh. He surely did, but what about the more sensible suggestion that Nicholson and Hogg met in Kirkcudbright? In fact, Nicholson would have known all these characters. In his travelling to raise subscribers for his first edition he succeeded in getting over fifteen hundred names!

The point is the literary culture of Galloway during Nicholson's lifetime was remarkably rich and busy. It was a largely aural tradition changing rapidly to a written culture that was, by the second half of the nineteenth century, to preserve and ossify that tradition into parrot-fashion Burnsiana. We don't need models supplied by the Enlightenment to explain and ultimately obscure the genius of Nicholson, we simply need to look at what was happening in Galloway at the time. However, today, to fully see that picture there is much restoration work that needs be done. Collecting the works of William Nicholson is just the beginning but in the process we are revealing a social history of Scotland that will change the way we look at ourselves, clear away the varnish of foreign intellectual models and of a later nineteenth century obsessed with bogus images of Scottishness, Robert Burns included. Such work can achieve what has long been the felt need that lacked a means: reveal new layers of cultural richness to go alongside the kilt and caber culture Scotland thrusts at the tourist market.

This edition, therefore, is the best that can be done at the moment. It is not a monument set in bronze but a half-accurate record of the quixotic genius of a poet who is partly lost and partly transformed. There is little doubt that Nicholson became a drinker, and it has been suggested that his output declined once he became prompted by his demons and theories of universal redemption. There are statements that he fell on hard times and became a dependent of the poor laws but no record has turned up of him on the poor role. There are stories of him denouncing his greatest poem, "The Brownie of Blednoch" in his later years for it has "nae moral" but he is reported to have said this after a lively recitation before the Rev. Gorge Murray (yet another poet). Maybe he said it, maybe he felt he should say it before a Minister, or maybe the culture that felt great poetry showed great moral purpose said it for the vagrant drunkard who never said "thank you" but whom everyone liked.

In the end we are left with the works as they have come down to us. They range from simply wonderful to the pedestrian. "The Country Lass" has definite literary pretensions. It was said to have been written at the prompting of Murray while Nicholson's poetry was in preparation for publication. It was also reputedly assisted in the transcribing from mind and heart to paper by James Hogg. Many aspects of the poem are revealing but its insight into human character, as every commentator agrees, is profound. Indeed, its probing of human hopes, aspirations and foibles rivals Jane Austen. As it is written in four beat rhyming couplets it also reveals something of the aural tradition from which Nicholson's art springs. Nearly every couplet rhymes perfectly in the voice of the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright, or more accurately, the Parish of Borgue, from which Nicholson comes. Read it in any other Scots and the rhymes will often seem half rhymes. The beat, too, may seem thumpy or unvaried. On the page, yes, but not in the mouth of a local to Nicholson's Galloway. Although "The Country Lass" was never designed to be performed, its art is the art of the live storyteller.

The songs, many of which could still be heard sung into this century in and around Dumfries and Galloway but now have almost entirely died out, are patchy but evidently suffer the hands of various scribes. At their best they are lyrically sublime and open-heartedly revealing. Harper, in his later editions excised some of the better pieces, probably on the grounds that they were either too topical or too unaffected, honest or near the knuckle. They reveal another aspect of Nicholson the poet, showing a bleak despair that doesn't fit the image of jolly Wull to whom disaster was like water off a duck's back. One such piece is "Song", set to the tune of "Bonny Dundee". I wonder if there isn't a strong autobiographical element here. "Where are the joys that I felt in life's morning?" asks the opening line. It takes us until the end of the fourth verse of seven to discover the cause of the grief and the fact that the griever is a woman. She mourns the loss of her "Willie", Nicholson's christian name. The poem quickly returns to the subject of despair. As a conventional loss poem it spends a long time dwelling on abstract misery. If, however, we transform the griever from the woman of conventional song who is lost from her husband or lover through death in foreign wars into the poet, and see Willie as the young Nicholson, the personal meditation takes on a very modern darkness.

One is reminded of the way Burns, in verse, or Schubert, in song, could take conventional models and materials and make them into something special. Did Nicholson do this? Again the scribe interferes but read that poem as an older man's address to lost joy and the nihilism has a personal tone that disturbs where a more conventional piece would merely draw out sympathy. Certainly Nicholson and his contemporaries such as Mactaggart were keen to the trends of the time and would use them to popularise their work. The subject of the woman abandoned by a lover once she is pregnant travelled the length and breadth of the island. Clare uses it as does Mactaggart and Nicholson, frequently. They address a problem of the time. War left many women with a child or children to bring up on their own. Soldiers on leave and displaced men roaming as a result of social change used women for their pleasure, promised much then left as quickly as they arrived. The poet is always on the woman's side. Maybe they found a sympathy for the stigma and quality of being an outcast. Many of these women committed suicide, and such despair and the rapid loss of youth that bearing a child and bringing it up alone implies, maybe finds a brother in the poet's state of mind that wrote "Fortune, I fear not thy smiles nor thy frowning,/ Nought can now move me on this side the tomb!"

A drinker, a converser with demons, peripatetic pedlar and poet, a warm lovable man, an acute observer of his friends foibles, he made few enemies in a lifetime where he crossed the paths of thousands of folk. He upset people because of his apparent ingratitude but he seems to have had that universal gratitude that rarely singles out individual for recognition. Mactaggart, in his Scottish Gallovidian Encyclopaedia, does not have an entry under Nicholson but under Wull for he knew that anyone in Galloway who would look up information about one of its greatest poets would know the man by that familiar name. He says "every body is fond of him, his cracks are extremely diverting, so humourous, yet so melancholy..." and he closes his article, "And should all mankind desert him, I hope he will find me never far away; whatever I can do for the good of that man, so shall it be. If I have a saxpence in the world, a part of it be his, and a word to spare, let that be said in his favour."

Forty-nine years after the poet's death "a large and representative committee" met in Kirkcudbright on 1st October to agree a suitable site for a memorial to mark the fiftieth year of the poet's death. It was unanimously agreed that Borgue village, five miles from Kirkcudbright, would be the most suitable location, and that a sum of £250 needed to be raised by subscription. The Committee consisted of many prominent figure including Nicholson's editor for the later editions, Malcolm McL. Harper from Castle Douglas and his publisher Thomas Fraser from Dalbeattie; George G.B. Sproat from Gatehouse of Fleet, himself an enthusiastic poet, and artists associated with Kirkcudbright, T.B. Blacklock from Edinburgh, William Mouncey who once owned the house in which this introduction is being written, W.S. MacGeorge and, most famous of them all, E.A. Hornel of Broughton House, Kirkcudbright, who took inspiration for many of his works from Nicholson, including a famous work on the Brownie of Blednoch now in the Glasgow Art Gallery. The memorial was executed by W. H & J. Newall of Dalbeattie and the sculptor was Mr A. McF. Shannon of Glasgow. The image was derived from a portrait painted by John Faed, a Gatehouse of Fleet born Royal Academician, which was executed during Nicholson's lifetime. On 18th August 1900, Sheriff Andrew Jameson, unveiled the memorial. Nicholson's fame was set in Dalbeattie granite and gradually, ironically, people stopped reading his poetry.

Alongside all the complex social issues that go towards this decline, Scotland tends too readily to be seen as a one poet country, not only by outsiders but the Scots themselves. Moreover, the themes Nicholson treated: betrayed love, frustrated love and the consolations of nature or the failing of such consolations in old age are no longer the concern of "high art". His love interest belongs more to the world of the pop song. Nature has been tamed or failed us through science and is largely the consolation of the retired class. His satires are just as sharp but satire's references date. The element of gothic horror maintains a niche in the interest of the general public and will always do so but it is Nicholson's concern with the supernatural Brownie that still captures the popular imagination. In a letter written to the editor of the Dumfries and Galloway Courier upon the occasion of Nicholson's death in 1849, a correspondent comments that the Brownie of Blednoch entitles its author to a remarkable status, and that the poem "has been seldom surpassed in what is called graphic power". He concludes that "it is, in short, second only to the 'Tam o' Shanter' itself". John Brown goes further, "here is the indescribable, inestimable, unmistakable impress of genius. Chaucer, had he been a Galloway man, might have written it, only he would have been more garrulous and less compact and stern."

There is, however, a lot more to William Nicholson than the Brownie of Blednoch and upon the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of his death another memorial is fitting. If one enjoys signs and omens then the times augur a revival. The date of his death, the 16th May, is exactly the same as the "birthday" of Scotland's Book Town, Wigtown, a date the town aims to celebrate every year. Wigtown is next door, quite literally, to Bladnoch, the village of the Brownie of legend and of the newly transcribed poem "The Blacksmith of Blednoch". As we move into a new century and a new millennium we have the prospect of a new Scotland with its parliament set to address Scotland and Scotland's culture. Perhaps, most significantly of all, we have a resurgence in the contemporary literary arts in Galloway the likes of which has not been seen since those days when William Nicholson toured the region.

Recite these poems, sing them if you know the tunes or invent new tunes for them. I hope this volume brings enjoyment to many and keeps the memory of William Nicholson alive for some years to come.