Lives of
Scottish Poets
edited by

Center for Applied Technologies
in the Humanities

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Literary Chronicle
New Monthly Magazine
Monthly Review
Notes and Queries
Gibson and Laing
Halkett and Laing
Scottish Notes & Queries

Part I. (Volume I.)
James the First
Thomas the Rhymer
John Barbour
Andrew Wyntoun
Gavin Douglas
Allan Ramsay
William Meston
John Home
James Beattie
Robert Burns

Part II. (Volume I.)
James the Fifth
William Dunbar
Sir James Inglis
Henry the Minstrel
Sir David Lyndsay
Alexander Barclay
Alexander Montgomerie
William Alexander
William Drummond
James Thomson
John Oswald

Part III. (Volume II.)
James the Sixth
Sir Richard Maitland
Arthur Johnston
Hamilton of Bangour
Hamilton of Gilbertfield
Samuel Colvil
Alexander Ross
John Armstrong
John Ogilvie
James Macpherson
Charles Salmon

Part IV. (Volume II.)
Alexander Hume
John Bellenden
Mark Alexander Boyd
Ninian Paterson
William Wilkie
Robert Fergusson
William Julius Mickle
Alexander Geddes
James Grahame

Part V. (Volume III.)
Robert Henryson
Alexander Scott
Walter Kennedy
John Ogilby
Alexander Pennecuik
Alexander Cunningham
David Mallet
William Falconer
Francis Garden
Robert Blair
James Moor
James Graeme
Caleb Whitefoord
James Grainger
Hector Macneill
John Wilson

Part VI. (Volume III.)
Robert Kerr
Richard Lord Maitland
Thomas Hamilton
Charles Hamilton
Michael Bruce
Thomas Blacklock
John Logan
Andrew Macdonald
James Mercer

Appendix. (Volume III.)
James I
Allan Ramsay
John Home
Robert Burns
William Drummond
Robert Fergusson
Alexander Scott
John Wilson



Michael Bruce, [note] whose name stands associated with many tender recollections, was born at Kinesswood, in the parish of Portmoak, in Kinross-shire, in the month of March, 1746. His parents were of humble condition, but, by an industrious and frugal course of life, they found the means to give their son an excellent education. After passing through the usual course of school learning at Portmoak, and the neighbouring town of Kinross, he was sent, in 1762, to the University of Edinburgh. Here he is said to have made great progress in almost every branch of knowledge, but to have displayed a preference, bordering on enthusiasm, to poetry and the belles lettres. At the end of his third session at college, in order to relieve his parents from the burden of his support, he engaged to teach, during the summer months, a school at Gairney Bridge, near Kinross, established for the education of the children of some farmers in the neigbbourhood, who agreed to allow him his board and a small salary. On returning to Edinburgh in the winter of 1765, he entered himself of the Divinity Hall, with a view to the clerical profession. When summer again came round, he resumed the teaching of the school at Gairney Bridge; but, after a short time,
quitted it for one which promised greater advantages, at a place called Forest Mill, on the banks of the Devon, near Alloa, in Clackmannanshire. He wrote on this occasion a song, called Lochleven no more, in imitation of Lochaber no more, in which he thus tenderly records an attachment he had formed to the daughter of the person with whom he resided, while at Gairney Bridge.

Farewell to Lochleven and Gairney's fair stream,
How sweet on its banks of my Peggy to dream!
But now I must go to a far distant shore,
And I'll, may be, return to Lochleven no more.
No more in the spring shall I walk with my dear,
Where gowans bloom bonny, and Gairney runs clear;
Far hence I must wander, my pleasure is o'er,
Since I'll see my dear maid and Lochleven no more.

Bruce's absence from the objects of his affection was not fated to be long; but he returned to them, alas! only to part from them for ever. His constitution, which had always been delicate, began rapidly to sink under the pressure of daily labour; its decay was retarded by none of those comforts or tendernesses which it is in the power of affluence and friendship to supply; while the melancholy of despairing love appears to have been in league with the canker of disease to hasten his dissolution.

No more do I sing, since far from my delight,
But in sighs spend the days, in tears the long night;
By Devon's dull current, mourning I lye,
While the hills and the woods to my mourning reply.

Ere the time arrived for making another annual appearance at the University, he became so weak, that he was obliged to give up his employment at Forest Mill and return to his parents. His sickness was alleviated by no dream of hope. He felt that the hand of death was upon him, and prepared for the final conflict with calmness and resignation. At intervals he amused himself by composing verses, and corresponding with some esteemed friends he had acquired while at the University. Although from the first moment of his return home he was so reduced as to be seldom able to walk abroad, he lingered through the winter of 1766-67, and lived to see the woods and fields, which frosts and tempests had laid bare, blooming again in all the freshness of new life. His mind was of too sensitive a cast not to enter deeply into the contrast which is so apt to suggest itself between such scenes of reviving, and the different destiny of man, for whom nature has reserved “no second spring below;” but he has shewn, by an affecting Elegy on the subject, which was the last thing he ever wrote, that it was a contrast which he viewed with the philosophy of a Christian.

Now spring returns, but not to me returns
The vernal joy my better years have known;
Dim in my breast life's dying taper burns,
And all the joys of life with health are flown:
Starting and shiv'ring in th' inconstant wind,
Meagre and pale, the ghost of what l was,
Beneath some blasted tree I lie reclin'd,
And count the silent moments as they pass.
The winged moments, whose unstaying speed
No art can stop, or in their course arrest;
Whose flight shall shortly count me with the dead
And lay me down in peace with them that rest.
Oft morning dreams presage approaching fate,
And morning dreams, as poets tell, are true:
Led by pale ghosts, I enter death's dark gate,
And bid the realms of light and life adieu!
Farewell, ye blooming fields! ye cheerful plains!
Enough for me the churchyard's lonely mound,
Where Melancholy with still silence reigns,
And the rank grass waves o'er the cheerless ground.
There let me wander at the close of eve,
When sleep sits dewy on the labourer's eyes,
The world and all its busy follies leave,
And talk with wisdom where my Daphnis lies.
There let me sleep forgotten in the clay,
When death shall shut these weary aching eyes,
Rest in the hopes of an eternal day,
Till the long night is gone and the last morn arise.

His death took place on the 6th of July, 1767, being then only in the twenty-first year of his age.


The attention of the public was first called to the merit of this hapless son of the muses, by an interesting paper in one of the Mirrors for 1779, written by the late Lord Craig. [note] “Nothing,” says the writer, “has more the power of awakening benevolence than the consideration of genius thus depressed by situation, suffered to pine in obscurity, and sometimes, as
in the case of this unfortunate young man, to perish, it may be, for want of those comforts and conveniences, which might have fostered a delicacy of frame or of mind ill calculated to bear the hardships which poverty lays on both. For my own part, I never pass the place—a little hamlet, skirted with circle of old oak trees, about three miles on this side of Kinross, where Michael Bruce resided—I never look on his dwelling, a small thatched house, distinguished from the cottages of the other inhabitants only by a sashed window at the end, instead of a lattice, fringed with a honeysuckle plant, which the poor youth had trained around it; I never find myself in that spot, but I stop my horse involuntarily, and looking on the window, which the honeysuckle has now almost covered, in the dream of the moment picture out a figure for the gentle tenant of the mansion; I wish, and my heart swells while I do so, that he were alive and that I were a great man, to have the luxury of visiting him there and bidding him be happy.”


“A young man of genius,” adds Lord C., “in a deep consumption, and feeling himself every moment going faster to decline, is an object sufficiently interesting; but how much must every feeling, on the occasion, be heightened, when we know, that this person possessed so much dignity and composure of mind, as not only to contemplate his approaching fate, but even to write a poem on the subject. In the French language, there is a much admired poem of the Abbé de Chaulieu, [note] written in expectation of his own death to the Marquis de la Fare, lamenting his approaching separation from his friend. Michael
Bruce, who, it is probable, never heard of the Abbé de Chaulieu, has also written a poem on his own approaching death, which cannot fail of touching the heart of every one who reads it.”


Although it was this favourable notice which first effectually drew attention to the poetical genius of Bruce, justice had been done to it much earlier by a fellow student, and friend of Bruce, the Rev. John Logan, who has since become equally well known for his misfortunes and his poetry. In 1770, he collected the poetical remains of Bruce—and published them in one volume duodecimo. The terms in which he speaks of his departed friend, do honour to the goodness of his heart. “Michael Bruce,” he says, “now lives no more, but in the remembrance of his friends. No less amiable as a man, than valuable as a writer; endowed with good nature and good sense; humane, friendly, benevolent; he loved his friends, and was beloved by them with a degree of ardour that is only experienced in the eye of youth and innocence.” Had Mr. Logan been only as scrupulously just to the literary fame, as he has been liberal of praise to the personal character, of Bruce, their names could never have been mentioned in conjunction, but with undivided applause. As editor of Bruce's works, however, he has been guilty of an infidelity, which, as it is of a sort which poisons the very well-springs of literary history, cannot be too severely condemned. It is a fact, of which Mr. Logan made latterly no secret among his friends, that, among the pieces which he published as the production of Bruce, there were several minor ones of his own composition. Had he, after the example of Mr. Pinkerton, [note] with respect to
his modern additions to “Ancient Scottish Poems,” [note] taken some subsequent opportunity of making an ingenuous confession of the extent of his imposture, it might have been overlooked as the excusable device of a young writer, to obtain also judgement of the public on his powers, without being known as a solicitor for their applause; but he has not done this; neither has he left the least clue by which his own pieces can, with any certainty, be separated from those of Bruce.


“The Cuckoo,” one of the poems, whose parentage is thus left in doubt, deserves to rank among the finest productions in the English language. As Logan lived to establish a far higher literacy and poetical character than Bruce, the world have seemed willing to regard him as the author; but it is worthy of remark, that when Logan published “the Cuckoo” as the production of his friend, he had little more than reached the age, at which that friend died; and certainly there is no such disparity in poetical rank between them, as to make it less probable that Bruce, who, like the swan, might sing sweetest when dying, should have been the author of the poem, than that Logan should have written it while as yet only in the infancy of his powers.


Of the productions to which Bruce's claims are undisputed, the principal are, “Alexis,” a pastoral, in which he celebrates, under the name of Eumelia, the same “Peggy,” who is the subject of “his song of Lochleven no more,” and “Lochleven,” a poem descriptive of the scenery around the place of his birth.


A new edition of Bruce's poems was in 1791 undertaken by the Rev. Principal Baird, [note] between whom
and Robert Burns, the following interesting letters passed on the subject.

principal baird to robert burns
“London, 8th February, 1791.

“I trouble you with this letter, to inform you that i am in hopes of being able very soon to bring to press a new edition (long since talked of,) of Bruce's poems. The profits of the edition are to go to his mother, a woman of eighty years of age, poor and helpless. The poems are to be published by subscription, and it may be possible to make out a 2 sh. 6d. or 3sh. volume, with the assistance of a few hitherto unpublished verses which I have got from the mother of the Poet.


“But the design I have in view in writing to you, is not merely to inform you of these facts; it is to solicit the aid of your name and pen in behalf of this scheme. The reputation of Bruce is already high with every reader of classical taste; and I shall be anxious against tarnishing his character by allowing any new poems to appear, that may lower it. For this purpose the MSS. I am in possession of, have been submitted to the revision of some whose critical talents I can trust to, and I mean still to submit them to others.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *
*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

“May I just add, that Michael Bruce is one in whose company, from his past appearance, you would not, I am convinced, blush to be found; and as I would sub-
mit every line of his that should now be published to your own criticisms, you would be assured, that nothing derogatory either to him or you would be admitted in that appearance he may make in future.


“You have already paid an honourable tribute to kindred genius in Fergusson. —I fondly hope that the mother of Bruce will experience your patronage.


“I wish to have the subscription papers circulated by the 14th of March, Bruce's birth-day; which I understand some friends in Scotland talk this year of observing.—At that time it will be resolved, I imagine, to place a humble stone over his grave. This at least I trust you will agree to do—to furnish, in a few couplets, an inscription for it.”

burns, in answer.

“Why did you, my dear sir, write to me in such a hesitating style on the business of poor Bruce? Don't I know, and have I not felt, the many ills that poetic flesh is heir to? You shall have your choice of all the unpublished poems I have; and had your letter had my direction, so as to have reached me sooner, (it only came to my hand this moment,) I should have directly put you out of suspense upon the subject. I only ask that some prefatory advertisement in the books, as well as the subscription bills, may bear, that the publication is solely for the benefit of the mother. I would not put it in the power of ignorance to surmise, or malice to insinuate, that I clubbed a share of the merit from mercenary motives. Nor need you give me credit for any remarkable generosity in my part of the business. I have such a host of peccadilloes, failings, follies, and backslidings, (any
body but myself would perhaps give them a worse appellation,) that by way of some balance, however trifling, in the account, I am fain to do any good that occurs in my very limited power to a fellow creature just from the selfish purpose of clearing a little the vista of retrospection.

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *  
*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *”

Of the degree of success which attended this generous effort to render the memorials of the son's genius productive of some relief to the necessities of an aged parent, no account has been met with. Mrs. Bruce died on the 3rd of August, 1798. Neither am I able to state whether the intention of erecting some “humble stone over his grave” has ever been fulfilled; it may be concluded at least, that Burns furnished no inscription for it, since nothing of the kind is contained in the latest collection of his works.


Although neither the talent shewn in “Alexis” or “Lochleven,” nor in any of Bruce's minor pieces, (if we except, as at present we must, “the Cuckoo”) is such as to entitle him to a high rank among poets; yet it is very rare that we see in works written at so early as age, and under so many disadvantages, such a dawn of excellence as in those of Michael Bruce. If we compare, as in fairness we ought, what Bruce did before he was twenty, with what other poets who have lived to mature their powers and acquire a great name, were able to produce at the same period of life—with the juvenile effusions, for example, of Thomson or Macpherson, who were both as favourably circumstanced in respect of education as Bruce; we shall be forced to allow that as in promise he far excelled them, there is every probability that he would not have yielded to them in performance, had he been happily spared to make the
trial. We cannot perhaps say, with Logan, since we know not, besides, how much of the praise he meant to apply to himself, that “if images of nature that to are beautiful and new; if sentiments warm from the heart, interesting and pathetic; if a style chaste with ornament, and elegant with simplicity; if these and many other beauties of nature and art are allowed to constitute true poetic merit, the poems of Michael Bruce will stand high in the judgement of men of taste;” yet we may safely assert, that to all of these qualities, no poetry ever more strongly inclined.


Bruce does not present us with many, absolutely, “new” images, but he shews a taste in the selection of them, which never exists in an equal degree, without leading in the end to great originality. Like all young authors, he was considerably beholden to his reading; and from the Poems of Ossian, which came into vogue while he was at college, and had attracted his particular attention, he appears to have drawn the most largely. In his description of the ruins of Lochleven Castle, so frequently quoted by tourists, the most striking of all the images by which he endeavours to convey an idea of the desolation that now obtains in a place, once the abode of mirth and festivity, is one which Macpherson had before employed to paint the desolation of “Balclutha's towers,” and which Blair [note] had pointed out in his dissertation, as among the matchless beauties of this author.

Perhaps in some lone, dreary, desert tower
That time has spar'd, forth from time window looks,
Half hid in grass, the solitary fox.

We have here a striking example of the error, into which even a writer of judgement may be led by painting from books instead of nature itself; though the image is admirable, and may not strike many readers as unfitly applied to the ruins of Lochleven Castle, yet nothing could, after all, be more out of place. These ruins are on a small islet, not altogether two English acres in extent, in the midst of a large expanse of water; and before Bruce tenanted it with foxes, he ought to have asked himself how they could come there? Finding the image praised, he never stopped to consider how diversity of circumstances might possibly affect it, and has placed a fox, where certainly a fox never was, and never will, (of its own accord) be seen.


When Logan praises the sentiments of Bruce as “warm from the heart, interesting and pathetic,” he directs us to what were, perhaps, his strongest points. Had he lived, it would have been in tenderness that he would probably have excelled. He appears to have felt strongly, and was fast initiating himself into those graces of expression, which add so much force to all appeals in which the heart is concerned.

J. B.