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



Thomas the Rhymer, [note] or Thomas of Ercildoune, as the father of Scottish poets is commonly called, is supposed to have been born about the end of the twelfth century at Erceldoune, or, according to modern corruption, Earlstoun, a village in the county of Berwick. His history is involved in so much obscurity, that even his name is a subject of dispute among antiquaries. The uniform tradition of centuries had ascribed to him the family name of Learmont, and in all our biographical collections, he takes his place as Thomas Learmont. Later writers, however, have been led, by a reference to antient authorities, to doubt the correctness of the common fame on this point. In a charter, granted by the poet's son and heir to the convent of Soltre or Soutra, he calls himself “Filius et hæres Thomæ Rymour de Ercildon.” Robert de Brunne, [note] Fordun, [note] Barbour, and Winton, the writers most nearly contemporary with him, style him simply, Thomas of Ercildoune; while Blind Henry the Minstrel, and Boece, [note] authors of a later period, call him “Thomas Rymour.” Mr.* Scott [note] says, that Henry the Minstrel, styles him, “Thomas the Rhymer;” but this is a mistake; the very passages which he quotes from Henry shew the contrary.

Thomas Rimour into the Feale was then,” &c.

* Now Sir Walter.

As none of these authorities, embracing a period of two centuries, mention the name of Learmont, nothing can be more reasonable than the inference which is drawn, that it has been improperly ascribed to the bard. But how is the subsequent variation in the popular tradition attempted to be explained? Macpherson [note] supposes, that Thomas or his predecessor had married an heiress of the family of Learmont, and thus occasioned the mistake, as if it ever were, at any time, a common thing for husbands to assume the names of their wives. Mr. Scott suggests, that “it may also have arisen from some family of that name, tracing their descent from him by the female side"—a fancy so difficult to trace, that any other “also” might have served as well.


Were it not a common fault of antiquarianism to drag at the bottom for what is swimming on the surface, some credit might be taken for pointing out where the real explanation undoubtedly lies. In the charter before quoted, the son of the poet,—not speaking, it will be observed, with that vernacular familiarity which might admit of his calling his father by any appellation by which he was popularly known, such as “ the Rhymer;” but with all the solemn precision necessary in a legal deed of conveyance, where correctness of family names was the last thing likely to be disregarded—calls himself the son and heir, “Thomæ Rymour de Ercildon.” The word “Rymour” appears here in the Latin deed as a proper name, and there is not the least pretence for supposing that it could be meant to designate that the person spoken of was a rhymer by profession. Robert de Brunne [note] and the other authorities, next in weight to the son,
call the poet “Thomas of Ercildoune,” dropping, it would seem, the family name, and retaining only that of the family property, a practice common all over Europe from the remotest periods of feudalism. The first who deviate from this style are Henry the Minstrel and Boece, [note] who call him by the family mane of “Thomas Rymour,” leaving out the property surname of Ercildon, for one good reason, if a reason is wanting, that the property had, by this time, passed away from the family. What reason then is there to doubt, that Rhymour, Rimour, or Rymer, was in reality the family name of the poet? It is a name which existed in the Merse and in Northumberland before the remotest period to which that of Learmont can be traced. In the list of these who did homage to Edward I. [note] in 1296, about twelve years after the reputed period of Thomas the Rhymer's death, mention is made of “ John Rymour, a freeholder of Berwickshire;” while the earliest instance of the name of Learmont which we meet with is, at least, a generation later in date. Among some antient writings, preserved in the Register Office at Edinburgh, which belonged to a family now extinct, the Learmonths of Balcomie, there is one in a hand of the seventeenth century, entitled “the Genealogy of the honorable and ancient surname of Learmont,” in which we are told, that “the chief of the name was the Laird of Ersilmont in the Merse, whose predecessor, Thomas Learmonth*, lived in the reign of King Alexander III.” [note] Ersilmont is here evidently a sub-

* The writer evidently speaks here of Thomas by the surname, under which he was known in later times. A. S.
stitution for Ercildon, either of the names being sufficiently descriptive of an eminence at the western extremity of the village of Earlston, on which there was formerly a tower or castle, the residence of “the Lairds,” the ruins of which are still shewn to the inquisitive traveller. As the style of “Laird of Ersilmont” supplanted that of “Laird of Ercildon,” so “Laird of Ersilmont” became, in process of time, corrupted into Lairsilmont, Lairmont, or Learmouth; and so, in like manner, the name of "Thomas Rymour" because, from a natural collision of sense and sound, converted, in the mouths of the vulgar, into "Thomas the Rhymer;" while the true name of the poet was neither Thomas Lairmont nor Thomas the Rhymer, but Thomas Rymour, of Ersilmont or Ercildon.


Thomas Rymour, as we may now venture to call him, appears to have lived during nearly the whole of the thirteenth century. He could not well have been less than thirty years of age in 1232, about which time we find his romance of Sir Tristrem [note] quoted by Gottfried of Strasburgh, [note] as a production then well known; at the death of Alexander III. in 1286, he was most certainly alive; and, if Henry the Minstrel may be credited, he even survived 1296, the year when Wallace, [note] in whose adventures Henry makes him act a part, took arms for the deliverance of his country from the yoke of England. He must, however, have been dead before 1299, which is the date of the charter before mentioned, granted by his son as filius et hæres Thomæ Rymour.


It was, for a long time, to Robert de Brunne [note] alone that we owed the preservation of Thomas Rymour's fame as a poet. In the “Prolog” to his Annals, written
about 1338, he thus records his admiration of the romance of Sir Tristrem: [note]

Sir Tristrem
Over Gestes* it has the 'steem†
Over all that is, or was.

The romance itself, however, was generally supposed to be lost, till a copy of it was recently discovered in a large and valuable collection of metrical romances, belonging to the library of the Faculty of Advocates, called from its donor the Auchinleck MSS. [note] from which it was transcribed and given to the world, accompanied with a critical introduction and notes by Mr. Walter Scott. [note]


The recovery of this poem is of the more consequence, that it presents us, in its original simplicity, with a story of great celebrity, which was subsequently altered and perverted into a thousand degenerate forms by the diseurs of Normandy. Sir Tristrem was one of the antient heroes of Wales, or British Kingdom of Strathclwyd; and, if we may trust the Welch authorities, acted a distinguished part in the history of the renowned King Arthur, and the chivalry of the Round Table. Thomas Rymour, from his residence at Ercildoune, which lay on the borders of the kingdom of Strathclwyd, became familiar with its legends, and chose the gallant Sir Tristrem as the hero to whose achievements his muse should give immortality. Gottfried of Strasburgh, the German minstrel to whom we have before alluded, says, that many of his profession told the tale of Sir Tristrem imperfectly

* Romances. † Esteem.
and incorrectly, but that he derived his authority from “ Thomas of Britannia, master of the art of romance, who had read the history in British books, and knew the lives of all the lords of the land, and made them known to us.” It is equally certain, that the romance of
Sir Tristrem, as composed by Thomas of Ercildoune was also known and referred to by the French minstrels, as the most authentic mode of telling the story.


The poem is written in what Robert de Brunne [note] calls,
———so quainte Inglis
That many one wate not what it is;
and Mr. Scott [note] has drawn from this circumstance, combined with the originality of the romance, a conclusion of so much importance to the literary fame of our country, that no excuse can be necessary for the length of extract into which it leads me.


“It will follow,” says Mr. Scott, “that the first classical English romance was written in part of what is now called Scotland; and the attentive reader will find some reason to believe that our language received the first rudiments of improvement in the very corner where it now exists, in its most debased state.


“In England it is now generally admitted, that after the Norman conquest, while the Saxon language was abandoned to the lowest of the people, and while the conquerors only deigned to employ their native French, the mixed language, now called English, only existed as a kind of lingua franca to conduct the necessary intercourse between the victors and the vanquished. It was not till the reign of Henry III. that this dialect had assumed a shape fit for the purposes if the poet;” and even then “the indolence or taste
of the minstrels of that period induced them to prefer translating the Anglo Norman and French romances which had stood the test of years, to the more precarious and laborious task of original composition. It is the united opinion of Wharton,
[note] Tyrwhitt, [note] and Ritson, [note] that there exists no English romance* prior to the days of Chaucer, [note] which is not a translation of some earlier French one.”


While the kings and nobles of England were amused by tales of chivalry, composed in the French language—by the lais of Marie, the romances of Chretien de Foyes, or the fableaux of the trouveurs; the legends chaunted in Scotland, which could happily boast of having as yet owned no victor's sway, were written in that Anglo-Saxo-Pictist mixture, known by the name of Inglis or English. Although the French was doubtless understood at the court of Scotland, it seems never to have been spoken by her kings and nobles; the Inglis remaining the standard language of both high and low among the people. It was not till the year 1300, that the English began to translate into their native language the French poems of their conquerors; nor until near a century later, that they attempted to compose original romances in the English tongue. But ages before this, Thomas of Ercildoune, and probably many other Scottish poets, whose names and works have now perished, had been famed over Europe for romances written in their native language, and derived from the traditions

* i. e. no romance in English written by an Englishman, for the English was at that time common to both England and Scotland. A. S.
of their own country, or of countries immediately adjacent.


“Whoever” says Mr. Scott, “will be tempted to pursue this curious subject, will find, that this system, if confirmed upon more minute investigation, may account for many anomalous peculiarities in the history of English romance and minstrelsy. In particular, it will shew why the Northumbrians cultivated a species of music not known to the rest of England, and why the harpers and minstrels of the “North countree” are universally celebrated by our antient ballads as of unrivalled excellence. If English or a mixture of Saxon, Pictish, and Norman, became early the language of the Scottish court, to which great part of Northumberland was subjected, the minstrels, who crowded their camps, must have used it in their songs. Thus, when the language began to gain ground in England, the northern minstrels, by whom it had been already long cultivated, were the best rehearsers of the poems already written, and the most apt and ready composers of new tales and songs. It is probably owing to this circumstance, that almost all the ancient English minstrel ballads bear marks of a northern origin, and are, in general, common to the Borderers of both kingdoms. By this system, we may also account for the superiority of the early Scottish over the early English poets, excepting the unrivalled Chaucer. [note] And, finally, to this we may ascribe the flow of romantic and poetic tradition, which has distinguished the Borders of Scotland almost down to the present day.”


What a commentary does this contrast, between the ancient poetic history of the two countries, fur-
nish to an observation of Mr. Tyrwhitt,
[note] in his Life of Chaucer, [note] that “ Chaucer's [note] reputation was as well established in Scotland as in England,” and “that he was as much the father of poetry in that country as in this”! Admired he was, indeed, by the Scotch; who were prepared, by long familiarity with the English language in its purest state, to entertain a degree of admiration for so great a master of its beauties, which even his own countrymen, just recovering from the corruptions of a foreign tongue, could scarcely be able to conceive; but for the father of their poetry, the Scotch are entitled to go back, at least an hundred and fifty years before the time when Chaucer flourished. It is, beyond all controversy, from Thomas of Erceldoune that our poetic mantle, the texture and colour of which are so much the admiration of the world, has descended to the Ramsays, the Burns's, and Scotts, [note] of more recent times.


Thomas, like the early poets of most countries, had also the reputation of being a marvellous prophet; and to his prophecies, either real or reputed, he happens to owe more of the fame which he has never ceased to enjoy in Scotland, than to his poetry: Every one knows something, more or less, of the “Prophecies of Thomas the Rhymer;” while Sir Tristrem [note] is as great a stranger amongst us, as either Sir Gawain, Sir Greidiol, Sir Gwgon, or any other knight of black-letter romance. In 1286, while he was yet alive, he is spoken of by the Scottish historians as known by common fame to be “ane prophet;” and, during the reigns of James V., Queen Mary [note] and James the Sixth, a collection of metrical prophecies, ascribed to Thomas of Erceldoune, appear to
have become very current in Scotland. One copy in English, and another in Latin, were published by Andrew Hart, [note] at Edinburgh, in 1615. The English version was reprinted in 1680, in 1742, and doubtless at subsequent periods, since copies of it are still common among the lower orders in Scotland. Among the higher order of believers in Thomas's Prophecies was the learned and pious Bishop Spottiswoode. [note] “Where or how,” says the bishop, very gravely, “he had this knowledge, can hardly be affirmed; but sure it is, that he did divine and answer truly of many things to come.”


The most celebrated fact, in support of Spottiswoode's assertion, is a reputed prediction respecting the death of Alexander III., [note] which is thus related by Boece, [note] as translated by Bellenden.


“It is said, the day afore the kingis deith, the Erle of Marche demandit ane prophet, namit Thomas Rymour, otherwayis namit Ersiltoun, quhat wedder suld be on the morow? To quhome answerit this Thomas, that on the morow afore noon, sall blow the gretist wynd that ever was hard afore in Scotland. On the morow, quehn it was neir noon, the lift appering loune, but ony din or tempest,* the erle send for this prophet, and reprovit him that he prognosticat sic wynd to be and nae appearance thairof. This Thomas maid litel answer, bot said, noon is not gane. And incontenent ane man cam to the yet (gate) schawing the king was slane. Than, said the prophet,

* The sky (lift) appearing cloudy, without any noise or tempest.
yone is the wynd that sall blaw to the gret calamity and truble of al Scotland.”


The criticism of Mr. Scott [note] on this prophecy supersedes the necessity of any other. “Translated,” he says, “from the monkish eloquence of Fordun, [note] the story would run simply:—that Thomas presaged to the Earl of March that the next day would be windy: the weather proved calm; but news arrived of the death of Alexander III., which gave an allegorical turn to the prediction, and saved the credit of the prophet.”


One other example of Thomas's alleged prophetic skill shall suffice. In a MS. of the time of Edward I., [note] No. 2253 of the Harleian Collection, preserved in the British Museum, there is a scrap of gossip, which thus begins:

La Countesse de Dunbar demande à Thomas de Essedoune quant la guere d'Escoce prendreit fyn?

Thomas replies, that the war will come to an end when, among other wondrous things, “a Scot shall no more hide himself like a hare in form, that the English may not catch him;”—“when Scots flee fast, that for want of shipping they drown themselves,” &c.

“When shal this be?
Nouther in thine tyme, ne in myne,” &c.

Mr. Scott [note] thinks this prophecy the performance of some person in the English interest. The nationality of the remark is amusing; of its justness little need be said. The prophecy, as it is called, is nothing but a jingle of absurdities, strung together out of irony, and after the fashion of a very common figure of speech, by which the impossibility of one occurrence is illustrated by the still more obvious impossi-
bility another: Scotland shall be subjugated by England, when Scotchmen run for terror into the sea, &c. It is a prediction, in fact, which has more of a Scotch cast than an English; and is, after all, only deserving of notice, in as far as it helps to shew by what sort of nothings the fame of a prophet could, in the olden time, be acquired.


The truth is, that beyond mere traditional reputation, there is no evidence whatever to justify the ascription of any prophetic power to the bard of Erceldoune; and as to the rational probability of the thing, no argument is necessary. The reverence of the people for a man, extraordinary for his learning and venerable for his years, seems to have been the sole foundation of Thomas's claims to rank among the prophets. The allegories of the poet were converted, as events chanced to suit, into prophecies, of which he never dreamt; and the attributes of a seer being thus once fixed upon him, it is not surprising, that in an age when all history was of a poetic structure, his name and authority should often have been fictitiously employed to throw into the commencement of historic narratives, those “shadows of coming events,” of which poetry has made such frequent and happy use, to heighten the curiosity with which we pursue their developement.


At the west end of Earlstoun, part of the house which Thomas inhabited is still standing, called Rhymer's Tower; and, in the front wall of the village-church, there is a stone with this inscription on it—

Auld Rymer's race
Lies in this place.
A. R.