Thursday 9 July 2009

Wattie Surprise

As well as poverty, melodrama and secrets, the pursuit of family history can turn up some more unexpected surprises. Such as, for example, a relative with an entry in the Dictionary of National Biography.

Following back my Scottish paternal line has been very easy, by and large. The Scots being a businesslike yet sparse people, the records are thorough, well-maintained and, amazingly, almost entirely online, including most parish records. I was able quickly to trace several generations of Edinburgh artisans, crammed into tenements around and on South Bridge, back to a carpenter who had sought the city life around 1800 but not, as I had presumed (as do most people with Scottish ancestry and a "clan" surname) escaping from the Highlands, but from the Lammermuir Hills in the Borders, where his father was a shepherd.

My ain folk at Sir Walter Scott's Abbotsford,
near Melrose, Scottish Borders, August 2006

Now, the Scottish diaspora has meant that the former colonial world is full of descendants of Berwickshire shepherds, and there is clearly a deep hunger for "roots" in places like Canada, New Zealand and Australia. You have only to visit a few websites and bulletin boards to discover you have boatloads of distant relatives, descendants of cousins of cousins who once watched sheep in the hills near Westruther, Longformacus, and Cranshaws. It was one of these antipodean cousins who informed me that I was related to Walter "Wattie" Chisholm, the peasant poet of Berwickshire. Here is his DNB entry, in full:

Chisholm, Walter [pseud. Wattie] (1856–1877), poet, was born at Easter Harelaw, near Chirnside, Berwickshire, on 27 December 1856, the son of James Chisholm, a shepherd, and Janet, née Brodie. In 1865 he left school in order to assist his father, who was then shepherd at Redheugh, a farm in the eastern part of Cockburnspath parish. It was probably while tending sheep on the western borders of Coldingham Moor that Chisholm first attempted composition, for by the time he was about sixteen or seventeen the neighbours were already talking about Chisholm's verses. At Whitsuntide 1875 his father moved to the neighbouring farm of Dowlaw, and during the summer of that year Chisholm, having hired himself out, was shepherding in the Yetholm district, by the side of the Bowmont. In the winter he returned home, and attended for a short time his old school at Old Cambus. By this time some of his poems, with the signature of Wattie, had found their way into the ‘Poets' corner’ of the Haddington Courier, and were copied into various local papers. Others appeared in the People's Friend, and in the competition promoted by the People's Journal his lines entitled ‘Scotia's Border Land’ gained the second prize at Christmas 1876. In the spring of 1876 Chisholm went to stay with some relatives in Glasgow, where he worked as light porter in a leather warehouse. While visiting his parents at the new year of 1877 he was seized with a severe attack of pleurisy, from which he never recovered. He died at Dowlaw on 1 October 1877, three months before his twenty-first birthday. He was buried in Dowlaw churchyard. His collected poems were published in 1879.

Well, as you can imagine, my first instinct was to try and find a copy of that 1879 collected poems, but it's a scarce item. That whole "peasant poet" thing (James Hogg, John Clare, George Heath, et al.) was pretty old hat by the 1870s, and I doubt more than a handful of copies were printed. But, by the same token, even rare books can be pretty cheap if rich collectors are not looking for them, so I kept checking the likes of AbeBooks.

The next surprise in store for me for was when I recently carried out my routine periodic search for Wattie's poems in AbeBooks, and found listed for sale ten copies of "Poems by Walter Chisholm, a Berwickshire Shepherd Lad (1879)"... TEN copies! On closer inspection, it became evident that these were "print on demand" items, made by direct scanning of an original copy, which was, if anything, an even bigger surprise. Think about it: an obscure volume by an obscure Scottish shepherd boy is available for scanning somewhere (or a copy has already been scanned, probably in the USA) and listed on a premium second-hand bookselling website as a candidate for printing on demand, by ten different suppliers, all for a mere £10 or so. A convenient [book]worm-hole seemed to have opened up in the space-time continuum between me and 19th century Scotland.

Unfortunately, I am not in a position to announce the existence of a hitherto unknown genius of world literature. Wattie's poems and range of reference are very impressive ... for a Berwickshire shepherd who died age 21. Some are in dialect, some are in "standard" poetic English. They are neither William Wordsworth at one extreme, nor William MacGonagall at the other, but something boringly inbetween. Here is his sonnet to that other shepherd, James Hogg (author of The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner):


Shepherd of Ettrick! thou who oft hast sung
Of Love and War; and all their forms displayed,
And brought to light old legends long decayed:
Cold in the grave now lies thy Doric tongue --
The wizard harp is silent and unstrung
That shewed the scenes the pure Kilmeny saw,
When, borne by fairies from the greenwood shaw,
She sojourned long their blissful realms among.
Yet dead thou art not; for thy name is still
Green as the banks of thy famed Yarrow stream;
O'er Scotia wide, by heathy dale and hill,
Thy songs and ballads are the shepherds' theme.
Rest thou in peace! thy country owns thy claim
To wear the poet's laurel-crown of fame.

Yawn. Though the astonishing thing, really, is that this actually is a sonnet, in yer actual iambic pentameters (and "Doric," which strikes such an odd note, refers to Hogg's Scottish dialect, not classical Greece). The education system in mid-19th century Scotland must have been doing something right or perhaps the opportunities for self-education must have been greater than one imagines. After all, strong feelings recollected in tranquillity do not overflow spontaneously into sonnet form. When he writes in the dialect, it does swing a bit more:

I wander alane o'er the muirlands sae dreary,
Where blythesome an' canty I've mony a day been,
Nae mellow-toned mavis lilts love to his deary,
Amang the broon brackens, that ance were sae green.

(from "I Wander Alane")
But not a great deal more.

One last little surprise was to discover the book was originally published in Edinburgh by James Thin, of 55 South Bridge. Given that the branch of the family to which I belong was living there in the 19th century, and has a long tradition of working as bookbinders and pocketbook makers, it's not impossible that one of my direct ancestors handled and bound up the sheets of cousin Wattie's volume.


Gavin McL said...

My relatives also wandered the border hills as "hirds" mostly in the Yarrow valley above Selkirk. My 3G Grandfather somehow extracted himself from the life of an Ag Lab and after an apprenticeship as a weaver set himself as Tweed manufacturer in Galashiels. I have read a little about the manufacturers associations and songs and verse were frequently composed for their meetings and recorded. My grandfather, now approaching 90, who was the last to run the family firm, still composes poems on significant family events. It struck me that in that part of the world verse and song were important and valued, that combined with the Presbyterian attention paid to education, to know god you had to know the bible and therefore you had to learn to read and that meant everybody. These two things mingled resulting in the various versifying shepherds traipsing the moors.

Mike C. said...

Interesting thoughts, Gavin, and I'm sure you're right. I'm still slightly baffled how these guys discovered what they needed to know, as owning books was presumably out of their scope. Maybe the journals like People's Friend played a role ("Every Hind & Hird his ain poet! This week: Part 3 of your pull-out supplement -- useful verse forms. Next week: Appropriate sentiments").

We were in Gala a couple of years ago on holiday -- I don't recall any tweed, but do recall some excellent sausages from the butcher.

Gavin McL said...

You're right about the education being a bit of pot luck and at that time it was provided by the church so quality was bit variable but if you were lucky and the local land owner chipped in a bit a half decent teacher could be tempted into the wilds.

If have found a couple of other references about the importance of song & verse in the borders though.

"The Border district of Scotland was.. of all districts of the inhabited world pre-eminently the singing country - that which most naturally expressed its noble thoughts and passions in song" John Ruskin (stretching it a bit? of the whole inhabited world!)

"They delyt mekle in thair awne musick and Harmonie in singing, quhilke of the actes of thair foirbearies they leired or quhat theme selfes have invented of ane ingenious policie to dryve a pray."
John Leslie Bishop of Ross Historie of Scotland 1578

"mekle" is big and "pray" is prey. The other obscure word & spellings you'll have to guess at but you get the drift.

Before you marvel at the extent of my library, these are all taken from " The Borders Book" edited by Donald Omand.

I don't think there are any tweed mills left in Gala anymore, though as late as the 70's there were still a number. I remember to hooters that called the workers in the mornings and after lunch.
My grandparents now live above a butchers shop in Melrose and the sausages and steak pies are indeed excellent in that part of the world