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Innerleithen's Literary Giants

The Scott Connection

Much water has flowed under the Cuddy Brig since the first publication of St. Ronan’s Well by Sir Walter Scott in December 1823. No one, least of all the author himself, could have envisaged the effect the novel would have on a then remote and secluded Borders village of weavers and herdsmen. No doubt Innerleithen today would have its annual festival in common with other Borders towns but it is highly unlikely it would be called “St. Ronan’s Border Games”, nor would we have our unique Cleikum Ceremonies.

As a boy Scott had visited Innerleithen with his mother and sister when they came to “take the waters” at the Doo Well whose sulphur and saline springs enjoyed a wide reputation for their medicinal properties. Scott himself was sceptical about the efficacy of the spa waters. In a letter to Miss Rutherford of Ashiestiel in September 1794 he related his mother’s and sister Anne’s disappointment at being prevented from coming out from Edinburgh because heavy rain had made the road impassable. In the letter Scott pokes fun at their frustration – their tempers lacked “that Christian meekness which might have beseemd” – and his description of the Well as “this fountain of health” is almost certainly ironic. To rub salt in the wound, by the time the weather had eased they received word there was now no accommodation available! In May 1823 his advice to a lady in England was “ . . . We have many medical springs recommended in scorbutic cases as Moffat, Pitcaithly and Inverleithen, but of course I would not venture to recommend any of them without a physician’s advice . . .”

St. Ronan’s Well is a tale of idle, decadent gentry and pleasure seekers who seasonally frequent a “spaw” somewhere in the south of Scotland. Scott was a genuine superstar and such was his prestige and popularity that the novel, in common with most of his other works, became a best seller almost immediately. Although the description of the landscape in the story bore little resemblance to the actual environment of the town, “St. Ronan’s” quickly became identified with Innerleithen. John Gibson Lockhart, Scott’s son-in-law and first biographer, wrote, “ . . . the book . . . was rapturously hailed by the inhabitants of Innerleithen . . . who . . . foresaw in this celebration a chance of restoring the popularity their long neglected Well”. It worked too!

Soon “an unheard-of influx of water-bibbers” invaded the town and the rest, as they say, is history. Lockhart did not seem greatly enamoured of “the spruce hottles, and huge staring lodging houses” that were built to accommodate the visitors as they tarnished the idyllic scene “that had induced Sir Walter to make Innerleithen the scene of a romance”. There were no planners to worry developers in those days! Local place names such as Waverley Road and Marmion House are, however, reminders of the esteem with which the town’s inhabitants regarded Scott.

Scott became a member of the St. Ronan’s Border Club, which had organised the first games in September 1827. Despite his infirmity as a child, which left him with a game leg, he grew up to be physically strong and energetic, becoming a competent horseman. He was interested in sports and attended the early St. Ronan’s Border Games on at least one occasion, as a rare eyewitness account testifies. A hundred years after the event John A. Anderson, in his weekly column “The Cleikum” for the Peeblesshire News, published a short poem by William Air Foster, a shoemaker, poet and sportsman from Coldstream. A friend of James Hogg, Foster won the Silver Arrow in 1830. On seeing that Scott and his party were about to depart just before the end of the Games, Foster ran across the park for a closer look. He recorded the encounter as follows:

Across the haugh a path I took
To gain a sure and nearer look.
The hound came first, I spoke him kind,
The other group not far behind,
My cap I lifted from my brow,
And in return a graceful bow
Sir Walter gave me as he passed.
I took one look – it was the last –
A look my memory ne’er forgot,
Of our Great Wizard, Walter Scott.

This simple doggerel gives some inkling of the tremendous regard in which Sir Walter Scott was held. We in Innerleithen should also hold his memory in the highest esteem and never forget why his name is on the Games banner. But for his genius there might never have been a Games Week.

 

Hogg - A Name On The Banner

“I got by him, but I had not muckle to brag o’, for he keepit the step on me within a gun-shot of the starting post.”

Thus spoke the “far-famed” Will o’ Phaup after a narrow win over an English runner called Blaikley at Moffat over 250 years ago. William Laidlaw, to give him his Sunday name, was shepherd to a remote hirsel at the head of Ettrick Water and would almost certainly appreciate the competitiveness and spirit of today’s professional games. Five guineas rested on the outcome of Phaup’s race – nor was this an isolated event. We are informed by his admiring grandson that, “Many a hard bouse he had about Moffat, and many a race he ran, generally for wagers of so many pints of brandy, and in all his life he never was beat.”

His grandson was the great Borders poet and writer James Hogg who took for his pen name “The Ettrick Shepherd”. Greatly inspired by his grandfather’s prowess, Hogg had a life-long interest in sports and athletics both as a contestant and an organiser. To relieve the monotony of his lonely vigil as a young hill shepherd he would often “toil at the leap, the race, or the stone”, forever striving to set a new personal best.

The youth who to become inextricably linked with St. Ronan’s Border Games was employed as a shepherd at Willinslee (now Williamslee), a farm a little upstream from Leithen Lodge. Here he was encouraged by farmer’s wife Mrs Laidlaw to expand his hitherto rudimentary education by reading books such as The Life and Adventures of Sir William Wallace and The Gentle Shepherd. In 1790, after two years at Willinslee, he moved to Blackhouse in Yarrow to work. It was here Hogg heard a recitation of “Tam o’ Shanter” and he decided there and then that he, “Jamie the Poeter”, would become the successor to Robert Burns (whom he never met). That Hogg never supplanted Burns as national bard was no disgrace – for neither has anyone else! Though the attitude of the intelligentsia of the time to his work was patronising at best, after two hundred years of virtual obscurity the literary genius of the Ettrick Shepherd has at last begun to be widely recognised and appreciated. Although remembered more in Innerleithen for his sporting connections there’s no harm in reminding folk of the town’s association with not just one but three of Scotland’s greatest literary figures – Burns, Scott and Hogg.

According to John A. Anderson there was a group of people who actually named Hogg as Burns’ successor. Robert Burns had been Poet Laureate of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning No. 2 and, in the estimation of those Masons, Hogg was his worthy successor “in public fame”. Hogg at first was not keen. He was then 64 and unwilling to travel to Edinburgh. Neither was he a Mason and Anderson surmised that Hogg might have been put off by stories he had heard about a Lodge that had formerly met in Traquair. In the end there was a compromise and the Ettrick Shepherd agreed to meet members of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning in Innerleithen. Here he became a brother Mason prior to his installation as Poet Laureate of the Lodge. Traditionally, it is believed the meeting took place at the old coaching inn in Leithen Road next to the Cuddy Brig (now a private house).

A good sportsman, a fine singer and fiddle player and a witty speaker, James Hogg enjoyed great popularity both in Edinburgh and throughout the Borders. It was mainly his wide connections and organisational flair that led to the founding of St. Ronan’s Border Club which, as everyone knows, “held its first public meeting at Innerleithen” on 26 September 1827. A good account of those early days is contained in David Groves’ book James Hogg and he St. Ronan’s Border Club. Hogg performed supervisory and judging roles at the early athletics meetings. Although now too advanced in years to participate in the more energetic games, Hogg became a first class exponent of archery, regularly winning prizes at St. Ronan’s (though not the Silver Arrow). The “green and gold” uniform he wore at the Games was that of captain of St. Ronan’s Bowmen. Hogg was also an accomplished angler. In October 1828 he was reported as winning the “salmon medal of the club” by landing a twenty-pounder from the Tweed opposite Holylee.

There can be no doubt that it was James Hogg’s sheer enthusiasm for sporting contests that got St. Ronan’s Border Games up and running. That others such as Innerleithen’s Robert Boyd (the first secretary) made significant contributions in the early days of the Games cannot be gainsaid. Few would dispute, however, that it was Hogg’s leadership and vigour that galvanised those others into action. In the St. Ronan’s Border Games centenary year of 1927 John A. Anderson suggested that some memorial to the Ettrick Shepherd should be erected in Innerleithen but, like Anderson himself, the poet is unlikely to be forgotten here. Proudly etched on the Blue Banner carried by our Standard Bearer is the name of “Hogg”. What greater honour is for the town to bestow upon him?

James Ruckbie

Taken from "Hawick Songs and Song Writers" by Robert Murray 1897

Was the first of our local poets who ventured on publishing his works. Ruickbie came from Innerleithen, and was a miller to trade. His youth was spent in his native village. In his "Apology to the Public" he says:

I'm no acquaint wi' mealy pows;
I was brought up wi' tups and ewes,
High up amang the heather cowes,
Where winter girns
And naething seen but heighs and howes,
And bent and birns.

I dinna wear a copper nose,
Wi' guzzling down the liquid dose,
But stuff my wame wi' guid kail brose,
To fleg the caul',
Syne strutting in guid plaidin' hose,
I look fu' baul'.


He enjoyed the friendship of such distinguished men as the Ettrick Shepherd, Professor Wilson, Allan Cunningham, Thomas Campbell, Henry Scott Riddell, William Knox, and Robert Anderson, the Cumbrian bard. He published three or four volumes of poems, one of these being issued in 1815 by R Armstrong, printer, Hawick, and the last edition contained a few pieces written by some of his admiring contemporaries, such as William Scott and William Deans. No more fitting tribute can be paid to the memory of James Ruickbie than that written by his friend William Scott -

Thou old Son of Song! a long night is descending
In thick gloom around thee, its shade hovers o'er thee
And darkness thy path; but a day never ending
Shall break through the darkness - a long day of glory.

When forgot shall be all thou hast suffered while here,
Like a tale that is told shalt thou look on the past,
Smiles shall dimple the cheek how distained with a tear,
When Heaven shall receive thy pure spirit at last.

Thy end like a mild summer sunset shall be,
Thy grey hairs are to thee a bright halo of glory,
Thou hast walked with thy God, and through faith dost thou see,
Thy seat with the saints, and thy Saviour before thee.

Farewell, then, Old Bard! I have learned by thy fate
That goodness and genius conjoined cannot save
From neglect the possessor, but often await
On him scorn and contempt, til shut out by the grave.

Ruickbie was landlord of the Harrow Inn, and a model one he was; all classes of the community admired him. He died beloved by all in the year 1829, in the 72nd year of his age.”

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A few selected verses:

"Even in the cottage, where the earthen floor,
The straw-made bed, the wooden candlestick,
Display their sober equipage - even there
The Muses will haunt, where Pomp discusses to tread
And breathe the song, deny'd to Palaces."
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I've drunk too freely of the cask
To cheat the world's a dev'lish task
But here I throw off the mark
Ah' at mysel'
A few impatient questions ask
'Bout heav'n and hell
______________________________________________

But hail, my sonsy mother-tongue
Mey I be routit wi' a runy
If e'er I leave your praise unsung
But will rehearse
Your usefulness to auld and young


To Mr. ______, at ______, on being fined for felling
Ale without Licence.

Sir, you’ll receive my twa pund ten,
Wi’ what you call expenses,
Sometimes misfortunes humbles men,
And brings them to their fenfes.

For now I’m by experience taught,
(The fchoolmasfer of affes),
What ’tis to quaff the illicit draught,
And touch unhallow’d glaffes.

Deil thank your pot to wallop brown,
While mine boils thin and bluely,
When ilka ferawl ye gie’s a crown,
But law doss a’ things truly.

Leeze me on law ! when we gang wrang
It keeps us aye in order,
And never fuffers us to gang
O’er the forbidden border.

The lawyer watches for our wealth,
The patriot for our nation,
The doctor watches for our health,
The prieft for our falvation.

When guarded by this fourfold fence,
Auld Nick can never fang us;
Nor Bonapart’ e’er drive us hence,
Nor villains mint to wrang us.

God fave the King ! and Blefs the Law,
With crime-detefting vigour;
May villains underneath its paw,
Be punifhed with rigour.

And here’s ilk honeft lawyer’s health,
Upon my knees I toaft it,
In that fame ale I had by ftealth,
But now hae paid the coft o’t.

by James Ruickbie, c. 1805, Colterscleuch, Roxburgshire, Scotland.