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James Hogg: The Ettrick Shepherd


James Hogg

James Hogg was born in 1770 at Ettrick Hall, at the top of the Ettrick Valley. The second of four sons of an impoverished farmer, he left school after six months' formal education. Aged seven, he began to work on the lowest rung of the farming ladder - as a cowherd.
But he had learned, at his mother's knee, the great oral tradition of ballads and folklore of the Borders. And her father, "the far-famed Will O'Phaup" was reputed to have been the last man to converse with the fairies. In his mid-teens, James Hogg taught himself to read and write, and to play the fiddle, and entered the skilled profession of shepherding. He began making songs and verses for local gatherings. The other young people of the valleys called him "Jamie the Poeter". His career had begun.

At the turn of the eighteenth century, Hogg was working as a shepherd on the farm on Blackhouse in Yarrow for the Laidlaw family, who opened their hearts and library to the young shepherd poet. It was at this time that Walter Scott, the newly appointed sheriff of Selkirk, was roaming the Border Valleys in pursuit of the disappearing ballads of the Borders. Through the Laidlaws, he met James Hogg and his mother who had a rich store of the ballads. The two young men were almost exact contemporaries. They began a friendship that was to last, despite many tensions, throughout their lives.

My mother chaunted the ballad of auld Maitlin to him, with which he was highly delighted, and asked her if she thought it had ever been in print. Her answer was , O na na sir, it was never printed i' the world, for my brothers an' me learned it an' many mare frae auld Andrew Moor, and he learned it frae auld Baubie Mettlin..... there are many queer stories about hersel', but O she had been a grand singer o' old songs and ballads.

-Familiar Anecdotes of Sir Walter Scott

Scott's ancestors, the Scotts of Harden had owned Aikwood; the Hoggs had farmed at nearby Fauldshope. Amongst the mother's store of traditional tales were those of Michael Scott the wizard, mistakenly reputed to have lived here, and tales of the reivers - including Scott's ancestors. Hogg first used Aikwood in a play The Castle in the Wood which has not survived. In his ballad The Fray of Elibank , published in The Mountain Bard, which relates the legend of the captured reiver who must choose between execution and marriage, he sets the start of the reiver's raid at Aikwood. But it is above all in his later novel The Three Perils of Man that the tower occupied by the wizard Michael Scott, dominates the whole central portion of the novel as a focus for witchcraft and necromancy.

See also: Hoggs' Early Writings