BEFORE the advance of modern civilisation and invention removed from Scotland its isolated character, this country was " localised " to an extreme degree. Each city, each town, each little country village was separated from its neighbours, physically and socially, and preferred to remain wrapped in the mantle of its own aloofness, apart from all others in the land. In this way rivalry and competition sprang up, and in one respect at least was this sure to be expressed - in the local poet, the hero bard of his companions. From time immemorial every clan had its bard; he immortalised the deeds of the chiefs and the events of history, rendering them into song or rhyme, to be handed down from generation to generation, forming the history of that particular clan. However, as time advanced and printing became common, these bards were able to record their works in book form, and as they were eager to do so, Scotland possesses to-day a vast number of poems and songs, far before any other land. Very many of these are forgotten ; in fact, many of them were never heard of beyond their own local circle. But while they and most of their works have long been lost in oblivion, there still remain to us many beautiful lyrics and songs, stamped forever with that patriotic effusiveness or sympathetic sweetness which makes them lasting monuments of forgotten genius. THE purely local nature of these poems was in itself the first cause of their irretrievable loss; how few of the authors could rise above the petty surroundings and common everyday life and give to their productions that cosmopolitan perspective with local background which can only result from true merit ! They must enlist universal sympathy. in the local theme, they must render their love of home into a patriotic devotion to homeland, or they must choose a subject of such wide interest as to appeal to all readers who are likely to peruse their works; only then can they hope for life ; then they become eternal. Burns made himself the darling of all countries by appealing, while still confining his attention to local deeds and characters, to that part of human nature which expresses itself in love of home, love of the home country, and love of the people of the homeland. BURNS himself was in the van of an advancement towards enlightened liberty, intellectually, socially, ecclesiastically, and physically. Before his time the Kirk dominated the land, stifled individuality, kept the people under the stern rule of superstitious dread and prevented intelligent development. Under its rule the noble succession of the old Scottish poets had come suddenly to an end. All secular verse, or verse which did not reflect the doctrines of Protestant theology in its extreme form, was banned ; songs were regarded as the enticement of the devil, and even
The Village of Chryston - North Lanarkshire - Scotland
Walter Watson - 1780 to 1854
prose confined its attention to ecclesiastical subject matter. The reaction was just setting in when Burns began to write; his genius carried it on in the face of all opposition, and a multitude of lesser poets arose after him to continue the good work, stamping Scottish poetry with a universality which makes it appeal to all, and secures for it the appreciation of every country and clime where white men congregate. AMONG these minor poets who followed Burns is to be found Walter Watson. He, like the majority of poets who wrote in the Scottish dialect, was of humble station in life; indeed it is to this fact that Scottish poetry owes the illustrious position it now holds. His language is uncouth and rude, yet interesting in so far as it was the everyday tongue of rustic Scotland ; but we must remember again how poor an education he had, and how he was never able to further his knowledge or develop his intellectual powers. Of all languages, however, the Scottish tongue is rich in musical expressiveness, in terse words and phrases, in quaint and homely sayings, in a certain kind of utilitarian philosophy, and in an expressive method of giving opinions; Watson's works abound in these in all their crude and rustic baldness. Nevertheless, though rich in this respect, they all seem to lack that reflective nature so common a property of most of our poetry. They tend, in the main, to be simple narrations and stories in rhyme, and lack the artistic touch of the spontaneous outpourings from a poetic heart. Apart from some of his songs, which were truly inspired, his work is as, a rule a laboured production, manufactured for the occasion, to gain applause possibly, but more likely with a view to monetary advantage - but they have not that effusive spontaneity of the true born poet. Burns says : Some rhyme a neibor's name tae fash, Some rhyme, vain thocht, for needfu' cash ! Some rhyme tae gain the kintra's clash An' raise a din : For me, an aim I never fash, I rhyme for fun."
WATSON, the humble poet, wrote a few songs, just as Burns did, for his own amusement; these came to the knowledge of his companions, and they, in the newly found liberty from kirk domination and brimstone religion, were only too ready to welcome the least spark of genius and laud it to the heavens. Watson's head was turned : he then began to rhyme for the gallery, " to raise a din," - that seems to have been almost the only aim of the poetry of his later life. His poetry shows how a certain point has been fixed on, thought out in detail, and this detail translated, sometimes to its loss, into rhyme; this he called poetry, and the jingle brought applause. It must be admitted that some of his songs have all the genius of perfection of true poetry. They are human, they are songs of the simple heart, they express the passionate feelings, the very essence of inspiration. Crude, perhaps, in language, lacking often in word expression, yet the spontaneous rhythm is there, the true tone of effectiveness that carries the reader away. " Jockie's Far Awa'," " Sit Down My Cronie," " The Songs of the Curlers," " Push About the Jorum," and a few others have all that simplicity of sentiment, that sweetness of rhythmic expression or heart-felt sympathy that belongs chiefly to the poetry of the land of the Scot. His larger poems, like " Chryston Fair," " Kilsyth Bell," " Minister and Janet's Hen," etc., are all fair enough reading, pawky in their quaint humour, interesting in their expressive language and sharp phrases, but they are nothing else; they are rhymes but not poetry. Read through the other poems and you will find many little verses of exceeding excellence, but they are far between and few ; these poems lack thoroughness in thought and clear reflection. SOME of those who read the poems may be sorry to find that they are often of a Bacchanalian tendency. Reader, they are not to be depreciated because of that. In the first place, that was but the manner and custom of the age he lived in. Poets, again, are men of deep passions ; these passions may express themselves in one way or another, but they cannot be kept under. Take all your great men-poets, inventors, ministers, men of letters, temperance orators--all are one-sided, all bent some way or other, all with one
absorbing passion which blinds them to propriety in other things. If passion of any kind carries people with it, it may be wrong, but, in fairness to everyone, let us admit that there are other forms of intoxication than by whisky. Certainly it tends to be a degrading and sordid passion ; but Watson's Bacchanalian poems, which were written under the influence of this overpowering passion, reflect sparks of true merit and genius, are among the best of his productions, and so we cannot say it was degrading in his case - rather the opposite effect; under inspiration his mind was awakened to powerful expression and intellectual brightness. WATSON had a life of hard toil, a continual bitter struggle with adversity; six of his sons died early in life; his old age was fraught with tasks almost beyond his strength. This bitterness is displayed in all the poems of his later years. He says : " Play the man, Keep up your heart as lang's ye can," but he cannot keep up his own. Disappointed in life, borne down by bitter adversity and the severities of hard toil, he was directing others to the sunshine yet ever in the shadow himself. The brightest flowers grow in the sun; the greatest poet lives in a glorious realm above the world. Watson allowed circumstances to overwhelm him, and his productions are the worse because the world oppressed him. While his later poems show the effects of polish and refined experience, yet the true poems are those of his early life ; these are songs of the heart, the warbling notes of a bird in Spring.
born 1780
WALTER WATSON was born in the village of Chryston, near Glasgow, on the 29th of March, 1780. He was the son of a handloom weaver, William Watson, an honest hardworking man, who had enough to do to bring up his family of seven and to " feed and cleed " them, without giving them any of the luxuries of life. A thorough education in those days was a luxury indeed, and so it was that a full course of learning was denied our poet. Nevertheless, he got as much education as any of his companions, better, indeed, than most of them, and he was able at the end of his school career to read and write - qualifications which were not the lot of everyone in those days. His mother was a careful, God-fearing woman, and Walter was brought up to be honest and straightforward in all his dealings.
NOTHING is recorded of Walter Watson until he was six years of age, the date when he was enrolled in the village school. The teachers of those day set about their tasks with a thoroughness and strenuousness which rendered the path of education anything but a smooth one for those who were not " gleg in the uptak'," and so we find Walter leaving school without misgiving after a year and a half's training, to take up the position of herd boy on the farm of Calder, not far from Chryston. Scotland in 1788 was very different from the country which we know to-day; fences were uncommon sights and the neatly trimmed hedges of the present day were not dreamed of by the farmers. There were " dykes " of a kind, it is true, but these were useless, and the remedy commonly adopted was not to mend the fence but to engage a small boy "to keep the kye frae the corn an' greencrop." Walter's fee as a herd, to quote his own words, was " three white shillings an' a braw peacock's feather "; more often the fee was given in kind, oatmeal or a piece or kebbuck of home-made cheese being handed over at the " term," and the peacock's feather took the form of a few small favours during the season. Walter spent three long summers at this occupation; long days they must have been to the boy, for where is he of that tender age who can confine his attention to one object for any length of time? His mother must have sympathised with the boy at his lonely occupation; he used to take the greatest pride in recalling how she saved up for him all the song sheets, scanty newspapers, and pamphlets which came her way, in order that her boy might read them to pass the weary hours - and, incidentally, to prevent him forgetting the rudiments of education which, had been forced upon him at the school. But what boy is there' who does not relish an outdoor life, spending the time in the fields rabbit-hunting, bird-nesting, and all the multifarious occupations which occur to the mind of the average youth ! Unconsciously this kind of life models the boy's mind ; he comes to know Nature at first
hand; her secrets soon become quite clear to him; environment builds up for him a healthy, solid character, and he acquires a knowledge of the phenomena of earth, air, and sky, better than any book or teacher could ever impart to him. Unfortunately the tendency is not always thus; the long day and the dreary monotonous round hang heavy of the dull intellect : the active mind can always invent occupation, physical and mental, but the slothful brain becomes deeper entangled in the mire of its own sloth. The poet, the inventor, the artist are said to be so born, and, verily, though we may not say- with thorough exactness that this is the case, yet these must have had mental powers naturally active, never dormant. Men are not all born alike mentally; were it so, genius would become a thing of mechanical training and education a mere building on scientific lines : the individual would then be a unit of indefinite possibilities and education a matter of time and good methods. It is the pride of education to remember that individuality has been a continuous blessing to the world and mental precision not a thing of automatic regularity. Walter Watson was happy in having, as a youth, an active mind ; he proved to be a bright intellectual boy, quick to learn and of sure knowledge, and though not well versed in " book education," yet he had good first-hand knowledge of nature and all her peculiarities. We find that, in after life, though Watson had a great degree of poetic susceptibility and the quality of terse expression, yet his incidental allusions to nature and animal life owe much of their vivid reality to his early- training.
HIS school education was not entirely confined to the eighteen months which we have previously mentioned. Weaving, about the year 1790, was in a prosperous condition, and Walter's parents did not find it necessary to send the boy to work during the winter months. They even managed to pay for his schooling for three winter sessions, and thus, while he did not advance far in "learning," yet he had the foundations thoroughly laid, and instead of forgetting his letters, as was usually the case, he became more proficient in the art of reading, in writing, and in general knowledge. When Walter reached his eleventh year he had to assist in the upkeep of the home, and as weaving was then considered a good trade. he was given a loom of his own. We can well imagine how hard he considered his lot to be, now that he was confined to the house. Handloom weaving is of all trades perhaps the most dreary and monotonous ; the weaver sits " the lee lang day " generally in a cramped position, often in a house that embodies none of the hygienic demands for sunshine, fresh air, and cleanliness, repeating the same action over and over again; hence it is not to be wondered at that Walter, after less than two years at the loom, tried to better his lot by hiring himself out to a neighbouring farmer. He soon found that the change was not one for the better. Farm servants of those days had long hours of hard work and degrading toil, rough fare and a bed little better than that given to the farm cattle. Going back to Nature does not always prove a happy course of action ! AT this time machinery had not been called in to assist many trades ; in fact the use of machines was confined to a few isolated cases and these were more of an experimental nature than otherwise. In the timber trade especially, all the work had to be done by hand; after the trees were felled, they were hauled to the saw-pits and there sawn by hand-power into long planks ready for the joiner, the ship-builder, etc. As much of the work was done by the piece, there was ample opportunity for individual effort, and Walter Watson, seeing this, became a sawyer in Glasgow. This work, though hard, was well paid, and the hours were certain and not too long. At this period of his life, however, began those convivial habits and merry evenings in the tavern, spending his hard-earned cash. ONE afternoon, having ceased work earlier than usual, he was out walking and chanced to run across a recruiting sergeant of the Scots Greys " busked an' bonnie an' a'."
OUR hero entered a neighbouring tavern for a talk with him, and the natural result of the extreme friendliness of the sergeant was that Walter found himself " listed " in the Greys. The recruit was ordered to join his regiment, then at Coventry, and had to say farewell to bonnie Scotland - much against his inclination. He did not relish the severe training of the Army ; he adopted every trick to get free, but the curious point about the whole matter is that afterwards he always dwelt with pride on this part of his history, and many of his poems reflect the good effects of his military training. For one thing, his experience as a soldier took away that awkwardness and loutishness so often the accompaniment of rustic upbringing; the " soor-milk Jock " developed into a tall, straight, and smart soldier. Unfortunately the free life of the soldier helped to develop and confirm the Bacchanalian and convivial habits which he had already started to cultivate in Glasgow. DURING the three years he was in the Scots Greys he never saw active service. The regiment was stationed in various parts of England - Coventry, Weymouth, Portsmouth, etc. When he was at Coventry the regiment was specially reviewed by King George the Third: this was one of the pleasant incidents of his experience, and we can well imagine the eagerness with which he related :- "The first time His Majesty cam' into view He wasna put on like the rest, A farmer-like coat o' a pretty sky-blue, An' a great royal star on his breast. I gat a gran' sicht, for he pass't me as near As Bell Street in Glasgow is wide, Ye needna tak' time. ye'll be thinking, tae speer Gin onything fash't me like pride."
WALTER Watson served in this regiment for three years, and was discharged when the Army was reduced in numbers in 1802. A few poems were written during his life as a soldier, but these were in after life altered and reconstructed, in fact many of them rewritten. AFTER leaving Weymouth our poet returned to Chryston and again became a weaver. Being now a hero in his native village, he was invited to take part in all feasts and revelries, and in this way brightened a life monotonously irksome. He soon became a favourite with the young ladies of the village, but he had not long returned ere he fell a victim to the charms of Margaret Wilson, a daughter of the farmer in the Hill Farm, Chryston.
It took but a short year for him to complete his courtship, and in the spring of 1803 he was married to the lassie he had courted amid the Braes o' Bedlay. As in all other poets, almost without exception, love acted as an incentive to verse, and it was in this period that Walter came to be looked upon as the poet of Chryston. Once a man becomes famous his services are constantly in demand, and, as poet, he had a free entrance to all convivial assemblies where was ample opportunity for him to establish himself as the Poet Laureate of the village. He became famous "through a' the kintra side "; he could sing a song or give a recitation to suit his audience : very often these songs or poems were his own, and generally of scenes, incidents, and characters known to everyone. To this period belong " The Curler's Song," " Gartferry Glen," "Push About the Jorum," "Braes o' Bedlay," etc. THE applause in the village inn and at the various meetings where our poet figured led him to commit some of his poems to writing. These he showed to Mr. Main, the village schoolmaster, who promptly told him that because of their want of grammatical accuracy they were certainly not fit for publication. Under Mr. Main's guidance, and with the help of a book on " grammar and composition," he began to study this subject, and was soon able to understand the rudiments of grammatical harmony. The poems were then altered and touched up, and gradually became in their corrected form well known in the district. The popularity thus acquired encouraged the poet to publish a small volume of poems in 1808. This production contained what were, in the opinion of Mr. Main and various friends, the best of his collection.
The book sold well in the parish, Wattie's popularity was now definitely sealed, and he had the pleasure of hearing his songs sung at many meetings and local concerts. " Jockie's Far Awa'," " We've aye been provided for," " Push About the Jorum," " The Braes o' Bedlay," and many others were sung by the common people throughout the West of Scotland, a few of them being extremely popular for a time. With the exception of a few books sold in the towns round about, all the volumes were, disposed of in Cadder ; while they were enthusiastically received in this district, they never aroused more than a passing interest in other parts. No mention is made of any pecuniary benefit the poet derived from the publication of this book, and it is probable that they were issued at a loss to the poet himself. ONE of the chief results of the publication of his poems was that he now acquired a wider circle of friends and acquaintances of a superior kind, while many persons much above his station were proud to acknowledge him as friend. Fortunately, too, these friendships had the good effect of tending to remove him from that sordid and squalid conviviality to which he had gradually been descending. He now realised that he was something above the common lot, and this for a time made his hard life brighter and his burden of toil less heavy.
IN 1809 Walter Watson was appointed local secretary of the Chryston Branch of the Society of Weavers, which had for its object the improvement of the conditions under which those men had to live. In this connection he became widely known, but one unfortunate result was that the manufacturers at one time threatened legal interference with their plans ; Walter was induced to commit an immense bundle of his manuscripts to the flames, and through this action one or two poems have been lost. One song which was called " The Plaid," was much sung in country districts about fifty years ago : this, however, now exists in so many different forms that it is quite impossible to say which version was actually the work of the Chryston poet. AS the manufacturers refused to meet the demands of the weavers, a strike was the result; in this, as local secretary, our poet took an active part, and on two occasions we find him addressing meetings in Glasgow. In the home, however, the continuance of this strike led to considerable distress, and Walter was at length forced to return for a short time to the sawpit. He was then in a better position than many of the other weavers and able to earn enough to keep " the wolf from the door " during these trying times. Eventually the manufacturers were compelled to grant better prices for the work done and so the strike came to an end. Walter then returned to the loom, and there was plenty - once more in the home.
VERY little definite information about the poet is known for some years following the strike of 1811. Sometimes he could get plenty of work, while at other times he was reduced to extreme poverty. His family increased to ten, eight sons and two daughters, and so we can imagine what a hard struggle it was to keep them in food and clothing. Occasionally there was enough and to spare and we find the poet's life full of happiness, but in the main it was a hard struggle to make ends meet. Luckily he was blessed with a wife who could take care of the pence, and whatever was brought into the house was carefully and judiciously expended in the most needful directions. She proved a good parent to the children, who, under her care, were well brought up, with unceasing exercise of industry and prudence, and she took care that each one obtained the best education which they could afford to give. IN the midst of all his toils Walter kept up his intercourse with the Muses : he tells us that much of his poetical work was done while he was engaged at the loom, the poems thus mentally constructed being improved and committed to writing after the day's work was over. It is to be regretted that his life at this period was one of continual hard struggle for existence; all this is reflected in the poems of his middle and old age, a strain of sadness, want of hope, and pessimism generally being found through them all.
IN 1819 Walter removed to Banton in the East Barony of Kilsyth ; at this place were the headquarters of the Canal Company, and he found plenty of employment in the woodyard there. Shortly after this, however, the company removed their works to a place near Falkirk, and since the poet did not find it convenient to take up his habitation there, he had to return once again to the loom. He soon obtained employment after this in the West Barony of Kilsyth, in the sawpits at Arnbrae, where plenty of work was obtained from the joiners of Kilsyth or from Sir Archibald Edmonstone, Bart., of Colzium. The excise superintendent of this district, a Mr. Train, became the poet's fast friend. This gentleman had acted as collector of antiques, legends and traditions for Sir Walter Scott, and it was ever the wish of Walter Watson to meet the great novelist. Mr. Train promised an introduction, but had to remove at an early date to another part of the country, and Watson was never able to obtain his desire. Mr. Train encouraged Walter to continue writing poetry, and especially to record in rhyme any good traditional legends which he knew or heard. Walter did so, but unfortunately did not show that he could treat them in a masterly way; mere translation into rhyme was not everything; the Legend of Alloway Auld Brig was but an idle tale until Burns took it up.
WHILE the first edition of poems issued by Walter Watson had been a great success in his local circle, it certainly had not enriched the author to a great degree; in fact it was commonly believed that the poet was the loser by this publication. In 1823, however, he issued another small volume, and for this too he gained very little for his trouble. This selection contains most of the good poems of the earlv edition with the best of those he had written since its issue. Its sale was found to embrace wider geographical limits owing to the larger number of people who had come to know of the poet's existence.
IN 1826 he removed to Kirkintilloch, and again took to the loom. Circumstances were tending to improve in the family as some of the sons were now able to work looms of their own. This year turned out a poor one for the farmers, and commerce was in a bad state; weaving failed, and for a time a living wage could not be earned at it. Our poet was reduced to great straits ; he had to start work at stone-breaking, finding employment in the Stron Quarry about five miles from Kirkintilloch. The hard work and the ten mile walk each day sapped his strength, and the amount earned was so small as to reduce the family to the lowest depths of poverty. In the following year, however, trade revived, and with it weaving came into a better condition; the family were soon able to forget the year of poverty and distress, and the shuttle flew merrily in the happy home.
After a time - in 1830 - Walter removed to Cardarroch, in Cadder Parish, but in 1835, as the weaving trade came again into bad times, the family removed to Lennoxtown. Here sufficient employment was found for the father and the whole family in the large factories of Messrs. Dalglish, Falconer and Co. Unfortunately the work of the print field was found to be too heavy for the old man, now bordering on three-score, and the venerable bard returned again to the more congenial employment of the loom in 1837 at Cardarroch.
IN 1842 the poet again published a selection of his poems, but without much pecuniary advantage; this edition found a fairly ready sale in Glasgow, and by its issue he made a still wider circle of friends, including many literary gentlemen of the city. In 1845 he removed to the village of Auchinairn. By this time his family had been sadly reduced ; three sons had died when he was in Kirkintilloch ; the two daughters were married, and other two of his sons had married and set up homes of their own.
WHILE he was at Auchinairn the poet's works gained in popularity. He received many epistles from " brither bards," and was often visited by his admirers. A number of these resolved to show their respect for the poet; consequently a subscription was started, and he was presented in 1846 with a handsome watch and a purse of sovereigns. The money was sadly needed in the home; in fact the last years of the poet's life were spent in comparative poverty. To assist him many concerts were given in barns and in halls throughout the district, notably at Chryston, Campsie, Kirkintilloch, Avenuehead, etc. These always brought a little money to him and helped him in his old age. One of the features of these concerts was the song given by the old bard himself ; very often there was one specially written for the occasion, introducing local scenes and characters familiar to all his hearers. The old people of the district still remember the poet; he was friendly with everyone, and very popular in all these places. The poetry of this period is unduly pessimistic in nature ; he never seemed able to get away from his actual circumstances and to raise "his heart abine them a'."
IN 1849 we find him at Duntiblae, near Kirkintilloch. Only one daughter now remained at home ; six of his sons were dead; one had gone to New Zealand, and a married daughter had emigrated with her husband to Australia. In 1851 we hear that the poet's friends in and around the Campsie district raised a considerable sum for his benefit and presented this to him at a supper in that village, with the most gratifying expressions of esteem and admiration.
died 1854
IN 1854 cholera reigned in the Scottish lowlands; Walter Watson fell a victim to this malady, and died at Duntiblae on the 13th September, 1854. His widow died in August, 1865 ; after her death the only daughter remaining went out to her sister in New Zealand. IT is to an artistic friend, Mr. A. D. Robertson of Glasgow, on whom Walter was in the habit of calling, that we are indebted for the most striking likeness of the old bard, taken in January, 1849. This painting was afterwards photographed and the photos were sold in large numbers for the benefit of his widow; from one of these photographs our frontispiece has been taken.
IT was mainly to the exertions of this gentleman that on the 9th October, 1875 - twenty-one years after the poet's death - a handsome obelisk of Aberdeen granite was erected by subscription to his memory. This monument stands in his native village of Chryston, on or near the site of the little cottage where he was born on the 29th of March, 1780. It stands at the south-east angle of the graveyard, facing the main street of the village, and about forty yards from the spot where he sleeps " the sleep that knows no breaking."
Walter Watson
The Chryston Poet