James Hogg & the Border Country - review by Alan Taylor

Alan Taylor

The Ettrick Shepherd

James Hogg & the Border Country


One February morning, my wife and I drove from our home near Melrose in the Scottish Borders to the hamlet of Ettrick, a journey of around twenty miles. It was a day for connoisseurs of the dreich. Sleety rain fell in sheets and a dense mist hung in the valleys. Fields were flooded and swollen streams poured from the hills in cataracts. For long periods we passed no cars. Even farm vehicles were conspicuous by their absence. Sheep, which for generations hereabouts have provided a livelihood, clung to the tweedy upper slopes, the better to avoid being dragged into fast-flowing water.

Our destination was the birthplace of James Hogg. Known as the ‘Ettrick Shepherd’, Hogg was born 250 years ago in this remote and often unsung part of these isles. We once considered buying a property near Ettrick and as we sped past it we gave a sigh of relief that we had decided to look elsewhere. If a place ever deserved to be christened ‘Bleak House’, this was surely it.

The nearest town is Selkirk, sixteen miles away and, in Hogg’s time, a four-hour hack over rough paths. The place in which he spent his early years is deemed ‘idyllic’ by one authoritative guide, but that is not a word I would use to describe it. Rooks flitted between the gaunt, swaying trees and many of the headstones in the kirkyard where the writer is buried were smothered in lichen and in imminent danger of collapse. One felt it would, like its counterpart at Haworth in Yorkshire, where the Brontës lie, make an apt setting for a gothic horror film.

Hogg believed he was born on 25 January 1772, which allowed him to claim that he shared a birthday with Robert Burns, Scotland’s national poet. Even when it was pointed out to him that the records showed that he had been baptised in December 1770, he insisted that he was right. Such cussedness is a trait of Borderers, who resent being told what to think by outsiders.

Hogg’s forebears were smallholders who, in an area in which reiving had been rife, just about managed to make do. Among his ancestors was one William Laidlaw, known as Will O’Phaup, whose remains are also to be found in Ettrick Kirkyard. Born in 1691, he was, recorded Hogg rather enviously, ‘the last man of this wild region, who heard, saw, and conversed with the fairies, and that not once or twice, but at sundry times and seasons’.

In her book The View from Castle Rock, Alice Munro details her own kinship to the ‘far-famed’ acquaintance of fairies. Another of her Laidlaw ancestors – a cousin of Hogg’s – left the valley in 1818 for Canada, where one of his descendants begat the Nobel laureate. It was spring when she travelled by postbus to Ettrick but the weather was no more clement than when I visited. In the 1700s, this was hellfire and damnation territory, presided over by the Reverend Thomas Boston, whose bestseller Human Nature in its Fourfold State was to the 18th century what Harry Potter is to the 21st. Unlike me, Munro read it and, for good measure, Boston’s autobiography, in which ‘he speaks of his own recurring miseries, his dry spells, his sense of unworthiness and dullness even in the act of preaching the Gospel, or while praying in his study’.

This, then, was the environment in which the Ettrick Shepherd was raised and out of which emerged his most enduring, influential and disturbing work, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. His father’s bankruptcy forced him to leave school, which he hated, after just a few months, whereupon he took up cattle herding. He could read but not write. He was fortunate, however, that his mother, Margaret (who, as was customary, retained her father’s surname, Laidlaw), was well versed in local lore and the border ballads, with both of which she regaled her son.

Hogg remained in Ettrick until he was in his teens, when he was at last taught to write by a fellow herdsman. In 1790, he entered the service of the Laidlaws of Yarrow, who lived in an adjacent valley and whose patriarch, he revealed, was ‘more like a father’ to him than a master. Here, he had access to books and more sophisticated society than he was used to. Later in his life the Duke of Buccleuch, a wealthy landowner and a supporter of the arts, gave Hogg the tenancy of a farm at a nominal rent, but, like Burns, he never made a success of it. ‘He was always financially insecure, better at writing about the land than earning a living from it,’ observed Judy Steel, editor of A Shepherd’s Delight, a 1987 anthology of his work.

At the outset of his literary career, verse was his preoccupation. Inevitably, he was drawn to Edinburgh, which was in the grip of the Enlightenment. It was as if an alien had landed from outer space and for each of Hogg’s champions there was a detractor. Hogg, it must be said, did not always help his own cause. He drank immoderately and treated the salons of the capital’s New Town as if they were cattle marts, entertaining guests in a manner that the more prissy found objectionable. He boasted that he avoided books in order to preserve his originality and became widely lampooned as the ‘Great Caledonian Boar’. His fellow Borderer and sometime backer Sir Walter Scott called him ‘the honest grunter’.

Hogg followed up his first novel, The Brownie of Bodsbeck, with The Three Perils of Man (1822), which Scott dismissed as a cocktail of witchcraft, diablerie and nonsense. If anything, the reception in 1823 of its successor, The Three Perils of Woman, a blunt parody of the social satires of Jane Austen and Susan Ferrier, was even worse. No one who read it – and there were not many – could have foreseen that its author would be capable of producing a year later The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, so completely different was it from what had come before. Set in early 18th-century Scotland, it tells of the corruption of a young boy of strict Calvinist parentage by a mysterious stranger, under whose influence he commits a series of murders. Readers may instantly recognise the stranger as the Devil, but, such is the subtlety of the novel’s structure and the power of the narrative, it is hard to decide whether he is real or a figment of the boy’s imagination. Told from two different points of view, the first that of a self-styled ‘editor’, the second that of the ‘sinner’ himself, a minister called Robert Wringham, the story was a remarkable achievement. True to type, Hogg said that he never knew as he wrote one line what the next would be.

Hindsight suggests that The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner ought to have been instantly appreciated as a work of genius and awarded classic status. The truth is rather different. It received just two reviews in London, both damning – ‘If an author will introduce supernatural beings,’ harrumphed the Westminster Review, ‘he is at least bound to invent plausible motives for their interference in human concerns’ – and was greeted in snooty Edinburgh with the holding of noses.

The novel was published anonymously. Could such a curious creation really have been written by a teuchter like Hogg? Doubters preposterously ascribed its authorship to Scott’s son-in-law John Gibson Lockhart. Although it was reprinted several times after Hogg’s death in 1835, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner remained neglected. Indeed, it was not until the middle of the last century, when the French novelist André Gide pronounced it a masterpiece, that a long-overdue reassessment of its author was sparked. Chief among those who helped rescue him from library stacks was Karl Miller, founding editor of the London Review of Books and author of Electric Shepherd, an insightful critical biography of Hogg. ‘The Confessions’, wrote Miller, ‘is a tragi-comedy of errors powered by an engagement with the laughing, eating and drinking, fighting, suffering, interesting, intelligent and decent, lovable, inequitable double Scotland of his lifetime.’

There was no sign of the rain abating as we left Ettrick and followed the single-track road over the moor to Yarrow and on to St Mary’s Loch. At the loch’s southwestern tip lies Tibbie Shiel’s Inn, Hogg’s favourite howff. I once overnighted there while walking the Southern Upland Way. Its owner was a grey-haired woman who dressed in a lab coat and addressed me as if she were an unsympathetic doctor telling a patient he must settle his affairs urgently. Nowadays the inn is closed for business and besieged by vehicles in various stages of decomposition. When Hogg was a regular it thrived, drawing visitors from near and far, including Thomas Carlyle and William Wordsworth. Hogg and Tibbie were old friends and he must have felt that when he settled by its smouldering fire he had returned to his roots after forays among the Edinburgh literati. For her part, the feisty innkeeper left posterity with a candid Borders epitaph: ‘Hogg was a gey sensible man, for a’ the nonsense that he wrat.’

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