James Leatham’s Pamphlet Publication of ‘The Brownie of Blednoch.’
William Nicholson, Supreme Type of the Wandering Minstrel.
William Nicholson, the Galloway poet, was born at Tanimaus, in the parish of Borgue, Galloway on 15th August 1782. We ought to be surprised to learn that in his boyhood weak eyesight prevented his progress at school; but the handicap of childish lameness probably had much to do with giving Walter Scott’s mind a bookish turn; and the Ettrick Shepherd learned to read only after he had passed school age. He was herding at the age of seven.
Unfitted, we are told, for the local callings of shepherd or ploughman, Nicholson became a packman, and for thirty years he traversed his native country, reciting and singing his own verses, which became popular in a way and to a degree that is now impossible. There are no Willie Nicholson’s now on the road and the fun and fact, the fancy and music and diablerie he and his class disseminated through rural Scotland are no longer in the scheme of things.
Visiting a large Aberdeenshire farm, we looked into the bothy, which had recently been refitted internally. It was forbiddingly bare of any homelike decoration; not a picture on the walls, nor a book or even a page of a newspaper was to be seen. On the mantelpiece, however, we found, as sole symbol of the cultural heritage of the ages, a copy of the Rules of the Order of Buffaloes! To a halflin who stood by I remarked that in such a place we would at one time have expected to see at least a Burns, a bible and some number of the Tales of the Borders. ‘Na’ he said with a grin, ‘there’s nae billies o’ that kin’ here.’
In 1814 Nicholson issued a small 12mo book of ‘Tales and Verse Description of Rural Life and Manners,’ by which he is reported to have cleared £100. In 1828 a second edition appeared, with a memoir by his friend M’Diarmid, of Dumfries.
But Willie missed all the chances he had of ceasing to be what he essentially was – the gaberlunzie piper, singer, and reciter; and at the age of sixty-seven he died in poverty at Kildarroch in Borge on 16th May 1849 – ‘a true man of genius,’ and the friend of all.
Of Nicholson and his poems great-hearted Dr. John Brown says: ‘They are worth the knowing. None of them has the concentration and nerve of ‘The Brownie’ but they are from the same brain and heart. ‘The Country Lass,’ a long poem is excellent; with much of Crabbe’s power and compression.
‘Poor Nicholson, besides his turn for verse, was an exquisite musician, and sang with a powerful and sweet voice. One may imagine the delight of a lonely town-end when Willie the packman and piper made his appearance, with his stories and jokes and ballads, his songs and reels and ‘wonton wiles.’
‘There is one story about him which has always appeared to me quite perfect. A farmer in a remote part of Galloway, one June morning before sunrise, was awakened by music. He had been dreaming of heaven, and when he found himself awake he still heard the strains. He looked out and saw no one; but at the corner of a grass field he saw his cattle and young colts and fillies huddled together, and looking intently down into what he knew was an old quarry.’
The farmer ‘put on his clothes and walked across the field, everything but that strange wild melody still and silent in this ‘the sweet hour of prime.’ As he got nearer ‘the beasts’ the sound was louder; the colts with their long manes, and the nowt with their wondering stare, took no notice of him, straining their necks forward, entranced.
‘There in the old quarry, the young sun glinting in his face, and resting on his pack, which had been his pillow, was our Wandering Willie, playing, and singing like an angel – ‘an Orpheus, an Orpheus.’
‘What a picture!’ When reproved by the prosaic farmer for wasting his health and time, the poor fellow said; ‘Me and this quarry are long acquaint, and I’ve mair pleasure in pipin’ to thae daft cowts than if the best leddies in the land were figurin’ a way afore me.’’
Nicholson was an unmoneyed man; but that he should be so happily absorbed in his playing and singing did not call for the pitying epithet ‘poor.’ On a June night there may be a more uncomfortable bedchamber than a quarry-hole in the fields. We have known men and women of substance who could not tell one tune from another. They were born poor, and lived and died in that special condition of poverty, the most spiritual of the arts a closed book to them.
The artist so rapt in the enjoyment of his art that nothing else counts, is happily still known among us. Walter Hamspon (“Casey”) was found playing his violin on a Yorkshire moor while an audience was assembling for him in the nearest town. Anthony Smith, a very fine cellist and an intelligent man, sat playing by the wayside in the station square of Aberdeen for hours on end, oblivious to the world, the collection, and the professional engagements he might have had, upon conditions with which he could not comply. How they love and live in their art, such men.
William Nicholson is notable for us – a generation so different from his – because he, like Burns, was so unlike the traditional Scot. There are men of other nationalities who have the ‘defective sympathies’ which Charles Lamb found to be a characteristic of the Scots he knew. But neither north nor south of the Tweed are they the outstanding ones, these men who play for safety in all things, who keep their heads cool, their feet warm, and ‘never put out their hand further than they can conveniently draw it back again.’
The men who stand out in the life of Scotland have not been the traditional Scots. William Wallace, Robert Bruce, John Knox, the Admirable Crichton, Robert Burns, David Livingstone, Louis Stevenson, Chinese Gordon, Cunninghame-Graham, were none of them canny, careful, plodding, unimaginative men. Even Andrew Carnegie made his first success by ‘a piece of lawless initiative’ that served a good turn for other people.
‘The Brownie of Blednoch’ shows that in the mercenary calling of a pedlar it is possible to preserve and cultivate the supreme gift of imagination – that gift which, in one form or another, enables the dreamer of dreams to reason from what is or has been to the better things that are to be.
William Nicholson, moving around with his music, his poetry, and his happy comradeship, welcomed wherever he was known, is in his life a challenge to the self-regarding one who dully thinks of success and of self, a taker rather than a giver at the table of life.
Of the poem here reprinted, Dr. John Brown wrote:
We would rather have written these lines than any number of Aurora Leighs, Festuses, or such like, with all their mighty ‘somethingness’ as Mr Bailey would say. For they, are they not ‘the native wood-notes wild’ of one of Nature’s darlings? Here is the indescribable impress of genius. Chaucer, had he been a Galloway man might have written it; only he would have been more garrulous and less compact and stern. It is like Tam O’Shanter in its living union of the comic, the pathetic, and the terrible. Shrewdness, tenderness, imagination, fancy, humour, word-music, dramatic power, even wit – all are her. I have often read it aloud to children, and it is worth anyone’s while to do it. You will find them repeating all over the house for days such lines as take their heart and tongue.
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