Lady Nairne: Scotch sangs and sympathy

Author: Anne Smyth

Date: 2010

Source: Ullans: The Magazine for Ulster-Scots, Nummer 11 Ware 2010

Anne Smyth

Carolina Oliphant, Lady Nairne

Anyone interested in balladry will tell you that songs often transcend national boundaries. For instance, ‘Barbara Allen’ has migrated around the world, picking up variations on the way. Ballads popular within the Ulster-Scots community are no different, and the repertoire draws heavily upon songs that originate in Scotland.

When we look at this topic, everyone thinks immediately of the songs of Burns, such as ‘My love is like a red, red rose’. These songs are very popular, and rightly so; but many of the songs of a woman writer whose name is unfamiliar to all but the most enthusiastic collector of ballads rival them in public appeal. Ironically, there was for a considerable time great confusion about the authorship of her songs, and many were attributed to Burns.

Perhaps the most poignant and evocative of her songs is the haunting ‘Rowan Tree’:

O rowan tree! O rowan tree!

Thou’lt aye be dear tae me.

Entwin’d thou art wi mony ties

O hame and infancy.

Thy leaves were aye the first o spring,

Thy flooer the simmer’s pride;

There wasna sic a bonnie tree

In aa the countryside —

O rowan tree!

Clearly this was a woman with a heart for her native place, but what else do we know about her? Let us take a brief look at this enigmatic songwriter and the joys and sorrows of her long life.

Lady Nairne was born Carolina Oliphant in the ‘auld house’ of Gask (officially Findo Gask) on the banks of the Earn, in Perthshire, on the 16th of August 1766. She came of a distinguished and powerful Scottish family that had originally been granted its extensive lands in Perthshire by Robert the Bruce, together with the title of the Lords of Gask and Aberdalgie. In fact a son of the family had married a daughter of King Robert. Two of the family connection had been killed at Flodden.

The area of Gask is rich in history. It is recorded that in the middle of Gask Woods there was a building used as a hideout by William Wallace, the Scottish patriot many centuries later depicted in the film ‘Braveheart’, during his escape from Perth after a failed English plot to capture him. The place was called ‘Gascon Ha’ and is celebrated in the song ‘Bonnie Gascon Ha’ by Lady Nairne.

From our point of view in the early 21st century, the most perplexing aspect of the Oliphant family is possibly its steadfast adherence to the Jacobite cause. The family’s fortunes had already been put in jeopardy by the profligacy of the fifth Lord Gask soon after the year 1600, and only Gask House was saved and made over to his cousin. This is probably the building that was later immortalised in song in Lady Nairne’s ‘The Auld House’. Then in 1689 the next Laird of Gask was thrown into prison because he had ‘signed an Association to stand by King James with life and fortune’. From that time onwards the loyalty of the Oliphant family to the Stuarts never wavered, even though it did cost them life, fortune and much else besides.

The grandfather and father of Lady Nairne played a leading part in the Rebellions of 1715 and 1745 until the defeat at Culloden, when both of them, after hiding in the hills, managed to escape, first to Sweden, and then to France where they remained in exile for seventeen years. However, in 1753, Lady Gask, who had remained in Scotland with the other womenfolk of the family, was able to write to her husband telling him that kind relatives and neighbours had bought back the forfeited estate.

Although the Jacobite struggle had largely ended by the time of Lady Nairne’s birth, the echoes of those times are heard in the Jacobite songs she later wrote, it is said, to please her old uncle on her mother’s side, the Laird of Strowan. Perhaps the best known of these are ‘Will ye no come back again?’, ‘Charlie is My Darling’ and ‘The Hundred Pipers’. Carolina is of course the female variant of ‘Charles’, and a note in her father’s handwriting inserted in a list of family births and deaths states that this was ‘after the King’.

We must place her in the context of the poetically fruitful time in which she lived. This was the time of the French Revolution, when new ideas of independence and freedom were abroad, although poets and ‘sangsters’ differed in their concept of how that freedom was to be achieved. Even in Ireland, the shock waves of the revolution were felt and to an extent replicated in the Rebellion of 1798. The Scottish lyric movement began with Allan Ramsay, and then came Rev. John Skinner, Robert Fergusson, and Burns himself. Lady Nairne followed, then James Hogg (the ‘Ettrick Shepherd’) and Sir Walter Scott. Lady Nairne was among the first to recognise the genius of Burns.

Carolina was the third child in a family of six, and when she was only eight years old her mother died. It was said of the mother that on her deathbed she talked to her husband of death and their future meeting as if she was only going away on a journey. This immediacy was reflected later in Carolina’s ‘The Land o’ the Leal’, often attributed to Burns:

Noo, fare-ye-weel, my ain John,

This world’s cares are vain, John,

We’ll meet, and we’ll be fain[1]

In the land o’ the leal[2].

Although it has wider application, this song was written on the death of a baby girl whose mother, Mrs Campbell Colquhoun, was a close friend of Lady Nairne. Through this lady, she met Sir Walter Scott, a close friend of Mrs Colquhoun’s brother, and the resultant friendship seems to have been maintained until Scott’s death in 1832.

It appears to have been around this time that Lady Nairne experienced religious conversion, and her hope of meeting and future happiness ‘in the land o’ the leal’ was a sincere one. Perhaps also as an outworking of that religious faith, many of her songs show a tenderness and sympathy for the plight of ordinary folk that is surprising to the modern mind that has been taught to associate the landed gentry with cruelty and oppression. One lovely example is ‘Caller[3] Herrin’’, in which she wrote of the cost in human terms of the fish that were offered for sale:

Wha’ll buy my caller herrin’?

Oh, ye may ca’ them vulgar farin’[4],

Wives and withers maist despairin’,

Ca’ them lives o’ men.

An additional element of interest in this song is the fact that she wrote it for the benefit of Nathaniel, a son of the renowned fiddler and composer Neil Gow, who had suddenly come upon hard times, and the gift was given anonymously through the agency of a friend in Edinburgh. Scottish country dance enthusiasts will be familiar with many of the tunes of both Neil and Nathaniel. Neil Gow in fact spoke highly of Lady Nairne’s ability at country dance in her younger day.

This obedience to the scriptural injunction about giving alms in secret was evidenced throughout her life. Lady Nairne’s diffidence is also seen in her use of a pen name — ‘Mrs Bogan of Bogan’ — appended to the songs she submitted for publication in The Scottish Minstrel. There is little doubt that her reticence about acknowledging authorship contributed to the mistakes that were later made in attributing her work to others.

Her sympathies also lay with the Scottish Covenanters. She wrote in a letter to a friend regarding Renwick and Cargill that ‘there was so much right feeling and heroism amongst them that they merit a place in Scottish Song’. That place was supplied by such songs of hers as ‘The Pentland Hills’, which describes the cruelty of the man known as ‘Bonnie Dundee’ or (to the Covenanters) ‘Bloody Claverhouse’ and then goes on to describe one of the scenes of Covenanting struggle:

I love to wander there my lane,

Wi’ sad and sacred feeling;

While hallowed mem’ries wake the ear,

In waefu’ eye oft stealing.

I love thy wild sequester’d glen,

Thy bonny wimplin’[5] burn;

For Scotland’s brave and martyr’d men,

Still does it seem to mourn[6].

An important motivation for Lady Nairne’s writing was her deep desire to do away with all that was debased and unwholesome in Scottish song, and she achieved some success in that goal.

At the same time, she had a ready wit, and that typically pawky Scots humour of hers is evident in ‘The Twa Doos’, in which two ‘doos’ (doves) shake their heads over the unthinking ways of young humanity. The Final two verses read as follows:

Waes[7] me, there’s thochtless, lang Tam Grey,

Aye spending what he’s no to pay;

In wedlock, to a taupie[8] hookit,

He’s ta’en a doo[9], but has nae dookit[10].

When we were young it was na sae;

Nae rummelgumption[11] folk now hae;

What gude[12] for them can e’er be luiket[13],

When folk tak’ doos that hae nae dookit?

Carolina Oliphant married her second cousin, Major Nairne (afterwards Lord Nairne) in 1806, when she was 40 and he 49. It was a loving and happy marriage, as evidenced by verses written in praise of her husband. Here is an extract:

Robin is my ain gudeman,

Now match him, carlins[14], gin ye can,

For ilk one whitest thinks her swan,

But kind Robin lo’es me.

There was only one child of the marriage, a son, who it seems was not strong. After the death of her husband, Lady Nairne resolved to leave Edinburgh on account of her son’s health, and marked her departure with her well-known ‘Farewell to Edinburgh’, which bade a fond goodbye to ‘Auld Reekie’. Following a short stay in the south of England, the widow and her son came to Ireland, the country of her husband’s birth, and set up house at Kingston, near Dublin, and then at Enniskerry. There is only one song that originates with that period of her life, entitled ‘Wake, Irishmen, Wake’, and it is in the standard English of the time, in a style that was not distinctive.

Subsequently, Lady Nairne and her son and two female relatives travelled on the Continent for three years. In the winter of 1837, the young Lord Nairne caught flu and pneumonia and died in Brussels at the age of 29. It was a bitter blow. The bereaved mother’s faith was tested to the limit. Some weeks after, she wrote to a friend, stating in her letter, ‘I have now much reason to give thanks for the grace that enabled me to resign him at last with the full conviction that all was well for him and for me’.

It may be that the loss of her only child led her to write ‘True love is water’d aye wi’ tears’, in which the following verse occurs:

And time, that kills a’ ither things,

His withering touch ’twill brave,

’Twill live in joy, ’twill live in grief,

’Twill live beyond the grave!

’Twill live, ’twill live though buried deep,

In true hearts’ memorie —

Oh! we forgot that ane sae fair,

Sae bricht, sae young, could dee …

Today we may dismiss such sentiments as maudlin and out of date, but they stem from an era that knew nothing of the modern tendency to sanitise the grim reality of death and to keep folk anaesthetised with all sorts of distractions while they wait for it.

Lady Nairne lived on for another eight years. She continued to travel on the continent. Meanwhile, her support for charitable objectives during this period was unstinting and usually anonymous. One of her donations was the sum of £50 given to Dr Chalmers through an intermediary for the support of Gaelic schools in the Highlands.

She retained a ready sense of humour, and recounted an incident when ‘Aunt Harriet’, who had been summoned to Blair Athole to see a seriously ill relative, sent to Perth for the largest chaise available to take her there. All the female relatives were gathered round Aunt Harriet, in sombre mood, waiting for the chaise, when the door suddenly opened and two men appeared carrying an enormous cheese. Aunt Harriet suddenly broke out in fits of laughter, and meanwhile the relatives and the two bearers of the cheese looked on baffled. Eventually Aunt Harriet regained her composure and explained that she had spelt the word ‘chease’, the older version of ‘chaise’. Departure for Blair Athole was delayed for a day.

Lady Nairne continued to write, although often the writing took the form of letters to friends and relatives. Her last song, written in her seventy-fifth year, is ‘Would you be young again’, in which there is not a word of Scots. This song too was very much of its era, and it expressed the impatience with the continuing battle of life of an elderly lady whose most dearly loved ‘ain folk’ had left this scene of time. Lady Nairne had ‘had enough’:

Where are they gone — once your

Joy and delight?

Dear and more dear, tho’ now

Hidden from sight.

Where they rejoice to be,

There is the land for me;

Fly time, fly speedily;

Come life and light.

The strong family ties at this time supported the ageing Lady Nairne, and she seems to have been particularly close to a grand-niece. It was, however, her nephew who, with his wife, crossed the Channel and brought Lady Nairne home to Gask in the spring of 1843. The ‘auld house’ was gone, having been replaced by another, larger, building in or about 1802.

In December 1843, Lady Nairne apparently suffered a stroke. However, she rallied, and for almost two years more was able to take an interest in her charities. Then on Saturday 25 October 1845 she was taken in her wheelchair to the door of the New Chapel, on the site of the old parish church. ‘The place will soon be ready for me,’ said she.

It was a prophetic comment. The next day, her health deteriorated so that she was unable to speak, but she remained fully alert and was able to read portions of scripture until she passed peacefully away. She died that day, the Sabbath, at the age of seventy-nine. A memorial cross was erected in the grounds of Gask House, bearing the words ‘Carmina morte carent’ (‘Her songs lack death’).

The last word is left to the final verse of a song of Lady Nairne that was much quoted in Scotland up until about fifty years ago, but rarely sung. This is ‘Gude Nicht, an’ joy be wi’ you a’’:

My heart, fareweel, thy strains are past,

Of gleefu’ mirth and heartfelt wae;

The voice of song maun cease at last,

And minstrelsy itsel’ decay.

But oh! whare sorrow canna win,

Nor parting tears are shed ava,

May we meet neighbour, kith and kin,

And joy for aye be wi’ us a’!


[1] happy

[2] faithful

[3] fresh

[4] food, fare

[5] winding

[6] Note that this is placed to rhyme with ‘burn’, indicating the Scottish pronunciation.

[7] Woe is

[8] foolish, thoughtless, idle or slovenly girl

[9] (literally) dove, pigeon; (metaphorically) silly person

[10] ‘doocot’, dovecote

[11] commonsense

[12] good

[13] sought

[14] women, old women



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