Robert Dinsmoor, Another Ulster-Scot-American Poet

Author: Michael Montgomery

Date: 1998

Source: Ullans: The Magazine for Ulster-Scots, Nummer 6 Simmer 1998


Michael Montgomery, University of South Carolina

In Ullans 4 (1996), I had the pleasure of introducing readers to David Bruce (c.1760-1830), an Ulster-born poet writing in Scots in southwestern Pennsylvania, one of the core areas of Scotch-Irish settlement in the American colonies. Bruce’s poetry in Scots, consisting of satires of local officials and other verse, appeared in local newspapers for several decades from the late 18th to the early 19th centuries. This suggests that many of his fellow citizens either were fluent in Scots or were familiar with the tradition of writing poetry in the common language of Lowland Scotland and parts of Ulster in the 18th century.

An interesting question, one important for assessing how widely Scots was used in colonial North America, is whether Bruce was alone: was he only an isolated figure, a fancier of Burns and other Scottish vernacular poets? The evidence appears to be that he wrote as an individual, not as a member of a group or school. But beyond Pennsylvania, there are other places to search for an answer, one of the most likely being southern New Hampshire, the area in North America to which Ulster emigrants first settled in significant numbers (in 1718) and where they left place names like Londonderry. And indeed, we find a poet there, an almost exact contemporary of Bruce who had a parallel career.

This was Robert Dinsmoor (1757-1836), whose great-grandfather, John Dinsmoor, emigrated from county Antrim in 1723 and was an early settler in the village of Londonderry, New Hampshire. Following his father (from whom we have one short poem), Dinsmoor employed Scots in verse written about daily events for personal pleasure and to cheer lonely hours, with little view to publication. What verse of his did reach print appeared in newspapers and other ephemeral outlets, and this poetry and the poet himself would most likely have disappeared from the annals of American literature except for two events. In 1828 a young admirer of his, having surreptitiously collected much of Dinsmoor’s poetry, arranged to have published (under the title Incidental poems accompanied with letters, and a few select pieces, mostly original, for their illustration, together with a preface, and a sketch of the author’s life[1]), to which he added an introduction and to which is added a foreword by Dinsmoor discussing his poetry and outlining his family history. When published, the volume was read and gave inspiration to the young John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-92), one of the foremost figures of 19th century American poetry, who praised the “home-taught, household melody” of Dinsmoor’s work and subsequently wrote an essay of appreciation for Dinsmoor and acknowledged his influence.

In the introduction, his young friend anticipates readers’ most likely question about Dinsmoor’s use of Scots (that is, was it employed merely in imitation of Burns?) and clearly assesses Dinsmoor’s relationship with the Scottish bard. Born only two years earlier, Dinsmoor was almost an exact contemporary of Burns; more importantly, he began writing in Scots as a teenager (as early as 1774), some years before he could have become acquainted with his Scottish counterpart. His friend addresses the issue directly:

Respecting his using the Scotch dialect, we would remark, that he is really of Scotch descent, though of American birth; and begun to write poetry probably before he knew that Burns existed. Every one acquainted with New England customs, knows, that in a farmer’s house, you commonly see, a Bible and Watt’s Psalm-Book, his Lyric Poems, Pope’s Essay on Man, Pilgrim’s Progress, and an Almanac. This constitutes their library; and from sources like these, our author probably derived all his juvenile literature. After he had been in the habit of writing poetry for some time, a friend sent him a copy of poems of Burns. They were congenial spirits; and it is easy to see that the present fired his mind. It is impossible for us to be conversant with a favorite book without feeling our minds, in some degree, modified by it. But instead of charging him with imitating Burns, we are rather astonished at the good sense and discrimination, which led him to make the proper use of his favorite author. Whatever similitude there may be between them, he shows a peculiar judgment in not transfusing a single sample of foreign scenery into his native land. If he resembles Burns, it is with all the diversity of the two countries in which each were born. Burns is the bonny Doon flowing through the banks and the braes of Scotland; and Dinsmoor is the Merrimack, passing through our western soil and reflecting from its crystal bed the western scenery through which it passes, (pp. viii-ix)

In many ways Dinsmoor’s Ulster Scots heritage is even more interesting than Bruce’s. In a long foreword to his collected poems (actually a reprinted letter from some years earlier), Dinsmoor proudly traces his family history from Scotland to Ulster to New Hampshire:

Dear Sir: … Not many years since, a short time after my uncle John Dinsmoor’s death, his son John received a letter from his friend Robert Dinsmore, of Bellywattick, Ireland, which gave a proper, and I believe an authentic history of the Dinsmoor family, ever since their emigration from Scotland to Ireland. That letter was in Squire Dinsmoor’s possession when he went to live in Londonderry. I make no doubt I could find it among his papers (p xiii) if I knew where to look for it. It contained the Dinsmoors’ beautiful coat of arms.

My father’s great grandfather was an emigrant from a place in Scotland, called Achenmead, near the river Tweed, and was the only one of the name who ever settled in Ireland from that country. He took his residence in or near Bellywattick I think in the country [sic] of Antrim, and I have been informed lately by a nephew of Colonel Means, who left that country not long since, that a number of Dinsmoors live there to this day. From that man, I think his name was John, sprang all the Dinsmoors ever known in Ireland or America, which are now almost innumerable. My father’s grandfather, John Dinsmoor, was the oldest son of this Scotchman, and came to this country about the time of the first settlers of Londonderry came. He is yet remembered by many of the old people, and very respectfully called Daddy Dinsmoor. But, whether from accident, I know not, he was landed at a place called George, where was an English fort, in the district of Maine. There he built a house, and the Indians which traversed those woods, (I believe they were of the Penobscot tribe,) became very familiar with him, calling him and themselves all one brother. This was about the commencement of a war between Great Britain and France.

He was a mason by trade, and built therefor himself a stone house. Then he sent to Ireland for his wife and children, which I believe were all he ever had, and they by a former wife. Their names were Robert and Elizabeth. Robert had then by his wife, Margaret Orr, four children, named John, Mary, Elizabeth, and Robert. Elizabeth had two by her husband, John Hopkins, named James and Margaret. They all arrived safe in 1730. Old Daddy divided his farm equally between his two children. He and his wife lived in the stone house with their son Hopkins. There Elizabeth bare John, Robert, Nancy and Ruth, wife of the aged minstrel, lately deceased.

In May 1731, my father, William Dinsmoor, was born, and two years after, Samuel, whom my father always esteemed as the flower of the flock. Daddy Dinsmoor lived ten years after my father was born. He and his son being both masons, they built a number of stone houses in the town, which served as garrisons in the Indian war. (And I really believe, that his once being an Indian captive, was his inducement to build a stone house on his own land, in Londonderry.) The remains of (p xvi) many of those houses are to be seen at this day; and a great many stone chimnies, as no brick could then be had. His name was ever held in honor by all who knew him.

Like Bruce, Dinsmoor did not write in pure or deep Scots, but there is a fair amount of the language in his poetry. Some of the vocabulary is English, and as with Bruce, we find constructions (e.g., all nature doth efface) that reflect English poetic conventions. Dinsmoor employed more than merely the poetic stereotypes of the language popularized by Ramsay and his followers and more than other conventional Scotticisms like bonny and lass. He used many other common Scots forms such as ance, mair, baith, stane and lang rather than the English equivalents once, more, both, stone and long. Final consonants are elided to produce a’ (“all”), wi’ (“with”) etc., all quite familiar to the ears of Scots and Ulster Scots. In addition, Dinsmoor proudly identified Scots as the language of his ancestors:

Though death our ancestors has cleeket

An’ under clods them closely sleeket,

Their native tongue we yet would speak it

Wi’ accent glib.

Because his father also wrote poetry in Scots and because his young admirer indicated that Robert Dinsmoor’s use of the language was an entirely natural and expected expression, it appears that Scots was more widely used in Dinsmoor’s Londonderry, New Hampshire, than in Bruce’s Washington, Pennsylvania. As yet, there is no evidence of others, but there might well have been poets even less well known than Dinsmoor, like him writing poetry as a pastime but often expressing sentiments that can tell or give us insights about how they viewed their Scottishness and the Scots language. Perhaps an American John Hewitt will come along and help us track them down. In any case, we know enough to say that Scots was a living language brought to American shores in the 18th century by Ulster emigrants and that it was still employed for certain purposes at least two generations after emigration from Ulster. While his use of Scots is self-conscious (as any poetry is), nowhere in his writing does Dinsmoor indicate that he was drawing strictly on a written tradition. His Scots was most likely learned in the home, not in Scotland or Ulster, but in New Hampshire.

That Dinsmoor used Scots because he lived in a community that was heavily Ulster Scot or “Scotch-Irish” seems clear enough, but if he meant his poetry to be read by anyone else, he would have to have assumed that Scots was known in spoken or written form (or both) by many others outside Londonderry. We do not know whether Dinsmoor aspired to such an audience, but if he did, his writing in Scots would provide further evidence that there was a considerable readership familiar with the language. In any case, the significance of Dinsmoor’s writing is this: it demonstrates that in the 18th and 19th centuries, Scots was an international language, used not only across the channel in Ulster but also a continent away, in North America.

Following are two poems of Dinsmoor’s written in “Scotch”.

The author to his friend, Col. Silas Dinsmoor, of Mobile, Alabama, in Scotch, the dialect of their ancestors.

Dear cousin, could I ance mair see thee,

My house should kindly welcome gie thee;

Nae warldly care should gar me lea’ thee,

Nor dumpish be;

A week at least I’ll spend it wi’ thee,

In cracks and glee.

Though time all nature doth efface,

Wi’ you I’d view our native place,

Whar’ sprang a numerous Dinsmoor race,

Round Jenny’s Hill;

An’ down its brow some burnie trace,

Or wimpling rill.

Our great grandsire fam’d and rever’d,

In Londonderry lies interred!

There, at his head wi’ kind regard,

We’d pile some stanes,

Renew the turf, and right the swaird,

That co’ers his banes!

When we our ancient line retrace,

He was the first o’ a’ our race,

Cauld Erin ca’ [d] his native place

O’ name Dinsmoor!

And first that saw wi’ joyfu’ face,

Columbia’s shore.

Though death our ancestors has cleeket

An’ under clods them closely sleeket,

Their native tongue we yet would speak it,

Wi’ accent glib;

An’ mark the place their chimneys reeket,

Like brithers sib.

The progeny that frae them sprang,

O may they a’ remember lang

Their pious prayers, an’ haly sang

O’ sacred lays!

Baith e’en an morn, their dwallings rang,

Wi’ notes o’ praise!

In deep devotional reflection,

While memory lasts, sweet recollection,

Shall mind their prayers for our protection,

Wi’ hearts sincere,

Syne o’er their dust, an’ kind affection,

We’d drap a tear!

Lines, wherein young Jonney Praises his Cousin Molly

Yestre’en I heard young Jonney say,

“O!, but I lang to see the day,

That cousin Mally I may hae,

To be my wife —

That I might freely wi’ her liv’

E’en a’ my life.

She is a bonny lass indeed,

An’s come o’ a right honest breed,

An’ weel she can baith write an’ read,

An’ speaks right swash —

To get her off, there’ll be nae need

To gie much cash.

Whene’er she enters in my sight,

Her very preserve gi’es delight,

For ilka thing about her is right,

Her hair sae snod is —

Her shapes by day, her words by night,

Prove her a goddess.

She is right canny at her wark,

An’ thinks but little o’ the daurk —

At making hats o’ smooth birch-bark,

I’m sure she dings —

She, brisk and bonny as a lark,

Melodious sings.”


[1] I am grateful to the G. Ross Roy Collection of Burns, Burnsiana, and Scottish Poetry at the University of South Carolina for making available a copy of Robert Dinsmoor’s volume of poetry for consultation.



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