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Historical Articles from Larry Ruickbie
James Ruickbie

Hawick Archaeological Society
June Meeting

The monthly meeting was held in the Lecture-room of the museum on Tuesday, the 7th curt, at 8 0’clock P.M. - Mr. J.A.H. Murray, secretary, in the chair.

There was a large attendance of members and visitors.

Among the objects of interest on the table were:-

  Antique stirrup, which belonged to Archibald “Bell-the-Cat,” Earl of Angus, from the collection of the late Earl of Buchan, presented by Peter Pennycook, Esq. ; portion of a spar and perforated Celt-like stone, found in taking down Hendersons Pend, High Street, one of the last of the old battle-houses of Hawick; silver merk of James VI of Scotland, presented by Mr. R. Michie; half-crown of Charles I, presented by Jas. Murray, Wester Essenside.

After describing the donations, and referring to the arched house or battle-house of Mr. Walter Henderson, till lately one of the few remaining specimens of the old fortified dwellings once common in the burgh but now demolished, from which some of the objects had been obtained, the Secretary read a paper upon the Flora of the district, giving an account of the Leguminous or Pea tribe, found in Teviotdale, illustrated by preserved specimens, from the Herbarium. This paper was listened to with much attention.

He then called upon Mr. Robert Murray, who read a highly interesting paper, entitled “A Sketch of the Life and Writings of James Ruickbie.” This paper contained a very complete biographical sketch of the “old son of song,” tracing out his somewhat devious and chequered career, from his birth and childhood in the upper valley of the Tweed to his death in Hawick, with an account of his various publications, and specimens of his poetical works culled from these published volumes, as well as preserved by oral recitation, the whole being interspersed with pithy anecdotes illustrative of the man and his times; and like the author’s former paper upon “James Hogg, the author of Teribus” was a valuable contribution to the biography of our local bards. At its close a vote of thanks was unanimously accorded to Mr. Murray.


Mr. Murray began his paper by saying that four of his aged friends who had assisted him with this sketch of Ruickbie had, during it progress, been removed by death. The last of these departed ones, James Scott, was laid in his grave on the Friday before the reading of this paper. As the writer stood at the foot of that grave, whilst clay was added to clay, the following words, which Thomson of the Seasons wrote on the death of Aikman, came into his mind –

“As these we love decay as we die in part,
String after string is severed from the heart,
Till loosened life, at last, but breathing clay,
Without one pang is glad to flee away,
Unhappy he who latest feels the blow,
Whose eyes have wept o’er every friend laid low,
Dragged lingering on from partial death to death,
Till dying, all he can resign is breath.”

Scott, whose age extended over threescore and ten, had always been an intelligent observer of the local events of his day, as well as of the many changes in manners and customs, and the characteristics of Hawick celebrities. His anecdotes and reminiscences had enriched most of the papers which he (Mr. M.) had read lately, and provided material for others which he might yet read to this society.

The most eminent of our local poets are James Hogg, James Ruickbie, Elliot Atchison, and William Scott. A sketch of Hogg has already been presented to the society. I now purpose reading to you a sketch of the life and writings of James Ruickbie. He was born in Innerleithen about the year 1757. The scenes of his infancy are thus tersely described by himself.

“I was brought up wi’ tups and ewes,
High up amang the heather cowes,
Where winter girns,
And naething seen but heights and howes,
And bent and birns.”

His parents belonged to the peasantry, and were unable to afford him any of the advantages of education beyond a few meager rudiments of elementary knowledge. Of his youthful instruction, he says

“I never drank o’ logics can,
Nor fry’d in erudition’s pan,
To syllogize construe and scan,
N’er reached my noodle”

But he possessed an inherent love of learning, and like others similar in taste and in rank, read not only all the scanty books in his household library, but also all that he could borrow from obliging neighbours. For his general scholarship he soon became a parish celebrity, and was spoken of to visitors at St Ronan’s well as “the miller lad that can write a letter.” Many of the visitors being unable to write their friends at home, his services as a letter writer were often required, and were never refused.

He left his native vale and hired himself to the tenant of Nisbet Mill. He was not long at his new residence until he was encircled by a vast number of admiring worshippers who were willing enough to pay court to his genius; his aptness with the fiddle, his quaint and witty verses, and his sparkling conversation were always enticing, but perhaps never more so than at Nisbet Mill.

After some time spent at Nisbet Mill, he left for the upper vale of the Teviot, and entered service as miller, to Mr. Borthwick at New Mill, five miles above Hawick. He felt proud of being a miller, and tuned his muse accordingly, in the following cheerful mood –

“We win our bread wi’ achin banes,
We lift and lay the ponderous stanes,
Gar a’ the graith gang to at ance,
Wi’ rapid speed;
And brawly we can ca’ our pins,
In time o’ need.”

He was very indignant at those who spoke suspiciously of a miller’s honesty, and when asked by a lawyer if he ever knew of a miller getting to heaven, he replied that “he had ance heard of ane, and somebody wanted him expelled, but they searched through the whole of heaven for a lawyer to write out the indictment, and could not find one.”

He never was what is generally known as a buirdly miller, and felt it his duty to bid farewell to cog and pinion, pin and bore, and became a toll-keeper. His address “To Brother Tollmen” beams with glee and pithy observations. He occupied Haremoss Toll twelve months, and commemorated his residence there by an address to the “Hawick Carriers.” He next became the keeper of Colterscleuch Toll-bar, and continued so somewhere about a dozen years. His dwelling place still remains, although not as the toll-house. It is a lonely cottage, far up in the vale of Teviot; the river flows behind it with a gurgling sound, in front there is a vast range of lofty mountains, and one of the highways between England and Scotland passed through its gate. Such grand and wild scenery, combined with the facility his situation presented of observing the various phases of mankind that travelled along the highway, formed ample material for his muse: as he himself says –

“There’s not a flower in a’ the glen
But dictates to the poet’s pen;
The sloping dale and reedy fen
Inform our page
And even the thoughtless son of men
Our cares engage.”

Most of his poetry seems to have been written at Colterscleuch.

How often Ruickbie published I am unable to ascertain. I have seen only 3 vols. Of his works, but in the first of these, “The Wayside Cottager” he thanks the public for the reception given to his former publications. That volume consists of prose and verse, and was printed for the author by Mr. Armstrong, Hawick, in the year 1807, and sold at four shillings. Although his poetry lacks much of the polish which belongs to more accomplished bards, it is truly musical, and has, amidst its coarseness the glitterings out of some pure and genuine bits of fine poetic feeling; and it is entirely free from all that whinging, cringing, sickly adulation of persons of high estate, which too often pervades the musings of lowly poets. Professor Wilson so much admired some of it that he adopted two lines into a work of his own. In the preface to “The Wayside Cottager” the author says “he considers the preface as the porch of a building or a grace before a meal; little notice is taken of either the one or the other (especially by the curious and the hungry), in the expectation of meeting better entertainment afterwards.” He also says, “Mr. Critic, who knows but the reading of such nonsense may keep the debauchee from a criminal midnight assignation, or keep Cupid’s volunteers a couple of hours out of the furnace, or, perhaps, drive the crafty barrister past the fatal hour in which he intended to study a clause which would have ruined the whole suit; and is not this to serve one’s country?”

In the opening chapter of the same volume he thus faithfully portrays himself: “Here sit I, with about half a ream of paper before me, quills scattered on every side of me around the table, an old-fashioned inkhorn full to the brim, parallel to my right hand; my house is situated so near the public highway, that a rat can hardly pass without disturbing me in my studies. Figure to yourself, gentle reader, a diminutive, thin visaged, sallow-complexioned fellow sinner, sitting in the above dilemma clothed in a ragged greatcoat, a snuffy breasted doublet and a sea-green cap, and a cheek bone, sir, if fitted for any mechanical operation would be best adapted to whet razors on!” When he took this portrait of himself he was 50 years of age and was a centre of attraction at Colterscleuch toll-bar. The herd laddies here found delight in his anecdotes, tales, and folklore, and the savans thought it no robbery of time to converse with him hour after hour. Under that lowly roof he had a memorable interview with Thomas Campbell the poet. Campbell at that time was secretary to Lord Minto, and often rode out on a pony to enjoy the scenery of the Borderland. In one of these excursions he first met Ruickbie; great was his astonishment and satisfaction when he discovered that the lonely tollman had read the “Pleasures of Hope,” which had then been but a very short time published. Many years afterwards Campbell repeated his visit to our Bard.

After Ruickbie left Colterscleuch, he occupied successively Langholm Town-foot Toll-bar and the West-end Toll-bar of Hawick, and afterwards kept a public house in various parts of the town, until he became landlord of the Harrow Inn. His motto on the signboard of the Harrow Inn was “Sow in Hope,” which was one day read by a passer as “Sow in Hope:” no wonder that that reader enquired of a neighbour what hopes might be entertained by the tenant of a pig-sty? The Harrow Inn soon attained notoriety as a literary howf; the literati of the town often met there to enjoy a crack with Ruickbie. The Ettrick Shepherd was a regular visitor, and on his recommendation Allan Cunningham, the poet, spent a night with Ruickbie in passing through Hawick. About the time that Ruickbie came to Hawick he issued another volume from the press of Mr. Armstrong, a much larger work than his previous one. It is entitled “Poems, chiefly in the Scottish dialect, by James Ruickbie,” and bears the date of 1815. The vigorous and sterling independence of spirit which characterized Reubie the miller and toll-man, are boldly impressed on the pages of this volume. His theme comprises the scenery of his sojournings, and his observations on the social state and political events of the times in which he lived, with several religious pieces. He thus refers to the scarcity of food in the year 1800 – a year known as the dear year – a year never mentioned by those who remember it but with a melancholy shake of the head. It was a time when there was a scarcity of provisions – when the voice of lamentation was heard, and meal riots prevailed.

“Our fathers never saw-
Nor we, their hapless sons, till now – a time
So big with woe. How many of the sons
Of industry (the support of the land),
By all their labour, scarce can earn as much,
As keep themselves and families from starving.”

Another eventful epoch in the country’s history, the threatened French invasion, is also adverted to, and seems to have stimulated his muse to patriotic strains, as the following extract will show –

“Arm , Scotia arm! the daring foe,
With haughty menace from afar
Presumes to strike the invasive blow,
And make our land a scene of war.
Let ev’ry vet’ran , ev’ry tar,
Their ancient valour call to mind –
The bleeding wound, the glorious scar,
Which former conflicts left behind.

Can sons of Scotia see unmoved,
The Gallic squadrons cut the waves;
The matron kind, the maiden lov’d,
Tame victims fall to lawless slaves;
‘No, no’ replies each Scotsman brave;
‘For, if they reach Britannia’s coast,
They only come to find their grave,
Their boasted fame and glory lost.’

Bound by each tie to nature dear,
Defensive glory is our choice –
The pious, soft, maternal tear,
The lisping infant’s prattling valor
While British thunder makes a noise
For king, our liberties and laws;
In death or vict’ry we’ll rejoice,
Embark’d in such a glorious cause”

The name of James Ruickbie, Colterscleuch, is in a list of volunteers of that period preserved in our museum. The following verses refer to the same period of war and rumours of war:-

When Scotland was threaten’d with foreign alarms,
And war call’d our youth to the practice of arms,
I backward did look on our gallant forebears,
Who shielded our country in foregoing years;
I wept when I look’d at thir sma’ shanks o’ mine,
Compared wi’ the heroes that flourished lang syne.

O Wallace! that Scotchman is not worth his room
Who weeps not when’er he remembers thy doom;
With undaunted valour thou gloriously stood,
And gave for thy country thy dearest heart’s blood;
My heart yet beats high when I think of the line,
Of heroes commanded by Wallace lang syne.

*              *              *             *             *

But why do I mention our ancestors brave,
Their race it is run, they are gone to their grave,
If Scotland can boast of such merit and worth,
The sons of such fathers will surely stand forth,
And never their freedom for slavery resign,
But fight with that valour which they had lang syne.

Some of his poems, such as the following delineate the manners and customs of other days, which poets have been in the habit of regarding as nearer the golden age, though will we daresay agree with their opinion.

Lang syne whan decent gude grey claith,
Did hap the laird and tenant baith,
When cotters liv’d on cogs o’ brose;
An’ wi’ Stow struntin’ tied their hose;
A calf-skin doublet grac’d their breast,
Just rough as it cam’ aff the beast.
To keep them hale trae cramp an’ cleeks,
They sheath’d their thighs in gun-mou’d breeks.
Whan farmers had nae place to feed,
But at their kitchen table head,
An’ threw ilk servant down a scone,
Whase thump gart a’ the table groan.
Nae knives nor forks war then in vogue,
Nor ilka ane a diff’rent cog;
But a great bowie on the table,
An’ ilka ane supped what he was able.
As for the meat, if it was caul,
The gudeman rave it spaul frae spaul;
If it was hot, the langkail gully
Play’d smash amang’t to end the tulzie.
Ilk ane his portion on his bannock
Gat handed by, baith Jock an’ Sannock,
An’ whan their bellies a’ were pang,
The grace was said, to wark they sprang.

Ruickbie’s poems also abound with many a glimpse into the domestic life of his day; and well might he delineate the joys and sorrows, the quaint and common fireside events – few had a better opportunity than he of becoming acquainted with its vicissitudes. He was twice married, and therefore knew also the sorrows of widowhood. One of his family, the late Mrs. Govenlock of Mosspaul Inn, was well known to those who may have had occasion to travel across the mountainous track between Hawick and Carlisle. Ruickbie, in his “Thoughts on the Different Stages of Man’s Life,” has some pungent and happy bits. His appreciation of the more natural freedom of the marriage relation among the humbler classes is thus pithily set forth:-

“Thrice happy she who gets her will
To marry Tam, or Dick, or Bill,
Nae opposition frets her,
While high-bred dame – bereft o’ hope-
Is doomed to stand a public roup –
The highest bidder gets her.”

Many of his poems are imbued with real practical Christianity. He was a member of Mr. Henderson’s congregation; and while miller at New-mill, in Teviot, started and kept up a Sabbath-School, along with another working-man named William Michellhill, resident in the neighbourhood. I recently met with one of the pupils attending the school, who still speaks with deep reverence and love of the religious instruction he received at the feet of Ruickbie. Although attached to his own church and denomination, bigotry found in him a determined opponent. He thus asks,-

“Can sic men sing in heaven thegither
Wha darena pray wi’ ane anither?
O, how alc conduct gars us swither
Frae side to side,
Till charity we fairly smother,
And yield to pride.”

In an address to his friend Mr. Govenlock, Mosspaul, he refers to the comfortable house of the latter, and says –

“Only let me just remind you,
Never let it steal your love –
Cast its grandeur a’ behind ye,
Think it was but built for lodgers
To refresh, and tak’ the road;
You and I are just like sodgers
Billeted in our own abode.”

In the year 1826, when he was verging on his threescore years and ten, some of his literary friends induced him to publish another collection of his poems. It is a very small brochure, and, besides a few of his own composition, it contained ten pieces by his friend Mr. Wm. Scott, and one by Mr. Wm. Deans of Denholm. This small volume, like its predecessors, was from the press of Mr. Armstrong; the price was sixpence. One of the poems in this, his last, publication, is on laying the foundation-stone of the Subscription Rooms, now occupied by his grandson, John Govenlock. It contains also a very fair specimen of his ballad powers in a metrical story, entitled “The Fairy Stane,” the scene of which is about a quarter mile from Innerleithen, situated at the confluence of the Tweed and the Leithen, opposite Traquair, where (to quote from our author) “the stone called the Fairy Stone is yet to be seen, at a place called the Chapman Hope, situated at the foot of an opening between two hills, called the Curlaw Swire; it derives its name from one of those hills called the Curlaw rock, and famous in the olden times as the place where the revels of those beings called fairies were annually held.”

Several fugitive pieces of his have been preserved by his friends, one of which was suggested by a visit to Jedburgh Abbey. The original MS was lately presented to our society. I may here read a few lines which he wrote to a granddaughter on the occasion of her having presented him with a paper basket – her own handiwork:-

“A paper basket by your will
You surely can produce,
Which, like all female toys, are still
For ornament – not use!
And when you’re in your art complete,
I doubt not but you can –
If you should chance to think it neat –
Even make a paper man.
This to your mind will give some ease –
If you of him should tire,
You need no more, but when you please,
Just throw him in the fire.”

When the news of the startling death of Mr. Spencer Percival arrived in Hawick, a cobbler was talking about the awful deed to a butcher, but the mutton seller knew nothing at all about the statesman. Ruickbie, hearing of that unpolitical butcher, wrote the following satire –

“A cobbler one day when walking the street,
Fell in with a butcher dissecting his meat;
The butcher said ‘Cobbler, what news have you got!’
‘Bad news,’ said the cobbler, ‘Percival’s shot.’
The butcher asked ‘Who is this Percival? who;
This man I ne’er saw – the name I don’t know’
The cobbler said ‘Friend , take care of your cunn’ng,
For he was the very head butcher in Lunnan.’”

Many other occurrences called forth Ruickbie’s muse. Some verses which he wrote on the occasion of an illicit still being seized in Liddesdale by a gauger and an officer from Hawick were very popular;  but sufficient extracts have already been read to show that he had a good deal of common sense, and had the ability to write poetry. He also wrote a few dramatic pieces, two of which attained a considerable local popularity, viz.: - “The Bottomless Pit, or the Lawyer Outwitted;” and “The Vulture and Raven, or Dinner Arrested.”

A local versifier, who was a contemporary of his, commemorated his poetical powers in the following rapturous strains:-

“Milton, Homer, and Virgil,
Were the chief of poets in those days;
Now Jamie Ruickbie comes in
Ding, dang, and wears the lays.”

Not only had Ruickbie been courted all his days as a man of no mean genius, but he was admired and beloved by his contemporaries alike for his honesty of purpose, detestation of all cant and hypocrisy, warmth of heart, and general good-will toward his fellow-men. He assisted the poor and needy as long as he was able. People who were acquainted with him felt happy in his smile. When the clouds of old age began to darken his path, some young men of the town performed “Pattie and Roger” for his special benefit. The Subscription Rooms were crammed by an enthusiastic audience, and a goodly sum was realized therefrom in behalf of the venerable a deserving Bard. As already stated, William Scott, along with some of his friends, assisted him to publish his last volume entirely out of the respect they entertained for him. The last poem in the last published collection is a tribute of respect by Mr. Scott for the old man, and with reading it I shall conclude this paper.

“Thou old Son of Song! a long night is descending
In thick gloom around thee - its shade hovers o’er thee
And darkens thy path, but a day never ending
Shall break through the darkness – a long day of glory.

Then forgot shall be all thou hast suffer’d while here,
Like a tale that is told shalt thou look on the past ;
Smiles shall dimple the cheek now distain’d with a tear,
When Heaven shall receive thy pure spirit at last.

Thy end like a mild summer sun-set shall be,
Thy gray hairs are to thee a bright halo of glory ;
Thou hast walk’d with thy God, and through faith dost thou see
Thy seat with the saints and thy Saviour before thee.

Farewell then, Old Bard! - I have learned by thy fate,
That goodness and genius conjoin’d  cannot save
From neglect the possessor, but often await
On him scorn and contempt, till shut out by the grave.”

He died at Hawick in the 72d year of his age, and his remains lie interred in St Mary’s Churchyard, but his resting place is as yet unmarked by a memorial stone.


A 2004 picture of the Colterscleuch Toll-bar where James wrote most of his poems

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