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Significant Scots
Robert Chambers

From Dictionary of National Biography, Vol.10, Chamber–Clarkson, Ed. Leslie Stephen, (1887), London: Smith, Elder & Co, 15 Waterloo Place, pp.23–25, by Francis Watt.

CHAMBERS, ROBERT (1802–1871), Edinburgh publisher, author of 'Vestiges of Creation,' was born in Peebles 10 July 1802, of a family long settled in that town. His father was connected with the cotton trade. His mother, Jean Gibson, was also a native of Peebles. He has left some graphic pictures, drawn from his own recollection, of the state of a small Scottish burgh in the early years of the century, where nightly readings of Josephus excited the keenest interest and 'the battle of Corunna and other prevailing news was strangely mingled with the disquisitions on the Jewish wars.' Here at the burgh and grammar schools of the place he got for a few shillings a quarter's instruction in Latin and the ordinary elements of an English education, as then understood. A slight lameness (due to a badly performed surgical operation, but cured in after life by skilful treatment) increased his inclination to study. His father had a copy of the fourth edition of the 'EncyclopŠdia Britannica' in a chest in the attic. Robert unearthed it, and it was to him what the 'gift of a whole toy-shop would have been to most children.' 'I plunged into it,' he says, 'I roamed through it like a bee.' This was in his eleventh year. About this time the father fell into increasing difficulties, and thought it advisable to leave Peebles for Edinburgh, where he filled various small appointments. The succeeding years were afterwards known in the family as the 'dark ages.' Robert, who had been left at school in Peebles, soon joined the family in Edinburgh. He had been destined for the church, and it was due to this that he attended 'a noted classical academy' for some time, and acquired a fair knowledge of Latin. At this period the family lived a few miles out of town. Robert, who lodged in the West Port with his elder brother William (1800-1883) [q.v.], found his chief amusement in wandering through the narrow wynds and among the gloomy, but imposing, houses of old Edinburgh.

In 1816 he left school, and, having taught a little in Portobello, filled two situations as junior clerk. From both of these he was soon discharged, and being now about sixteen, and without employment, his brother suggested to him that he should begin as a bookseller, furnishing a stall with his own school books, / p.24 / the old books in the house, and a few cheap pocket bibles. Robert, taking this advice, speedily started in the world in a small shop with space for a stall in front in Leith Walk, opposite Pilrig Avenue. He prospered in this business, and in 1822 moved to better premises in India Place, from which he afterwards migrated to Hanover Street. He now made the acquaintance of Scott and other eminent men of Edinburgh, and began to engage extensively in literary work. He wrote 'Illustrations of the Author of Waverley' (Edin. 1822) and 'Traditions of Edinburgh' (2 vols. Edin. 1823, new edit. 1868). This latter work, based to a great extent on traditions that were fast dying out, is valuable and interesting. It delighted Scott, who wondered 'where the boy got all the information.' Then followed the 'Fires which have occurred in Edinburgh since the beginning of the Eighteenth Century' (Edin. 1824), Walks in Edinburgh' (Edin. 1825), 'Popular Rhymes of Scotland' (Edin. 1826) (one of several volumes which he published on the songs of his country), 'Picture of Scotland' (2 vols. Edin. 1826). The materials for this last work were gathered in the course of successive tours made through the districts described. He also wrote a variety of volumes for 'Constable's Miscellany.' The first of these was 'History of the Rebellion of 1745' (1828, seventh edit. 1869). This was founded to a considerable extent on unpublished sources. It is still the best known account of the rising. Other volumes were : 'History of the Rebellions in Scotland from 1638 to 1660' (1828), 'History of the Rebellions in Scotland in 1689 and 1715' (1829), 'Life of James I' (1830). Other publications about this time were : Editions of 'Scottish Ballads and Songs' (1829), of 'Scottish Jests and Anecdotes,' of which the purpose was to prove that Scotchmen were 'a witty and jocular' race; 'Biographical Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen' (4 vols. Glasgow, 1832-1834; there are various later editions), 'Jacobite Memoirs of the Rebellion of 1745' (1834; this was edited from a manuscript of Bishop Forbes). He also wrote (along with his brother) 'A Gazetteer of Scotland,' Poems (1835), 'A Life of Scott' (new edition with notes by R. Carruthers, ed. 1871), 'Land of Burns' (with Professor Wilson, Glasgow, 1840), and a large number of magazine articles. During the years thus occupied Robert's affairs had steadily grown more prosperous. 'Chambers's Journal,' of which Robert was joint editor, had been established in 1832. The undertaking was a great success, and had led to the establishment of the firm of W. & R. Chambers. The business management of what was soon a large publishing business fell on William [see CHAMBERS, WILLIAM], and Robert was left to carry out his literary projects undisturbed. In 1840 he was elected a member of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and having soon after removed to the comparative quiet of St. Andrews, he laboured for two years at the production of 'Vestiges of the National History of Creation.' This well-known work is a clear and able exposition of a theory of development. When published in 1844 it excited great attention, and was bitterly attacked. The author had foreseen this. He was anxious to escape strife, he did not wish to risk a sound literary reputation honestly won in other fields, or to bring his firm into discredit ; hence he published his book anonymously. Extraordinary precautions were taken to avoid detection. All the publishing arrangements were conducted through Mr. Alexander Ireland of Manchester. He got the proofs, sent them under fresh covers to Chambers, who returned them to Manchester, whence they were sent to London. The authorship was attributed to many different hands—among them were Sir Charles Lyell and Prince Albert—but people came generally to believe that Chambers was the author. In the 'AthenŠum' of 2 Dec. 1854 it was said that he 'has been generally credited with the work.' The alleged heterodox opinions of the author were also used against him when, in 1848, a proposal was brought forward to make him lord provost of Edinburgh. The secret of authorship was not fully disclosed till 1884, when Mr. Ireland, the 'sole surviving depositary' of the secret, edited a twelfth edition, in an introduction to which he gave full details as to the authorship of the work. Although the book was generally considered an attack on the then orthodox mode of conceiving creation, and although Carl Vogt, the German translator, in his preface (Braunschweig, 1851), expressly praises it on this account, yet Chambers, a man of true, though unsectarian piety, did not himself so regard it. He looked upon the question as one purely scientific and non-theological. In 1845, after the fourth edition was published, he issued a temperate reply to such criticism as seemed to him most noteworthy, entitled 'Explanation ; a sequel to "Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation," ' by the author of that work. Darwin (Historical Introduction to Origin of Species) says that the work, from its 'powerful and brilliant style,' immediately had a very wide circulation. 'In my opinion it has done excellent service in this country in calling attention to the subject, in removing / p.25 / prejudice, and in thus preparing the ground for the reception of analogous views.'

When the ' Vestiges' were disposed of, Chambers returned to Edinburgh and resumed the writing and edition of a number of useful works published by his firm. For about twenty years he worked with extraordinary activity. Besides occasional pieces and schoolbooks, such as his 'History of the British Empire ' and ' History of the English Language and Literature,' he produced with Robert Carruthers of Inverness, his 'CyclopŠdia of English Literature' (2 vols. 1844), 'Romantic Scotch Ballads,' with original airs (1844), 'Ancient Sea Margins' (1848), 'History of Scotland' (new edit. 1849), 'Life and Works of Robert Burns' (1851, 'aftger minute personal investigation '), 'Tracings of the North of Europe (1851), 'The Threiplands of Fingask' (written in 1853, published 1880), 'Tracings in Iceland and the Far÷e Islands' (1856), 'Domestic Annals of Scotland' (3 vols. 1859-1861 ; this work, based on original research, comprehends the period from the Reformation to the rebellion of 1745), 'Memoirs of a Banking House' (1860, by Sir William Forbes, edited by Chambers), 'Edinburgh Papers' (1861, on miscellaneous subjects), 'Songs of Scotland prior to Burns' (1862). Most of these went through several editions. In 1860 Chambers paid a visit to the United States, and on his return removed to London (March 1861), in order that he might consult authorities in the British Museum for the 'Book of Days,' 'a miscellany of popular antiquities in connection with the calendar, including anecdotes, biographies, curiosities of literature, and oddities of human life and character' (2 vols. 1862-1864). During his residence in London the degree of LL.D. was conferred upon him by the University of St. Andrews. He was also elected a member of the AthenŠum Club. These were probably the most pleasing to him of the various honours which were now the reward of his labours. When the 'Book of Days' was printed, Chambers returned to Scotland. The production of the work had, however, injured his health to such an extent that he never quite recovered. ' That book was my death-blow,' he said. A brief ' Life of Smollett,' which appeared in 1867, was the last of his printed productions. ' A Catechism for the Young' and 'The Life and Preachings of Jesus Christ from the Evangelists' were left unfinished. Among his unpublished works are numerous antiquarian papers, and an extensive inquiry into spiritualistic and psychical research, together with materials for another volume of the 'Domestic Annals of Scotland.' Chambers died at St. Andrews, 17 March 1871, and was buried in the old church of St. Regulus there. Chambers was of a fairish type, with brown hair, which early became tinged with grey ; he was strongly made, though somewhat under middle size. His opinions in politics and religion were moderate and liberal. His disposition was genial, hospitable, and kindly. When Leigh Hunt, in April 1834, started the 'London Journal,' which seemed likely at first to prove a rival to 'Chambers's Journal,' Chambers, in a kindly letter, wished him all success as a labourer in a common field. He gave all the profits of a cheap edition of his 'Life and Work of Burns' for the benefit of Mrs. Begg, the poet's sister. These are but two of many like instances. As a writer Chambers is vigorous, instructive, and interesting. He knew a great deal of men and books, and in communicating his knowledge he remembered his own precept, that dulness is 'the last of literary sins.' Thus he was well fitted to be a popular expounder of science and history. Occasional touches of humour give his writing additional interest. In treating, as he frequently did, of subjects illustrating Scottish character, he uses the Scottish dialect with singular force and effect. Chambers was twice married, but both his wives predeceased him. He was survived by three sons and six daughters.

Electric Scotland Note: It may be interesting to note that Chamber's Domestic Annals of Scotland are available on this site and that our Famous Scots are based on his Biogra phical Dictionary of Eminent Scotsmen. We are now embarking on his 2 volume work of Scottish Songs for which see below.

The Scottish Songs
Collected and Illustrated by Robert Chambers (1829)


This publication originated in a desire which seems to have long been entertained by the public at large, that the Scottish Songs should be put into a shape at once cheap and convenient, and which should at the same time comprehend the important object, literary and typographical correctness. Among the innumerable collections of Scottish Song already in print, it will be readily allowed that there is not one which combines all these advantages, or which is at all worthy of the importance and interest of the subject Books of this sort are generally crude and hasty compilations from the most obvious sources, got up without the intervention of any responsible editor, and intended for circulation only amongst the humbler orders of the people. Almost the only exception of recent date exist* in the voluminous compilation of Mr Allan Cunningham; but it is, on the other hand, so expensive, that it can come into the possession of only a few. It appeared to the editor of the present volumes, that if a collection could be made, comprising all the really good songs, accompanied by all the information respecting them which can now be recovered, and at once handsome in appearance and cheap in price, the object would be still more decidedly accomplished.

From these motives, and with these views, the: present collection was undertaken. It will be found to contain all the songs written in and regarding Scotland, which have either the merit of being old and characteristic, or that of being new and popular.. No original songs are admitted, as in most other collections; because it is inconsistent with the idea of a collection of the best songs of a country, that some should be accepted which have not yet endured the ordeal of public taste. In an Introductory Essay, a view is given of all the facts known with certainty regarding Scottish Song in general; and to almost all the songs are appended notes, containing such anecdotes, and other pieces of information, referring to. them individually, as the editor considered necessary for their illustration, or at least mentioning the earliest printed collection in which they are known to have appeared. No tongs of an indecorous nature are introduced; while from one or two others which are included) the objectionable passages are silently omitted; the editor judging it better to fit his book, by that very slight sacrifice, for the use of the tasteful, the fair, and the young, than to consult the wishes of the antiquary; who, after all, has but little reason to complain of such violations, seeing that the songs are to be found, in all their native beauty, in the collections of Ramsay and Herd*

Hanover Street,
27, 1829.

The following links are to pdf files.

Pages 1 to 21
Pages 22 to 52

Pages 53 to 84
Pages 85 to 120
Pages 121 to 153
Pages 153 to 186
Pages 187 to 217

Pages 217 to 229
Pages 230 to 242
Pages 243 to 258
Pages 259 to 275
Pages 276 to 298
Pages 299 to 318
Pages 319 to 386
Pages 387 to 468
Pages 469 to 536
Pages 537 to 597
Pages 598 to 653
Pa ges 654 to 691

Songs Of Scotland, Prior To Burns


The Flowers of the Forrest
Lament of the Border Widow
General Leslies March to Longmarston Moor
Never Love Thee More
You're Welcome Whiggs
The Battle of and Braes of Killicrankie

Such a Parcel of Rogues in a Nation!
The Wee, Wee German Lairdie
The Piper O' Dundee
Carle, An The King Come!

The Auld Stuarts Back Again
The Highland Muster Roll
Kenmures On and Awa Willie

Battle of Sheriffmuir
Up And Waur Them A Wullie
The Campbells Are Coming

Awa Whigs Awa
To Daunton Me
This Is No My Ain House

Here's to the King Sir
The Black Bird
The White Cockade
Johnie Cope

Tranent Muir
Charlie is my Darling
Lewis Gordon

You're Welcome Charlie Stuart
Lady Keith's Lament
Over the Water to Charlie

The Souters of Selkirk
The Wooing of Jenny and Jock
Tak Your Auld Cloak About Ye

Dame Do The Thing Whilk I Desire
Ever Alack My Auld Gudeman
I Ha'e Laid Three Herrings In Saut

Donald Couper
Haud Awa Bid Awa
Tibbie Fowler

Bonnie Dundee
Rattlin Roarin Willie
As I Came In By Fisherraw

The Auld Man's Mare's Dead
Cauld Kail in Aberdeen
The Blythsome Bridal

Scornful Nancy
The Cock-Laird
My Jo Janet

Andro and his Cutty Gun
Willie was a Wanton Wag
Muirland Willie

Maggie Lauder
The Gaberlunyie Man
The Humble Beggar

An Ye Were Dead Guidman
The Brisk Young Lad
Our Guidman Cam Hame At E'en

Get Up And Bar The Door
Toddlin' Home
The Miller

Hooly and Fairly
The Lass of Livingstone
My Wife's a Wonton Wee Thing

The Weary Town O' Tow
Wood and Married and A'
Auld Rob Morris

Gala Water
The Highlandman's Complaint
The Rock and the Wee Pickle Tow

Ewie Wi' The Crookit Horn
I'll Gar Our Guidman Trow

Green Grow The Rashes
The Mucking O' Geordie's Byre
My Wife Shall Hae Her Will

When She Cam Ben She Bobbit
My Auld Man
Robin Redbreast's testament

The Wren
Babity Bowster
Jenny's Babee

Fient A Crum Of Thee She Faws
Hey, Now The Day Dawns!
The Banks of Helicon

Fair Helen of Kirkconnell
Cromlet's Lilt
Anne Bothwell's Lament

I Do Confess Thou'rt Smooth and Fair
Guid Night, And Joy Be Wi You A'
Old Long Syne

Auld Lang Syne
O Waly, Waly
Blink Over The Burns, Sweet Betty

Saw Ye My Father
Leader Haughs and Yarrow
Omnia Vincit Amor

The Birks of Abergeldy
John Hay's Bonnie Lassie
Within A Mile of Edinburgh

Katherine Ogie
Annie Laurie
Were Na My Heart Licht I Wad Dee

The Ewe-Buchtin's Bonnie
The Yellow-Haired Laddie
The Waukin' O' The Fauld

Bessy Bell and Mary Gray
The Last Time I Came O're The Muir
The Young Laird and Edinburgh Katie

Katie's Answer
The Lass O' Pattie's Mill
Woe's My Heart That We Should Sunder

The Highland Laddie
Lochaber No More
Ettrick Banks

The Bush Aboon Traquair
My Dearie, If Thou Dee

One Day I Heard Mary Say
Down The Burn, Davie
To Mrs A. H. On Seeing Her At A Concert

Busk Ye, Busk Ye
Ah, The Poor Shepherd's Mournful Fate
The Brume O' The Cowdenknowes

Saw Ye Johnie Coming?
Dumbarton's Drums
An Thou Wert My Ain Thing

The Ewe- Buchts
The Birks of Invermay
Roslin Castle

Pinkie House
Tarry Woo
My Sheep I Neglected

Sae Merry As We Twa Ha'e Been!
Johnie's Gray Breeks
Shame Fa' The Gear

Logie O' Buchan
Jenny Nettles
Low Doun In The Brume

The Shepherd's Wife
The Ploughman
Aye Waukin' O!
The Lee-Rig

Kind Robin Lo'es Me
The Lowlands of Holland
Wandering Willie
I Lo'e Ne'er A Laddie But Ane

Webster's Lines
Bide Ye Yet
For Lack of Gold
There's Nae Luck About The House

The Boatie Rows
Auld Robin Gray
Roy's Wife of Aldivalloch

Loch Erroch Side
Ower The Muir Amang The Heather
O Gin My Love Were Yon Red Rose

False Love, And Ha'e You Played Me This?
Can Ye Sew Cushions?
The Siller Croun

Mary's Dream
Logan Water
Gae To The Kye Wi' Me, Johnie

Will Ye Go To Flanders?
Air Of The Ewe-Buchtin's Bonnie

Select Writings of Robert Chambers
Popular Rhymes of Scotland (1847)


The purpose of this work is to supply a presumed desideratum in popular antiquities. The various collections of Percy, Evans, Scott, and others, have now probably given to the world nearly all that is worth preserving of the songs and ballads of our island; and this section of British traditionary poetry has been received amongst the cultivated intellects of the country with a degree of favour which could not have been dreamt of in the days of Milton and Dryden. Careless unaffected graces, simple pathos and humour, the total absence of all those marks of the chisel of the literary workman, and of all those strainings after effect, which mar the merits of so much elegant literature, have secured for these wildings of the national intellect an affectionate admiration and regard, of which many modern writers of native and acquired skill might well be envious.

Reared amidst friends to whom popular poetry furnished a daily enjoyment, and led by a tendency of my own mind to delight in whatever is quaint, whimsical, and old, I formed the wish, at an early period of life, to complete, as I considered it, the collection of the traditionary verse of Scotland, by gathering together and publishing all that remained of a multitude of rhymes and short snatches of verse applicable to places, families, natural objects, amusements, &c. wherewith, not less than by song and ballad, the cottage fireside was amused in days gone past, while yet printed books were only familiar to comparatively few. This task was executed as well as circumstances would permit, and a portion of the "Popular Rhymes of Scotland" was published in 1826. Other objects have since occupied me, generally of a graver kind; yet, amidst them all, I have never lost my wish to complete the publication of these relics of the old natural literature of my native country.

When now about to perfect this wish, I cannot help feeling anxious that the articles collected may be viewed in a proper light. It is to be observed, first of all, that they are, in most instances, the production of rustic wits, in some the whimsies of mere children, and originally were designed for no higher purpose than to convey the wisdom or the humours of the cottage, to soothe the murmurs of the cradle, or enliven the sports of the village green. The reader is therefore not to expect here anything profound, or sublime, or elegant, or affecting. But if he can so far upon occasion undo his mature man, as to enter again into the almost meaningless frolics of children— if to him the absence of high-wrought literary grace is compensated by a simplicity coming direct from nature—if to him there he a poetry in the veiy consideration that such a thing, though a trifle, was perhaps the same trifle to many human beings like himself hundreds of years ago, and has, times without number, been trolled or chanted by hearts light as his own, long since resolved into dust—then it is possible that he may find something in this volume which he will consider worthy of his attention.

In one respect only can the volume have the least claim upon a less gentle class of readers. In some instances a remarkable resemblance is made out between rhymes prevalent over Scotland and others which exist in England and Germany; thus adding a curious illustration with regard to the common origin of these nations, as well as showing at how early a period the ideas of these rhymes had originated. In some instances more direct proofs are adduced of the great antiquity of even the simplest and most puerile of these popular verses. I greatly regret that it has not been in my power to investigate the subject of kindred foreign rhymes further; but it may be hoped that the present volume, showing what are those which exist, or have recently existed, in Scotland, will enable inquirers in France, Holland, Germany, and other countries containing a Teutonic population, to make out such tallies as may exist in those countries, and thus complete the investigation in a satisfactory manner.

Edinburgh, November 24, 1841


Rhymes on Places
Characteristics of Places and their Inhabitants
Popular Reproaches
Rhymes upon Families of Distinction
Family Characteristics
Rhymes connected with Superstitions
Rhymes respecting Weather
Rhymes upon Natural Objects
Rhymes of the Nursery and Fireside Nursery Stories
Rhymes appropriate to Children's Amusements
Miscellaneous Purile Rhymes
Rhymes connected with New Year Observances
Miscellaneous Rhymes
Original Poems

Chambers's Journal
Nos. 1 To 25. January - June 1854 (pdf). See page 6, Maunderings by a Scotchman. Also many other editions can be found on the Internet Archive.

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