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Scottish Poets in America
Ramsay, Donald

For his chaste muse, employed by heaven-taught lyre,
None but the noblest passions to inspire;
Not one immoral, one corrupted thought,
One line which, dying, he could wish to blot.

Mr. Donald Ramsay is a notable example of the many Scotsmen who have risen from the ranks through their intelligence and perseverance, and now occupy prominent and important positions in the United States. He is a native of Glasgow, having been born there on March 12, 1848. His father, Donald Ramsay, was a native of Isley, and his mother, Flora Cameron, of Morvin, in Argyleshire. Both belonged to that thrifty, hard-working class of people, so common in Scotland. His father served as a ploughman in his early years, but on his settling in Glasgow he had to content himself with an inferior position in life, yet, strange as it may seem, managed to bring up his little family comfortably on a salary of fifteen shillings a week. Mr. Ramsay’s earliest recollections are of Glasgow Green and the buttercups and gowans which he was wont to gather there. Mingling with these are the recollections of the pleasant walks which his father was in the habit of taking him on Sabbath mornings along the banks of the river Clyde, or out to the well-known “ Auld Ruglin Brig.” The latter place seems to have possessed special attractions for him, as many years after he had emigrated to this country he made it the subject of his muse in a poem which displays considerable feeling, besides giving us a fair specimen of his descriptive powers. We quote the poem here, feeling assured that it will prove interesting to such of our readers as hail from the west of Scotland:


The early home, the hawthorn tree,
The bridge that spans the river,
The green lanes where we used to be,
Shall be forgotten never.

And though I wander far and wide,
My memory ne’er shall scorn Auld Ruglin
Brig, that spans the Clyde,
In the land where I was born.

Auld Ruglin Brig, whose buttresses
Are each a garden plot;
The wonder of my childish years,
That sweet, delightful spot.

The echo, in the arches low,
Oft made my young heart bound,
When I have stood in wonderment
And listened to the sound,

Auld Ruglin Brig, where many a night
I’ve stood and watched the river
Flow gently in the calm moonlight,
When scarce a leaf did quiver;

And where I’ve stood when winter’s blasts
Did rend the oak asunder,
And swollen floods gushed loud and fast
And filled the arches under.

And where I’ve watched the gloamin’ close
The long bright summer’s day,
And doubted not that fairies dwelt
On Cathkin’s bonnie braes.

Auld Ruglin Brig and Cathkin braes
And Clyde’s meandering stream,
Ye shall be subject of my lays
As ye are of my dreams. ,

The early home, the hawthorn tree,
The bridge that spans the river,
And the green holms where we used to be
Shall be forgotten never.

Mr. Ramsay’s school days began in his seventh year and terminated ere he had reached the age of ten. He confesses that he made no distinguished record as a scholar. He was not a favorite with the schoolmaster, and he availed himself of every possible excuse that presented itself to prevent his attending school. Wandering about the outskirts of the city, stealing rides on canal boats and watching the glass-blowers or pottery men was more congenial to him than poring over his lessons. “And so,” he says, “when I was big enough to earn half-a-crown a week, I gladly exchanged the school-room for the workshop.” He started as a boy-of-all-work in the establishment of Messrs. J. W. Robertson & Co., valentine manufacturers, and in this way became a printer.

His employment with this firm lasted about seven years, during which time many changes had come to him. Sickness and death had visited his home and carried off his father and three of his brothers, leaving him to take care of his mother and two younger brothers. His mother was of a cheerful disposition and worked hard and nobly to keep out of debt. She was truly independent, he says, and would have starved rather than ask assistance of her friends. He had however become imbued with a desire for learning, and a wish to improve his condition in life. His work had brought him into contact with all sorts of books, and he had acquired an extensive knowledge of various departments of literature. There were a number of second-hand book stalls in Glasgow, and he became a regular frequenter of them. It was seldom that he had the means to purchase such books as he took a fancy for, but he sometimes picked up a cheap copy of Thomson, or Shenstone, or Prior, and in this way soon became possessed of a good collection of standard works. It was also during this period of his life that he began to court the muses. “I naturally rhymed a little now and then,” he writes, “and sometimes a funny epitaph or epigram, or a song for an occasion gave me an opportunity to show a talent for rhyming. We had a weekly paper in Glasgow called the Penny Post, to which I frequently sent a song or short poem, and my happitst days were those in which I waited in anticipation of seeing my lines in the ‘ Poet’s Corner.’ I was afraid to have my name appear, and signed myself ‘ Clutha ’ so that my companions could not tease me, and I had all the pleasure to myself.” In 1866 he went to Dublin, thence to Liverpool, working for some time in each of those cities at his trade. In 1868 he concluded to try his fortune in the new world, and so set sail for New York. But Scotland never parted with a truer or more sorrowful son than she did when he waved a final adieu to her shores. “ I was indeed pained,” he writes, “at leaving my native land. My dear mother’s warm and last kiss was on my lips, my two brothers stood on the pier, and as we slowly sailed away the words of a song I had written some years before in a juvenile way, for a friend about to cross the Atlantic, came back to me:

Farewell sweet river Clyde,
Pensive and slow
Down thy dear stream I glide
Mournful I go.

On to the ocean wide
O’er the broad sea,
O, thou sweet winding Clyde!
Farewell to thee.

Oft on thy velvet banks
Boyhood and man
Thoughtful I’ve wandered
Or happy I’ve ran,

Gathered the gowans bright,
Careless and free;
O, thou sweet winding Clyde,
Farewell to thee!”

After landing in New York he proceeded to Boston, where he has since remained, with the exception of one year which he spent in Minnesota on account of his health. The poetical writings of Mr. Ramsay are numerous and of excellent quality. They are invariably pure and elevating, even while depicting some humorous phase of life or character. Besides showing a complete mastery over rhyme and rhythm they prove him to be possessed of a poetic imagination, a true love of nature, a correct taste, and a tender and sympathetic sense of feeling. Many of his smaller compositions are truly pathetic, both in incident and language. Take the following little piece as a specimen:


Green are the fields and fair the skies,
And bright is the world to-day;
But over my home a shadow lies
And it will not go away.
And my heart is held with a fearful dread;
For my love lies pale on a weary bed.

Over the lawn my little boy,
Chases a butterfly,
His laugh has a ring of careless joy
And happiness beams from his eye;
Ah, me! it is well that he cannot see
The awful shadow that frightens me.

The doctor is gone, I have closed the door,
And what were the words he said?
Alas! I have thought them o’er and o’er,
And they weigh on my heart like lead.
And I sit me down in dark despair
And the awful shadow lingers there.

Our author’s introduction to the writings of Robert Burns is thus amusingly referred to by himself. He says: “ There was a genial old man named Gemmell that kept a small stationery shop on George street where the school children used to buy pencils, etc., and he had a circulating library composed mostly of cheap editions, sixpenny and shilling volumes. I had heard of Burns, but not much, and when I was about twelve years old, one rainy night I produced my penny (always in advance) and was handed down the wonderful volume. I ran with it out into the street, but could not wait until I reached home. I opened it under the first lamp that I came to, and in a short time became so deeply interested in the 1 'l'wa Dogs’ that the book was almost spoiled by the rain.” Since that time he has become the possessor of many fine editions of Burns, and he occasionally makes a leisure hour pass pleasantly by composing a sonnet or a poem, either on or in connection with some incident in the life of the Ayrshire Bard. A short specimen of these delightful musings may be given:


Last night, while holding converse with a friend,
A man of rare intelligence and worth,
He beckoned me aside and smiling, said:
“I’ll show you something which, perhaps, you know.”
He then produced a volume, pocket-worn,
And opening it, displayed between the leaves
A wee red-tipped daisy culled afar,
In classic field in Scotland. What was it
That made him prize this little foreign flower?

A hundred years ago the ploughman Burns
Laid waste a little daisy in the earth;
But there uprose from out the poet’s soul,
A sympathetic prayer, showing the bigness
Of a human heart that sympathized
Even with a modest daisy crimson-tipped.

And so we hold the little flower up,
And look at one of God’s wee instruments
That touch the cords of tenderness in man
And make us feel that we are mortal all.

Mr. Ramsay is exceedingly partial towards his mother tongue, and uses it, certainly to advantage, on every possible occasion. Indeed, the majority of his best poems are written in the Doric. Many of them are decidedly beautiful in conception, and form pleasant reading, even while in some cases a thread of sorrow is woven into them. The following piece will give an idea of his work in this direction:



Fair Jeannie Bell! a sweet braw lass was she,
As ever stept upon the fresh green grass,
A happy innocence sparkled in her e’e,
An’ her sweet voice nae birdie’s could surpass.

At early morning on the dewy gowan lee,
When scent o’ hawthorn filled the balmy air,
An’ happy warblers sang frae ilka tree.
I aft did sit and wait for Jeannie there.

The bark o’ Rover, tauld me o’ her cornin’,
An’ ower the brae, like morning sun she cam’,
Wi’ some sweet tune she felt a joy in hummin’,
An’ at her feet a snaw-white wee pet lamb.

I felt the glamour o’ her witchin’ glance;
She smiled and passed, but did not speak to me,
For I was shy, and only looked askance,
Happy to meet her on the golden lee.

0, Thou! who dwellest beyond earth and air,
To whose great law subservient are all Powers,
I thank Thee, that I've seen a form so fair!
So angel like, upon this earth of ours.

The summer passed, the flowers a’ bloomed and died,
The blast o’ winter shook the leafless tree,
I wandered pensively by flowing Clyde,
But bonnie Jeannie I could’na see.

I longed to see the sweet return o’ spring,
The pleasing sunshine an’ the fresh green grass,
Frae ilka tree to hear the birds a’ sing,
But mair than a’, to see my bonnie lass.

My hopes were crushed, for soon the tidings spread
My Jeannie faded, died, and was nae mair,
I could na greet, I only bowed my head
An’ turned awa, wi’ something like despair.

Wi’sad, sad hearts they laid her in the clay,
An’ lingered lang till gloamin’ shadows fell,
Wi’ lanesome hearts, they hameward bent their way,
Nae mair to see their bonnie Jeannie Bell.

When a’ were gane, I stood beside the mound,
Forget that kirkyard scene, I never can,
I bowed my head in sorrow to the ground,
A truer tear ne’er fell frae cheek o’ man.

The songs of Scotland naturally contain numerous charms for our author and he loves to dwell on the grandeur and inspiring qualities of those renowned compositions. In a poem addressed to the late Mr. David Kennedy he says:

The auld Scotch sangs I lo’e them weel,
Sae tender and sae real, man,
They touch oor heart an’ mak us feel
As onlv Scots can feel, man,

They waukin ihocts o’ ither days,
An’ scenes oor childhood saw, man,
Again we wander ower the braes
In Scotland far awa’, man,

Again by Clyde’s sweet banks sae green,
Or thro’ the silent grove, man,
At gloamin’, wi’ some bonnie Jean,
In memory we rove, man,

An’ then their witty sparks o’ fire
Oor very souls they raise, man,
Frae life’s puir diggin’ in the mire,
To sweeter, brighter days, man.

That he understands the true value and importance of a good lyric is very evident from the remarks which he makes in an epistle addressed to his warm friend and brother-poet, Mr. Duncan MacGregor Crerar, on his first reading the latter’s verses entitled “My Hero True Frae Benachie:”


I saw a sang in Scottish dress,
O’ some bit lassie’s sair distress,
Sic waefu’ness it did express
It touched the vera heart o’ me.
Quo’ I wha wrote this bonnie sang?
Was’t Stevenson or Andrew Lang?
Frae some true poet’s heart it sprang, '
This plaintive Highland melody.

My interest grew an’ lookin’ nearer,
There stood the name MacGregor Crerar,
Ah then! the wee bit sang grew dearer,
And it was quite a joy to me.
An incident sae sweetly told,
In Scottish verse o’ classic mould
Does honor to our country old
And to the lad frae Benachie.

Oh, wad that pleasant sangs an’ rhymes
Had mair acceptance o’ these times,
O’ heartless trade and selfish crimes,
An’ social disability.
What future has the millionaire,
With a’ his wark and a’ his care?
The writer o’ a sang has mair
At interest with posterity.

Two short specimens of Mr. Ramsay’s own lyrical productions will be appreciated here:


Somebody whispered to me yestreen,
Somebody whispered to me;
And my heart gaed a flutter, and flew away clean
As somebody whispered to me,
And the rose, that I fand in my tangled hair,
Was a token o’ love I ween,

An airm gaed roun’ my waist yestreen,
An airm sae strang, an’ true;
An’ I laid my heid on his breast yestreen,
For, what could a puir thing do?
An’ my heart is his forever mair,
An’ naething will come between.


Bonnie May MacAlister!
I remember when
You were only eight years old,
And I was only ten.
And, in our childish rambles,
How much I thought of you,
While playing on the banks o’ Clyde,
Whaur red-tipped gowans grew.

A misty cloud hangs ’tween our lives,
For twenty years and more.
On separate paths, diverging wide,
Along thro’ life we’ve bore.
And you are wedded long ago;
But do you think of when
You were only eight years old,
And I was only ten.

Do smiles of happiness still lurk
Within those eyes so rare?
Or has the hard world’s weary work
Strained them with anxious care?
I trust that you have seen more joys
Than he who knew you when,
You were only eight years old,
And I was only ten.

Our author is senior partner in the Heliotype Printing Company, and occupies the position of manager and treasurer. He is a life member of the Scot’s Charitable Society, and is extensively and favorably known throughout Boston and its vicinity. His home is among the prettiest of those situated in the romantic little village of Roslin-dale, and his muse frequently becomes enraptured with the quiet place and its surroundings:

When shadows creep across the square,
And slanting rays of evening sun
Light up my walls with sudden glare,
My day’s toil in the city’s done.
My pen is wiped, my books are closed,
And all the cares that they entail
Are laid aside, while I have dosed
A half hour’s ride to Roslindale.
The quiet haunts of Roslindale,
The green hillsides of Roslindale,
The shady nook, the murmuring brook,
The pleasing look of Roslindale.

Mr. Ramsay was married in 1872 to Miss Maggie Rust, daughter of William Rust, Esq., of Roxbury, Mass. In 1879, his Maggie died, leaving two boys—Willie and Allen—who still survive. It was during her sickness that the poem, “ The Shadows,” was written. In 1883, he was again married to Miss Lillian Whitefield, daughter of Edwin White-field, Esq., artist and author. She is an accomplished and delightful lady of high education and culture. They have been blessed with one child, a bright little girl, now four years of age, named Flora, who, we need hardly assure our readers, is an ever-increasing joy and delight to her estimable parents.

In concluding our sketch it may not be out of place to introduce to our readers an acrostic which Mr. Ramsay worked out of his wife’s name:

Love found me in a dreary waste,
In which was nothing cheering,
Love led me to a maiden chaste,
Listless I followed fearing.
In her I found a cheerful ray,
And night changed to a sunny day,
No cloud at all appearing.

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