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NAIRNE, Carolina, Baroness Nairne

NAIRNE, Carolina, Baroness Nairne (1766-1845), Scottish ballad writer, born at Gask, Perthshire, 16 August 1766, was the daughter of Laurence Oliphant. The latter, like his father, whom he succeeded in 1767, was an ardent Jacobite, and married in 1755 his first cousin Margaret, eldest daughter of Duncan Robertson of Strowan, Perthshire, chief of the clan Donnochy. Carolina was named after Prince Charles Stuart; in a list of births and deaths in her father’s hand it is written "Carolina, after the King, at Gask, 16 Aug. 1766". (1) She soon became "a sturdy tod’’ in her mother’s esteem, and a nonjuring clergyman, who was her tutor for a time, reported that she was a. very promising student. Although somewhat delicate in her early years... "a paper miss" her nurse called her — she became a skilful rider, and sang and danced admirably. Her beauty gained for her the title of "pretty Miss Car," and subsequently of "the Flower of Strathearn".

Carolina induced her brother Laurence to become a subscriber to Burn’s poems, announced from Edinburgh in 1786. She followed with eager interest Burn’s improvements on the old Scottish songs in Johnson’s "Musical Museum" and Thomson's "Songs of Scotland’’ : The first important result of this new stimulus was in 1792, when she gave her brother in strict, secrecy a new version of "The Pleuchman" (ploughman) to sing at a gathering of the Gask tenantry. It instantly became popular. She followed up her success by writing other humorous and Jacobite songs. In 1797 she joined her brother, who was about this time serving in the Perthshire light dragoons, when he went with his company to quarters in the north of England. There is a legend that during this sojourn she had the distinction of declining a royal duke in marriage. On 27 July 1797 another brother, Charles, died; and the following year when her friend Mrs. Campbell Colquhoun, the sister of Scott’s "Willie Erskine", lost her first born child, Carolina sent her a copy of "The Land o’ the Leal". On 2 June 1806 she was married at Gask to her cousin, Major William Murray Nairne, assistant inspector of barracks (son of Lieutenant Colonel John Nairne). Major Nairne’s duties required his presence in Edinburgh, and he and his wife settled first at Portobello and afterwards at Wester Duddington, in a house named Carolina Cottage presented to them by their relative, Robertson of Strowan. Here their only child, William Murray, was born in 1608.

Major Nairne was of a humorous, joyous temperament, but was restrained by the reticence of his wife, who was a victim of the "unseasonable modesty’’ impatiently noted by the historian of the family as a failing of the Oliphants. (2) They met Sir Walter Scott occasionally, but the acquaintance never became intimate. Although her friends admired her artistic accomplishments (she could draw and paint), and her wide knowledge of Scottish songs attracted attention in private life, she concealed, even from her husband, her poetic achievements. From 1821 to 1824, as Mrs. Bogan of Bogan, she contributed lyrics to the "Scottish Minstrel" of R. A. Smith, but even the publisher was not made aware of her identity. Without committing herself she managed to write and copy Jacobite songs and tunes for her kinsman Robertson of Strowan, who died in 1822. That year George IV visited Scotland, and on the invitation of Sir Walter Scott, interested himself in the fallen Jacobite adherents. The result was the bill of 17 June 1824, which became a peer (being the fifth Lord Nairne of Nairne, Perthshire), and his wife was thenceforth known. as Baroness Nairne.

Lady Nairne’s chief object in life was now the training of her only son. Up to his fifteenth year she mainly taught him herself. Then she selected tutors with the greatest care. On the death of Lord Nairne in 1829 she left Edinburgh with the boy, settling first at Clifton, near Bristol, with relatives. It was probably at this time that she wrote her vigorous and touching ‘‘Farewell to Edinburgh’’. In July 1931 they went to Kingstown, Dublin, and thence to Enniskerry, co. Wicklow. Here as in Edinburgh, her friends noticed her artistic tastes, and she drew a striking landscape. with blacklead, on the damp back wall of her dwelling. (3) The summer of 1834 young Lord Nairne and his mother spent in Scotland.

The young man's delicate health however, constrained them to move in the autumn, and, along with Mrs. Keith (Lady Nairne’s sister) and their niece, Mrs Margaret. H. Steuart of Da'gaise, Perthshire, they went to the continent, visiting Paris, the chief Italian cities, Geneva, Interlachen, and Baden. They spent the winter of 1835-6 in Mannheim; but after an attack of influenza the young Lord Nairne died at Brussels on 7 Dec. 1837. From June 1838 to the summer of 1841, with a little party of relatives and friends, Lady Nairne again visited various continental resorts. In 1812-3 the party was at Paris, and in the latter year Lady Nairne returned to Gask as the guest of her nephew, James Blair Oliphant, and his wife. Her health was growing uncertain, but she corresponded with her friends, and evinced a great interest in the movement which was just culminating in the disruption of the church of Scotland. In the winter of 1843 she had a stroke of paralysis, from which she rallied sufficiently to be able to interest herself in various Christian benefactions, to watch the development of the free kirk, and to give practical aid to the social schemes of Dr. Chalners. She died on the 26 Oct. 1845, and was buried within the chapel at Gask. Her portrait at Gask was painted by Sir John Watson Gordon.

Lady Nainie had in her last years consented to the anonymous publication of her poems. and a collection was in preparation at her death. With the consent of her sister, Mrs. Keith, in 1846, they were published in a handsome folio as "Lays from Strathearn, by Carolina, Baroness Nairne; arranged with symphonies and Accompaniments by Finlay Dun". In 1869 the "Life and Songs of the Baroness Nairne" appeared, under the editorship of Dr. Charles Rogers, the life being largely written by Mr. T. L. Kington Oliphant of Gask. (4) Dr. Rogers revised and amended this volume in a new edition published in 1886.

Lady Nairne excels in the humorous ballad, the Jacobite song, and songs of sentiment and domestic pathos. She skilfully utilized the example of Burns in fitting beautiful old tunes with interesting words; her admirable command of lowland Scotch enabled her to write for the Scottish people and her ease of generalization gave breadth of significance to special themes. In her "Land o’ the Leal", "Laird o’ Cockpen" and "Caller Herrin", she is hardly, if at all, second to Burns himself. "The Land o’ the Leal," set to the old tune "Hey tutti taiti", also used by Burns for "Scots wha ha’e", was translated into Greek verse by the Rev. J. Riddell, fellow of Balliol College, Oxford. "Caller Herrin" was written for the benefit of Nathaniel Gow, son of the famous Perthshire fiddler Neil Gow, whose melody for the song, with its echoes from the peal of church bells, has been a favorite with composers of variations. Two well-known settings are those by Charles Czerny and Philip Knapton (1788-1833). Lady Nairne ranks with Hogg in her Jacobite songs, but in several she stands first and alone. Nothing in the language surpasses the exuberant buoyancy of her "Charlie is my darling", the swift triumphant movement of "The Hundred Pipers", and the wail of forlorn desclation in "Will ye no come back again?" Excellent in structure, these songs are enriched by strong conviction and natural feeling. The same holds true of all Lady Nairne’s domestic verses and occasional pieces. "The Auld House", "The Rowan Tree", "Cradle Song", the "Mitherless Lammie", "Kind Robin lo’es me" (a tribute to Lord Nairne), and "Gude Nicht and joy be wi ye a’’, "Would you be young again?" was written in 1842, when the authoress was seventy-six.

Dict. of National Biog. Vol. 40. Thomas Rain. 1894.

Rogers Life and Songs of Lady Nairne; Kington Oliphant’s Jacobite Lairds of Gask; Tytler and Watson’s Songstresses of Scotland.


(1) Oliphant’s Jacobite Lairds of Gask, p. 349.
(2) Oliphant’s Jacobite Lairds of Gask, p. 225.
(3) Rogers, Memoir, p. 60.
(4) Oliphant’s Jacobite Lairds of Gask 433.

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