Literary Tweed – James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd

James Hogg, who became a close friend of Sir Walter Scott and a major literary figure in his own right, was born in 1770 in a small cottage on Ettrickhall Farm in the Ettrick Valley. He became a shepherd at the age of 11 and it was then, while tending his flocks, that he practiced reading and writing.

Although he had little formal education, Hogg was helped by his family connections – not least his mother’s side of the family who were steeped in local folklore and the oral traditions of the Border ballads. This background provided the base material for Hogg’s later wok as a poet, songwriter and storyteller.

It was in 1801, while collecting oral and musical traditions of the hill country he called home, that Hogg met a young lawyer called Walter Scott, who himself was seeking details on local ballads in the Ettrick Forest. Scott could not have found a better guide than ‘Jamie the Poeter’ and the two struck up a close friendship that endured until Scott’s death in 1812.

While Hogg was already a published writer, Scott helped elevate him to a place among the Edinburgh literary establishment. The Edinburgh literati did not always look kindly on someone seen as an uneducated countryman, but were nonetheless understandably envious of his literary ability. With poems and prose such as The Queen’s Wake, Mador of the Moor and The Confessions of a Justified Sinner, Hogg proved himself a formidable talent.

But Hogg was not satisfied with just being a literary name; he also wanted to establish himself as a respected farmer in the Ettrick Forest. At this, however, he proved much less successful. Often, money made through writing was subsequently lost in a series of ill-fated farming ventures. With his financial worries, his later life trajectory in many ways followed that of his illustrious friend, Sir Walter.

Hogg died in 1835 and is buried at Ettrick Kirk together with family and friends, including Tibbie Shiel whose inn he frequented. Tibbie Shiels Inn – which became the meeting place for the literary society of the day – is now sadly closed, but a nearby statue of James Hogg overlooking St Mary’s Loch is well worth a visit. The statue sees the Ettrick Shepherd with his right hand on a shepherd’s crook, and a scroll in his left hand with the final line of The Queen’s Wake: ‘He taught the wandering winds to sing’.

Further info

Other places to visit associated with James Hogg: Innerleithen, where Hogg was a founder of and regular competitor in the annual St Ronan’s Games; James Hogg Exhibition, Ettrick; and Sir Walter Scott’s Courtroom in Selkirk.

Look out for our next post on writer, diplomat and politician John Buchan …