Peddling Poetry – William Nicholson: Packman Poet
Photographs by and copyright of Allan Devlin
He was over fond of the drink, played the pipes and the fiddle, frequently conversed with devils, who offered him advice on the human condition, and wrote his poems while tramping the countryside as a packman, or peddler. Known as the Bard of Galloway, when his poems were published in the 19th century he was considered to be the equal of Robert Burns, yet not a single recently published anthology of Scottish poetry contains any of his work.
If the name William Nicholson doesn’t immediately ring a bell, the name Aiken-drum may be more familiar. Probably the poet’s most widely known work, ‘The Brownie of Blednoch’, featuring the brownie called Aiken-drum, was described by C H Dick, author of Highways and Byways in Galloway and Carrick as "the greatest piece of vernacular literature that Galloway ever produced".
Literary critic and editor, John Hudson is keen to re-establish Nicholson’s reputation as a poet. John edited The Collected Poems of William Nicholson: The Bard of Galloway, the first full edition of Nicholson’s work to be published. It includes previously unpublished poems, discovered in Broughton House, Kirkcudbright. “William Nicholson has been badly overlooked. He was a true poet of Galloway but has been eclipsed by Burns, an Ayrshire poet,” he said. “I’d like to see his reputation established on the national scene. The focus of people who edit anthologies seems to be on poets of the Highlands and North East. Included in Crawford’s New Penguin Book of Scottish Verse, for example, I’ve read poems massively weaker than ‘Brownie’ let alone ‘The Country Lass.’”
Biographical detail on Nicholson’s life is pretty thin and, according to John Hudson, heavily mythologized with its emphasis on promoting an image – as people did with Burns and Hogg – of the unlettered rustic poet touched by genius. The youngest of eight children, William, or Wull, was born in the parish of Borgue in 1783. The family moved near to Ringford, or Red Lion as it was then known, where Wull attended the local school.
M Harper in his memoir prefacing an edition of Nicholson’s poems describes William as a reluctant pupil. He quotes Wlliam MCLellan of nearby Glentoo Farm, who said: “Naturally indolent he disliked the trouble of attending school… The consequence was, that after simply learning to read indifferently, and gaining a very slight knowledge of the commonest rules of arithmetic, a science which he held in abhorrence, he bade farewell to school, never to return to it more.”
Outside the classroom, however, Nicholson had a voracious appetite for reading, wanting nothing more than to spend his days, apparently impervious to wind and cold, on the banks of the river Tarff, his nose, quite literally in a book. He is described as being so short sighted he was unable to read unless he held a book “almost in contact with the most prominent part of his face.” No wonder he didn’t like school – his classmates probably laughed at him. His mother, Barbara, could recite from memory a vast repertoire of old ballads, songs and poems, which may have fired her son’s imagination and had a profound influence on his poetical leanings.
After leaving school, Nicholson had to find work. With capital of one guinea he set himself up as a packman, a travelling salesman because, says Harper, his weak eyesight precluded him from jobs such as shepherd or ploughman. John Hudson snorted when I mentioned this. “Even if his eyesight had been perfect, why should he have been a shepherd? His father was a publican, his brother a well-respected book publisher in Kirkcudbright. He would have had other work options, but the image of poet as lowly shepherd boy was what suited the people who wrote about him,” he said. “The rude poet, inspired rather than learned, reflects the inner tensions of the educated middle classes of the time. I think they were possibly jealous. For all their classical education and intellectual superiority they couldn’t write poetry like Nicholson, so had to explain his ability in terms of his closeness to the natural world, something they’d lost.”
With his pack, containing needles and pins, combs, muslins and ribbons, on his back Nicholson travelled throughout Galloway, Dumfriesshire and into Ayrshire selling his wares in villages and far flung farms. As a young man, he was described as “extremely handsome – fully five feet ten inches high, of erect gait and broad manly shoulders” and was welcomed everywhere, not only for the goods he carried, but also for the news and gossip he brought. He was a popular entertainer, more than happy to pay for his night's shelter by playing on the pipes or fiddle and reciting his poetry. A keen observer he found much on his travels to sing about.; his poetry is lyrical, haunting and, at times, profound. In ‘The Banks of Fleet’ he paints an evocative picture of the scenery around Gatehouse, which has changed surprisingly little:
Castramon waves his leafy locks,
Amidst the meads where flowers are springing;
And shields wi woods his furrowed rocks,
Where lightsome birds are blithely singing.
The Rusco ruins, nodding grey,
Where Gordons gay ance blithely ranted,
And wild woods spreading o’er the brae,
By nature’s ruleless hand been planted.
At first Wull prospered as a packman but by 1813 he found himself in debt. Admirers of his work suggested he try to publish his poems and he decided to see "what prenting a book wad do for him." Again, giving the lie to the lowly peasant image, he amassed an impressive 1500 subscribers, before travelling to Edinburgh. Novelist and poet, James Hogg, helped him publish his collection. Harper says Nicholson was introduced to Hogg in Edinburgh but John Hudson thinks it unlikely this was their first meeting. “Hogg’s sister married the owner of Carse on Tongland Road just outside Kirkcudbright and Nicholson was a frequent visitor,” he explained. “Hogg and Nicholson would have met before Edinburgh.”
John is also sceptical of stories about Nicholson’s work having to be transcribed for the printer because the scarcely literate poet’s grammar and spelling were so bad. “Yorkshire libraries hold numerous perfectly good letters written by Nicholson to his sister who lived in Yorkshire, which show no sign of grammatical incompetence,” he said. His handwriting may simply have been illegible, in which case a printer would have insisted on it being written out clearly. No editor would even attempt to decipher my untidy scrawl.
Tales in Verse and Miscellaneous Poems, descriptive of rural life and manners was published in 1814 to great acclaim. Returning home, via Ayrshire, "delivering the copies and hauling in the siller", Nicholson made a handsome profit of £100, a considerable sum in those days. It enabled him to free himself of “diverse trifling pecuniary embarrassments.” The main poem in the collection, ' The Country Lass', a simple tale of a young, country girl, sought after by a variety of suitors – including the farmer's son, the businessman and the 'sticket minister' – is rich with humour and demonstrates how shrewdly Nicholson observed his neighbours. “It’s written by someone who is a serious literary creator,” John Hudson said. “It shows a profound insight into human character. Its probing of human hopes, aspirations and foibles rivals Jane Austen.” Nicholson was now famous and everyone wanted to meet the 'Packman Poet' and he, unable to refuse the many offers of hospitality, which came his way, continued to drink heavily.
In 1825, Dumfries Magazine published 'The Brownie of Blednoch.' Aiken-drum, a brownie of grotesque appearance offers to carry out the work of the farmers for the lowly wage of 'a cogfu' o' brose 'tween the light and the dark.' All went well for a time until a young wife, shocked by the brownie's lack of clothing: 'Laid a mouldy pair o' her ain man's breeks by the brose o' Aiken-drum.' This broke the bond and the brownie left, to be seen no more.
Though the “Brownie o Blednach” lang be gane,
The mark o his feet’s left on mony a stane;
And mony a wife and mony a wean
Tell the feats o Aiken-drum.
Dr. John Brown, the 19th century author of a series of essays titled Horae Subsecivae (Leisure Hours), said if Chaucer had been a Galloway man he might have written 'The Brownie of Blednoch' – “only he would have been more garrulous, and less compact and stern. It is like Tam O’ Shanter, in its living union of the comic, the pathetic and the terrible. Shrewdness, tenderness, imagination, fancy, humour, word music, dramatic power, even wit – all are here.” A big fan, then.
Some people believe the brownies, rather than supernatural beings, were people who for one reason or another were forced into a form of exile, wandering from place to place, doing odd jobs to stay alive. I spent some years working for a leprosy project in Pakistan and when I first read Nicholson’s description of the brownie I thought he was describing someone with leprosy: the hole where the nose should be, the claw-like fingers, the lack of toes. Having since learned there was once a leper colony in the area, and stories of it might still have been told in Nicholson’s time, made me wonder if this brownie had leprosy, something, which would have certainly made him a social outcast.
“It’s possible,” John Hudson agreed, nodding rather doubtfully at my theory. “Though personally, I believe he identified himself with the brownie. His own life had many elements of the wandering outcast. I don’t think he ever properly fitted in and suspect he was the black sheep of the family, disinherited and disowned. His first collection was printed in Edinburgh, though his own brother was a reputable publisher in Kirkcudbright.”
Nicholson’s ill-fated trip to London came about because his discussions with devils convinced him he must tell the Kinghis philosophy concerning the redemption of mankind – possibly even the answer to the Irish problem. Despite handing to a sentry to deliver, a copy of his poems by way of introduction, along with a letter requesting an audience, no reply came. It is likely the sentry, suspecting madness, threw poems and letter away. While waiting to see the King, Nicholson was robbed and left destitute in London until members of the Galloway Society put him on a steamer bound for home.
Nicholson returned to Galloway in 1826. Two years later he published a second edition of poems. “From that time till his death, there is no incident worthy of record,” Harper rather condescendingly wrote. Certainly Nicholson’s fondness for drink led to a reduction in poetic output. Did alcoholism make him believe he was talking to devils, or a mental health problem that, today, would have been diagnosed and treated? Did he perhaps have a bi-polar disorder? In ‘To Melancholy’ he writes:
Till frenzied fever’s fiery han
Alang the witherin lips was drawn,
Fond Hope and Health were at a stan
Ye crushed them there;
Then roused your daughter; wild and wan –
E’en dark Despair!
Possibly his last years were spent in dire straits, supported by the charity of friends. Nicholson died in 1849 at Kildarroch, Borgue and buried in Kirkandrews churchyard. His brother John erected a headstone. I searched for ages to locate the grave, and no one could tell me where it was. When, with the help of a plan of the graveyard from the library, I finally found it I realised I’d walked past it several times. Oddly, and giving credence to John Hudson’s black sheep theory, the inscription for Wull is on the reverse of the stone, not with the names of other members of the family.
In 1900, fifty-one years after his death, a plaque to the poet was unveiled outside Borgue village school. Made by M McF Shannon, a sculptor from Glasgow, the plaque is based on a painting by John Faed, RSA: the bronze taken from one of the last cannons captured from the Indian Mutiny rebels.
Within another fifty years, however, the name and works of Nicholson were disappearing into obscurity. “My mother was fond of poetry and was shocked that we were not taught any Nicholson in school,” said Kirkcudbright resident, Amy Smith, who attended Borgue School in the thirties.
The inscription on Nicholson’s tombstone reads: “No future age shall see his name expire” and John Hudson for one will continue to try to make that so. “He deserves to be included in the Scottish body of literature. It’s down right criminal he’s not.”
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