Archive Spotlight: Allan Ramsay and the National Library of Scotland

A slightly different ‘Archive Spotlight’ post today, as we go back to the early eighteenth century to celebrate the work of the poet Allan Ramsay, ‘the founding father of Romanticism’, who was born on this day in 1684. Craig Lamont is a Research Associate on the projects ‘The Collected Works of Allan Ramsay’ and ‘Editing Robert Burns for the 21st Century’ at the University of Glasgow. Here he tells us about his work on Ramsay at the National Library of Scotland, illustrated with images from the archives.


Archive Spotlight: Allan Ramsay and the National Library of Scotland by Craig Lamont 

Allan Ramsay (1684-1758) the poet has been somewhat overshadowed by his son of the same name (1713-1784), who was Principal Painter in Ordinary for George III. When Ramsay senior is in the spotlight instead we tend to celebrate his pastoral play above all else. The Gentle Shepherd (first published 1725, first performed 1729) was the first pastoral piece to be set within a recognisable locale rather than an anonymous idyll. For Ramsay the best choice was the region of the Pentland Hills, beyond the boundaries of Edinburgh where he lived, with a particular focus on Penicuik. In nearby Carlops you can find the Allan Ramsay Hotel (est. 1792), which now boasts a plaque from Historical Environment Scotland:




Founding Father of Romanticism

& Modern Scottish Poetry

Author of the Pastoral Drama

‘The Gentle Shepherd’

Set Near This Place[1]


In January of this year I began working as a Research Associate on the AHRC-funded project ‘The Collected Works of Allan Ramsay’ (PI: Murray Pittock), which will produce a multi-volume edition of Ramsay for Edinburgh University Press. A Ramsay edition was last produced by the Scottish Text Society in six volumes spanning thirty years (1944-1974). These volumes are quite scarce and a full set is difficult to come by. You are more likely to read Ramsay’s poems online or in paperback anthologies such as Before Burns: Eighteenth-Century Scottish Poetry (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2002). The Ramsay Project here at the University of Glasgow hopes to elevate Ramsay to the fore of Scottish literary discourse and, of course, Romanticism. As Murray Pittock demonstrated in Scottish and Irish Romanticism (2008), it was commonplace to regard Ramsay as a Romantic writer or the initiator of major areas of Romantic practice in pre-war (and sometimes 1950s and 60s) criticism, before the later concepts of pre-Romanticism and Romanticism as an aesthetic became dominant.[2]

To grasp Ramsay’s influence fully we are going back to the very beginning, and so my first task was to collate as much information about Ramsay’s manuscripts as possible. Without doubt, the majority of the material is suitably located in the National Library of Scotland (NLS), a stones-throw away from the ancient Edinburgh Old Town where Ramsay lived and worked. There are also manuscripts in Ramsay’s holograph in Edinburgh University Library, the National Records of Scotland, Worcester College (Oxford), the British Library, The Huntington Library (San Marino, CA), and Houghton Library (Harvard, MA). Important though these archives are, the NLS has the largest spread of songs, poems, prose fragments, letters, and the crowning jewel that is the fair copy MS of The Gentle Shepherd.[3]


MS 15972, f. 7r. Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland.


Title-page of the first edition (F.7.f.22), one of only nine extant copies. Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland.


The rest of the Ramsay material at the NLS is scattered across more than forty bound or loose-leaf shelf marks, comprising a comprehensive insight into Ramsay’s life, style and development.[4] But let’s go back to the plaque. Ramsay’s place in Romanticism is noted but so too is his foundational role in ‘Modern Scottish Poetry’. What exactly does this mean? And how does the archive help us understand this?

To answer that we should look at printed material. The NLS has an impressive collection of Ramsay’s printed works.[5] Before his first authorised book of Poems in 1721 around fifty-six Ramsay works were published – mostly in Edinburgh, some in London – in a variety of formats. Often unauthorised, these printed works are indicative of a poet on the rise. The claim is made for Ramsay’s founding of Modern Scottish Poetry for a variety of reasons. Among the first ten printed works by Ramsay are Christ’s Kirk on the Green and Elegies on Maggy Johnston [&c.] (both 1718).[6] The first stanza of the ‘Elegy on Maggy Johnston, who died Anno 1711’ is one of the poet’s most recognisable:


Auld Reeky mourn in Sable Hue,

Let Fouth of Tears dreep like May Dew,

To braw Tippony bid Adieu,    A

Which we with Greed

Bended as fast as she cou’d brew,

But ah! she’s dead.[7]


The first thing we notice here is the use of Scots. In this case Edinburgh (ie. ‘Auld Reeky’) is being asked to mourn or honour the death of a talented ale-brewer by dropping (dreeping) rain, or tears ‘like May dew.’ Not only is the poem full of Scots words, the structure of it becomes the quintessential Scots style. The ‘Standard Habbie’ was first used by Robert Sempill, the younger, c. 1640, in his elegy ‘The Life and Death of the Piper of Kilbarchan; or, the Epitaph of Habbie Simpson.’ The phrase ‘Standart Habbie’ was coined by Ramsay in his poetical epistles with William Hamilton of Gilbertfield (c.1665-1751). It would become more famously known as the ‘Burns Stanza’, as the National Poet took it up during his own poetical career.

As a printer and collector Ramsay was well aware that he was taking a steady step in the direction of a new Scottish tradition. And so in 1724 he published The Ever Green, Being a Collection of Scots Poems, Wrote by the Ingenious before 1600.


NLS Cam.1.g.45. Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland.


But why focus on the Ingenious before 1600? One answer is that Ramsay is harking back to the time before Scotland lost its royal independence along with its court in 1603 (the Union of the Crowns). The chief Scottish poets in the seventeenth century, such as Robert Aytoun (1570-1638) and William Drummond of Hawthornden (1585-1649) primarily wrote in Latin and English. In other words, the desire to revive the Scots language meant looking further back in time. The first item in Volume I of The Ever Green is ‘Chrysts-Kirk of the Grene,’ which Ramsay had previously printed and added stanzas to in 1718. Whereas Ramsay had modernised the text in 1718, he has reverted it here to Middle Scots:


   Ramsay, 1718                                                  Ramsay, 1724                      

Was nere in Scotland heard or seen,                Was nevir in Scotland hard nor sene

Sic dancing and deray;                                   Sic Dancing and Deray,

Nowther at Falkland on the Green,                 Nowthir at Falkland on the Grene,

Nor Peebles at the Play,                                 Nor Pebills at the Play,


Ramsay uses The Ever Green to enshrine the poetry of an older, more prestigious literary age while simultaneously promoting his own, contrasting Modern Scots as the mainstay on the market. All of this to say that the National Library of Scotland, home to the largest collection of Ramsay material, is also home to one of the nation’s most significant manuscripts which Ramsay used to produce The Ever Green.

The Bannatyne Manuscript (NLS Advocates MS 1. 1. 6) is a collection of poems and songs allegedly copied from original sources by the Edinburgh merchant George Bannatyne (1545-1607/8) during the plague epidemic in the city (‘writtin in tyme of pest’). Without it, many treasures of Scottish literature would be lost forever.


NLS Advocates MS 1. 1. 6. (The phrase: ‘written in tyme of pest’ highlighted). Reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland.


Not only this, Ramsay’s influence on the trajectory of Scots might have been further impinged without this evidence of a rich and diverse literary heritage.[8]

As the project unfolds I will continue to consult the masses of Ramsay material held in the NLS.[9] Knowing Ramsay (as I now do) it will probably lead me deeper into the archive and further back in time. As such, Ramsay’s role in the development of Romanticism ought to be more celebrated and I am grateful to have shared the beginnings of this journey with BARS colleagues to achieve that very end.



[1] Words provided by Prof. Murray Pittock, General Editor of the upcoming Ramsay Edition, in 2016.

[2] Murray Pittock, ‘Allan Ramsay and the Decolonization of Genre’, Scottish and Irish Romanticism (Oxford: OUP, 2008), 32-58.

[3] A draft MS copy is extant elsewhere in the city, in the University Library (Laing.II.212*).

[4] The NLS holds the Edinburgh Burgess Ticket given to Ramsay (Acc. 3948).

[5] Many of these are located in Burns Martin’s Bibliography of Allan Ramsay (Glasgow: Glasgow Bibliographical Society, 1931).

[6] While Burns Martin’s Bibliography is the most comprehensive work to date, Martin often relied on the work of Andrew Gibson for these earlier editions. Gibson’s New Light on Allan Ramsay (Edinburgh: William Brown, 1927) remains an essential text for Ramsay scholars: part biographical and part bibliographical.

[7] Allan Ramsay, Poems (Edinburgh: Thomas Ruddiman, 1721), 16.

[8] There is good coverage of Ramsay’s ‘Transcripts of Earlier Scottish Materials’ in the Index of English Literary Manuscripts: 1700-1800 (Addison-Sir Richard Steele), vol. 3 (1986), 252-261.

[9] Also check the project Twitter and Facebook page, where we feature a monthly blog. Twitter: @edin_enlighten. Facebook: @RamsayWorks.

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