(The Ettrick Shepherd)
The story of Hogg's life is as moving as that of Burns, and they make a remarkable pairing. Hogg was the son of a shepherd from Ettrick in Selkirkshire. He was baptized on 9 December 1770, but in later life claimed that he shared Burns's birthday and was born on 25 January 1777. Hogg's father managed to raise the funds to lease a farm, but went bankrupt. Young James was forced to leave school and undertake menial work on local farms. He afterwards remembered how his clothes were so threadbare that his trousers constantly fell down and he eventually gave up wearing shirts altogether. From 1790 Hogg worked as a shepherd, but also enjoyed access to a well-stocked library belonging to his employer, who afterwards took over the management of Sir Walter Scott's estate and introduced Hogg to Scott. Hogg read voraciously and discovered that he had a talent as a versifier, becoming known locally as Jamie the Poeter. He began to contribute poems to periodicals and in 1801 published his first collection, although without great success.
Continuing to struggle to earn a living as a shepherd, Hogg, encouraged by Scott, published two books. One was a guide to the diseases of sheep. The other was a collection of poems, The Mountain Bard. His farming ventures failed and he became bankrupt. At the age of forty, he set off to earn a living in Edinburgh as a professional writer. After some unsuccessful publications, he finally found fame with The Queen's Wake, a poem concerning the return of Mary, Queen of Scots to Scotland. Hogg was established as one of the leading poets of his time, but became most celebrated for his portrayal as 'The Ettrick Shepherd' in a series of dialogues published in Blackwood's Magazine.
Hogg became a Scottish - indeed a British - celebrity. On 25 January 1832, the Burns night feast at the Freemasons' Tavern in London was used as an occasion also to honour Hogg – the event becoming known as the Great Hogg Feast. The novelty of the appearance of the Ettrick Shepherd at the Freemasons' Tavern proved an immense attraction; tickets cost 25shillings (£1.25) and two or three hundred diners were expected. In between four and five hundred gentlemen attended, so that the start of the dinner had to be delayed for an hour while the tables were extended and many of the diners grumbled that they only received tiny portions for their 25s. During his London visit, Hogg was invited to meet such members of the great and the good as the Duke of Sussex, the Grand Master of the United Grand Lodge of England (UGLE). In Scotland, Hogg was also in great demand as a member of many clubs and societies but his gregarious and rumbustious nature was perhaps best expressed in his membership of many sporting clubs. He was a member of the Edinburgh Six Feet High Club, the qualification for which was to be of that stature, and joined with Sir Walter Scott in throwing the hammer and putting the shot. He was a keen angler and shooter, and served as President of the Ettrick Curling Club. Hogg's most celebrated sporting achievement was his part in helping to establish the St Ronan’s Border Games, the oldest organised athletics meeting in Scotland.
Hogg had contacts with Freemasonry – his song 'Donald McDonald' had been sung by one of the best singers in Scotland at the St Andrew's Day meeting of the Grand Lodge of Scotland in 1804, when 'the walls of the Grand Lodge literally shook with the acclamations'. The Forum, a debating society of which Hogg was a founder member, had held its meetings in 1812 at Freemasons’ Hall. Despite receiving invitations from friends to join the fraternity, Hogg had not shown any interest in becoming actively involved with Freemasonry. However, by the beginning of 1835, Hogg was becoming increasingly frail. His friends in Lodge Canongate Kilwinning, who included at that time his publisher Blackwood who was Senior Warden of the lodge, were determined to add Hogg's name to that of Burns in the roll of the lodge. He was asked to attend a special meeting to initiate him in Edinburgh on 6th February 1835, which promised to be a great occasion as ten Polish officers, including the distinguished statesmen and emissary of the Czar Prince Adam Czartoryski, would also be initiated. However, Hogg was too weak to travel. He replied to the invitation as follows:
“I am sixty-five years of age this night: I am not a Mason, and never have been having uniformly resisted the entreaties of my most influential friends to become one. I am, however, intensely sensible of the high honour intended me, which, coming to hand on the morning of my birthday has, I feel, added a new charm to the old shepherd's life. My kindest respects to the Hon Master and Members of the Lodge, and say that I cannot join them, or be initiated into the mysteries of the art... I am long past the age of enjoying Masonic revels. I shall, however be most proud to become the Poet Laureate of the Lodge, to have my name enrolled as such and shall endeavour to contribute some poetic trifle annually”.
Hogg's willingness to act as Poet Laureate without actually joining the lodge posed something a difficulty for the brethren. The frail shepherd was unwilling to travel to Edinburgh to attend lodge meetings, so the lodge decided that he should be initiated and that they would make an excursion to his residence in Peeblesshire. They resolved that a delegation headed by James Deans, who had recently arrived in Edinburgh having served as Junior Grand Warden of the Premier Grand Lodge in London, should go to Innerleithen to initiate Hogg. A week later, two members of the lodge went to Hogg's house to accompany him to the Lodge meeting. After a pleasant morning’s fishing, the party rose to the Cleikum Inn in nearby St Ronans where the Lodge was assembled.
“The expectant Brethren were all introduced [to Hogg], and the proper paraphernalia having been brought from the city, the Lodge was duly constituted, and the three degrees conferred upon the 'Shepherd'; after which the Brethren sat down to a sumptuous repast... After the usual Masonic toasts, the R.W.M. proposed the health of the newly initiated Brother James Hogg, and in so doing alluded to the remarkable circumstance of Burns having been the Poet Laureate of the Lodge Canongate Kilwinning, and said, that as the Ettrick Shepherd was universally looked upon as the successor of that immortal poet in his poetic fame, so the members had felt the greater anxiety to enrol the name of James Hogg, Poet Laureate of the Lodge”.
Hogg's reply was received enthusiastically. The ensuing harmony lasted well into the night, with Hogg singing some of his own songs. The following day, three of the brethren accompanied Hogg home, where they all sat down to a hearty breakfast.
This was one of the last major public events in Hogg's life; he became seriously ill in the autumn of 1835 and died in November that year. The excursion to St Ronans to initiate Hogg received a lot of publicity. A cynical view might indeed be that the whole activity was a publicity stunt. By inaugurating Hogg as Burns's successor, the lodge was issuing making a further public declaration of its relationship with Burns, a claim which, thirty years later, had assumed the proportions of a fully-blown legend. Hogg also stood to benefit personally from this event, since he was at that time working on an edition of Burns's poetry and the publicity surrounding his initiation and appointment to a Masonic title associated with Burns would have boosted sales of the edition. Hogg took every opportunity to present himself as the successor to Burns, and the idea of holding an office of which Burns had been the only previous incumbent would have greatly appealed to him.
Professor Andrew Prescott
(Extract from his Toast to Burns & Hogg 26TH January 2011)
(Some Samples of the Poet Laureates’ poems and or list of other works may be inserted here as the site develops.)