Dumfries and Galloway
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William Nicholson
Dumfries and Galloway

William Nicholson and Dumfries & Galloway

The Bard of Galloway by Roger McCann

Where winding Tarff by by broomie knowes
Wi'siller waves to saut sea rows,
And mony a green wood cluster grows,
And harebells blooming bonnie O!

Below a spreading hazel lee,
Fu' snugly hid where none could see,
While blinking' love beamed frae her
I met my bonnie Annie, 0!

These verses quoted from Nicholson's poem `The Banks Of Tarff' were, like the poet, almost lost in obscurity. Yet for a time in his day he was regarded by many as incomparable, another genius from very lowly beginnings, who could perhaps even be said to surpass Robert Burns with the beauty of some of his allusions to nature.

The youngest of a family of eight children, William was born on 15th August 1783 at Tannymas, Borgue, in an `auld clay biggin’ which has long since disappeared. The family flitted a few times around the area, and then settled in what is now Ringford (about four miles away from Kirkcudbright just off the A75) where they kept an inn.

William's mother had a fund of ballads, songs and stories and she would entertain the entranced youngster. Of his formal schooling, he never made much, being little motivated: - ‘naturally indolent, he disliked the trouble of attending school’, according to William McLellan of Glentoo who knew him well. But he did study. By his own fireside, or behind a hedge, on the banks of the River Tarff or River Dee, with chap book held near his nose William would read 'accounts of ghosts, brownies, fairies, worricows, or similar superstitious existences, then believed in by the peasantry’.

Eventually, at the age of 14, he was considered for apprenticeships. Having poor eyesight lessened William William's occupational choices, so he was accordingly fitted out as a packman. On his back he would carry a wooden box containing his stock of scissors, needles, pins, combs, thimbles and similar small wares. His rounds took him into Ayrshire, through Galloway and also Dumfriesshire.

As a businessman he might have prospered but was happier writing poems and songs. When he was 20, he procured his first set of bagpipes and for the families he quartered with he would play, sing, recite his poems and carry the news like the bards of old.

By 1813 his trade had fallen away, so William decided to make for Edinburgh, intending that his poems, composed at intervals over many years, be published. There he met James Hogg who, as an amanuensis, showed the bard great kindness and ‘generous, unwearied attention’ .

William could now fill his pack with poetry books rather than drapery. After supplying Edinburgh and Glasgow he travelled homewards through Ayrshire and Galloway ‘delivering the copies and hauling in the siller’. This allowed him to clear his debts and entirely restock for his business.

Now he enjoyed a measure of fame. He was proffered friendship and hospitality which he always felt obliged to accept. Unfortunately, this socialising offered more opportunities to indulge his increasing fondness for drink.

About this time William was moved to write various political and religious pamphlets, and unwisely insisted on delivering them personally to the King in London. After various misadventures there, friends persuaded him to sail for Leith, from where he made his way back to Galloway.

His greatest poem, ''The Brownie Of Blednoch'' tells the story of Aiken Drum, a misshapen near-mythical superhuman who for `a cogfu of brose tween the light and dark’ could do the work of a whole squad of men.

I trow the bauldest stood aback
Wi' a gape and a glower till their lugs did crack,
As the shapeless phantom, mumbling spak -
"Hae ye wark for Aiken-drum ?"

It was first published in 1825 in the Dumfries Magazine to great acclaim. About then, William sold off his goods and rid himself forever of his pack. After some 27 years as a packman he took new employment as a drover.

In 1827 another volume of his poems was published. For a short time William was wealthy and feted. John Faed RSA, the distinguished artist of Gatehouse-of-Fleet, painted his portrait in 1836.

Between times as a drover William famously played his pipes and sang his own songs at weddings and celebrations of all kinds. Unfortunately, this hectic social life contributed to his decline. Later still, he became a gaberlunzie or beggar man, according to the Rev. Dr Rogers. William's base then was at Howford in the parish of Tongland. His satirical poem *'The Peacock'' might sum up his plight:

Gaudy bird, of gorgeous hue,
How kind has nature been to yon,
In forming' a' your feathers fair,
Your weel fledged wings, and stars so rare,
Glancin' by day, but dim by night,
Right fair for show, but dull for light.
Like fickle frien's when Fortune twines us,
Will show their face, and proffer kindness;
But should misfortune's gloaming' shade us,
We'll fin' owre late, thae frien's hae fled us.

The poet was ultimately kept by the Poor's Board of his native parish, and died at Bridgend of Borgue on 16th May 1849. Appropriately, William was buried just two miles from Borgue in Kirkandrews cemetery, overlooking the Solway Firth. The gravestone on one side commemorates his parents and sister and on the other side is the wording:-

‘Here also lies William Nicholson, author of ‘The Country Lass’, ‘Brownie Of Bladnoch’, and other poems, son of the said James Nicholson, died May 16th 1849 aged 67 years. No future age shall see his name expire’.

Some 50 years later with subscriptions from all over the world, money was raised allowing Mr Peter Shannan Jack, a Glasgow sculptor, with advice from E. A. Hornel the Kirkcudbright artist, to produce a bronze relief of William Nicholson based on the John Faed portrait. Set in a block of rough grey Dalbeattie granite, it can be seen in Borgue, topping the school playground wall, flanked by hedging on each side facing the main road.

This memorial was unveiled on 22nd August 1900 by Mr Andrew Jameson QC of Ardwell. At the conclusion of his speech, he said that Nicholson was indeed one of nature's priests - one who himself saw and taught others to see how much beauty and goodness there is in God's earth if only we have the seeing eye and the understanding

John Hudson of Kirkcudbright has brought out a slim volume of poems by William Nicholson entitled The Brownie Of Blednoch And Other Poems. Local schoolchildren are being made aware of the poems as well as the man. At contemporary poetry readings his work is again being aired and put to music.

Lacking worldly ambition this was the poet's pleasure, knowing that ordinary people were reciting his poems and singing his songs – ‘the simple but hearty applause at the country wedding, at a Halloween or kirn dancing were all sufficient for him’.

The Brownie Of Blednoch And Other Poems by William Nicholson, can be obtained from: Markings Publications, 77 High Street, Kirkcudbright DG6 4JW