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The Burns Encyclopedia
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Ramsay, Allan (1686-1758)

Son of John Ramsay, superintendent of Lord Hopetoun's lead-mines at Leadhills, Lanarkshire, and his wife, Alice Bower, a native of Derbyshire. The poet's fanciful biographer, George Chalmers, claimed Ramsay's descent from the Ramsays of Cockpen, a younger branch of the Ramsays of Dalhousie; but Burns Martin, in his Allan Ramsay: A Study of his Life and Works, has shown this to be quite untrue. Ramsay's father died either just before the poet was born, or very soon after. His mother married again, her second husband being a smallholder called Andrew Crichton. The poet was educated at the parish school of Crawfordmuir. About 1700, his mother died, and his stepfather married again. Following in his elder brother's footsteps, Ramsay went to Edinburgh, where he was apprenticed to a wigmaker. On 19th July 1710, he was admitted a burgess, and soon after he set up his own shop as a master wigmaker. In 1712, he married Christian Ross, the daughter of a deceased lawyer, by whom he had six children, the oldest of whom, born in 1713, became Allan Ramsay, the painter.

It was as a member of the Easy Club that Ramsay seems to have found the first audience for his verse. His first published poem, A Poem to the Memory of the Famous Archibald Pitcairn, M.D., appeared under their patronage. His poems thereafter appeared frequently, among them Scots Songs in 1718 and 1719. The quarto edition of his Poems, published in 1721, established his reputation throughout literary Scotland. Late in 1722, or early the following year. Ramsay abandoned wigmaking for bookselling, setting up his shop in the High Street, 'on the South-side of the Cross-well', but moving about 1726 to the east end of the Luckenbooths, where he abandoned his old sign of the 'Mercury' in favour of 'Hawthornden's and Ben Johnson's [sic] Heads'. His pastoral opera, The Gentle Shepherd, was first published in 1725. Between 1724 and 1737, Ramsay brought out the four volumes of The Tea-Table Miscellany, a collection of Scots songs, in Scots and English, made or amended by himself and his friends, including versions of traditional pieces. These anthologies achieved enormous popularity, and ran to many editions. The songs were originally published without the airs, but Ramsay named the airs for which the words were intended, and in 1726, under the editorship of Alexander Stuart, issued Musick for Allan Ramsay's Collection of Scots Songs. Other arrangers soon followed Stuart's example.

Another task which Ramsay set himself was to publish modern editions of the Scots Makars (as the 'Scottish Chaucerians' are, more properly, called by the Scots). Two of the four volumes of The Ever Green — the last two never appeared —came out in 1724. For all their editorial crudities, they performed a valuable service in keeping the poems of the Makars before a new public.

Ramsay was also interested in the theatre. He may have had a financial interest in the Edinburgh Company of Players, performing between 1733 and 1735: tickets for their performances were certainly sold at his shop. He was undoubtedly managing a Company in the New Theatre in Carrubbers Close in 1736. But the following year, the Edinburgh bailies, under Church pressure, misused the newly passed Licence Act, designed to prevent stage attacks on Walpole, and forced the closure of Ramsay's theatre, at some financial loss to the poet.

In 1733, Ramsay acquired land at Castle Hill, Edinburgh, and, helped by his son, designed and built the grey house (nicknamed 'The Goosedub', or 'Goose Pie', by his contemporaries) which then looked over fields, but now looks out over Princes Street to the north from Ramsay Gardens. There, he retired in 1740, prosperous, loved and respected. His wife pre-deceased him in 1743. A Jacobite in sentiment, Ramsay nevertheless found it convenient to be at Penicuik when his Prince sent for him to decorate him. The Jacobites seized his house in his absence for use as a vantagepoint for firing at the Castle sentries. He died of what was called 'scurvy of the gums', and was buried in Greyfriars' Cemetery. His statue stands at the foot of the mound in Princes Street Gardens, its base housing the works of the cuckoo clock!

Although Ramsay did not actually found the eighteenth century revival in Scots literature — the first brick was laid by James Watson's Choice Collection of Comic and Serious Scots Poems, published in Edinburgh between 1706-11 - he added to it and popularised it in such a manner as to ensure its success. If Burns drew more from Fergusson in his satires and epistles, where song-work was concerned, Ramsay was his model — Fergusson hardly wrote any songs in his brief life.

As with Fergusson, Burns more than acknowledged his debt to Ramsay, a much less direct one. But he was also aware of the older poet's limitations, referring in a letter of 3rd April 1786, to 'the famous Ramsay of jingling memory'. On 4th June 1789, Burns hoped that John M'Auley, Town clerk of Dumbarton, was, 'in immortal Allan's language', 'Hale, and weel and living.'

In his first Commonplace Book, Burns recorded his pleasure in 'the works of our Scotch Poets, particularly the excellent Ramsay, and the still more excellent Ferguson [sic]'. In his rhyming letter to William Simson of Ochiltree, Burns's modesty makes us smile now:

"My senses wad be in a creel,
Should I but dare a hope to speel,
Wi' Allan, or wi' Gilbertfield,
The braes o' fame...."

'Allan', of course, was Allan Ramsay. And it was, in part at least, the local patriotism of Ramsay and Fergusson. which stimulated Burns's desire to write about his own part of the country:

"Ramsay an' famous Fergusson
Gied Forth an' Tay a lift aboon,
Yarrow an' Tweed, to monie a tune.
Owre Scotland rings,
While Irwin, Lugar, Ayr an' Doon
Naebody sings." -

a position Burns more than remedied!

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