Allan Ramsay (1686–1758)

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Allan Ramsay (1686-1758) was a poet who wrote mainly in the Scots vernacular, and is best known for his pastoral verse-play The Gentle Shepherd"".

Allan Ramsay was born at Leadhills, Lanarkshire, Scotland on the 15th of October 1686. His father, John Ramsay, superintended Lord Hopctoun's lead mines; his mother, Alice Bower, was daughter of Allan Bower, whom Lord Hopetoun had brought to Scotland from Derbyshire to superintend his miners. He was educated at the parish school of Crawford, and in 1701 was apprenticed to a wig-maker in Edinburgh. He married Christian Ross in 1712; a few years later he had established himself as a wig-maker in the High Street, on the Royal Mile, and soon found himself comfortably off.

Early work

Ramsay's early poetry was inspired by the meetings of the 'Easy Club' (founded in 1712), of which he was an original member; and in 1715 he became the Club Laureate. [1] By 1718 he had made a reputation as a writer of occasional verse, which he published in broadsheets, and then (or a year earlier) he turned bookseller in the premises where he had hitherto plied his craft of wig-making. In 1716 he had published a rough transcript of Christ's Kirk on the Green from the Bannatyne MS., with some additions of his own. In 1718 he republished the piece with more supplementary verses. In the following year he printed a collection of Scots Songs. The success of these ventures prompted him to collect his poems in 1722. Four years later he moved to another shop, in the neighbouring Luckenbooths, where he opened the first circulating library in Scotland and extended his business as a bookseller. Between the publication of the collected edition of his poems and his settling in Luckenbooths, he published a few shorter poems and issued the first instalments of The Tea-Table Miscellany and The Ever Green (both 1724-1727). The Tea-Table Miscellany is "A Collection of Choice Songs Scots and English," containing some of Ramsay's own, some by his friends, several well-known ballads and songs, and some Caroline verse. Its title was suggested by the programme of the Spectator, and the compiler claimed the place for his songs "e'en while the tea's fill'd reeking round," which Addison sought for his speculations at the hour set apart "for tea and bread and butter." In The Ever Green, being a Collection of Scots Poems wrote by the Ingenious before 1600, Ramsay had another purpose, to reawaken an interest in the older national literature. Nearly all the pieces were taken from the Bannatyne MS., though they are by no means verbatim copies. They included his version of Christ's Kirk and a pastiche entitled the Vision.

The Gentle Shepherd

While engaged on these two series, he produced, in 1725, his dramatic pastoral The Gentle Shepherd, written in the Scots vernacular, for and about the common people. The story is one of love: the hesitation and anxiety of a timid lover; the mutual bliss on the mutual discovery of long concealed attachment; doubt and uncertainty ("A dish of married love right soon grows cauld"); the uneasiness of jealousy; the fidelity of the shepherd despite his elevation to an unexpected rank; and finally the general happiness that crowns the whole.

Patie, the Gentle Shepherd, is an old shepherd in love with Peggy, while Roger, a rich young shepherd, is in love with Jenny. At the start, Patie sings:
My Peggy is a young thing,
Just enter'd in her teens,
Fair as the day, and sweet as May,
Fair as the day, and always gay.
My Peggy is a young thing,
And I'm not very auld;

Jenny is the cynic and Peggy the romantic.

Jenny: "I never thought a single life a crime."
Peggy: "Nor I — but love in whispers lets us ken,
That men were made for us, and we for men.

What suggar'd words frae wooers lips can fa'!
But girning marriage comes and ends them a'.
I've seen with shining fair the morning rise,
And soon the sleety clouds mirk a' the skies.
I've seen the silver spring a while rin clear,
And soon in mossy puddles disappear.
The bridegroom may rejoice, the bride may smile;
But soon contentions a' their joys beguile.

Among the poems that he had published in 1722 was "Patie and Roger", which supplied two of the central characters for The Gentle Shepherd. The success of The Gentle Shepherd was remarkable; it passed through several editions, and was performed at the theatre in Edinburgh. Ramsay wrote little afterwards, though he published a few shorter poems. A complete edition of his Poems appeared in London in 1731 and in Dublin in 1733. With a touch of vanity he expressed the fear lest "the coolness of fancy that attends advanced years should make me risk the reputation I had acquired." He corresponded with many of the leading literary figures in Scotland and England, including John Gay and Alexander Pope. Gay visited him in Edinburgh, and Pope praised his pastoral - compliments which were undoubtedly responsible for some of Ramsay's unhappy poetic ventures beyond his Scots vernacular.

The poet had for many years been a warm supporter of the stage. Some of his prologues and epilogues were written for the London theatres. In 1736 he set about the erection of a new theatre, "at vast expense," in Carrubber's Close, Edinburgh; but the opposition was too strong, and the new house was closed in 1737. In 1755 he retired from his shop to the house on the slope of the Castle Rock, that is still known as Ramsay Lodge. He died in this house, called by his friends "the goose-pie" because of its octagonal shape, on the 7th of January 1758. He had six children; his eldest child was Allan Ramsay, the portrait painter.

Literary Importance

"The Gentle Shepherd has exhibited rusticity without vulgarity, and elegant sentiment without affectation. Like the heroes of Homer, the character of this piece can engage in the humblest occupation without degradation. Its verses have passed into proverbs, and it continues to be the delight and solace of the peasantry whom it describes." W. Roscoe, quoted on the title page of The Gentle Shepherd [2]

Ramsay's importance in literary history is twofold. As a pastoral writer ("in some respects the best in the world," according to Leigh Hunt) he contributed to the naturalistic reaction of the 18th century. His Gentle Shepherd, by its directness of impression and its appreciation of country life, anticipates the attitude of the school which broke with neo-classical tradition. As an editor he is the connecting-link between the greater "Makars" of the 5th and 16th centuries, and Robert Fergusson and Robert Burns. The preface to his Ever Green is a protest against "imported trimming" and "foreign embroidery in our writings," and a plea for a return to simple Scottish tradition. Howecver, he had no scholarly interest in the past, and never hesitated to transform the texts when he could give contemporary "point" to a poem.


Despite its popular success, some of Ramsay's contemporaries in Edinburgh were unimpressed with his use of the Scots vernacular, and universal critical acclaim was slow in forming.

"To an Englishman who has never conversed with the common people of Scotland, the language would appear only antiquated, obscure, or unintelligible; but to a Scotchman who thoroughly understands it, and is aware of its vulgarity, it appears ludicrous; from the contrast between meanness of phrase and dignity or seriousness of sentiment.This gives a farcical air even to the most affecting part of the poem; and occasions an impropriety of a peculiar kind, which is very observable in the representation." (James Beattie, 1776).

"It is a great disadvantage to this beautiful poem, that it is written in the old rustic dialect of Scotland, which, in a short time, will probably be entirely obsolete, and not intelligible; and it is a farther disadvantage that it is so entirely formed on the rural manners of Scotland, that none but a native of that country can thoroughly understand or relish it." (Hugh Blair,1783).

"The convivial buffoonery of this writer has acquired him a sort of reputation, which his poetry hy no means warrants; being far beneath the middling, and showing no spark of genius. Even his buffoonery is not that of a tavern, but that of an ale-house." (John Pinkerton. 1786).

"Ramsay was a man of strong natural parts, and a fine poetical genius, of which his celebrated pastoral The Gentle Shepherd will ever remain a substantial monument...Like the poetry of Tasso and Ariosto, that of the Gentle Shepherd is engraven on the memory of its native country. Its verses have passed into proverbs; and it continues to be the delight and solace of the peasantry whom it describes." (Thomas Campbell, 1819)

"He and Burns have helped Scotland for ever to take pride in its heather, and its braes, and its bonny rivers, and be ashamed of no honest truth in high estate or in low; an incalculable blessing. Ramsay is entitled not only to the designation we have given him, but in some respects is the best pastoral writer in the world." (Leigh Hunt, 1848)


  1. In meetings of the Easy Club Ramsay assumed the name "Isaac Bickerstaff," and later "Gawin Douglas," the latter partly in memory of his maternal grandfather Douglas of Muthill (Perthshire), and partly to give point to his boast that he was a "poet sprung from a Douglas loin." The choice of the names has some significance given his later literary life as the associate of the Queen Anne poets and as a collector of old Scots poetry.
  2. "The Gentle Shepherd: A Pastoral Comedy, By Allan Ramsay, William Tennant, Alexander Fraser Tytler Woodhouselee, Contributor Randall Thompson, Published by W. Gowans, 1852, Original from the New York Public Library, Digitized Nov 27, 2006, 105 pages