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Henry Scott Riddell

The Author of Scotland Yet

Poet and Freemason

 

Henry Scott Riddell the son of a shepherd was born at Sorbie in Dumfriesshire on the 23rd September 1798. At the age of two, the family moved to Langshawburn in a remote part of Eskdalemuir where his father farmed for several years. It was here during his early years that he met James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd. Hogg was 26 years older than Henry and the impression he made on the young boy was electric and never diminished throughout his entire life. Hogg would recite his poems to the young lad, and although unable to read, Henry could repeat many of Hogg’s poems from beginning to end. Riddell said of this period in his life;

“……. one whom I have good reason to remember -- the Ettrick Shepherd…… This was about the time when Hogg began to write, or at least to publish: as I can remember from the circumstance of my being able to repeat the most part of the pieces in his first publication by hearing them read by others before I could read them myself.”

Riddell and Hogg’s friendship became very close as the former reached his adult years, Hogg called him, “his assistant and successor,” and considered himself to be Henry Scott Riddell’s mentor and confidant, such as Sir Walter Scott was his. When the Ettrick Shepherd died, Riddell composed ‘The Bard’s Elegy’ to his memory, little knowing that words from it would later be inscribed on a monumental plaque above the entrance door at his Teviotdale cottage.

“Yet sleep, gentle bard, for though silent for ever

The harp in the hall of the chieftain is hung,

No time from the mem’ry of mankind shall sever

The tales that it told and the strains that it sung.”

Henry Scott Riddell’s education was haphazard during the formative years of his childhood, as during the summer months his employment was that of an apprentice shepherd. Sometimes in the winters he would attend school, occasionally as a boarder, but when the distance to a school was too great his father would hire a person to come to the house to give schooling to the family. The lessons amounted to reading, writing and arithmetic in which he would admit himself was no better or worse than any others, indeed he states that he ‘loved the football better than the spelling-book.’ When he had acquired what was considered to be a ‘sufficient education,’ for a person of his station, and although still only a boy, it became time to leave his parents and set out on his own. He began employment at Glencotha in Pebbleshire as an assistant shepherd, where he remained for a year, and during this time he began to show an aspiration to compose verses, and the realisation of the need of a better education began to cultivate in his mind.

On the death of his father in 1817, with the little money he had saved along with that left to him by his father, Henry Scott Riddell determined to accomplish a regular education, in order to qualify him for entering University, attended the parish school at Biggar Lanarkshire, and whilst at that school, Riddell was a contributor to the ‘Clydesdale Magazine,’ It was during this period at Biggar, he met Eliza Clark the daughter of a Biggar merchant, and as Dr. James Brydon wrote of the union, “A fresh life was breathed into his poetic being. Love lifted his strains to a higher level than they had yet attained, and such exquisite lays as the ‘Crook and Plaid’ and ‘The Wild Glen sae green’ were the immediate outcome,” Eliza would later become his wife.

I winna lo’e the laddie that ca’s the cart and pleugh,

Though he should own that tender love that’s only felt by few,

For he that has this bosom a’ to fondest love betrayed,

Is faithfu’ shepherd laddie that wears the crook and plaid;

For he’s aye true to his lassie – he’s aye true to his lassie,

Who wears the crook and plaid.

On the completion of his schooling at Biggar, Riddell entered student life at Edinburgh University, where his college course lasted until 1830, which included a final year at St. Andrews. He attended classes faithfully, studied hard, continued to write poetry and was befriended by Professor Wilson, who considered him to be a poet in the order of Hogg and in 1825 published one of his songs, ‘When the glen all is still,’ in Noctes Ambrosiana. Professor John Wilson was the celebrated Christopher North. Riddell visited the Professor frequently at his house, where he was introduced to some of the society of Edinburgh, and it was during these years attending the University he was introduced into Freemasonry.

Henry Scott Riddell is silent in his memoirs about his introduction into Freemasonry, but his progression into the order is not surprising given the city in which he lived and the circle of friends he made during his stay in Edinburgh, and so, on the 3rd of December 1827, Riddell was initiated into Lodge St. David No.36.

In 1830 he finished his University course and became a licentiate of the Church of Scotland, and  the following year he was elected the chaplain of Lodge St. David, a position he fulfilled until 1836  and published his first collection, called, ‘Songs of the Ark and other poems,’

In the year 1831, Riddell moved in with his brother at Teviothead, Roxburghshire, and it was during this period that Henry Scott Riddell wrote his most famous song, ‘Scotland Yet.’ He would later relay to Dr. Brydon this account on how he came to write it, ‘It was beautiful morning after a wild tempestuous night. The winds were stilled, the deep azure sky was cloudless, the flooded burns were glancing to the sun, everything looked fresh and beautiful, all nature seemed to rejoice. The poet’s heart glowed within him with exultation and patriotic guide.’

Gae bring my guid auld harp ance mair,

Gae bring it free and fast,

For I maun sing anither sang,

Ere a’ my glee be past;

And trow ye as I sing my lads,

The burden o’t shall be,

Auld Scotland's howes and Scotland's knowes,

And Scotland's hills for me!

I'll drink a cup to Scotland yet,

Wi a' the honours three!

Not long after moving to Teviothead he became the successor to the minister who had died. When he was appointed as the preacher for the parish there was no house provided with the post, and was unable to find any suitable accommodation nearer than the town of Hawick, which was nine miles away. Frequently Henry would walk this distance to attend to his church during storms, and on one occasion he conducted the service with water pouring off him onto the Bible, and running over his shoes and forming a puddle on the pulpit floor. After the service, Henry would have to walk the same distance home again! The Duke of Buccleuch paid the stipend of the ministers of Teviothead, and as Henry had decided to wed, the Duke commissioned a house a Teviothead to be built, the house he would live in for the rest of his life.

Henry Scott Riddell married Eliza, the girl he had met fourteen years previous in Biggar, with whom he would have two sons, he said himself of this union; “In the hope of soon obtaining a permanent and comfortable settlement at Teviothead, I had ventured to make my own, by way of marriage, her who had in heart been mine through all my college years, and who for my sake had, in the course of these, rejected wealth and high standing in life.”

The year was 1833, and he entered into his duties as minister at Teviothead with his wife beside him with a passion and enthusiasm for his life and position. He must have still travelled on occasion to Edinburgh on business and to meet with old friends, for in 1838 he was elected as Bard of Lodge St. David, a position he held until 1840, when Henry would succumb to an attack of the mind which would see him being admitted into the Crighton Royal Asylum for the insane at Dumfries!

In 1841, after many years of tending to the needs of his parishioners, Henry Scott Riddell was the victim of an unfounded and malicious report that had been circulated which caused him so much distress and anguish that his mind became deranged and he suffered from delusions and became terror-stricken. During his time in the asylum, Henry became isolated and withdrew into his own world and for a long time he was filled with depression and despair. He told the physician treating him during this period of ‘two parallel currents of thought which seemed to run constancy through his mind, one of despondency, the other of bright imaginings, which shaped themselves into couplets or verses.’  Brydon says that he still continued to compose during this period in the institution, one of which has this mournful and poignant beginning,

‘The harp so loved awakes no more,

Eventually, Henry Scott Riddell recovered, and in 1844 returned to Teviothead, but he never returned to his charge as minister at Caerlanrig church. With the kindness of the Duke of Buccleuch, he was permitted to remain at the cottage built for him rent free for life and was granted an income almost equivalent to that which he previously earned as minister.

For the rest of his days, Henry Scott Riddell lived a quiet life, and became somewhat of a recluse; he wrote his biography in 1854 and rarely ventured far from his adored border countryside. It was probably around this time that he affiliated to the Hawick Lodge, No.111 a Lodge in which he would become the Bard, an office he took great delight in and visited the Lodge on numerous occasions until his death. He would give lectures on behalf on some charitable body, interested himself in local archaeological excavations, supported the Hawick Archæological Society, and in 1859 was publicly presented at Hawick with an Irish Harp, an instrument which he loved to play. He translated into lowland Scotch, in 1855 and 1857 respectively, St. Matthew and the Psalms of David, the latter for Prince Lucien Bonaparte. And still his creative pen continued to poor forth muses of an extraordinary beauty, of the Border Hills, the glens and streams which gave him his inspiration.

On the 30th of July 1870, Henry Scott Riddell died after a short illness, and three days after surrounded by family, friends and admirers from near and far, the Bard of Teviotdale was laid to rest in;

‘Yon churchyard that lonely is lying

Beneath the deep greenwood by Teviot’s wild strand.’

In 1871 the year after Riddell’s death, Dr. James Brydon of Hawick produced two volumes entitled, ‘’The Poetical Works of Henry Scott Riddell,’ and describes him thus; “All I ever saw of him called for admiration. He was a noble, a good, and a lovable man, devoid of arrogance, living in humility, at peace with all God’s creatures, and ever striving to act up to the teachings of the golden rule. He was a most agreeable companion, and gifted conversationalist. He was a genius and a poet.”

 

Three years after his death in 1874 on a hillside some nine miles south of Hawick on the A7 overlooking Teviothead church, a 13ft high cairn known locally as the Colterscleuch Monument was erected to the memory of Henry Scott Riddell, and here the brethren of the mystic tie have gathered in tribute to him ever since. For well over 100 hundred years, brethren of Lodge St. David No.36, Edinburgh and the Hawick Lodge No.111 have assembled each year close to the anniversary of his death to pay homage to this remarkable border poet and freemason. After a service in Riddell’s church and the laying of a wreath on his grave, the brethren take the gentle climb to the cairn, and surrounded by the soft rolling hills of the Border countryside, an oration is given about his life, poems are recited, ‘”Scotland Yet” sung and a toast drunk to the author of Scotland Yet, the bard of Teviotdale and Freemason, Brother Henry Scott Riddell.

 

Bro. J. Stewart Donaldson.

Lodge Stirling Royal Arch No.76 and The Hawick Lodge No.111.

 

Sources;

Hawick Archaelogical Society – proceedings 1898.

The Poetical Works of Henry Scott Riddell – James Brydon  MD. 1871

The History of Hawick Lodge 111 – PM A. Burgon. 1994

A Hawick Word Book – Douglas Scott. Version 2012.

 

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