Works

The Works of Robert Davidson

This is the only surviving example of Robert Davidson’s handwriting. Davidson is writing here to his publisher, James Hogg, son of the ‘Ettrick Shepherd’ – a small clue perhaps that Davidson’s poetry was becoming recognised, at least locally, by some who were able to recognise its quality.

LeavesBook Copies of Robert Davidson’s ‘Leaves From a Peasant’s Cottage Drawer’ can be purchased directly from the publisher Matator at: www.troubador.co.uk

Poems

Click any of the links below to read a poem by Robert Davidson.

TO A WATER FOWL

Capering in maternal pride,
On the dimpling pool ye ride,
Wi’ your offspring by your side,
Blythe sportin’ round ;
No thought o’ what may e’er betide
Your peace can wound.

But soon the union will be broke,
That binds this little friendly flock;
Some doom’d to perish by the stroke
O’ beasts o’ prey
An’ ruthless man, wi’ heart like rock,
More fierce than they.

But transient are thy bosom’s throes,
For thine are only short-liv’d woes;
Thy heart when torn will quickly close,
No scars remain,
While from the power of memory flows
Lang ling’ring pain.

When peace the human heart forsakes,
The vacant room pale mis’ry takes,
Tho’ lull’d by time, she oft awakes;
Each dread review,
That restless power, Remembrance, makes
She starts anew.

To look on thee, man weel may trace
An emblem o’ his hapless race,
That in life’s morn, wi’ cheerfu’ face
Aroun’ him play;
Unconscious that destroyers base
Lurk in the way.

A few short years o’ joy an’ glee,
Flee round below a parent’s e’e,
Then, launch’d upon life’s stormy sea
Where tempests roar,
Their friendly barks asunder flee
To meet no more.

TO A REDBREAST

Ye little crimson-breasted chield,
You’ve quickly left your haunts a-field,
When angry skies are low’rin’;
Hass Boreas, wi’ a blust’rin’ din,
Stripp’d a’ the greenwoods to the skin,
And left nae bields to cower in?

Though winter shows his hoary face,
Your comrades o’ the feathered race
Keep shyly at a distance;
While ye, the meanest o’ the corps,
Come cringing to the cottage door,
To seek for some assistance.

When simmer comes wi’ mantel green,
You’re then but seldom to be seen,
Nae bird looks half so shyly;
Ye’ll proudly hap from spray to spray,
Rejoicing in the warming ray,
An’ bear your head fu’ highly.

Like some whom fortune gie’s a lift,
Aboon the level wi’ her gift,
Grows haughty, proud an’ vain;
Grown giddy on a fancied height,
They e’e the toil-exhausted wight
Wi’ mighty great disdain.

The mind that tynes its equal poise,
Puffed up wi’ fortune’s glitt’ring toys,
When adverse tempests blow,
Oft starts from its delusive dream,
An’ strikes upon the next extreme,
Both servile, mean an’ low.

THE ORDINATION

The sun his golden lustre shed,
And made the lonely Cheviot’s head
Bright with his morning ray;
While vapours lingered in the vale
And hid the crystal streams of Kale,
As with a mantle grey.

The sprightly lark had hail’d the morn,
The linnet answered from the thorn,
The blackbird from the grove.
Life seemed to them a time of glee,
A scene of joy and revelry –
A time of peace and love.

Vain man is oft less blest than they,
More restless in his transient day,
With all his boasted skill;
To reach some future good he strains,
And, when his object he attains,
There’s something wanting still.

Upon an ordination day,
The gathering crowds, upon their way,
With hasty steps were seen,
True to the tryst that had been set,
To join the crowds already met
Upon the kirkyard green.

The ploughman from the lowland dales,
The shepherd from the distant fells,
The cottar from his cot,
And all the various sons of trade,
Had left their crafts, and hither sped,
To meet upon the spot.

Their numbers more, as legends tell,
Than e’er the sound of Sabbath-bell
Call’d to the house of prayer.
That day, in every face was seen,
Of those assembled on the green
A discontented air.

Of pastor, they no more had choice,
Since law had hush’d the public voice,
And said they must submit;
‘Twas vain objections, then, to make,
Since they must for their pastor take
Whome’er his Grace thought fit.

The crowd are oft less wise than wight,
And loath to part with public right –
Their counsel’s rash and vain.
Despite of Anna’s mandate high,
They were resolved club law to try
Their freedom to maintain.

In Scotland’s rude and restless days,
To wait upon the law’s delays,
Men had but little skill.
From their own hand to seek remeid,
Long time had been their border creed –
Its spirit lingered still.

A man was there of stalwart frame,
And Nub of Beaumont was the name
He’d borne for many a day.
Well fitted for the chief command,
A mighty cudgel graced his hand,
He’d proved in many a fray.

He seem’d as middle age he’d passed,
His visage harden’d by the blast,
His features stern and high.
His hair and beard were touch’d by time,
But all the fire of youthful prime
Still sparkled in his eye.

Great zeal for Scotland’s kirk he had –
No common zeal, but zeal run mad –
As frantic as the wind;
And when his hobby-horse got head,
He, scouring off with reckless speed,
Left common sense behind.

Being seated on a grassy heap,
Where names now long forgotten sleep,
The crowd all standing by,
He thus began, with uncouth chime,
And croon’d a rugged border rhyme,
To keep their spirits high :–

“Ye true border men, at the spot where we meet
The dust of our fathers lies under our feet,
They are freed from life’s sorrows, its pleasures and pains,
But I hope, with their sons that their spirit remains.
Though their names be forgotten, their numbers are vast
That here have been laid in the years that are past;
And, doubtless, their ashes may rest in this place,
Who fought for the freedom enjoyed by their race.
Who knows but their dust may be slumbering here,
Who ‘gainst the proud Romans once brandished a spear?
Or those who stood boldly, on many rude plains,
Contending for freedom ‘gainst Saxons and Danes?

Or some who disdain’d under bondage to cower,
And struggled with England and baffled her power?
To know what our fathers have paid for our rights,
We have only to look at these camp-covered heights,
And to think of the life of privation they led,
With the sky for their curtain, the turf for their bed.
When worsted by numbers, their dwellings in flame,
A camp all the home that their fortune could claim,
Their flocks swept away, and their harvests defaced,
Their country deserted, by foemen laid waste,
Yet, still they persisted in liberty’s strife,
When little was left but their swords and their life.
But of all the oppressors our country did know,
Some ones of her princes were worse than her foe.
A tyrant the limbs of his subjects may bind,
But Stuart attempted to fetter their mind.
Though true, loyal subjects, he doom’d them to bleed,
Because they, in conscience, rejected his creed.
Tormented, and hunted, and driven by power
To lodge with the wild beasts on mountain and moor,
To perish with hunger, or be butchered when found
By the bloodhounds of Clavers for murder renown’d.
On fields, when the fury of battle is spent,
The heart of the victor may often relent,
And succour the vanquish’d his hand had brought low;
But the breast of this bigot no pity did know.
Still true to a maxim experience has found –
‘No tyranny’s safe while religion’s unbound,’

For many long year was their sorrow prolong’d;
The scaffolds were wet, and the dungeons were throng’d;
They were still unconquer’d, their tyrants might see;
Though their limbs were in fetters, their spirits were free.
The tyrant, thus baffled, exhausted his day,
By the frown of a nation was frighten’d away,
And freedom again came to gladden our isle,
But high was the price that was paid for her smile.
By the blood of our fathers the boon was achieved,
And liberty they to their offspring bequeath’d.
But in the conveyance entail has no place;
It needs to be guarded by race after race.
Our time has arrived, and the freedom we boast
Must now be defended, or else it is lost.
A vote for our pastor we now are denied;
Our suffrage is mock’d, our remonstrance defied;
We now must make welcome whoever is sent,
Be passive and mute as the flocks on the bent.
For this foul encroachment our clergy we blame –
Their great predecessors, how different from them!
Ne’er tempted by lucre, nor scar’d by a frown,
The rights of the people they counted their own.
The times now are alter’d. There’s none to contend
On the side of the peasant, his rights to defend.
Since now on ourselves our dependence must be,
I hope we dare venture a blow to be free.
Be men and stand by me ; If right is bereft,
This day they shall find that our cudgels are left.”

So soon as Nubie’s rhyme was done,
The door was forced, the kirk was won,
And fill’d with old and young,
Who all declared, ‘midst loud applause,
That they would now defend the cause
While they could wield a rung.

With clamour now the kirk resounds,
Each lifts his voice, and sense confounds.
What a sad change is there!
These men once thought it deadly sin
That sacred pile to enter in,
But with a reverend air.

The kirk was then revered, I ween;
She in broad Scotland sat a queen,
By Scotland’s favour graced.
But now in this unhappy hour,
Dropp’d from her diadem a flower
That’s never been replaced.

The rev’rend party were at hand,
And, at their back, a motley band
Collected as a guard –
Supposing there might be a fray,
Knowing the rev’rence was away
They formerly had shared.

They little trust put in the guards,
That day new raised by country lairds,
To help to back the laws.
Some served for favour, some for pay,
And some were there, in that array,
Not friendly to the cause.

As to the kirk they pass’d along,
They found it was no friendly throng
That rudely press’d around.
Now, in the midst of Nubie’s corps,
Where kents and collies kept the door,
No entrance could be found.

With accents mild, and quiet mien,
They now resolved, upon the green,
Their duties to perform .
They thought that mildness might allay
The stormy spirit of the day,
And dissipate the storm.

They begg’d them to the laws to yield,
And not to make a battle-field
Above the peaceful grave.
But they a hearing were denied,
They might as well with words have tried
To lull the stormy wave.

A rev’rend brother from the Tweed
Began credentials then to read,
Obedience to command.
Before his eye a line could trace,
A Jenny Geddes of the place
Had snatch’d it from his hand.

A country laird who came to head
The law’s supporters, now with speed
To seize the carline flew;
But Nubie’s bands who were not slack,
And only waited the attack,
Rush’d on to the rescue.

Full hot the combat did begin,
And cudgels met with rattling din,
And all was wild uproar;
The clamour rang o’er hill and dale,
And woke the echoes of the Kale,
That long had slept before.

Full stoutly was the fight maintain’d,
And ground was lost, and ground was gain’d ;
But, when they backward trod,
Their heads to save from cudgel wheels,
The grassy hillocks tripp’d their heels,
And laid them on the sod.

This was a fight where none were slain,
For, in short while, they rose again
And mixed in the affray;
And long the conflict might have burn’d,
Had not a band, like Bruce’s, turn’d
The fortune of the day.

Maids, wives and widows were the band,
Who nobly then, with heart and hand,
On Nubie’s side fought keen;
Nor did they ammunition lack –
The kirkyard dyke was at their back –
They found a magazine.

When, in the front they did descry
Fierce Nubie’s cudgel waving high
A signal now to close;
At last they did the rear assail,
And showers of flints, as thick as hail,
They hurl’d among their foes.

A favourite follower of the laird,
That day a great man in the guard,
Now proudly made his boast:
“Come on, ye brave, and follow me,
We now must check the archery,
Or else the day is lost.”

A chosen party at his back,
He boldly marched to the attack,
With fierce and furious mien:
But, while he brandished round his rung,
A stone by a stout carlin flung,
Soon stretched him on the green.

His party thought their leader slain,
But in short while he rose again,
Not deadly was the wound;
But after that, his distance kept
From where that rude artillery swept,
And fought on safer ground.

The clergy now bewail’d the day,
But had no power to quell the fray,
Since blood was hot and high.
They stood, like cravens on the spot,
And often jouked a random shot,
As stones flew whistling by.

The guards could now no longer bear
Those fierce assaults on front and rear,
Though little blood was shed ;
But when they saw Nub leading on
Another charge, with stick and stone,
They wavered, reel’d and fled.

The clergy also left the field,
Their sacred calling was the shield
That day that saved them still;
But many thought that, from the fray,
They had not gone so safe away,
If Nub had got his will.

The victors had no cause to toss
Their bonnets high – they’d gain’d a loss,
Like Pat who won the plea.
For many were to prison haul’d,
When broken laws for vengeance call’d
On that day’s revelry.

They now perceived the thought was vain,
Rights to acquire, or to retain,
By reckless deeds of strife;
For, right or wrong, the law prevail’d,
The presentee was there install’d,
Their minister for life.

Although the living he had got,
It seemed, when viewed, no envied lot,
From what had pass’d before;
But, like a bark, forced by the blast
And stormy sea, had anchor cast
Upon a hostile shore.

A man he was of mildest mood,
Who still for evil render’d good,
And strife desired to shun.
When evil tongues were loud in strife,
He answer’d only by his life
And duties kindly done.

When feuds at first against him rose,
His mildness oft disarm’d his foes
His kindness friends increased –
As sleeping winds, and skies serene,
Can soothe the tempest troubled main,
And smoothe her wat’ry breast.

When he depicted sinners’ strife,
The tenor of his blameless life
But by it brighter shone.
When by the Scripture model true,
He the meek Christian’s likeness drew,
The portrait was his own.

A friend to man of every hue,
The poor man’s friend, whose friends are few –
Distinctions he made none.
To all he gave a parent’s hand,
To guide unto a happier land
Where want and woe’s unknown.

Though short his date, before its close
He found he had outliv’d his foes;
Even Nub the hand extends,
And many, foremost in the fray,
On his rude ordination day,
Had now become his friends.

He lived respected and beloved –
But worth is, often, soon removed –
At least, we think it so.
Long, long, upon his narrow bed,
Were bitter tears sincerely shed
For him that slept below.

The good man’s life doth still proclaim
That virtue’s not an empty name;
For, man of gen’rous worth,
Howe’er his path of life may be,
Though poorly low, or proudly high,
Has still reward on earth.

Reproduced by kind permission of the National Library of Scotland.
Click the letter to toggle between the original letter and its transcript.