James Hogg’s humble social origins are an unlikely foundation for so formidable a talent. He was born in 1770, the second of four sons, to Robert Hogg and Margaret Laidlaw. Robert Hogg was a dealer in sheep. This was not in any case a lucrative trade and various blows of fate - the falling price of sheep; debtors who reneged on their payments - led the Hoggs into severe penury. When James was six years old, the family were made homeless. No doubt they would have remained so were it not for the generosity of a neighbour, Walter Brydon of Crosslee, who bought up Robert’s failing farm on a short lease and reinstated him there as a shepherd.
These straitened circumstances naturally had their impact on the young James Hogg’s education. His brief schooling was cut short when, at the age of seven, he was obliged to begin working as a cowherd. This was not an employment he relished and he followed his father into shepherding at the first opportunity that presented itself. Since it left him virtually illiterate, it would hardly have been surprising if the requirement to work completely put paid to his literary development, but in fact the reverse was the case. As a shepherd, he was immersed in a rustic culture in which the spinning of yarns was the main form of entertainment and it was through this that he honed the art of storytelling. His imagination was also fired by his mother, a living repository of folk-lore and traditional songs whose father was reputed locally to have been the last person to have conversed with the fairies.
James Hogg was nothing if not self-willed. Despite the paucity of his formal schooling, he taught himself to read from the only book available to him: the Bible. When he entered the service of James Laidlaw as a shepherd in his late teens, this drive towards self-improvement greatly impressed his employer and Laidlaw gave him full access to his book collection. With this artillery to hand, Hogg not only became a fluent reader but also taught himself to write. He began to compose verses based on local characters and tales he had heard from acquaintances, and shortly after took up prose writing as well. These early efforts seldom met with a positive reception. Even William Laidlaw, son of Hogg’s employer and sole champion of his talents during these formative years, was prone to handing back his compositions heavily scored with crossings out.
It was William Laidlaw who was largely responsible for Hogg’s entry into the literary world. Through his employment as steward and amanuensis to Sir Walter Scott, who was then Sheriff of Selkirkshire, he was able to secure Hogg a position as ballad-collector for Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802-3). He also introduced him to Scott in 1803, leaving the latter much impressed to find such marked literary abilities in a shepherd. This meeting paved the way for a complex but enduring relationship.
In 1810 Hogg moved from his native Ettrick – a small sheep-farming district in the Scottish Borders – to Edinburgh to try and establish himself as a writer. These years were creatively fertile and brought him into contact with such prominent figures as William Wordsworth and Lord Byron. It was also in Edinburgh that he founded the Right and Wrong Club, nominally a debating society, though intellectual discussion was usually derailed by the prodigious amount of drinking that took place. Though his early publications went largely ignored – he himself would later rue his initial attempts to achieve public notice as “one of the most unadvised actions that ever was committed” – he gradually came to be recognised as a writer worthy of serious consideration. His first major breakthrough was The Queen's Wake (1813), which focused on the exile of Mary, Queen of Scots.
Hogg re-established his connection with the Borders in 1815 when the Duke of Buccleuch granted him a small farm, Eltrive Moss, effectively rent-free. The fact that the house was virtually uninhabitable, however, meant that he spent much of his time flitting back and forth between here and Edinburgh. Indeed, flitting was how Hogg spent most of his life. He alternated between trying to establish himself as a writer and as a shepherd without consistent success in either field. His farming ventures frequently left him bankrupt, leaving him to try and regain his finances through writing, usually to little avail. Though it was never to bring him much by the way of wealth, however, he was gradually building up an impressive body of published work that would afford him a high – if not entirely uncompromised – standing as an author.
On the back the success of The Queen’s Wake, he was enlisted by Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, a monthly Tory publication set up in 1817 as an alternative to the Whiggish Edinburgh Review. The magazine quickly gained notoriety for its satirical attacks on other writers and went on to become a best-seller. Hogg, however, increasingly found himself sidelined as more prominent authors were introduced. Not only this, but he became a caricature within its pages. Whilst some of this was more or less affectionate – a series called Noctes Ambrosianae portrayed him as crude, ale-swilling fellow who was nonetheless gifted with piercing insight – he was also on the receiving end of vicious attacks. Because of his shabby clothing and the rustic accent he never quite lost, ‘the Ettrick Shepherd’, as he became known, was patronised by his literary associates throughout his life. However, it was also this persona that earned him his standing: the image of him as the self-educated poet-shepherd, an elemental force of nature and natural successor to the Ploughman Poet Robert Burns, was what captured the public’s imagination.
Romantically, Hogg appears to have been rather reckless. He fathered two illegitimate children – Catherine Hogg with Catherine Henderson in 1807 and Elizabeth Hogg with Margaret Beattie in 1810 – and, though he acknowledged his paternity, he split from both women during their pregnancies. He was to find a more lasting bond with Margaret Phillips whom he married on the 28th April, 1820. This partnership produced five further children: James Robert Hogg in 1821, Janet Phillips Hogg (Jessie) in 1823, Margaret Laidlaw Hogg (Maggie) in 1825, Harriet Sidney Hogg in 1827 and Mary Gray Hogg in 1831.
In the autumn of 1835, Hogg’s normally robust health began to fail him. He died on the 21st of November of that year and was buried in Ettrick Kirkyard near to where he was born. Generally regarded as warm, open-hearted, humorous, generous and honest – if also vain and uncouth – he was sorely mourned. No less a figure than William Wordsworth was moved to write an elegy, ‘Extempore Effusion upon the Death of James Hogg’ (1835), that expresses the common grief:
No more of old romantic sorrows,
For slaughtered Youth or love-lorn Maid!
With sharper grief is Yarrow smitten,
And Ettrick mourns with her their Poet dead.
Read an extract from Karl Miller’s biography, The Electric Shepherd: A Likeness of James Hogg (2003) here.