We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Anne Murray Halkett and the Lindsays · 7 April 07

Dear Anne,

I’ve been so tired at night I neglected to tell you I have finished putting an etext edition of Anne Murray Halkett’s autobiography on my website. I accompany it with a note about the text, two papers I delivered at recent 18th century conferences, a bibliography, and Alexander Crawford Lindsay’s 19th century biography (life and letters) of a Scotswoman, Lady Anna Mackenzie, whom Halkett knew and helped.

This gives me a chance to include one of my “foremother poet” postings (sent on Fridays to Wompo) in my letter.

Foremother: Anne Lindsay Barnard (1750-1825)

The paper I gave at the 18th century conference was on an autobiographer, Anne Murray Halkett (1623-1699) who was by origin Scots (though brought up in England), and one of her daring feats included helping a hitherto (before the civil war) powerful Scots Lord Balcarres and his wife, Anna Mackenzie, to escape Parliamentarian soldiers, and then securing their children’s safety and rescuing their famous library. The family name was Lindsay, and over the centuries (from the 12th on) they had had literary and artistic people in the family (we’ve been talking of affinities and cultures inside families); in the later 19th century Alexander Crawford Lindsay wrote a life of Lady Anna Mackenzie and a three-volume book, The Lives of the Lindsays; or, A Memoir of the houses of Crawford and Balcarres, 3 Vols. London: Murray, 1849) celebrating and commemorating his family, one small section of which is devoted to Anne Lindsay Barnard’s still well-known

Auld Robin Gray

WHEN the sheep are in the fauld, and the cows come hame,
And a’ the warld to rest are gane,
The woes o’ my heart fa’ in showers frae my ee,
Unkenned by my gudeman, who soundly sleeps by me.

Young Jamie loo’d me weel, and sought me for his bride;
But saving ae crown-piece, he’d naething else beside:
To make the crown a pound, my Jamie gaed to sea;
And the crown and the pound oh! they were baith for me.

Before he had been gane a twelvemont and a day,
My father brak his arm, our cow was stown away
My mither she fell sick,—my Jamie was at the sea
And auld Robin Gray, oh! he came a-courtin’ me.

My father cou’dna work, and my mother cou’dna spin;
I toiled day and night, but their bread I cou’dna win;
Auld Rob maintained them baith, and wi’ tears in his ee
Said, ‘Jennie, oh! for their sakes, O, marry me!’

My heart it said na, and I looked for Jamie back;
But hard blew the winds, and his ship was a wrack;
His ship it was a wrack! Why didna Jenny dee!
Or wherefore am I spared to cry out, Woe is me!

My father argued sair—my mother didna speak;
But she looked in my face till my heart was like to break:
They gied him my hand, but my heart was in the sea;
Sae auld Robin Gray he was gudeman to me.

I hadna been a wife, a week but only four,
When mournfu’ as I sat on the stane at the door,
I saw my Jamie’s ghaist—I cou’dna think it he,
Till he said, ‘I’m come hame, my love, to marry thee!’

O sair, sair did we greet, and muckle say of a’;
Ae kiss we took nae mair,—I bad him gang awa,
I wish that I were dead, but I’m no like to dee;
For I, I am but young to cry out, Woe is me!

I gang like a ghaist, and I carena much to spin;
I darena think o’ Jamie, for that wad be a sin;
But I will do my best a gude wife aye to be,
For auld Robin Gray, oh! he is sae kind unto me.


Among the extra-poetic interest here is that when you get onto the Net and compare the several sites reprinting the poem, they are mostly corrupt and corrupt in the sorts of ways. The lines are in every case I read changed to soften the young woman’s grief and loss and the ironies of the poem. For example, most of them do not emphasize how the husband is unaware of his wife’s grief; they make the time it took for her to marry the old man much shorter; on the Net she is made to say why didn’t Jamie did die, while in the original text Anne Lindsay had the girl wish she had died; on the Net the young couple tear themselves away while in the original the girl alone did it.

There is a biography at Wikipedia which tells you that Anne Lindsay Barnard was also painter and travel letter writer, recorded Johnson’s conversation when he was in Scotland, and presents her as a socialite.

“Auld Robin Gray” is however the only poem by Anne Lindsay for which she is known (she wrote others) and sometimes it’s presented as anonymous because it’s so much a “classic” ballad. It’s not; it’s an orignial poem capturing an ideal about the ballad way. Suffice to add to the biography Anne Lindsay was part of a prominent Scots family (who were often not rich, often Jacobites, often fleeing—as in Anne Murray Halkett’s experience), lived in the elite cultural milieus of Edinburgh, later moving to London where she again was in the elite cultural milieus (she married the son of a friend of Johnson). When Anne Lindsay, now Barnard’s husband was given an appointment to the Cape of Good Hope (for a while he was a half-pay officer) and her letters are said to give a unique and good account of the place and society there while she lived there. When her husband died, she returned to London and lived beyond the lifespans of most of her original acquaintance. It was when Walter Scott used her poem in The Pirate and attributed it to her for the first time in public, that her authorship became known.

It’s known when she wrote the poem—or at least a story is told by her family about it. She wrote the ballad when her sister, Lady Margaret Lindsay left Scotland to marry a wealthy banker in London in the mid 1770s. She is recorded saying about it: “I was melancholy, and endeavoured to amuse myself by attempting a few poetrical trifles.” She took the name of Robin Gray from ‘the old herd at Balcarres’ (the name of the family seat in Fife). So she used an old form to project her sense of loss of a sister to family considerations of wealth and aggrandizement.

It seems to me ironic to think of how this prominent socialite and cosmopolitan woman is known (or not known when the ballad is presented as anonymous) for a supposedly primitive ballad of permanently tragic lost ghostly love. It’s also ironic that it’s not known that she wrote it out of her grief that she has lost her sister’s companionship to what Woolf called family clique system supporting modern capitalism.

To be sure, Alexander Lindsay’s The Lives of the Lindsays where you find a picture and documents of centuries of an elite (to be sure) family life where different members wrote poetry, read, painted, made lovely gardens, did scholarship—also makes visible how the men held powerful positions in local and national politics, in the military, in the courts, and institutions for the elite. He tells the history of Scotland from the point of view of a powerful family.

It’s a stirring book. He writes out of sincere idealism, and it’s due to people like him in the later 19th century that much of what was stored in attics and muniment rooms of the powerful and great (the way to the library had long been lost commented a character to Alice Vavasour when in Can You Forgive Her? she asked where was the Palliser library). The last volume includes a capitivity narrative (a Lindsay was imprisoned and enslaved for 2 years), two narratives of famous battles (one on an assault of Gibraltar), a woman’s journal of her residence at the Cape of Good Hope for several years.

For me the interest is the middle volume on the civil wars of the 17th century—with England, with lots of people murdering one another sneakily, prompting me to think of the Monty Pythn joke, after Sir Lancelot slaughters a wedding party: “Let’s not bicker and argue over who killed who.” The women have babies endlessly, follow the men into the wilderness, and then sit down and write poetry (for example the section on Anne Lindsay and “Auld Robin Gray”), and letters. The letters are of great interest. The first volume is mostly documents but striking ones about the feudal worlds of Scotland; two chapters are on strong individuals, one a woman and the other a man who was unusual in creating a library of great books. It was that library Anne Murray Halkett tried to save at one point from destruction—as the very sick Lord of the time, Balcarres and his wife fled out the backdoor from a Cromwellian army (or maybe it was a rival Scots one).

Lindsay’s preface says he is writing for his family but then why
publish? He says this so he can indulge himself without criticism
(as egoistic) and also write in a personal engaging style. He was an intelligent perceptive man and there were gifted and powerful (not always the same) people in his clan. He does write soppily and lies to cover things up, but not so much that you can’t see through the conventional statements.

There’s a lovely epigraph for the whole book—by Southey.

My thoughts are with the dead; with them,
I live in long pass’d years;
Their virtues love, their faults condemn,
Partake their hopes and fears;
And from their lesson seek and find,
Instruction with a humble mind.

Cowper’s lines preface the 17th and 18th century volume:

Wisdom is a pearl with most success
Sought in stil water and beneath clear skies ..

One of the joys of serious scholarship is the books are not written
for money and often highly individual. They usually also combine two mindsets of the past: that of the person and time in which the book is created, and that of people and times he or she (though such books before the 20th century are hardly ever by women) puts before you.

Lindsay’s tone of reasonableness often reminds me of Anthony Trollope. I can see him enjoying Trollope’s books and Trollope appreciating his love of learning, beauty and scholarly apparatus and texts. He could also be a character in one of Trollope’s books, alas though a marginalized one, and perhaps even made gentle fun of. I enjoyed his book.

I am just now reading two memoirs, one by the actress, poet, novelist, feminist, Mary Robinson (continued by her daughter); and the other by Elizabeth Grant of Rothiemurchus, Memoirs of a Highland Lady—all the while continuing to type The Apology for the Life of George Anne Bellamy.

So I’ve not given up my project on women’s life-writings and autobiography.


Posted by: Ellen

* * *


commenting closed for this article