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‘The Galloway Poet’

Gordon Mooney 

reflects on Piper,

Poet, Packman,                 


William Nicholson should be regarded as one of Scotland’s great poets and song writers but, perhaps                because of the life he led and the ever present comparison with Robert Burns, he is little known.

Like Burns, he is   essentially a poet true to Nature, and even surpasses Burns at times in the beauty of his allusions to the natural scenery among which he spent his life. His treatment by his  contemporaries, by the harsh realities of Scotland and by his own disillusion serve as a model for many who live here.

Nicholson wrote, among many fine works, ‘The Braes O’ Gallowa” or, as we now call it, ‘The Gallowa’ Hills’ and ‘The Banks of Tarff’. These are the light and free optimistic Nicholson, but it is in the dark side where he excels as in ‘Aitken Drum’. 

William Nicholson was born 15th August 1783 at Tannymass, in the parish of Borgue into a humble family of eight siblings of whom the father was a carrier and crofter. His mother, a typical wise rustic, read her children ‘Pilgrims Progress’, ‘The Gentle Shepherd’ and the poems of Burns (then coming into vogue).

As a boy he did all the usual boy things and seems to have been a poor student saying in later life that he considered all learning as pedantic and unbecoming of the notice of men of genius. Thus he left school with an indifferent ability to read, bad spelling and wretched writing. He preferred to walk by the rivers of Galloway and read cheap comics, or chapbooks as they were then called, and think of girls.

He later immortalised his removes from school and study in the song ‘The Banks of Tarff’.

When he was 14 it was time to consider which trade he should follow, but his eyesight was so poor it disqualified him from any practical trade. Eventually it was decided he should  become a packman, or travelling salesman. With a box of needles, combs, pins, ribbons and other manner of household items he travelled the countryside, farms, crofts and towns. For 25 years he carried his pack and took the country braid and wide, at first the whole of Galloway then the greater parts of Ayrshire and Dumfries. Long before he attempted to write poetry he contracted (sounds like a disease) a fondness for music and was in the habit of enlivening with his wood notes wild the families where he chanced to quarter for the night.

His ear was excellent and his voice passingly melodious and strong. A ‘Pair of Pipes’ which he had acquired when he was about 20, enabled him to give additional zest to his minstrelsy... to use his own words, “A young man wha was afterwards drowned in the Carlingwark Loch brought three pair frae North America”. Will got one of these and from the moment he took possession he carried it constantly on top of his pack. It was said of Will that he was 50% poetry, 40% music and only 10% business aptitude. Instead of attending assiduously to his business he “frittered away his time and opportunities by indulging in musical rhapsodies.” (Be warned all you frittering pipers!).

A Mr Johnstone relates how he came upon Wull in a deserted quarryhole piping away to half a dozen young colts, who were capering around like mad to the sound of the bagpipes, throwing up their heels and almost leaping over each other and every now and then snorting out their applause of his performance. “I hae mair pleasure”, said Nicholson, “in piping to these daft cowts than if the best ladies of the land had been figuring away at my poor music.”

In 1812 he thought he could manage his business better if he bought a pony, but after a few months it fell ill and broke its back. Consequently by 1813 his trade had fallen away so much he had to abandon it. He then determined to see what printing a book could do for him and began to collect poems for publication. On suggestions by local ministers he included a long poem ‘The Country Lass’ which had romantic appeal.

He next looked for subscribers among his many past customers and succeeded in gaining 1500. He next journeyed to Edinburgh for a publisher where he met with James Hogg who helped him in his work. The book was published in 1814 and Nicholson filled his pack and after supplying Edinburgh and Glasgow travelled homewards through Ayrshire and Galloway “delivering copies and hauling in the siller”.

Altogether he cleared 100 on the venture which enabled him to clear his debts and replenish his complete stock of muslin etc. Unfortunately Nicholson’s success as a poet hastened his ruin as a merchant. The want of a settled home and the nature of his trade caused him to lodge frequently in public houses. Invitations from admirers to meet at Inns and Taverns to discuss his poetry further accelerated his fondness for strong drink, and in consequence he never regained his former respectable position.

His affairs became ever more unsettled and then he conceived the idea that he must preach the doctrine of “universal redemption”. He published a pamphlet on the subject and went about everywhere preaching.

In 1825 he sold his business for 30 and reprinted his pamphlet at the direction of “familiar spirits”. In obedience to these spirits he undertook a journey on foot to London in order to lay his mission before the King. Needless to say he was not permitted an audience, and after several adventures he was put on a boat bound for Galloway.

For the next two years he earned his living by wandering over his native district singing his own songs to the music of the bagpipes. He became a famous man at weddings, fairs and merry makings of all descriptions, and most of the public houses in the Stewartry resounded at times with his music and singing. “The Braes O’ Gallowa” was a favourite. In the Autumn of 1827 Nicholson, who had found employment as an assistant drover, was attacked by robbers near Warrington in Lancashire, and his pipes were stolen from him as well as other effects. In defending his pipes he was badly beaten and, stumbling into a canal, was nearly drowned, being rescued just in time to save his life. He was taken to Liverpool and helped by fellow Scotsmen there who found him a passage on a sloop bound for Kirkcudbright where he arrived “minus his bagpipes, his unfailing comfort in all his troubles”.

His friends came to his aid, and a Mr Malcolmson of Kirkcudbright urged upon him the publication of a new edition of his poems. Dr McDairmid agreed to supervise the project and wrote an amusing sketch of Nicholson extending to 57 pages as a preface to the work. The whole work of 287 pages was printed by Bruce of Dumfries. The second edition contained some new works and Nicholson's fame was greatly increased. The book had a ready sale and restored Wull to affluence. His habits were such that he had soon squandered the proceeds on drink and good times and was, in a short time, as poor as before.

Mactaggart’s reference to Nicholson in the ‘Gallovidian Encyclopedia’ is worth note. “Will is certainly a rustic bard of the first degree .. . His bardship wanders through the country a pedlar, and plays the bagpipes; everyone is fond of him; his cracks are extremely diverting - so humorous, yet so melancholy. As a song writer he may rank with any. His Wild Woodside, The Braes O’ Gallowa’, My only hope my Harry O’ and others are truly excellent, they have all that simplicity and genius which constitutes good Scottish Song, and as proof of their worth are beginning to be sung by the peasantry. When this happens further praise is needless. To fame they then go and stand the brunt of ages unshaken . . . None but a peasant can touch the feelings of the peasantry; to all others they remain impregnable. My friend William's poems are substantial rustic buildings”.

Wull Nicholson is buried in Kirkandrews Churchyard in the parish of Borgue. The church was founded at the time of St Columba and there is an ancient Celtic Cross in the yard.

The plain simple short headstone was erected by his brother for the family memorial. On the back of the stone, in copperplate lettering, are the words “Here lies William Nicholson, author of The Country Lass’, Brownie of Bladnoch’, and other poems... who died May 16th 1849 aged 67 years.”

No future age shall see his name expire.

Fifty years after his death a monument to his memory was erected by public subscription in the village of Borgue.