Sir Walter Scott considered Dunbar in most qualities the peer, in some the superior, of Chaucer, and his opinion will be endorsed by all those who are able to read Dunbar with enjoyment. Though Spenser's genius may have had a richer efflorescence than Dunbar's, if the mass of their work be critically weighed, quality by quality, the balance, when struck, would rest remarkably evenly between them. Drummond of Hawthornden is perhaps the most richly-gifted writer in early Scottish literature, as an all-round man of letters. But as a poet the palm must ever remain with Dunbar.
The study of the breaks which occur in the poetic succession of any literature is always interesting. In English literature such gaps recur, though not with any definite regularity—for example, after the death of Chaucer and Gower, when the prosaic numbers of Occleve and Lydgate were the sole representatives of England's imaginative pre-eminence; and the penultimate and ultimate decades of last century, when Hayley was regarded as their acknowledged master by the younger school of poets. In Scotland, it is to be noted, as Sir George Douglas points out in his standard work, Minor Scottish Poets, that from 1617, the date of the publication of Drummond's Forth Feasting, until 1721, when Ramsay's first volume saw the light, no singer even of mediocre power appeared in Scotland.
There were editions of many of the poems of James I., Dunbar, Stirling, Drummond, and Sempill, which Ramsay may have seen. But he was more likely to have gained the knowledge we know he possessed of the early literature of his country from the recitals by fireside raconteurs, and from the printed sheets, or broadsides, hawked about the rural districts of Scotland during the closing decades of the seventeenth and the initial ones of the eighteenth centuries. From specimens of these which I have seen, it is evident that Henryson's Robene and Makyn, Dunbar's Merle and the Nightingale and the Thistle and the Rose, with several of Drummond's and Stirling's poems, were circulated in this way, thus becoming familiarly known in rural districts where the volumes of these authors never could have penetrated. On these broadsides, then, it must have been that the dormant poetical gifts of the youthful Ramsay were fed, and in after years he showed his liking for this form of publication by issuing his own earlier poems in the same way.
HIS APPRENTICESHIP; A BURGESS OF THE TOWN—1701-7
As much, perhaps, to obtain release from employment so laborious as that on the farm, as from a desire to be independent, young Ramsay consented to his stepfather's proposal that he should be apprenticed to a wigmaker in Edinburgh.
It has been urged, in proof of Crichton's harshness to his stepson, that Ramsay, after he left Leadhills in 1700, never seems to have had any further intercourse with them. Not so much as a chance reference in a letter reveals that he ever had any future dealings with the Crichton family. But this is not to be wondered at. The fact of the death of his mother in 1700 does not wholly explain the matter, I admit. But we need only recall the exclusive character previously attributed to the people of Leadhills, their antipathy to any intrusion upon them by strangers of any kind, to understand the case. They were a type of Scottish Essenes, a close community, akin to the fisher-communities of Newhaven and Fisherrow, with their distinctive customs, traditions, and prejudices. For a gay young Edinburgh spark such as Ramsay, fond of fine clothes, with a strong spice of vanity and egotism in his nature, to sojourn amongst the dour, stolid, phlegmatic miners, would have been to foster the development of asperities on both sides, calculated to break off all further intercourse. Met they may have, and parted on the terms we surmise, but of such meeting no hint was ever dropped, and a veil of separation drops between the household at Crawfordmuir and the young Jacob who thus was sent forth, from the shadow of what was to him the paternal roof, to war with the world at his own charges. That David Crichton had done his duty nobly by the lad was evident; but other children were shooting up to youth's estate, and when the elder bird was full fledged, it must e'en take its flight from the parent nest to make room for others.
There is another view of the case not so creditable to the future poet, but still within the range of possibility—that the scion of the house of Ramsay, whose anxiety to let the world know he was of gentle lineage was so chronic, may have felt himself a cut above the children of the bonnet-lairdie. Ramsay's nature was not one wherein the finer sympathies and delicate regard for the feelings of others were mortised into a sturdy independence and a desire to carve his fortunes out of the block of favouring opportunity. From start to finish of his career a subtle egoism, born of his lonely situation in life and fostered by his inordinate vanity, was his distinguishing trait. Generous acts he did, benevolent and kindly on numerous occasions he undoubtedly was, but his charity was not altruism. He was not the man to deny himself for the good of others.
Henceforth Edinburgh was to be Ramsay's life's home. He was enrolled as an apprentice early in January 1701. Although, as an apprentice, he was obliged to undertake duties distinctly domestic and menial,—for, in those days of strict social and ecclesiastical discipline, a master was expected to discharge towards those indentured to him much that appertains solely to the province of the parent,—still, there would be many spare hours wherein he would be free to devote himself to such pursuits as his taste led him.
What induced him to select wig-making as his life's métier is unknown. Perhaps his stepfather may have had some friend in that line of business who for 'auld lang syne' was willing to take the boy and teach him his trade. There is, of course, the other side of the question to be taken into account, that the work did not demand much bodily strength for its successful prosecution, and that it was cleanly, neat, and artistic. The recent development of the art of the coiffeur in France, in consequence of the attempts of Louis XIV. to conceal his natural defects of diminutive stature and a phenomenally small head,—defects impairing the effect of that majestic mien which the pupil of Mazarin so persistently cultivated,—had spread into England, and thence into Scotland. The enormous periwigs rendered fashionable by Le Grand Monarque admitted of a variety of artistic treatment. The heyday of wig-making may therefore be said to have extended over at least the greater part of Ramsay's career in this branch of trade, and in his day the poet was reckoned the most ingenious of Edinburgh perruquiers.
Another consideration probably influenced him in his choice to proceed to Edinburgh. The change to lighter labour would enable him to filch from hours allocated to sleep precious moments for private reading, which the arduous nature of his employment at Crawfordmuir had prevented. Besides, he was in a 'city of books'—books only waiting to be utilised. That he did take advantage of his opportunities during his apprenticeship, and that it was at this period that the poetic instinct in him took fire, on coming in contact with the electric genius of Shakespeare, Spenser, Milton, and other master-minds of English literature, is a fact to which he refers more than once in his poems.
From 1701-7,—in other words, from his fifteenth to his twenty-first year,—while he was serving his apprenticeship, there is a gap