Lives of Scottish Poets – William Meston


Among the more remarkable adventurers in the rebellion of 1715 was William Meston, [note] Professor of Philosophy in the Marischal College of Aberdeen. He was born in the parish of Midmar about the year 1688, and was the son of a blacksmith, much respected among his neighbours for his information and sagacity. Young Meston having evinced, in his early years, great quickness of parts, his father, notwithstanding his narrow means, resolved that the boy should want no advantage which a liberal education could supply, to give him a fair chance of rising to that eminence in the world, which, in his parental partiality, he saw dawning upon him. After he had acquired all that was to be learned at the village school, he was sent to the Marischal College, Aberdeen. Among his fellow students, he became speedily distinguished for his diligence and attainments, and when he had completed his academic studies, was looked upon as a young man to whom the road to fame and fortune was open. To the father, to whose liberality he was so much indebted for arriving at this point, he afterwards testified his gratitude by a monument erected in the parish church of Midmar, on which an epitaph is inscribed, which is praised by Dr. Ogilvie, in the Statistical Account, [note] for its “pure and classical style.”

The first appointment which Meston obtained was one of the masterships of the Grammar School of New Aberdeen, the duties of which he continued to discharge for several years. He was then invited into the Marischal family, the founders of Marischal College, to be tutor to the young earl of that name, and his brother, afterwards so celebrated as Marshal Keith. [note] In this capacity, he gave so much satisfaction, that on a vacancy occurring in 1714, in the chair of philosophy in the Marischal College, the Countess Dowager made a successful use of the family interest, to obtain the election of Mr. Meston to that dignified situation.

In the following year, the rebellion, in favor of the Stuart family, broke out, and Mr. Meston, as much, it is believed, from principle as from grateful attachment to the Marischal family, who had embarked their fortunes in the cause, was induced to join the rebel standard. The young Earl Marischal, [note] his late pupil, immediately confided to him the governorship of the family Castle of Dunnotar, a remarkably strong fort on the coast of Kincardineshire, which had been celebrated, in former civil contests, for the obstinate sieges which it had sustained.* The signal defeat at Sherriffmuir, however, soon put an end, for a time, to the hopes of the Stuart party; and there being no object to be gained by the Castle of Dunnotar holding out, Governor Meston, with some adherents, withdrew from it to the hills, among which they contrived to secrete themselves, till an Act of Amnesty came out, and enabled them to return in safety to their homes. It was during this period of perilous adversity; while wandering among the hills, afraid of the haunts of men, with the waving fern for their curtain by night, and some recess of the rocks for their concealment by day; that Meston, with the view of beguiling the lonely hours of their retreat, supposed to have first paid his court to the Muses. Several of the tales, which he afterwards published under the title of “Mother Grim’s Tales,” are said to have been composed at this time; and there is a jacobite song written by him, called “The Bonny Ladie,” which bears unquestionable marks of the same outcast nativity. The song, of which the following are the words, shews considerable skill in versification.

The Bonny Ladie.
How long shall our land thus suffer distresses,
Whilst tyrants, and strangers, and traitors, oppress us?
How long shall our old and once brave warlike nation
Thus tamely submit to a base usurpation?
Still must we be sad whilst the traitors are wadie,
‘Till we get a sight of our ain bonny ladie.
How long shall we lurk? How long shall we languish?
With our faces dejected, and our hearts full of anguish?
How long shall the whigs, perverting all reason,
Call honest men rogues, and loyalty treason?
Still must we be sad, &c.
O, Heavens have pity, with favour prevent* us,
Redeem us from strangers, who sadly torment us;
From atheists and deists, and whiggish opinions,
Our king return back to his rightful dominions.
Then rogues shall be sad, and honest men wadie,
When the throne is possess’d by our ain bonny ladie.
The church that’s oppress’d, our monarch shall cherish;
The land shall have peace, the Muses shall flourish;
Each heart shall be glad, but the whigs will be sorry
When the king gets his own, and Jehovah the glory.
Then rogues shall be sad, &c.

*“Prevent,” in the scriptural acceptation of defend.

It has been said, that, after the publication of the Act of Amnesty, Mr. Meston might have been restored to his chair in Marischal College, if he would have taken the oaths required by government; but with an integrity and disdain, alike becoming his character and his age, for he was as yet but in his twenty-seventh year, he chose rather to begin the world again, and face every hardship, than make any compromise with his principles.

While the Countess Marischal lived, to whom and to a small independence the family attainder happily did not reach, Mr. Meston found, under her roof, a home; the kind hospitality of which he amply repaid, by being the delight of every one who visited her ladyship, for his conversational powers, in which a rich vein of pleasantry is described to have predominated.

On her ladyship’s death, he was once more driven to have recourse to his scholastic talents for a subsistence. In conjunction with his brother, Mr. Samuel Meston, to whom their praiseworthy father had also given an academic education, he opened an academy at Elgin, for the instruction of young gentlemen in all the branches of knowledge taught at the university. The undertaking, at first, succeeded well; it was resorted to by the flower of the youth of the northern counties; and there is no doubt, that, if duly attended to, it might have been the means of procuring bins a comfortable subsistence; but Meston was of too jovial a disposition, and had lived too long on social habits, to fall into that course of sober regularity so necessary for academic example; he is allowed to have neglected his pupils for the sake of his friend, his bottle, and his book. The academy sunk in reputation, and became, at last, so deserted, that Meston found the only chance he had of repairing his error was to abandon it, and open another in a different place.

Mr. Meston’s intention of leaving Elgin was no sooner known among his friends, than the Countess of Errol, whom he had the honor to reckon among the number, generously invited him to fix his choice of a new residence on Turreff, in Aberdeenshire, offering him the occupation, rent free, of a mansion in that village, belonging to the Errol family. The offer was gratefully accepted, and, in a short time, Mr. Meston was again seen at the head of a flourishing academy. His mode of life appears to have become here more exemplary; but misfortune, notwithstanding, still pursued him. A quarrel happened between two of the young gentlemen of his academy, one of whom stabbed the other; and, although no blame could be imputed to Mr. Meston on account of the unfortunate occurrence, many parents, apprehensive of similar accidents, withdrew their children, and left poor Meston, for the second time, a teacher without scholars.

From Turreff, he now removed to Montrose; and, after an unsuccessful attempt to establish a new academy there, went to Perth, where he was induced to leave off public teaching, to become tutor to the children of Mr. Oliphant, of Gask. [note]

In this family, he continued several years; but his health beginning to fail, he repaired, for the benefit of mineral waters, to Peterhead, where he was supported chiefly by the bounty of his old friend, the Countess of Errol, who evinced an assiduity of attention to his wants, which is above all praise.

Meston was now, however, on the gallop down the hill of life; and, anxious to close his career on that spot which had been the scene of his highest honours on earth, he went from Peterhead to Aberdeen, where he terminated a lingering illness in death, in the spring of the year 1745, and fifty-seventh year of his age. His remains were interred, in a private manner, in the Spital church of Old Aberdeen; and, in dull obscurity, they still moulder, without a stone or inscription, to mark the grave of the man who composed many admired epitaphs for others, who sleep the sleep of death around him.

The productions which Meston has left behind him are all poetical, and were first collected in a small volume, published at Edinburgh in 1767. They consist of “the Knight,” printed as early as 1723; “Mother Grim’s Tales;” a second part of the latter by Mother Grim’s grandson, Jodocus, with a long Latin title, and containing several pieces in the same language; and, lastly, some songs.

In his larger pieces, Meston appears to have made Butler [note] his model; and, like all men who are so inconsiderate as to form themselves on the model of a day, has suffered by it in permanent reputation. He possessed genius enough to have secured to the name of Meston an ever-during celebrity; but, with a prodigality as censurable in intellectual as in worldly concerns, gave up to party feeling and local events those exertions, of which immortality might have had the harvest. It must be confessed, too, that Meston is inferior to the model of his selection; Butler is sometimes low in his humour, but very seldom so, except when his verses are viewed abstractedly from the heroes of his satire; but Meston is often much lower, and in any sense in which a reader chuses to regard him.

The charms of his conversational powers have been before alluded to. The editor of the Edinburgh edition of his works says, that “he possessed an uncommon fund of wit and humour, in the timing of
which he had a particular art.” “On these occasions,” it is added, “it was impossible for the most phlegmatic disposition to continue five minutes in his company without being convulsed with laughter.”

The character of Meston may be summed op in a few words. He was a poet, with more of the habits of one than was fortunate for his fame; he was man of genius, who, to have lived happy, should have been born with the fortune of a fool of quality. That he did not rise to excellence in the line which nature had chalked out for him, we may ascribe, with Dr. Ogilvie, “to the two great foes of every nobler effort of human genius—indigence and dependence.”

R. M.

  • In the year 1661, the regalia of Scotland were deposited here to preserve them from the English army which over-ran this country during the civil wars of that period. Being lodged in this place by order of the privy council, Earl Marischal obtained from the public a garrison, with an order for suitable ammunition and provisions. The Earl having joined the king’s forces in England, appointed George Ogilvy, of Barras, [note] a neighbouring proprietor, who had been an officer for several years in the king’s service, to be lieutenant-governor of the castle. This trust, Mr. Ogilvy maintained with the greatest resolution; for, after all the other forts and places of strength in Scotland were reduced by the English army, a body of troops, under the command of Lambert, sat down before Dunnotar. It was first summoned to surrender in November, 1651, and repeatedly thereafter during the course of the winter. About the beginning of May following, the siege was converted into a blockade. Mr. Ogilvy did not surrender till he was reduced by famine, and a consequent mutiny in the garrison. He had previously, by a stratagem, on account of which he was long imprisoned in England, removed the regalia. Mrs. Granger, wife of the minister of Kinneff, requested permission of Major General Morgan, who then commanded the besieging army, to visit Mrs. Ogilvy, the lady of the governor of the fortress. Having obtained this permission, Mrs. Granger, who was a resolute woman, packed up the crown among some clothes, and carried it out of the castle in her lap; her maid, at the same time, carried the sword and sceptre on her back in a bag of flax. The English general politely assisted Mrs. Granger to mount her horse. The regalia were kept sometimes in the church of Kinneff, concealed under the pulpit, and, at other times, in a double bottomed bed in the Manse, till the Restoration in 1660, when they were delivered to Mr. George Ogilvy, who restored them to Charles the Second. [note] For this good service, Mr. Ogilvy was made a baronet; and Sir John Keith, brother to the Earl Marischal, was created Earl of Kintore; but honest Mr. Granger and his wife had neither honour nor reward.
    Forsyth’s Beauties of Scotland. [note]

From the website: Lives of Scottish Poets – William Meston

The Meston Family Genealogy Project