The History of Leith

June 10, 2008

Gilfillan, Robert (1798–1850), poet and songwriter

Gilfillan, Robert (1798–1850), poet and songwriter, was born on 7 July 1798 in Dunfermline, Fife, the son of Robert Gilfillan (d. 1834), a master weaver, and Marion Law (1770–1844), daughter of a small manufacturer in Dunfermline. They had three sons, James, Robert, and Henry, and one daughter, Margaret. Robert’s great-grandfather had been a farmer in Stirlingshire and his grandfather, also Robert, captain of a merchant ship. His childhood could not have been easy if, according to one account, his father was unable to provide for the family through ill health (Whistle-Binkie, 38). His early education was rudimentary but it was at this time he discovered in himself a juvenile talent for songwriting: on a guising (mummering) expedition one Christmas he performed some verses on the death of General Ralph Abercromby.

In 1811 Gilfillan’s family moved to Leith, where he was apprenticed to the firm of Thomson and Muir, coopers. During his seven-year apprenticeship, by the chance find of some money, he bought a one-keyed flute which he taught himself to play and in 1816 began to write poetry, with the stanzas beginning ‘Again let’s hail the cheering spring’ (based on the air ‘For a’ that’). He returned to Dunfermline in 1818 and worked for three years as an assistant in Provost Wilson’s grocery shop. He read avidly in his spare time and attended meetings of like-minded young men for mutual improvement in literature, science, and art, where he would read his early attempts at verse. He moved back to Leith in 1821 where he remained for the rest of his life. He was employed as a clerk in the warehouse of Smith and Muir, oil and colour merchants, and then as a confidential clerk to Thomas McRitchie, wine merchant. For two winters he attended evening classes in mechanics, chemistry, and the physical sciences at Edinburgh School of Arts.

Gilfillan began contributing poems and songs (always first heard by his mother and sister) to the press and attracted favourable notice, even being quoted by James Hogg in Blackwood’s Magazine as the ‘“fine chiel” down at Leith’. Encouraged, in 1831 he brought out a small volume, Original Songs, with a typically modest preface: ‘Had my education been better than it is, this little Work would probably have presented fewer inelegancies of language, and fewer violations of grammar’. Whatever inelegancies it possessed did not stop it enjoying a wide circulation and a second edition, enlarged by fifty pieces, was published in 1835, simply titled Songs. This included what is probably Gilfillan’s best poem, ‘The Tax-Gatherer’ (written in 1828), an amiable satire on tax collecting based on Peter McCraw, the Leith poor rate collector:
O do ye ken Peter, the taxman an’ vriter?

Ye’re weel aff wha ken naething ’bout him ava.

Gilfillan was consequently given a public dinner in his honour in Edinburgh at which a large silver cup was presented to him by his admirers. In reply he said he had made poetry a pastime, not a profession and he would rather forgo the fame of the poet than do anything to lower the character of the man. He was also honoured to be made grand bard to the grand lodge of freemasons of Scotland at the centenary meeting of the grand lodge on 30 November 1836. In 1837 Gilfillan became a tax gatherer himself when he was appointed collector of police rates for Leith, an office he discharged faithfully until his death. A third edition of his work appeared in 1839, with an additional sixty songs. A fourth edition, Poems and Songs, with a memoir by William Anderson, was published posthumously in 1851. He contributed to the Dublin University Magazine and the anthology Whistle-Binkie; he was theatre critic for the Edinburgh Chronicle and for twenty years was Leith correspondent for The Scotsman.

Amid all this busy life Gilfillan never married. His brother James’s daughter Marion kept house for him. He ventured abroad a few times but was restless and unhappy until he was home again. He seems to have been universally liked, a kind, simple, affable, unobtrusive soul who shone in convivial company.

In his time Gilfillan was talked of in the same breath as Ramsay, Fergusson, and Burns, but his range was much narrower, concentrating on Scottish domestic sentiments and manners—indeed, he himself claimed no higher ambition. With one or two exceptions, which have crept into the twentieth century in Scottish song albums, his songs have not stood the test of time. Perhaps if he had given more rein to the satiric than the sentimental he would be included in more Scottish anthologies. Certainly ‘The Tax-Gatherer’ (‘Peter McCraw’) is worth reviving, as are the humorous poems ‘There cam’ to our village a stranger’ and ‘Write, Write, Tourist and Traveller’.

In April 1850 Gilfillan organized a successful subscription to repair the monument to Robert Fergusson which Burns had erected in Canongate churchyard. On the morning of 4 December 1850 Gilfillan was struck with a fit of apoplexy. He rallied for a while but suffered a second attack and died that evening at his home in Hermitage Place, Leith Links. He was buried in South Leith cemetery.

HAMISH WHYTE

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