Show Summary Details

Page of

Printed from Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a single article for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

date: 23 April 2024

Ramsay, Allanfree


Ramsay, Allanfree

  • Murray G. H. Pittock

Allan Ramsay (1684–1758)

by Allan Ramsay the younger, 1729

Ramsay, Allan (1684–1758), poet, was born on 15 October 1684 at Leadhills, in Crawfordmuir parish, Lanarkshire, the son of John Ramsay (c.1660–1685), factor to the Hope estate and superintendent of its lead mines, and the probably Scots-born Alice (d. 1700), daughter of Allan Bower, gentleman and mineralogist of Derbyshire. Ramsay has long been alleged to be a descendant of the Douglas family and a relative of the Ramsays of Dalhousie; there is little evidence for this, and even his status as the great-great-grandson of Ramsay, laird of Cockpen, is doubtful and may be a result of the search by one of his sons, the younger Allan Ramsay, for illustrious forebears.

Early years and marriage

After the early death of his father, who died in debt, Ramsay was brought up by his mother and her second husband, Andrew Crichton, a local bonnet laird. He was possibly educated for at least some of the time up to the age of fifteen at Crawfordmuir parish school, and helped his stepfather on his farm. In his youth he was captivated by the folklore, poetry, and popular history of the Scottish past. According to Allan Ramsay the younger, Crichton opposed Ramsay's becoming a painter, and instead sent him into trade: in later life Ramsay clearly retained an interest in the visual and plastic arts, and also 'organized several sales of paintings and other works of art' (Brown, 12). Following his mother's death, about January 1701 Ramsay went to be apprenticed (as his brother Robert had been in 1695) to a wigmaker in Edinburgh, receiving back his indentures in either 1707 or 1709, after which he opened his own business (by tradition in the Grassmarket, though no firm evidence for this appears to exist). Ramsay was admitted a burgess of Edinburgh on 19 July 1710. In 1711 he moved to a shop trading under the sign of the Mercury; this was possibly in the north parish, where he was living in 1712–13. By 1714 he had moved to the north-east parish, but it is not until 1718 that there is firm evidence that Ramsay was at the Niddrie's Wynd address which is sometimes projected back into earlier years.

Depressed by what he regarded as the treachery of the Union, Ramsay threw himself for some years into the study of literature. William Hamilton of Gilbertfield, the translator of Blin Hary's patriotic Wallace, by his poem 'The Dying Words of Bonnie Heck' (printed in the first volume of Watson's Choice Collection of 1706) was said to have 'awakened within' Ramsay 'the desire to write in the dialect of his own country' (Smeaton, 37). By 1711 Ramsay was writing in the vernacular, and his 'Elegy on Maggy Johnston' dates from this time.

On 14 December 1712 Ramsay married Christian Ross (d. 1743), daughter of Robert Ross (d. 1699/1703), a writer, and his wife, Elizabeth Archibald. They had several children: Allan Ramsay (1713–1784), who became a painter; Susanna (b. 1714), who was possibly later known as Anne (or there may have been a separate daughter of that name born between 1719 and 1724); Niell (b. 1715), Robert (b. 1716), Janet, Catherine, and Agnes (b. 1725); and another daughter, Christy, who died in infancy, probably in the 1720s. It appears that besides the eldest son only Janet, Anne, and Catherine survived into adulthood, since they were left their father's shop.

Literary career

Shortly before his marriage Ramsay had become one of the original members of the Easy Club, founded on 12 May 1712. The club was a quasi-Jacobite grouping whose 'direct precursor' (Shuttleton, 52) was to be found among high-tory groups such as the Greppa, who met in Mistress Henderson's howff (tavern) after 1696; Archibald Pitcairne's Greppa Club was portrayed as Hades by his whig opponents, and Ramsay may have been taunting them in their own coin when his elegy on Pitcairne drew on Aeneas's journey there.

The Easy Club was typical of the convivial Scottish urban clubs of the eighteenth century which did so much to promote the Scottish Enlightenment. Such clubs were to some extent born out of social necessity, since there was little available living space for socializing at home in the huge twelve- or sixteen-storey lands within the narrow boundaries of the city wall. The club began with six members, and never had more than twelve. The idea that important figures such as Archibald Pitcairne, Patrick Abercrombie, and Thomas Ruddiman were members of the club has been largely disproved, but Ramsay certainly formed connections with Ruddiman, and in all probability Pitcairne, in these years. Ramsay's Latin (and quite possibly his French) probably benefited more from Ruddiman's circle than from his own schooling.

Pitcairne and Ramsay alike were fond of John Steill's tavern, the Cross Keys, which was to host Edinburgh's Musick Club. The subsequent Musical Society (supported by Ramsay) had Jacobite members and, according to at least one authority, sang Jacobite songs. Steill later subscribed to Ramsay's 1721 and 1728 volumes. The club was soon Ramsay's literary patron, on 2 February 1715 appointing him its poet laureate. Each member of the club took a fictitious name, usually that of a famous man of letters or literary mode: Ramsay first chose Isaac Bickerstaff. However, after the death of Pitcairne on 20 October 1713 and in common with other members of the club, he selected a Scots name, and from the meeting of 5 November onwards was known as Gavin Douglas. The Aeneid, which Douglas had translated into Scots and which had been published by Ruddiman and Robert Freebairn in 1710, was a widely recognized source of Jacobite code, and Ramsay drew on it freely in his elegy on Pitcairne, which was published in 1713 bearing the epigraph:

Sum yonder bene for reddy Gold in HandSald and betrasit thare native Realme and Land.

This refers to a passage from Aeneid, vi, and is here a coded reference to the Union.

The club, which addressed an anti-Union manifesto to George I on 9 February 1715 (there is no evidence it was ever sent), dissolved at about the time of the Jacobite rising of that year, by which time Ramsay's career as a poet was taking off. His early work was traditionally thought to have been published in the broadside format used by the chapmen and balladeers of popular culture, and one early survivor in this format was: A Scheme and Type of the Great and Terrible Eclipse of the Sun, sold by James Watson near the Luckenbooths for 1d. in 1715. Subsequently Ramsay continued to publish in broadside form alongside more substantial publications.

Renowned poet and businessman

In 1716–18 Ramsay completed the second and third cantos of the unfinished medieval poem Christ's Kirk on the Green, which was published first in two and then in three cantos in the latter year: by 1723 this had reached a fifth edition. Appointed constable in 1716, he received a commission in 1718 in the local militia. By then he had also begun working as a bookseller (as well as a dealer in prints, through which he became acquainted with Hogarth) and issuing his own work, including Scots Songs (1718), in which some compositions are probably adaptations rather than original pieces, following a practice which became standard in the Scottish vernacular revival. Figures such as William Hamilton of Gilbertfield and Sir William Scott of Thirlestane congratulated the poet on his developing reputation. By 1719 Ramsay was complaining to the town council that his work was being pirated in London, and his status was further exemplified in the list of subscribers (among them Alexander Pope, Richard Steele, John Gay, and John Arbuthnot, as well as heavyweight Jacobites such as David Erskine of Dun and George Lockhart of Carnwath) to his quarto volume of Poems (1721), printed by Ruddiman, which followed an earlier gathering of 1720. The book realized 400 guineas for its author. By the early 1720s Ramsay had abandoned wigmaking in favour of bookselling, which also mushroomed not only into dealing in prints and engravings but also into the arrangement of auction sales in books, medals, jewellery, and silver. Some time before 1720 Ramsay had also become a member of the Whinbush Club (for Clydesdale men living in Edinburgh). Notwithstanding his networking and success in business, in 1722 he also pressed the duke of Roxburghe to help him secure a pension, 'the plea being that by writing Scots verse he is performing a national service' (Martin, 31).

In the same year Ramsay moved his shop near Edinburgh Cross, and produced his Fables and Tales and A Tale of Three Bonnets, a satire on the Union. His Fair Assembly (1723) attacked presbyterian attitudes to dancing, and following his admission to the Royal Company of Archers on 13 July 1724 he wrote several poems in praise of the royal company, at this time a nest of closet Jacobites, urging them to 'assert your King and Country's Cause' and to 'break … each disgraceful Link' of the chain which bound Scotland (Works, 6.25, 26, 28). The success of his Tea-Table Miscellany: a Collection of Scots Songs, published in three volumes in 1723, 1726, and 1727, set the seal on his reputation; a fourth volume appeared in 1737, by which time the original set had gone through ten editions. The Miscellany included work by Jacobites such as Hamilton of Bangour and Robertson of Struan, as well as traditional ballads and work by seventeenth-century writers, with pieces adapted or written by Ramsay himself; its format of setting new words to old airs was already established Jacobite practice. The year after the first volume appeared, Ramsay drew on the Bannatyne manuscripts, to which he had gained access through the good offices of William Carmichael, to publish The Ever Green: being a Collection of Scots Poems, Wrote by the Ingenious before 1600 (1724). As a subsequent editor, Lord Hailes, pointed out, Ramsay was anything but scrupulous, freely altering his material for an eighteenth-century audience, in particular changing versification and spelling; his work does, however, predate later developments in scholarly editing. He altered William Dunbar's 'Lament for the Makaris' in order to include a prophecy of himself, and included poems of modern composition. Of these, one—'The Vision'—purported to be a medieval dream vision in which the narrator saw Scotland restored through the wars of independence; in fact it was yet another piece of anti-Union Jacobitism by Ramsay himself.

Ramsay's pastoral dialogues—Patie and Roger (1720) and Jenny and Meggy (1723)—proved popular, and leading figures in Edinburgh society suggested that he write a longer drama. In The Gentle Shepherd (1725), a descendant of Gay's Shepherd's Week of 1714, Ramsay suggestively uses the pastoral form in a celebration of the revitalizing effects wrought by the return of the royalist exile Sir William Worthy, a thin disguise for James Stuart. The drama, which aimed to move classical patriotism into a Scottish landscape setting, was enormously successful, feeding Ramsay's reputation in England as well as north of the border. Following the appearance of Gay's Beggar's Opera in 1728, Ramsay's play was converted into a ballad opera at the instigation of the pupils of Haddington grammar school. In this guise it remained popular into the early nineteenth century; the play was performed at least 47 times in Scotland, 101 times in England, and 5 times in the United States before 1837.

The success of The Gentle Shepherd enabled Ramsay to flit in 1725–6 to the Luckenbooths, in the very centre of the High Street, with a fine view over Edinburgh Cross, the central afternoon rendezvous of society in the capital. Here he changed his sign to 'Hawthornden's and Ben Johnson's [sic] Heads' (Martin, 31). In his new premises Ramsay (probably in 1725) opened a circulating library, the first in Britain, though it is not clear whether it directly influenced the opening of the circulating libraries in Bristol, Birmingham, and London which followed; its contents were unsurprisingly condemned by Robert Wodrow. In 1726 Ramsay was deemed respectable enough to have his own pew in the Tron Kirk, and soon his poetic output had increased to the point that he was able to issue the third volume of the Miscellany and A Collection of Thirty Fables (1730). Thereafter he was content to prepare new editions and undertake editorial work such as his 1737 collection, Scots Proverbs. Although he wrote poetry, it was not for market; indeed, Ramsay opined that he would wish to destroy half his printed works, so that the other half would gain in value by their rarity. His fame was now growing apace, and by the 1730s he was the favourite of many of the great Scottish families. His reputation was also strong south of the border: Gay and Steele were likely visitors, and Ramsay was well known in London. In Dublin in 1727 'a broadside elegy … was hawked through the streets' on the false rumour of his death (Martin, 125).

Other enterprises, later years, and death

Presbyterian opposition to his circulating library became increasingly manifest after Ramsay added to it a number of contemporary French plays in translation in 1736. When he also conceived the idea of developing a theatre in Edinburgh, opposition grew further. Ramsay, who wrote prologues, epilogues, and a masque, as well as publishing several editions of plays by other hands, was an enthusiast for the stage: in 1727–8 he had already 'defended the idea of staging plays in Edinburgh' (Murphy), and in 1733–5 he had managed the 'Edinburgh Company of Comedians at the Tailors' Hall'. The theatre in Carrubber's Close was built in 1735–6 and opened on 8 November 1736, with annual tickets at 30s. or 2 guineas. It staged The Recruiting Officer on its first night, and it was also used for popular entertainments such as rope dancing. Unfortunately for Ramsay the 1737 statute of 10 Geo. II (passed in response to Henry Fielding's attacks on Walpole), banning stage plays outside London or Westminster except during the king's residence, was eagerly implemented by the local authority with clerical encouragement. Ramsay fought closure of his theatre until 1739 (on 27 February a number of his actors were fined £50 by the court of session). He was left with significant debts and had to sell the wood furnishings, and probably scenery and costumes too; none the less, he was later probably instrumental in the development of the Canongate Concert Hall, which opened in 1747 on land owned by Richard Cooper, a friend and collaborator. Ramsay's defence of a domestic Scottish theatre was matched by his interest in retaining native artistic talent in Scotland. He had also opened in 1729 the Edinburgh Academy of St Luke, where his son was a student (possibly under Ramsay's friend John Smibert) before it closed about five years later. In these areas Ramsay was thoroughly aware of the threat the metropolis posed to an indigenous Scottish culture.

In 1733 Ramsay bought some ground on the Castlehill, overlooking the Nor' Loch, and there built a house: the Goose Pie, constructed in the style of the Octagon at Twickenham (itself designed by the Jacobite architect James Gibbs for the secretary of state for Scotland), in a place still called Ramsay Garden, close up against Edinburgh Castle. As the inscription of 1734 shows, it was conceived as an explicitly Horatian 'House of the muses' of poetry and painting (Brown, 23). As this suggests, the house was shared by Ramsay and his son Allan, who took over its ownership in 1741 after Ramsay had retired from active business (his town house and shop having been put up for sale in the Caledonian Mercury in early 1739). In semi-retirement Ramsay lived in a kind of Horatian rus in urbe, though not in domestic felicity, for on 28 March 1743 his wife died. He did not fully retire from his business until 1755, though he left it largely in the hands of others. In 1745 his fame, central residence, and political opinions made him a prime focus for Jacobite interest during Charles Edward Stuart's occupation of Edinburgh. However, it has been claimed that Ramsay eluded disturbance by going to stay with his friend Sir John Clerk of Penicuik, where he experienced a serious indisposition which kept him out of town. The Jacobite army nevertheless used his house as a vantage point for firing on the castle garrison. Despite the poet's non-involvement at a time of risk, his nationalist work The Vision was republished in a separate edition in 1748, when there was considerable Jacobite unrest in Edinburgh.

Ramsay's health began to fail in the 1750s, scurvy in his gums affecting his jaw and as a result his speech. He died on 7 January 1758, and was buried two days later in Greyfriars kirkyard.

Legacy and reputation

Ramsay was an early avatar of the primitivists and folklorists of the 1760s and thereafter, who wrote and collected at a time when it may yet have seemed possible to him that the preservation and defence of the culture of his native land might serve a political purpose rather than a cultural or literary one. Deeply interested in the visual arts, the theatre, and Scotland's historic literature, he sought to preserve the country's status as a cultural centre. It was Ramsay who helped a distinctive Scottish literature to survive by yoking the Jacobitical discourse of heroic valour to the poetic productions of the Scottish past, and through identifying the folk vernacular with the idea of a national literature in the present.

Ramsay was, as he put it himself, 'A black-a-vic'd, snod, dapper fellow … With phiz of a Morocco cut', whose 'tripping gait … earned for him the sobriquet of Denty Allan' (Smeaton, 13); later, he put on more weight than this picture suggests. He was regarded as amiable and kind to children: 'from pure kindness to the young, he would help to make dolls for them, and cradles wherein to place these little effigies' (Smeaton, 113). Canny in business, and in person short, fat, friendly, kind, hospitable, and vain, he was popular with his contemporaries. His achievement, which remains both historic and underestimated, was considerably more than the sum of its parts.

The best bibliography of Ramsay's works (of which 143 original and subsequent editions were published in his lifetime alone) is Burns Martin's 1931 list in The Works of Allan Ramsay, edited by Kinghorn and Law (vol. 6), which was updated in 1974.


  • The works of Allan Ramsay, ed. B. Martin, J. W. Oliver, A. M. Kinghorn, and A. Law, 6 vols., STS, 3rd ser., 19–20, 29; 4th ser., 6–8 (1945–74)
  • H. G. Brown, Poet and painter: Allan Ramsay, father and son, 1684–1784 (1984)
  • A. Gibson, New light on Allan Ramsay (1927)
  • F. P. Lole, A digest of the Jacobite clubs (1999)
  • D. E. Shuttleton, ‘“A modest examination”: John Arbuthnot and the Scottish Newtonians’, British Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, 18 (1995), 47–62
  • A. H. Maclaine, Allan Ramsay (1985)
  • M. Murphy, ‘Edinburgh's first custom-built theatre auditorium’, Scottish Studies Review (2001)
  • O. Smeaton, Allan Ramsay (1896)


  • NA Scot., poems and letters to Sir John Clerk
  • NA Scot., Dick-Cunyngham of Prestonfield muniments
  • NA Scot., Penicuik muniments


  • J. Smibert, portrait, 1717, Scot. NPG
  • W. Aikman, oils, 1723, Scot. NPG
  • A. Ramsay, chalk drawing, 1729, Scot. NPG [see illus.]
  • A. Ramsay, chalk drawing, 1745 (after W. Aikman), Scot. NPG
  • A. Carse, wash drawing (after J. Smibert), Scot. NPG
  • R. Cooper, line engraving, NPG
  • G. Vertue, line engraving (after J. Smibert), BM, NPG; repro. in A. Ramsay, Poems, 2 vols. (1721)
  • G. White, mezzotint (after W. Aikman), BM, NPG
  • oils, Scot. NPG
  • oils (after J. Smibert), Scot. NPG
Page of
Scottish Text Society
Page of
British Museum, London
Page of
Huntington Library, San Marino, California
Page of
Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh
Page of
National Portrait Gallery, London
Page of
National Archives of Scotland, Edinburgh
Page of
National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh