|William Allan, The Ettrick Shepherd's House Heating |
(PG 3136 - National Galleries of Scotland).
Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
2020 marks the 250th birthday of James Hogg. But when should we raise our glasses of whisky in his honour?
The problem is, we don’t know precisely when he was born. All that’s certain is that according to the parish records he was baptised in Ettrick Parish Church on 9 December 1770. However the records do not include his date of birth.
According to Hogg’s daughter Mary, writing under her married name Mrs Garden, Hogg’s friend Alexander Laidlaw had written to her that on the basis of information from Hogg’s mother Margaret (keep up!) Hogg was born in ‘the latter end of 1770’. Mary Garden assumes from that information a date in November and concludes that 25 November is ‘not unlikely’.
The man himself is no help. For most of his life he maintained that he was born on 25 January 1771, which not entirely coincidentally would have meant that he shared a birthday with Robert Burns. But I’m afraid, to misquote Burns, that fact’s a chiel that most definitely dings.
So should we be getting the socially distanced bunting out this week? Just to complicate matters, Hogg writes in one of the anecdotes about ‘Odd Characters’ in his 1829 collection The Shepherd’s Calendar that, looking back to the beginning of the eighteenth century, ‘as the custom then was, it was decreed that the first Sabbath after [a baby] was born he should be baptized’. Now 9 December was indeed a Sunday in 1770. So if that was still the practice in Hogg’s day, that might mean he was born between Sunday 2 and Saturday 8 December 1770.
On the other hand perhaps there was a good reason why the baptism of a baby born in November had to be postponed. For instance, though his parents lived just down the road from the church, we are talking about a Borders winter, so perhaps they did not want to take a baby out during bad weather. Or maybe the minister had a cold on the day.
Some wise person, who, unlike the present writer, is not currently banned from crossing their council boundary and entering the Borders, perhaps knows or can find out what the usual interval between birth and baptism was in Hogg’s day; or on which Sundays in November and December 1770 baptisms actually occurred and how they were grouped in the register; or for that matter the weather then. Otherwise the date of Hogg’s birth may always remain a bit of a mystery.
All I can recommend is that we all take the opportunity every day from now till 9 December to raise a glass to his immortal memory. Happy Birthday, James.
PS If you need a reason to keep going for a further week or so, another glass is due for Hogg’s sometime collaborator Ludwig van Beethoven, baptised 17 December 1770 in Bonn and (probably but not certainly) born the previous day.