James Hogg was born in Ettrick in the Scottish Borders. He enjoyed very little formal education, having to leave the local parish school at the age of seven when his father, a tenant farmer, went bankrupt. It would appear that his love of poetry stemmed from his mother who was a collector of Scottish ballads and his uncle who told him Scottish folk tales.
He was given a job as a shepherd and general farm labourer by one of his neighbours and bought a fiddle which he learned to play in his limited spare time. He moved on to work in the same capacity for relatives on several other farms before going to work for James Laidlaw at Blackhouse in the Yarrow valley where he stayed for the next ten years. Laidlaw encouraged his literary studies, allowing him the use of his own library. He started to compose songs whilst there and became close friends with William Laidlaw, James’s son who was later to work as an assistant to Sir Walter Scott.
In 1800 he left Backhouse to return to the family home to look after his parents. In 1801 he was recruited by Scott to collect ballads for him and the following year began working for the Edinburgh Magazine. He wrote an unauthorised biography of Scott entitled Familiar Anecdotes of Sir Walter Scott in 1834. His first collection of poetry, Mountain Bard, was published in 1807. After a couple of love affairs, both of which resulted in illegitimate children, he returned to Ettrick to escape his creditors before moving to Edinburgh in 1810 to start his literary career in earnest.
Over the next twenty five years he wrote a profusion of songs, articles and poetry in both Scots and English, as well as three novels, the best known of which was The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. His second volume of poetry The Forest Minstrel appeared in 1810, followed by The Queen’s Wake (1813), The Pilgrims of the Sun (1815), Modor of the Moor, a narrative poem in 1816, Queen Hynde (1824) and A Queer Book (1832). He had been given a small farm rent-free by the Duke of Buccleuch in 1815 and in 1820 he married Margaret Phillips. Two of his later offerings were Noctes Ambrosianae (Nights at Ambrose’s), a series of imaginary conversations in a drinking den, and Tales of the Wars of Montrose, a book of short stories.
He was a man of great natural genius, famous during his lifetime, who declined a knighthood from King George IV in 1832. He was in poor health during the last two years of his life, partly occasioned by an accident when he fell through the ice playing curling. His passing in 1835 was commemorated by Wordsworth in his Extempore Effusion upon the Death of James Hogg, with phrases referring to him as the “mighty minstrel” and “shepherd poet”. He is one of the poets commemorated on the Scott Monument in Edinburgh.