ORATION by Billy Young
The Oration to Will H Ogilvie
The Ogilvie Cairn, Harden, Hawick
150th Anniversary Celebrations
17th August 2019
Chairman Ian, Lord and Lady Polwarth, members of the Ogilvie family, fellow trustees and Borderers. Can I first thank the Will H Ogilvie Memorial Trust for giving me the opportunity to propose the oration to Will on the 150th anniversary of his birth?
The borderland has changed a great deal since Will’s time. The car has replaced the horse, and great swathes of our border hills have been taken over for forestry or, worse still, wind farms! In our towns the textile and hosiery industries of are becoming things of the past. Border towns are looking to re-invent themselves and one way this can be done is by tapping into the incredibly rich history and heritage that the borderland has. Writers like Sir Walter Scott, James Hogg, John Leyden and Hugh MacDiarmid have all played their part in weaving an incredibly rich tapestry of legends, stories and poems which, cover the whole of the borderland. And then, of course there was Will H Ogilvie.
Ogilvie was born into the safe middle-class farming background of the nineteenth century. His father George was a tenant farmer at Holefield, near Kelso, while his mother Agnes was an orphan of the Indian Mutiny at Cawnpore. Will had a happy, carefree childhood and was taught by a governess at home, before becoming a day boarder at Kelso High School for two terms. He then attended Fettes College in Edinburgh where he won a prize in Latin verse and excelled as a runner and at rugby.
On leaving Fettes Will returned home for a year, but he was young and adventurous so just after his twentieth birthday, he upped roots and travelled half way round the world to Australia, a young, untamed country that was brimming with opportunities. On the 1st of November 1889 he arrived in Sydney aboard the SS Arcadia to gain “Colonial experience” as a jackaroo on the sheep station of Belalie near Bourke, New South Wales which was then owned by the Scott family. The outback of Australia completely blew Will away, for it was a land of extremes. On one hand were terrible droughts where countless animals died for want of water. On the other were extreme rain storms which turned the parched, brown earth into slimy quagmires and the dried-up creeks into raging torrents. The farms were immense. It wasn’t uncommon for fields to be made of sides that were each twelve to fifteen miles long! Will talked of helping to muster 30,000 wethers and drive them ten miles to the drafting yard. By the time the last sheep had passed through the paddock gate the leaders were being steadied at a second gate four miles away!
The time that he spent in the saddle or sleeping out beneath the southern stars fired his imagination as a poet… and so did the men and women he worked with. The hard and rugged bushmen of the sheep stations quickly accepted that he could ride horses with the best of them, and wild horses at that, “buckjumpers” as the drovers called them.
Store cattle from Nelanjie. They’re mute as milkers now;
But yonder grizzled drover, with the care-lines on his brow,
Could tell of merry musters on the big Nelanjie plains,
With blood upon the chestnut’s flanks and foam upon the reins:
Could tell of nights upon the road when those same mild-eyed steers,
Went ringing round the river bend and through the scrub like spears;
And if his words were rude and rough, we know his words are true,
We know what wild Nelanjies are – and we’ve been droving too!
There were others in the outback that shared his love for poetry and ballads. These kindred spirits became his friends, men like A. B. (Banjo) Patterson, author of Waltzing Matilda, Henry Lawson and, of course, Harry “The Breaker” Morant.
Harry Morant was a friend I had
In the years long passed away
A chivalrous, wild and reckless lad,
A knight born out of his day.
Full of romance and void of fears
With a love of the world’s applause,
He should have been one of the cavaliers
Who fought in King Charles’s cause.
Morant, like Will, was a consummate horseman and like Will had an innate ability to “lift” a horse over any hurdle. The two went droving together, broke horses together, wrote bush verses together and got gloriously drunk together! His devil-may-care life came to a violent end after he was convicted of killing Boer War prisoners, in revenge for the death of his commanding officer, and was executed by British firing squad in 1902.
‘The Breaker’ is sleeping in some far-off place,
Where the Boer War heroes lie,
And we’ll meet no more in a steeplechase–
Harry Morant and I.
In 1894 Will, writing under the pen name Glenrowan, was encouraged to send some early poems to the Sydney Bulletin; the first of many hundred that appeared in that paper or others like it. When The Bulletin published his first collection, Fair girls and gray horses in 1898 the response from the public was little short of phenomenal.
It didn’t take long for his talent to be recognized and for him to be hailed as one of Australia’s greatest bush balladists. It was said that what Kipling was to the Indian Empire, and what Robert Service was to the Yukon, Will Ogilvie was to the Australian Bush.
But throughout this time his homeland was never far from his thoughts and the call of his beloved border hill grew stronger and stronger.
I have tried the spots in order
Where the brightest sunbeams fall,
But the land upon the Border
Is my own land, after all;
And so, at the end of 1900 he reluctantly decided to return home. At the beginning of 1901 the great and the good of Australian society held a grand farewell dinner for him in The Hotel Australia, in Sydney. This simply wasn’t his thing, the shy and modest man cringed at the praise that was heaped upon him and could only manage to deliver a less-than-fluent reply.
Back home he decided to move to Edinburgh and devote his time to journalism. But in 1905 the wanderlust gripped him again. This time he travelled “across the pond” to the USA to take up a post as Professor of Agricultural Journalism at Iowa State College. But the academic life didn’t suit him. He found it narrow and enclosed after the time he had spent in the Australian bush. Before he left for home, he borrowed a horse and rode in the West to see what the cowboys were like. He wasn’t impressed… and claimed that they had little to say and, in the style of Blazing Saddles, ate nothing but beans!
Back home when out hunting one day with the Jed Hunt, he spied a petty girl jump a tricky wall in an impressive manner. Her name was Madge Scott–Anderson and she was the daughter of the master of the hunt. Will and Madge fell madly in love and as well as sharing a mutual love of horses also had a mutual love of beautiful things. They rode together through mist and sunshine and the Borderland they loved turned into a fairy land of rainbows and witches where Madge was Titania and Will, Pan. They were married in the summer of 1908 at Jedburgh Parish Church and a year later Madge gave birth to a baby girl Margaret, who Will called Wendy – a name that stuck with her for 84 years. The following year Neddy the Donkey arrived at their home at Bowden and sitting in a basket chair on Neddy’s back baby Wendy (or Babs) and her father explored the big wide world out beyond the village.
But the sun is gone, and the shadows creep.
And the gold lights flicker and flee:
And Daddies must work and Neddys sleep
And Babses take their tea.
So we wave one arm to the darkening firs,
And one to the sunset sky,
And home we go – my hand in hers –
Neddy, and Babs, and I.
In March 1912 Madge gave birth to a son, George. And because his eyes were blue Will thought that surely the boy would be a sailor (an Admiral no less!) but he became a factor instead and more importantly was to write the definitive account of his father’s life in his book Will H Ogilvie, Balladist of Borders and Bush which was published in 1994. In 1918 Will took out a lease on Kirklea at Ashkirk and in time bought a car to replace the only modes of transport they had; the bicycle or pony and trap. And it was at Kirklea that he spent the remaining 45 years of his life writing some of his finest sporting verse and the thing that he is best remembered for locally, his Border poems. No-one, with perhaps the exception of Sir Walter Scott, could conjure up the spirit of the reiving days better than Will. In his Border poems he captured in exquisite detail the danger and romance of these lawless and bloody times. In my opinion there are two reiving poems that stand out before all others. The first is his magnum opus, Whaup o’ the rede. In the preface he said “It is written down from the fullness of a heart that loves every leaf and grass blade on the Borders, and it is written for those understanding people whose heritage is the memory and legend that wraps romance around the Marches”. It starts with stirring lines which mimic the beat of galloping hoots:
Red on the darkness the streamers run,
Of a flame that is not of the rising sun,
And the shriek that echoes from hill to vale
Is more than the questing curlew’s wail,
For the gate of a Border keep’s in flame
And the ravens feast on its fallen fame.
The Whaup of the title was a young minstrel boy who had been accidentally brought back to Kirkhope as a baby by Wat o’ Harden after a raid into the territory of the English Neville’s. More minstrel than warrior, he tries to win over a young lady with his sentimental and soppy verses – but she won’t have any of it, so he lifts his harp and comes up with something which is far more stirring:
Ho for the blades of Harden!
Ho for the driven kye!
The broken gate and the lance’s hate
And a banner red on the sky!
The rough road runs by the Carter;
The white foam creams on the rein;
Ho for the blades of Harden!
“There will be moonlight again!”
The other reiving poem that never fails to stirs the blood is, of course, ‘The Raiders’; one of few poems that is sure to silence the mob at a rowdy Hawick Common Riding dinner; that is until the chorus of howling winds starts up!
Last night a wind from Lammermuir came roaring up the glen,
With the tramp of trooping horses and the laugh of reckless men
And struck a mailed hand on the gate and cried in rebel glee,
Come forth, come forth my Borderer and ride the march with me.
But his reiving poems only make up a small part of his entire collection of Border poems. The rest are love poems that he wrote to the Borderland itself, for he had a deep and lifelong love for the place where he was born. As a horseman, walker and cyclist there were very few Borders valleys that he didn’t know well. He visited them in every season and found beauty in everything he saw. The tumbling burn, the modest flower, the wildlife and the rolling border hills themselves all inspired him to write.
We have wandered down the valley
In the days of buried time,
Seen the foxgloves dip and dally,
Heard the fairy blue-bells chime;
Seen the brier roses quiver
When the west-wind crossed the dell,
Heard the music of the river
And the tale it had to tell,
Where the melody Love taught her
Is the laverock’s only lay,
At the foot of Bowmont water,
Bowman Water – far away.
Six years ago, I was asked to propose a toast to the Diamond jubilee Cornet at a dinner in Langholm. This man was like Will Ogilvie in many ways. A gentleman farmer who had been educated at private school, he was a consummate horseman, a successful point-to-point rider, National Hunt jockey and great huntsman. I was looking for a piece of poetry that would sum up this great horseman, and I knew instinctive where to look – in the sporting verses of WHO. It’s testament to Will that I found exactly what it was looking for in his poem, The Veteran. Like so many great poets you can find in Will’s extensive works word paintings that describe perfectly a myriad of different thoughts, emotions and happenings. Two verses in particularly seemed to sum up perfectly the life of this man and indeed the life of Will himself:
There is no other in the field so truly loved as he:
We better like to see him out than any younger three;
And yet one horseman day by day rides jealous at his rein –
Old Time that smarts beneath the whip of fifty years disdain.
He crowds him at his fences, for he envies his renown;
Someday he’ll cross him at a leap and bring a good man down,
And time will take a long revenge for years of laughing scorn,
And fold the faded scarlet that was ne’er more nobly worn.
In January 1963 Old Time finally brought Will H Ogilvie down. A few days before he died his ever-faithful wife Madge left the room for a few moments. When she returned, she found him standing at the bedroom window gazing out toward his beloved Border hills, and when she reached his side he turned and said “Saddle the grey”.
He died a few days later.
His ashes were scattered, with Wattle leaves from Australia, further down this valley on his beloved “Hill Road to Roberton”.
A month later Isabella Johnstone wrote this poignant appreciation which appeared in several national newspapers:
The border hills are weeping
Shrouded white with snow.
The burns have creased their leaping
Silent now they go.
The hill winds sob their sorrow,
The trees are bent with grief,
By Teviot, Ettrick, Yarrow,
The snows have spun a wreath
We have lost our faithful lover,
To a fairer country far,
But he left a gift of beauty
Which time can never mar.
That “gift of beauty”, his poetry, is still as fresh and relevant today as it was then. And the volume of work that he left us is truly amazing. To date 915 different poems have appeared in print and we know that at least 1166 poems exist and there will, I’m sure, be others which have yet to be discovered.
I hope that this great treasure chest of work will inspire future generations both in Australia and here in the Scottish Borders and that Will H Ogilvie will be remembered for many centuries to come as the great Balladist of Borders and Bush and “Last of the Border Minstrels”.