WHAT’S THE STORY?

TODAY is the 250th anniversary of the death of the best Scottish poet that you have never heard of, a man who inspired Robert Burns and who died tragically young.

Michael Bruce was known as the Poet of Loch Leven, and when he died of pulmonary tuberculosis – then known as consumption – on July 15 1767 at the age of just 21, he was already lauded in Edinburgh and elsewhere, and especially in his native Kinross-shire.

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After his death, Bruce’s fine pastoral poetry which influenced Robert Burns and many others became embroiled in a plagiarism scandal in which a friend of his, one John Logan, published some of Bruce’s best poems and claimed them as his own.

WHO WAS BRUCE?

THE son of a weaver from Kinnesswood, Bruce could read by the age of four, and studied Latin and Greek. His relatives managed to find enough money for the 15-year-old prodigy to attend Edinburgh University where he began to write poetry.

Biographer James MacKenzie, in his Life of Michael Bruce, Poet of Loch Leven, explained how Bruce stuck to the country life and places he knew to create his poetry: “How frequently yet how aptly he introduces his father and the family fireside, his native village, his early nurse, whose care and attention so strongly impressed him; the hills under whose shade he had been born and brought up, the little rills descending from the hill, under summer and winter aspect … ancient castles, with the old-world stories concerning them; the country funerals, his rustic friends, under the ‘pen-names’ he gave them, his early loves and favourites; even the old and new kirkyards — all seen from the eastern shoulder of the Lomond Hill, with the lovely prospects, south, west and east, are the poetic materials he found lying to his hand in his native district and introduced into his poems.”

WAS HE INNOVATIVE?

VERY much so. At a time when it was taboo, Bruce bravely introduced his own impending death into his poetry, writing in To the Cuckoo: HAIL! beauteous Stranger of the wood!

Attendant on the Spring!

Now heav’n repairs thy rural seat, And woods thy welcome sing.

Soon as the daisy decks the green, Thy certain voice we hear: Hast thou a star to guide thy path, Or mark the rolling year?

Alas! sweet bird! not so my fate, Dark scowling skies I see Fast gathering round, and fraught with woe And wintry years to me.

One of his last poems was Elegy to the Spring: Then, sleep my nights, and quiet bless’d my days; I fear’d no loss, my mind was all my store; No anxious wishes e’er disturb’d my ease; Heaven gave content and health – I ask’d no more.

Now, spring returns: but not to me returns The vernal joy my better years have known; Dim in my breast life’s dying taper burns, And all the joys of life with health are flown.

HE KNEW HE WAS DYING?

HE had been a delicate child, and had been consumptive from his early teens. After studying divinity with a sect that had seceded from the Church of Scotland, he spent his final months teaching at Forestmill in Clackmannanshire before returning home to Kinnesswood to die.

Mackenzie wrote: “He lingered on till the 6th July, concluding his last Sabbath on earth, and by the dawn of Monday morning his gentle spirit had silently departed, having seemingly passed peacefully away in sleep. His Bible was found on his pillow beside him.”

THEN WHAT HAPPENED?

BRUCE would probably have been remembered as a fine and pioneering pastoral poet and little more had it not been for his “friend” from university days, John Logan.

In 1770, Logan published Poems on Several Occasions by Michael Bruce, and followed it up in 1781 with another edition of poetry claiming that he himself had written Ode to the Cuckoo.

The friends, tutors and colleagues of Bruce were incandescent with rage but Logan stuck to his guns, so much so that he took a court case against a bookseller who brought out an edition of Bruce’s poems that contained the Ode. The case caused a sensation and made Bruce more famous than ever before. Logan could not prove he was the author of all the poems, and his case collapsed. He was eventually proven to be a plagiarist, and his own reputation never recovered.

THE LAST WORD

LET’S leave the last word to our national Bard, Robert Burns, and the proof that he knew and appreciated Bruce’s poetry. Early in 1791, the Rev George Baird wrote to Burns in hesitant fashion, saying that he was going to publish an edition of the poems of Bruce, the proceeds going to the poet’s mother. He wondered if Burns would compose memorial couplets for Bruce’s tombstone. Burns replied asking: “Why did you, my dear Sir, write to me in such a hesitating style on the business of poor Bruce? Don’t I know, and have I not felt the many ills, the peculiar ills, that Poetic flesh is heir to?”

A little more than four years later, Burns himself was dead at the age of just 36.