If asked, most Scots would say that the most important person in the history of Scottish culture was Robert Burns. Certainly for his extraordinary efforts in preserving so many Scottish songs, as well as creating his magnificent poetry in Scots, Rabbie deserves all our thanks and praise.

Even as he worked himself to death on behalf of Scottish culture – I truly believe he died at the age of 37 from exhaustion – a young woman from Perthshire was already showing the signs of a talent which in my opinion ranks her second only to Burns in importance to the preservation of Scottish culture at a crucial time.

It was to the great benefit of Scotland that Carolina Oliphant, Lady Nairne, lived and flourished at a time when Scottish society as a whole was being encouraged to adopt what I call North Britishness – the King’s English was preferred to Scots, London and not Edinburgh became the capital, and the pro-Union cause was advanced at the expense of Scotland’s nationhood.

Burns fought that process, and so did Lady Nairne. Yet she did so quietly, effectively and anonymously – not even her husband knew she was waging a silent war with words and music to preserve and improve the state of Scottish culture.

As a lover of her songs, I had been meaning to write about Lady Nairne for some time when a superb new book arrived on my desk the other day. It is entitled The White Rose of Gask: The Life and Songs of Carolina Oliphant, Lady Nairne. It’s by Freeland Barbour from Glen Fincastle in Perthshire, who has been a central figure in Scottish traditional music for many years, as a musician, radio and record producer, and composer. Earlier this year he published a new edition of The Lays of Strathearn, the songs of Lady Nairne and now this new book presents a long-overdue biography and reassessment of her life and work, much of it based on research into family papers to which Barbour has recently had access as he is a direct descendant of Lady Nairne’s elder sister.

I will leave it to people like Freeland Barbour to carry out a cultural assessment, but suffice to say I agree with his conclusion that the life and work of Lady Nairne needs to be better known and appreciated.

Carolina Oliphant was born on August 16, 1766 to strongly Jacobite parents. Both her father Laurence Oliphant of Gask – an ancient noble family who fought for Robert the Bruce, with an ancestor signing the 1320 Declaration of Arbroath – and her mother, who was a Robertson of Struan, had seen their family lands confiscated after the ’45. They had gone into exile, often staying at the Stuart court in Rome, but returned to Gask House, which had been bought by relatives, in 1764.

Nicknamed the Flower of Strathearn, Carolina loved to sing and dance and studied music, learning from the great fiddler Niel Gow who lived nearby. She began to compose her own songs and also set herself the task of “improving” folk ballads which in those days were earthy indeed – needless to say it is her versions that we know now.

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Freeland Barbour places her Jacobite songs early in her composing career. To me they are still the best summation of the feelings of the people of the Highlands about Charles Edward Stuart. Here are verses from a trio of her Jacobite songs, starting with Wha’ll be King but Charlie?

The news from Moidart cam yestreen,

Will soon gar mony ferlie

For ships o’ war hae just come in,

And landed royal Chairlie.

Come thro’ the heather, around him gather,

Ye’re a’ the welcomer early;

Around him cling wi’ a’ your kin;

For wha’ll be King but Charlie?

Perhaps her most famous song is this:

Bonnie Charlie’s noo awa

Safely o’er the friendly main;

He’rts will a’most break in twa

Should he no’ come back again.

Will ye no’ come back again?

Will ye no’ come back again?

Better lo’ed ye canna be

Will ye no’ come back again?

Ye trusted in your Hieland men

They trusted you, dear Charlie;

They kent you hiding in the glen,

Your cleadin’ was but barely.*

The siege of Carlisle by the Jacobites was captured thus:

Wi’ a hundred pipers, an’ a’, an’ a’,

Wi’ a hundred pipers, an’ a’, an’ a’,

We’ll up an’ gie them a blaw, a blaw

Wi’ a hundred pipers, an’ a’, an’ a’.

O it’s owre the border awa’, awa’

It’s owre the border awa’, awa’

We’ll on an’ we’ll march to Carlisle ha’

Wi’ its yetts its castle an’ a’, an a’.

O! wha’ is foremos o’ a’, o’ a’,

Oh wha’ is foremost o’ a’, o’ a’,

Bonnie Charlie the King o’ us a’, hurrah!

Wi’ his hundred pipers an’ a’, an’ a’.

His bonnet and feathers he’s waving high,

His prancing steed maist seems to fly,

The nor’ win’ plays wi’ his curly hair,

While the pipers play wi’an unco flare.

Wi’ a hundred pipers, an’ a’, an’ a’,

Wi’ a hundred pipers, an’ a’, an’ a’,

We’ll up an’ gie them a blaw, a blaw

Wi’ a hundred pipers, an’ a’, an’ a’.

Her love of the land around Gask House shone through in nature poems and songs of which The Rowan Tree is perhaps the best known:

Oh rowan tree, oh rowan tree

Thou’lt aya be dear to thee

Entwined thou art wi’ many ties

O’hame and infancy

Thy leaves were aye the first of spring

Thy flowers the summer’s pride

There was nae sic a bonnie tree

In a’ the country side

Oh rowan tree.

She could write with humour and zest about domesticity, as in The Laird O Cockpen:

Mistress Jean she was makin’ the elderflower wine;

‘An’ what brings the laird at sic a like time?’

She put aff her apron, and on her silk goun,

Her mutch wi’ red ribbons, and gaed awa’ doun.

An’ when she cam’ ben, he bowed fu’ low,

An’ what was his errand he soon let her know;

Amazed was the laird when the lady said ‘Naw’,

And wi’ a laigh curtsie she turned awa’.

Dumfounder’d was he, nae sigh did he gie,

He mounted his mare – he rade cannily;

An’ aften he thought he gaed through the glen,

She’s daft to refuse the laird o’ Cockpen.

Carolina enjoyed domestic life at Gask House and could probably have stayed there all her life, but a marriage was arranged for her at the age of 39 to Major William Murray Nairne, an officer in the British Army. She moved to Edinburgh and it was there that she began to contribute her songs – 87 of them in total – to The Scottish Minstrel collections by R. A. Smith, signing herself BB, standing for the fictitious Mrs Bogan of Bogan. Neither Smith nor Major Nairne had a clue as to what she was doing.

Thanks largely to Sir Walter Scott who knew them well, Nairne’s family title was restored in 1824 by King George IV, and she became Baroness Nairne. They had one son, also William Murray, born in 1808 who suffered ill health, and after Lord Nairne died in 1830, her son and she travelled widely in Ireland and the continent, perhaps seeking to alleviate his symptoms. It was to no avail as William died in Brussels in 1837.

Lady Nairne stayed abroad until returning to Scotland in 1843, but she suffered a stroke and died on October 26, 1845. She was buried in the family chapel and it was only after her death that her sister published The Lays of Strathearn so that the world could finally acknowledge the composer of so many fine Scottish songs.

Freeland Barbour makes this assessment of his ancestor: “Her family were privileged even if the star of good fortune was perhaps not shining on them as brightly as it had done in previous centuries. The family’s adherence to the Royal House of Stuart nearly lost them everything but they were fortunate and the adherence gave the world, through Carolina’s own particular gifts, some memorable songs. Her innate character, kindness and consideration helped to mould further songs, a handful of which have been described as immortal and indeed show every sign of being so.

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Underpinning all her songwriting was the deep treasure trove of Scottish vernacular melody in all its particular richness, melodic and rhythmic strength and variety, and her own ability to appreciate its qualities well surely the wellspring from which much of her art stemmed. She would probably be surprised to know that folk do still sing some of her songs and perhaps quietly irritated too that her natural reticence and humility has not prevented her name from being forever associated with our national culture.

Robert Burns is the pre-eminent figure but behind him Carolina Oliphant heads up a considerable cohort. Scots as a tongue had always been part of the national culture but Carolina and many others as well helped to reposition folk song and bring it from its folk tradition into an art tradition without losing is couthiness or fourth rate qualities. The fact that she achieved this without public knowledge or desire for recognition of that achievement is part of the charm and authenticity of her work.

Barbour ends the book with lines from one of my favourite Scottish songs, Land o’ the Leal, composed by Lady Nairne to comfort a friend grieving for he loss of a child. I’ll leave you with it as proof of the wonderful work of Carolina Oliphant:

I’m wearin’ awa’, John

Like snaw-wreaths in thaw, John,

I’m wearin’ awa’

To the land o’ the leal.

There ‘s nae sorrow there, John,

There ‘s neither cauld nor care, John,

The day is aye fair

In the land o’ the leal.

Our bonnie bairn ‘s there, John,

She was baith gude and fair, John;

And O! we grudged her sair

To the land o’ the leal.

But sorrow’s sel’ wears past, John,

And joy ‘s a-coming fast, John,

The joy that ‘s aye to last

In the land o’ the leal.

Sae dear ‘s the joy was bought, John,

Sae free the battle fought, John,

That sinfu’ man e’er brought

To the land o’ the leal.

O, dry your glistening e’e, John!

My saul langs to be free, John,

And angels beckon me

To the land o’ the leal.

*The White Rose of Gask: The Life and Songs of Carolina Oliphant, Lady Nairne’. By Freeland Barbour. Published by Birlinn in hardback, priced £14.99.