Kilmeny: An Overview of Scottish Literature

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Kilmeny, Kilmeny, where have you been?
Lang hae we sough baith holt and den;
By linn, by ford, and green-wood tree, 
Yet you are halesome and fair to see. 
Where gat you that joup o’ the lily scheen?
That bonnie snood of the birk sae green?
And these roses, the fairest that ever were seen?
Kilmeny, Kilmeny, where have you been?

Kilmeny, lines 25-32

James Hogg’s Kilmeny is not the earliest example of Scottish literature. Nor indeed is it the first work in the resurgence of Scottish literature which began in the 1700s and developed throughout the 1800s. It does, however, echo many of the themes and characteristics which can be traced from Robert Burns onward. Love of mystery and fantasy, love of country, and, of course, the Scots language itself. 

The events in the poem center around a young woman (we know from the poem she’s about 20 years old) who disappears to another land—what we would think of as Fairyland, returns to the real world to tell of what she’s seen, and then returns to her Fairyland at the end of the poem. 

Kilmeny’s primary interest is its fantasy element. A young woman goes to sleep on a bed of green with flowers around her and then wakes up in another land? Sounds an awful lot like a lot of other fairy stories we hear. 

It’s not straightforward by any means and it’s definitely not something which you can just read once.  

Let’s look at perhaps the most obvious piece of fantasy.

Yes, I have watch’d o’er ilk degree, 
Wherever blooms femenitye;
But sinless virgin, free of stain
In mind and body, fand I nane
Never, since the banquet of time, 
Found I a virgin in her prime, 
Till late this bonnie maiden I saw 
As spotless as the morning snaw:
Full Twenty years she has lived as free
As the spririts that sojoune in this countrye: 
I have brought her away frae the snares of men, 
That sin or death she never may ken.

Kilmeny, Lines 69-84

To a modern woman (or those of feminine leanings), the lines above will probably be offensive at first blush.  Yet, they are they are emblematic of the primary mystery and fantasy surrounding the poem. 

This is the fantasy of the virgin being able to ascend to spiritual heights other women can’t. 

Of course, we might expect something like this from the hordes of fantastical traditions which claim dragons eat virgins and unicorns will only approach virgins. Anything other than the virgin state is referred to as somehow less unless it is accompanied by marriage and by childbearing. 

There is plenty in the poem which refers to being “free from stain” and from Kilmeny being “pure as pure could be.” But, those words are not accompanied by anything which would shame other women. 

For instance, line 89 says “Women are freed of the littand scorn.” Littand is a Scots-Gaelic word. To lit means to dye to stain something. Littand is a figurative term of the world which means shame. So, the line would correctly be translated “Women are freed from the shame of scorn.” Doesn’t quite match with the previous lines, does it? 

Purity here, therefore, is not what we think it is. Otherwise, why would women be free from scorn? 

Also, if Kilmeny was “pure as pure could be” then why is that line used in contrast in to the “rosy monk of the isle” in line 3? Kilmeny purer than a monk? Well, perhaps a Protestant would take that stance, but the reality is that the monks of the isles went to the isles in the first place to become purer. 

What kind of purity therefore makes a young woman purer than a holy man? 

If we look at Kilmeny herself, we get some answers. 

At the beginning of the poem, she goes into the glen to be in nature and to take delight in birdsong and in flowers growing. At the end, she is still in the glen, singing to the creatures of the wood and taking delight birdsong and in the flowers growing. 

She doesn’t go to visit the church, she doesn’t dream of Biblical virtues, and she doesn’t spend hours at her needle or in religious instruction. She wanders in nature, dreams of nature, and abides in nature. 

What we actually have here is the central Romantic fantasy of nature being purer than the society of mankind. Therefore, the closer we are to nature, like Kilmeny, the purer we are. 

They bore her far to a mountain green, 
To see what mortal never had seen; 
And they seated her high on a purple sward, 
And bade her heed what she saw and heard, 
And note the changes the spirits wrought, 
For now she lived in the land of thought. 

Kilmeny, lines 165-170

“The land of thought” is referenced twice in Kilmeny. The first is quoted above. The second is in the last line of the poem.

In between the two places it’s mentioned, Kilmeny has several visions. The first is, of course, of Scotland itself and Hogg devotes about 20 lines to its description. 

We know, of course, that her vision is of Scotland because she “found her heart to that land did cleave” and “She saw the plaid and the broad claymore, / And the brows that the badge of freedom bore.” The claymore is rather telling.

Here, we see the love of land emerge. That great hallmark of Scottishness. 

It’s love of the highland moors, the peat bogs, the lochs, and the heather. Love of the stillness, the wind, the peaks. Love even of the mundane and the humble. Sir Walter Scott glorified the countryside in his novels.  Robert Burns wrote almost exclusively in the Scots dialect and glorifies even the very humble dish of haggis. James Hogg farmed and shepherded in Scotland while writing his poetry. 

Even in the “land of thought” Kilmeny can’t keep away from Scotland. 

Bonnie Kilmey gaed up the glen

Kilmeny, Line 1

The Scottish language is something of a modern miracle. Once nearly extinct, it now has advocacy groups and learning resources widely available to everyone. If you visit Scotland (which everyone should at least once!), there are even places in Scotland where Scots Gaelic has made it onto the road signs alongside English. 

We wouldn’t have much of anything, however, without the Scottish writers who introduced readers to the language.

Hogg is a little more approachable in this sense. There’s a smattering of Scottish words and there’s many words such as “hae” for have, “bonnie” for pretty, and “lang” for long. The majority of the rest of the poem is in pure English, however with a few words thrown in for “flavor.” If you are new to Scots, then this is a good starting point! 

This can be daunting for anyone—particularly if even English is a challenge. My advice? Google it. Several links have already been used in this blog. One is for a Scots-English dictionary, the other is for an entire site dedicated to the Scots language. Both will at least get you started, or give you a refresher if, like me, it’s been a wee while.

Tomorrow is Burn’s night—so we’ll pick back up with more Scottish then. For now, I have to go soak some oats in scotch—you’ll find out why soon!


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