Book Chapter

The Scottish Nursery Muse: Scottish Poetry and the Children’s Verse Tradition in the Victorian Period



Blair K (2019) The Scottish Nursery Muse: Scottish Poetry and the Children’s Verse Tradition in the Victorian Period. In: Dunnigan S & Lai S (eds.) The Land of Story-Books: Scottish Children’s Literature in the Long Nineteenth Century. Occasional Papers series, 23. Glasgow: Association for Scottish Literary Studies, pp. 84-106.

First paragraph: This chapter takes its cue from two anthologies published within three years of each other at the close of the nineteenth century: Andrew Lang’s The Blue Poetry Book (1891) and Robert Ford’s Ballads of Bairnhood (1894). Lang and Ford were both Scottish writers and editors, though Lang at this point was a noted London-based literary critic, editor, anthropologist, collector of folklore and polymath, whose lavishly illustrated decorative anthology was published by Macmillan; whereas Ford, a working-class author of humorous Scots verse and prose, also a collector of traditional literature, and an editor of Scottish poets including Robert Burns and Robert Fergusson, published his simpler collection with the Paisley firm of Alexander Gardner, a publisher known for an active interest in politics as well as Scottish literature . Both anthologies make significant claims for the importance of a Scottish poetic tradition to children’s literature, yet they point to two different strands of influence and to differing genres. Neither anthology – in common with other leading anthologies of their type – is interested in ‘children’s poetry’ in the sense of poetry deliberately written for a child reader. Lang deliberately excludes ‘poems about children, or especially intended for children’, on the grounds that actual children are seldom interested in them.2 Ford, on the other hand, defines his selection as poems ‘relating to the subject of child-life’, contextualising it within an existing (Scottish) tradition of ‘nursery songs’.3 One anthology assumes that Scottish poetry, primarily written (or, in the case of ballads, collected) in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, is both exemplary of the kind of verse that children like to read, and an essential part of the cultural education of every British child. The other celebrates the living tradition of Scots verse about and for children as a vital part of the Scottish literary scene from the mid-Victorian period onwards and, not coincidentally, as a cultural heritage inhabited and developed by working-class Scottish writers. What is being argued here is that a consideration of these two interlinked strands shows the importance of Scottish poetry and the Scots language in Victorian verse cultures for and about children, and the corresponding significance of these verse cultures in relation to emerging questions about the value of Scottish literature and language. The individual poems discussed in the first half of this chapter, by Walter Scott and Thomas Campbell, were designated as children’s poetry by Lang and others because they were considered eminently, or pre-eminently, suitable for child readers. They were co-opted as ‘children’s’ poems in the course of the Victorian period rather than being consciously designed as such, and their protagonists are adults. The poems discussed in the second half of the chapter, in contrast, by the working-class writers William Miller, James Smith, and James Ballantine followed a differing trajectory. Made famous through their status as ‘nursery songs’, and strongly focused on the representation of Scottish working-class children and families, Miller and Ballantine’s poems reached a wide audience through inclusion in the anthology Songs for the Nursery, first published by Glasgow bookseller and printer David Robertson as a supplement to the Whistle Binkie series of popular verse and song anthologies , and then as a separate volume aimed at child readers in 1844. Smith’s later ‘Wee Joukydaidles’ first appeared in The Scotsman, before being widely republished. Through their status as popular Scottish songs, these poems also participated in performance culture, and were widely known to a mixed readership of adults and children. ‘Nursery verse’, a common appellation in the Victorian period, refers both to the expected location in which such verse will be set, and the location in which it will be read, whether by carers to children or by children themselves . Both sets of poems discussed here, and both types of poetry, are part of an ambiguous, cross-audienced verse culture, circulating in different guises, and aimed at child or adult readers at different points. Enormously popular in Scottish Victorian culture and beyond, nursery verse has been profoundly neglected and, where it has been noticed, deemed unworthy of scottish poetry and the children’s verse tradition.

nineteenth century; Scottish poetry; children's verse tradition

FundersUniversity of Strathclyde
Title of seriesOccasional Papers series
Number in series23
Publication date31/12/2019
PublisherAssociation for Scottish Literary Studies
Place of publicationGlasgow

People (1)


Professor Kirstie Blair
Professor Kirstie Blair

Dean of Faculty of Arts and Humanities, AH Management and Support Team