James Lumsden (1839 – 1909)
Samuel Mucklebackit, the pseudonym of James Lumsden, was the ‘author’ of several books of poetry and short tales written in a Scots’ idiom in the second half of the nineteenth century. Interspersed are many essays on East Lothian localities and observations of the character and situation of the county as seen by the author.
One of the puzzles of Mucklebackit/Lumsden is unravelling reality from fancy. In real life Lumsden seems to have been a larger than life character and on the page Mucklebackit even more so. But reading between the lines, there seems to be a core of reality around which the tales of Mucklebackit relate incidents in and aspects of Lumsden’s own experience.
Swith as the hoolet to ‘s auld blichtit tree,
Stealeth on saft wing at early cock-craw,
Bright as a star flaucht, I spoot up on hie,
What time the laverocks on morn’s star ca’ –
Cockit luggies, curly
Lang tail, an’ swirly,
Twinklin’ on the lerrick taps in the wauk’nin’ daw’!
He was born at Abbey Mill, Haddington on 4 November 1839, one of a large family. His father, a miller and then farmer, experienced both good times and bad, eventually losing his lease after a series of bad harvests. Lumsden’s mother died when he was young and his father’s second wife appears to have had hints of the ‘wicked step-mother’ in her character. James began work early but never settled: such details as are available are difficult to substantiate but sojourns in various parts of Scotland, Ireland, England and Canada may provide some of the reality behind Mucklebackit’s supposed adventures. By 1861 he had inherited a brother’s lease of the farm Chesters, by Garvald: it expired in March 1873. A gap in his oeuvre in the Haddingtonshire Courier provides space for his Canada trip, as does the context of works published after his return in mid 1874. His return seems to be associated with the family’s struggles to make a go of Nether Hailes. James seems to have had varied employment, supplemented by his writing: books as well as articles and poems in the local press flowed from his pen. He still had time to marry (at the age of 51) the widow of another local poet. James and his adopted family moved to Edinburgh where they lived until he died on 18 October 1909. He is buried in Prestonkirk kirkyard.
KING LOTH, the Grim, sat on his throne –
Owre a’ the Lothians King was he;
Nor frien’ nor kin loved he, but ane –
Ismolde – his ae fair daughter, she.
Samuel Mucklebackit was heavily influenced by Robert Burns and Robert Fergusson, and when on form was able to inject humour and telling observation into his poems. His poetic subjects were the events, people and places of East Lothian with diversions into the wider world. His essays, of which there were more as time went on,
One commentator (Ian Meikle in Scottish Book Collector, 2, 1990) observed:
The Samuel Mucklebackit character is a curious one: well respected’ a model farmer; knowledgeable in all things agricultural, rural, traditional, historical, religious and , of course, political; a champion of the people.
Perhaps as Mucklebackit, Lumsden could venture down forbidden paths, passing on observations that might otherwise be seen as too daring for the time. Today, they open a window not otherwise readily available onto conditions and social life in the second half of the nineteenth century.