The Authorship of the “Canadian Boat — Song”:  A Bibliographical Note

by Linda Dowler

     From its first, anonymous appearance in Blackwoods Magazine for September, 1829, the “Canadian Boat Song” has tantalized its admirers, for the question of its authorship has remained an unsolved puzzle. The literature which has been generated by the problem of attribution is consid erable; the following, while not attempting an exhaustive bibliographical listing, will trace the major turns of the argument as it has appeared in print. There are, in all, eight names in the list of those for whom the laurel of authorship has been claimed. They will be reviewed here in the order in which they were entered.

     The second appearance of the poem in Taits Edinburgh Magazine for June, 1849, was the occasion for its first, and much doubted, attribution. Donald Campbell, using the song to conclude an article on the Highland exiles, remarks that it was found, evidently a translation from the Gaelic, among the posthumous papers of Hugh Montgomerie, 12th. Earl of Eglinton (1739-1819). The case for the Earl is taken up by Thomas Newbigging in The Canadian Boat Song (London, 1912). Newbigging’s contention that there was an alternative — and original — fourth stanza, the implications of which threw the date of the writing of the poem back to the mid-eighteenth century, is eventually laid to rest in Scottish Notes and Queries for July, 1934. The Earl wrote music, but not poetry, and it seems likely that one of his most popular settings became attached to the “Boat Song” sometime after his death in 1819, and the poem’s first appearance in 1829.

     Professor John Wilson (1785-1854), in his guise of “Christopher North”, was the presiding genius of the series of papers called Noctes Ainbrosianae, which was for some years a regular feature of Blackwoods. The “Boat Song” had made its debut in no. XLVI of the Noctes, and it was for a time quite naturally assumed that Wilson was its author. In 1862 Norman Macleod refers to him as such in Good Words. Researches into the authorship of the Noctes, however, have made it evident that Wilson was not himself responsible for no. XLVI. (See J.H. Lobban, in a letter to The Scotsman, October 1, 1903). G.M. Fraser, in The Lone Shieling (Aberdeen, 1908), discounts this fact as irrelevant, and argues the case for Wilson. Thomas Newbigging, in the essay discussed above, takes sarcastic exception to Fraser’s theory on a number of grounds, including Wilson’s alleged mediocrity as a poet, and the unlikelihood of his failing to lay claim to so fine a piece.

      The dialogue between “Christopher North” and “The Ettrick Shepherd” which provides a frame for the “Boat Song’s” first appearance, refers the poem as a translation from the Gaelic, just received from a friend travailing in Upper Canada. Gaelic scholars have labelled the “translation” statement a fiction (see Neil Munro in Saint Andrew, January 15, 1903), but the “friend in Upper Canada” has been less easily disposed of. The pioneer-novelist John Gait (1779-1839) was a close associate of the Blackwood group, and often wrote to his friend D.M. Moir ("Delta") with ideas for poems based on his Canadian experiences. The argument for Galt’s authorship of the “Boat Song” is first mooted by J.H. Lobban in a note in An Anthology of English Verse (1902). The claim is disputed by J.A. Macleod in a letter to The Scotsman for September 29, 1903. Galt was not, it seems, actually in Upper Canada during the period in question.

     The year 1903 saw further discussion of the perennial topic; in October The Scotsman published a letter of Donald Masson suggesting that James Hogg (1770-1835), “the Ettrick Shepherd” of the Noctes, might himself have written the poem, a theory which has not received much subsequent discussion. Also in October of 1903, however, J.H. Lobban wrote to The Scotsman, revealing that Noctes no. XLVI was written by J.G. Lockhart (1794-1854), a fact which, while certainly relevant, does not entirely dispel confusion, as Lockhart’s Noctes were often collaborative efforts. (See R.M. Wardle, “The Authorship of the Noctes Ambrosianae, “MP 42 [1944], 9-17.) W. Keith Leask, writing to The Glasgow Herald on August 27, 1924, quotes a letter to himself from Professor David Finlay, alleging that Lockhart wrote the poem, and that a manuscript in his hand existed as late as 1901. Leask also records that Norman Macleod had appealed to Lockhart on one occasion, and to Wilson on two other occasions, to reveal the identity of the poem’s begetter, and that both men had refused him. Despite his certainly mischievous silence, however, Lockhart remains in the running; his name is persuasively returned to our attention as recently as 1959, by Francis R. Hart, writing to the TLS (vol. 58, p. 119). The unusual metrical form of the “Boat Song” has been very much an issue in the authorship controversy, particularly among those who make a claim for D.M. Moir (see below). Hart points to Lockhart’s use of the “Boat Song” stanza in a poem which he proveably did write for Noctes no. XXXVI.

     William (“Tiger”) Dunlop (1792-1848) is the second “friend in Upper Canada” to whom “Christopher North” may have been referring in Noctes no. XLVI. Thomas L. Work, in The Aberdeen Journal Notes and Queries for December 1 and 9, 1909, and Charles S. Blue, in The Canadian Magazine, March, 1918, present the case, which is further argued by Victor Lauriston in Saturday Night of September 26, 1925 (p. 3) and in The London Free Press for August 22, 1942 (“Canadian Boat Song controversy goes back to famed Huron man,” p.31).

     Perhaps the strongest — though by no means conclusive — arguments in this long debate have been launched in favour of the physician and poet David Macbeth Moir (1798-1851). His name is first raised by G.A.H. Douglas in a letter to The Glasgow Herald (October 2, 1924), who suggests that “Delta” wrote the poem at the instigation of Galt, his regular correspondent while in Upper Canada. Two days later, The Glasgow Herald published a letter from Mrs. S.C. Wilson, which attempts to demonstrate similarities between the vocabulary and rhythm of the “Boat Song” and some of Moir’s poems. In an article entitled “The Canadian Boat Song: a consideration of a claim for Delta” (Scottish Notes and Queries, October, 1933), Mrs. Wilson reiterates and expands her argument that, both by temperament and poetic practice, Moir was well qualified to have written the “Boat Song.” Edward MacCurdy’s competent survey of the evidence for all eight nominees (A Literary Enigma. The Canadian Boat Song: its authorship and associations, Stirling, 1935) leads him to a much-qualified vote in favour of “Delta,” while G.H. Needler, in The Lone Shieling; origin and authorship of the Canadian Boat Song” (Toronto, 1941), develops the case for a Galt Moir collaboration, basing much of his argument on discussion of the poem’s metrical structure. It is relevant (though probably not damning) to note in this context the evidence of Francis R. Hart whose letter, noted above, cites Moir’s own letter of August 17, 1829 to Blackwood, excusing himself for his failure to contribute anything to the upcoming September issue of the magazine.

     The last, and surely the most unlikely, entry in the contest is no less a figure than Sir Walter Scott, who, everyone agrees, could have written a poem in the metrical form of the “Boat Song,” had he been so minded. His champion, Lord Francis Hervey, contends in The Lone Shieling (London, 1925) that Scott wrote the poem in, or about, 1814, and later gave it to Lockhart, by then his son-in-law, for insertion in Blackwoods. The Scottish writer Neil Munro supports Lord Hervey’s theory, but suggests that a collaboration of Scott and Lockhart is the best guess on the evidence available. (See MacCurdy, op. cit., p. 45.)

     As the present evidence seems unlikely to justify anything more substantial than such best guesses, and as the taste for literary enigmas has tended to decline among scholars, the mystery of the “Boat Song’s” author ship would appear to be safe with the ghosts of “Christopher North” and his Ambrosian accomplices.