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James Hogg

1770 - 1835


James Hogg was born in 1770, claiming the same birth-date as Robert Burns (25th January), and lived and worked most of his life in the Scottish Borders. He attended school only briefly, mainly because when he was seven, his father, tenant farmer Robert Hogg, was declared bankrupt, and the young James took work as a cow-herd to supplement his family’s income. There were two main strands to Hogg’s early cultural experience: folk traditions and religion. The family were church-goers and his father was an elder, while his mother was steeped in the oral tradition, relating to her children folk tales and songs of kings, knights and supernatural beings.

As a young man Hogg worked as a shepherd in Selkirkshire and Dumfriesshire, becoming interested in literature in his early twenties, when he attempted writing songs and poems, some of which were published in The Scots Magazine. He moved to Edinburgh in 1810 to pursue a career as a full-time man of letters, after having published poetry and non-fiction while maintaining his day-job as a shepherd. However, in 1813 he returned to Selkirkshire, where he lived and worked in the Duke of Buccleuch's Altrive Farm in Yarrow. He continued to publish regularly while maintaining a contentious relationship with the Edinburgh literati, including his friend and some-time mentor, Walter Scott.

Many of Hogg's stories and poems appeared in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, or Maga as it was affectionately known, and he is often associated with the Blackwood's 'Noctes Ambrosianae' series of satirical sketches, which featured such ‘fictional’ characters and aliases as Christopher North (John Wilson) and the Shepherd (Hogg). The popularity of these sketches, perhaps more than his own work which was often snubbed by critics, secured his contemporary fame. Moreover, his fame lay not with his stand-alone talent, but also with his reputation as the ‘Ettrick Shepherd’ – the self-educated son of the rustic Borders and successor to Burns’s ‘heaven-taught ploughman’, appealing to popular notions of original genius. Recent years have seen an appropriate resurgence of interest in Hogg’s work, initiated by twentieth-century re-readings of his most renowned novel, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824).

Hogg continued to write, publish and farm until his death in 1835. He was buried in Ettrick Churchyard, appropriately next to his grandfather, Will o’ Phaup, who is reputed to have been the last man to converse with the fairies. Hogg’s widow and family put up a small stone, which was replaced twenty-five years later by the present memorial, raised by supporters of his work. His best memorial, however, is his poetry and fiction, through which he, his traditions and innovations live on.


Hogg published a profusion of song, poetry, articles and fiction, but by far his best-known work is the 1824 Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. He began his literary career by writing down and modifying songs and poems traditionally sung within his own community. The influence of folk traditions never left him, even in this, his most self-consciously 'literary' work, as evident in Samuel Scrape's embedded folk tale of diabolic intervention, which acts as a warning to central protagonist Robert Wringhim of the dangers of self-righteousness. The novel was initially published anonymously, and received mixed reviews, but has now come to be viewed as Hogg’s ‘masterpiece’, appealing to contemporary tastes for ambiguity and psychological investigation. Two incongruous narratives, the 'Editor's' and 'Sinner's' accounts, relate the same ambiguous events - featuring the potentially demonic Gil-Martin - from divergent perspectives. Yet, whether read as supernatural parable or psychological study of a religious fanatic, it is an eminently satisfying novel, perhaps due to its ambivalent, open-ended nature. The tale is a satire on extremism of any kind; both the supposedly objective and rational Enlightenment figure of the Editor, and the bigoted fanatic Robert, the justified sinner, are exposed as narrow-minded and self-involved. However, much of what has made the novel habitually popular is evident in abundance in Hogg's other work. 

The Three Perils of Man: or War, Women and Witchcraft was published two years before the Justified Sinner in 1822, and appears initially to be a historical romance in the vein of Walter Scott's fiction. However, The Perils of Man exhibits an underlying tension between romance and anti-romance evident in much of Hogg's work. A collage of historical novel, supernatural folk tale, allegory, comedy and chivalric epic, the novel simultaneously adopts and interrogates romantic values.

The Three Perils of Woman: or Love, Leasing and Jealousy is almost a companion piece to The Perils of Man, despite its obvious differences, and is the text where much of the groundwork of literary experimentation was laid for the Justified Sinner. A similar tension surrounding the application of literary romance is apparent; a similar juxtaposition of comedy and satire, and transgression of genre boundaries. The horrors of history, in particular the treatment of the Highlands during and after the Jacobite rebellions, are explicitly portrayed as a response to the gloss put over such events by Hogg's contemporaries. Perhaps due to its challenging nature, Perils of Woman was disastrously received by reviewers, prompting Hogg to publish Justified Sinner anonymously in 1824.

His early poetry resonates with Ballad elements, such as the long narrative poem The Queen's Wake (1813), the reception of which first established the poet's credentials in England as well as Scotland. The poem provides these regional folk elements with national significance by using them to refer to a specific event in the history of the independent Scotland - the celebration of the arrival of Mary Stuart as Queen in Edinburgh. The poem features a song contest in honour of Mary, and two of the supernatural 'songs', or poems, contained within the overall structure are particularly highly regarded: 'Kilmeny' and 'The Witch of Fife.'

Many of the issues expressed in Justified Sinner appear again in the 1829 collection of tales, The Shepherd’s Calendar. The stories in this collection appeared previously in Maga over a period of ten years from 1819, but were collected together for the first time and edited by Hogg’s nephew in 1829, with the first ever unbowdlerised, or uncensored, version only appearing in 1995 as a Stirling/South Carolina research edition. 

As a collection, the tales exhibit coherence as a single work, featuring folk tradition and the supernatural, revealing the landscape and values of Ettrick, and celebrating the vivacity of the author’s home community. The erudite tale of ‘The Brownie of the Black Haggs’ features another ambiguously supernatural being, who like Gil-Martin in Justified Sinner may be something diabolic, or may appear to possess such characteristics only as a projection of the protagonist’s troubled mind. 

Hogg’s later work includes Songs by the Ettrick Shepherd (1831), with a companion volume of Ballads, A Queer Book (1832), continued regular contributions to magazines and journals, and in 1835 – the year of his death – Tales of the Wars of Montrose. Tales includes the novel-length story, ‘Remarkable Passages in the Life of an Edinburgh Baillie’, which features another mean, self-involved and bigoted protagonist comparable to Robert Wringhim and to Lady Wheelhope of ‘The Brownie of the Black Haggs’, and a similar elision of high and low cultures. Hogg’s ability to parody and even satirise encourages readers to perceive strengths and limitations in every human being, and to learn the difficult lesson of human interrelationships.

Reading Lists


The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824)

The Queen's Wake: The Collected Works of James Hogg (1814)

The Brownie of Bodsbeck: And Other Tales (1818)

Winter Evening Tales: Collected Among the Cottagers in the South of Scotland (1820)

The Shepherd's Calendar (1828)

Tales and Sketches of the Ettrick Shepherd (1837)

Selected Stories and Sketches (1982)

Tales of the Wars of Montrose (1996)

Domestic Manner and Private Life of Walter Scott (1834)

The Brownie of Bodsbeck (1818)

The Hunt of Eildon (1818)

The Surpassing Adventures of Allan Gordon (1818)

The Expedition to Hell (1827)

Mary Burnet (1828)


Campbell, Ian, 'Hogg's Confessions and the Heart of Darkness', Studies in Scottish Literature 15 (1980) pp. 187-201.

Crawford, Thomas, 'James Hogg: The Play of Region and Nation', The History of Scottish Literature Vol. III, Nineteenth Century, ed. by Douglas Gifford (1988)

Eggenschwiler, David, 'James Hogg's Confessions and the Fall into Division', Studies in Scottish Literature 9 (1971) pp. 26-39.

Gifford, Douglas, James Hogg (1976)

Groves, David, James Hogg: the Growth of a Writer (1988).

Hook, Andrew, 'Hogg, Melville, and the Scottish Enlightenment', Scottish Literary Journal 4:2 (1977) pp. 25-39.

Kearns, M.S., 'Intuition and Narration in James Hogg's Confessions', Studies in Scottish Literature 13 (1977) pp. 81-91.

Kiely, Robert, The Romantic Novel in England (1972).

Lee. L.L., 'The Devil's Figure: James Hogg's Justified Sinner', Studies in Scottish Literature 3:4 (1966) pp. 230-39.

Hughes, Gillian H. (ed.), Papers given at the First Conference of the James Hogg Society (1984)

Simpson, Louis, James Hogg: A Critical Study (1962)

Smith, Nelson C., James Hogg (1980)

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