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Tuesday, 1 April 2008

John Bethune Scottish Songwriter

John Bethune Scottish Songwriter. The younger of two remarkable brothers, whose names are justly entitled to remembrance, John Bethune, was born at the Mount, in the parish of Monimail, Fifeshire, during the summer of 1810. The poverty of his parents did not permit his attendance at a public school; he was taught reading by his mother, and writing and arithmetic by his brother Alexander, 26 who was considerably his senior. After some years' employment as a cow-herd, he was necessitated, in his twelfth year, to break stones on the turnpike-road. At the recommendation of a comrade, he apprenticed himself, early in 1824, to a weaver in a neighbouring village. In his new profession he rapidly acquired dexterity, so that, at the end of one year, he could earn the respectable weekly wages of fifteen shillings. Desirous of assisting his aged parents, he now purchased a loom and settled as a weaver on his own account, with his elder brother as his apprentice. A period of mercantile embarrassments which followed, severely affecting the manufacturing classes, pressed heavily on the subject of this notice; his earnings became reduced to six shillings weekly, and he was obliged to exchange the labours of the shuttle for those of the implements of husbandry. During the period of his apprenticeship, his thoughts had been turned to poetical composition, but it was subsequent to the commercial disasters of 1825 that he began earnestly to direct his attention towards the concerns of literature. Successive periods of bad health unfitting him for continued labour in the fields, were improved by extensive reading and composition. Before he had completed his nineteenth year he had produced upwards of twenty poetical compositions, each of considerable length, and the whole replete with power, both of sentiment and expression. Till considerably afterwards, however, his literary productions were only known to his brother Alexander, or at furthest to his parents. "Up to the latter part of 1835," writes his brother in a biographical sketch, "the whole of his writing had been prosecuted as stealthily as if it had been a crime punishable by law. There being but one apartment in the house, it was his custom to write by the fire, with an old copy-book, upon which his paper lay, resting on his knee, and this, through life, was his only writing desk. On the table, which was within reach, an old newspaper was kept constantly lying, and as soon as the footsteps of any one were heard approaching the door, copy-book, pens, and ink-stand were thrust under this covering, and before the visitor came in, he had, in general, a book in his hand, and appeared to have been reading."

For a number of years Bethune had wrought as a day-labourer in the grounds of Inchrye, in the vicinity of his birthplace. On the death of the overseer on that property he was appointed his successor, entering on the duties at the term of Martinmas 1835, his brother accompanying him as his assistant. The appointment yielded £26 yearly, with the right of a cow's pasturage—emoluments which considerably exceeded the average of his previous earnings. To the duties of his new situation he applied himself with his wonted industry, still continuing to dedicate only his evenings and the intervals of toil to literary occupation. But his comparative prosperity was of short duration. During the summer following his appointment at Inchrye the estate changed owners, and the new proprietor dispensed with his services at the next term. In another year the landlord required the little cottage at Lochend, occupied by his parents. Undaunted by these reverses, John Bethune and his brother summoned stout courage; they erected a cottage at Mount Pleasant, near Newburgh, the walls being mostly reared by their own hands. The future career of Bethune was chiefly occupied in literary composition. He became a contributor to the Scottish Christian Herald, Wilson's Tales of the Borders, and other serial publications. In 1838 appeared "Tales and Sketches of the Scottish Peasantry," the mutual production of the poet and his brother—a work which, published in Edinburgh, was well received. A work on "Practical Economy," on which the brothers had bestowed much pains, and which had received the favourable opinion of persons of literary eminence, was published in May 1839, but failed to attract general interest. This unhappy result deeply affected the health of the poet, whose constitution had already been much shattered by repeated attacks of illness. He was seized with a complaint which proved the harbinger of pulmonary consumption. He died at Mount Pleasant on the 1st September 1839, in his thirtieth year.

With a more lengthened career, John Bethune would have attained a high reputation, both as an interesting poet and an elegant prose-writer. His genius was versatile and brilliant; of human nature, in all its important aspects, he possessed an intuitive perception, and he was practically familiar with the character and habits of the sons of industry. His tales are touching and simple; his verses lofty and contemplative. In sentiment eminently devotional, his life was a model of genuine piety. His Poems, prefaced by an interesting Memoir, were published by his surviving brother in 1840; and from the profits of a second edition, published in the following year, a monument has been erected over his grave in the churchyard of Abdie, which is shown above.

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