Scotland’s Forgotten Poet

As you might guess, part of an Appalachian Studies Degree includes studying the displacement of Scots and Irish peoples groups. It also includes studying those who shaped the cultures of the various regions – writers, musicians, politicians, etc. Throughout my studies, I have focused primarily on women’s stories.

Mother Jones who is quite well-known for her advocacy for Appalachians working the coal mines and textile mills.

And the much lesser known Isobel “Tibby” Pagan.

I happened across Pagan while studying the work of Robert Burns. Even to this day, Pagan gets hardly a mention in history.

Was it because she was disfigured and disabled?

Was it because she was a woman?

Was it because she ran a howf?

Perhaps all of the above.

I am drawn to the stories of forgotten women. Perhaps that says something about me.

As part of my studies I wrote a paper on Isobel Pagan, the forgotten poet of Scotland. Today, I made a trip I have been planning to make since arriving in Scotland. A trip I could never even have imagined a few years back when I sat down to write a paper on the Poetess of Muirkirk: Isobel “Tibby” Pagan. 

Sometimes life itself is poetry. It sure felt that way while hiking a path I know that the disabled and disfigured Tibby Pagan made many times throughout her life.

I view my role as a writer as someone who helps amplify the voice of forgotten people, both those alive and those long gone.

Below are excerpts of the paper I wrote about Pagan a few years ago:

If Robert Burns is Scotland’s most celebrated poet, then Tibby Pagan is perhaps Scotland’s most unappreciated poet. She was born poor in a country rich in certitude. Thrust into the world a crippled babe, she was bestowed with a godless name: Isabel “Tibby” Pagan. Disfigured and disowned, the infant was taken in by a granny woman who was not her kin. The village of Muirkirk was not Pagan’s birthplace, but it is the community who claims her with a cockeyed pride of amusement and abhorrence.

In her autobiographical poem, An Account of the Author’s Lifetime, Pagan gives insight to her early life:

I was born near four miles from Nithhead,
Where fourteen years I got my bread;
My learning it can soon be told,
Ten weeks when I was seven years old,
With a good old religious wife,
Who lived a quiet and sober life;
Indeed she took of me more pains,
Than some does now with forty bairns.
(Lines 1-8) 

The Nith snakes its way over 70-miles of abundant heather and the coal-rich moors of East Ayrshire before emptying into the Solway Firth in Southwest Scotland (Scotland). As noted, Pagan’s only formal education was 10 weeks of first-grade. It was the devout granny woman who taught the child to read the Bible, a classic primer for poets of any era. Pagan studied it as best she could:

With my attention, and her skill,
I read the Bible no’ that ill;
An’ when I grew a wee thocht mair,
I read when I had time to spare;
But a’ the whole tract of my time,
I found myself inclined to rhyme; (Lines 9-14)

Pagan was fourteen when the granny woman who had loved and raised her died. Where does a lame and homeless orphaned teen go to make her way in the world in 1757? Why to the church, of course! Who better to take in a poor Pagan than charitable Christians?

The village of Muirkirk had sprung up around a primitive church built in 1631 in the boggy moors of Southwest Scotland. The name literally means “Moor Church.”  Located along the North Bank of the River Ayr, Muirkirk is reportedly the first town in Britain to have gas lighting, and during Pagan’s lifetime, a local engineer, John McAdam, devised a way to put coal tar to use in building roads, a method known as Tarmacadam that is still in use to this day.

She could not have picked a more fortuitous time to move to Muirkirk. The village was on the cusp of its most progressive era of growth, owing to burgeoning jobs in the coal mines, tar factories, iron foundries, and limestone quarries. In the century prior, Muirkirk was primarily known as the homeland of religious zealots. Even as a young girl, Pagan would have been familiar with the hamlet’s bloody past.

Following the Reformation of 1560, Scotland’s national church was Presbyterian. Covenanters was the name adopted by a religious nationalist movement sweeping through Scotland in the 1600s, as lowlanders sought to push back against any in authority who wanted to diminish “The Crown Rights of King Jesus.”

Pagan would likely have heard the tale of Jenny Geddes. Legend has it that in 1637, Geddes started a riot at St. Giles when she rebuked the Dean of Edinburgh for reading from the liturgy prayer book ordered by King Charles I. Born in Scotland but schooled in England, Charles I took the position that he was ordained by God to rule over Scotland and to be head of the Church. Covenanters took issue with latter, insisting that only Christ was head of the Church. Geddes reportedly picked up her stool and threw it at the Dean when he began to read from the English prayer book. “Dinna say Mass in my lug!” Geddes shouted.

Thus, began decades of civil war between the Covenanters and the Crown. In 1678, the King sent out an army of highlanders to subdue the fiercely independent and devout lowlanders, leading to what is known as Scotland’s Killing Time. There is no warring as fierce religious warring. Over 18,000 lowlanders, mostly from the Southwest coastal region, were tortured and executed by government forces (Jardine). These lowlanders made their stance clear in the Sanquhar Declaration of 1680:

Therefore, although we be for government and governors, such as the Word of God and our covenant allows; yet we, for ourselves, and all that will adhere to us as the representative of the true Presbyterian Kirk and covenanted nation of Scotland, considering the great hazard of lying under such a sin any longer, do, by these presents, disown Charles Stuart, that has been reigning, or rather tyrannizing, as we may say, on the throne of Britain these years begone, as having any right, title to, or interest in the said crown of Scotland for government.

Stone monuments and rock cairns all around Muirkirk mark the spots where Covenanters were slaughtered: Richard Cameron’s Monument at Aird’s Moss; John Brown’s Monument at Priesthill; William Adam’s at Wellwood; and John Smith’s in the town’s churchyard. These men were all part of the insurgent rebellion rising up against the papal influence over Presbyterianism.

It was into this milieu of certitude and faith, of independence and allegiance, of piousness and hatefulness, of sacrifice and betrayal, of martyrs and tyrants that Tibby Pagan began to carve out her own path as a poet, and a remarkable vocalist. As she herself noted: “When I see merry company/I sing a song with mirth and glee.”  It was her creative abilities that earned her favor among the town people, for if there ever were a people in need of mirth and glee, it was the people of Muirkirk.

Flanked by the ghosts of martyrs on all sides, the moors and glens were as unforgiving to subsistence farmers as the Crown had been to the Covenanters. An agriculture survey filed in 1811 described the conditions of life there:

There were no practicable roads. The farm homes were mere hovels moated with clay, having an open fireplace in the middle, the midden at the door. The cattle starving, and the people wretched. The land, overrun with weeds and rushes, was gathered up into ridges, the soil on the top of the ridge and the furrows drowned in water. No green crops, no sown grass, no carts or waggons. No garden vegetables except a few Scotch kale which, with milk and oatmeal, formed the diet of the people, with the exception of a little meat salted for the winter. The people, having no substitute for oatmeal, were at the mercy of the seasons. If these were bad, famine ensued. Indeed, after a succession of wet seasons at the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th centuries, the people were obliged to subsist on a little oatmeal mixed with blood drawn from their miserable cattle.

As the surveyor keenly observed the people of Muirkirk were suffering needlessly because of their lack of knowledge of farming practices that could greatly improve their lives. Yet, they were far more concerned with the afterlife than their present life:

Prejudice stood as another insurmountable bar to all improvements. The ambition of the people, at that time, was not to improve the soil, but to reform the church – not to destroy weeds and brambles; but to root out heresy – not to break up the stubborn soil, but to tread down the whore of Babylon, and the Man of Sin. Their attachment to every bad habit, and aversion to every improvement in agriculture were strong and deeply rooted. In agriculture, as in other sciences, ignorance is the mother of devotion; innovation is always dreaded by the half-enlightened; and the force of prejudice is generally wrong; in proportion to the absurdity of the tenets adopted, or the barbarity of the practices followed.

Perhaps because she had been on the brunt end of prejudices herself, Pagan rejected the sober devout life she had been raised up in, even as she accepted whatever charity the church offered. She gave birth to a child, reportedly the bairn of a man who left town the night before he was to marry her. Unable to earn a living in the fields or the factories, Pagan was nonetheless as industrious as a crippled woman could be. Lizzie McEwan, a dear friend of Pagan’s, reported that when Tibby wasn’t singing or writing poems, she would hobble around cottage-to-cottage offering to do the darning, knitting or sewing for a price. When the snows fell and she was unable to get about, she would sit at her spinning wheel weaving wool and rhyme:

When I sit at my spinning wheel,
And think on every station,
I think I’m happiest mysel,
At my small occupation.
No court, nor freet, nor dark debate,
Can e’er attend my dwelling,
While I make cloth of diff’rent sorts,
Which is an honest calling. (Lines 1-8)

Like her compatriot Robert Burns, Pagan was regarded as a working-class poet, writing about daily life:

Pagan’s poetry is distinctively located within community.  That immediate world was the small village of Muirkirk in Ayrshire ─   indeed, Pagan remains an important part of local heritage ─ but her verse is also strongly rooted in the cultural traditions and practices of wider Ayrshire communities. There’s a wealth of poems in her collection which commemorate the seasonal huntings, visiting regiments, and other kinds of communal, shared rituals. And it’s this aspect which associates Pagan’s poetry with a Scottish poetic tradition of carnival and social conviviality, popular in late medieval and early modern Scottish poetry and resurgent in the eighteenth-century vernacular revival (Aberystwyth University).


It is Burns, however, not Pagan, who was credited for penning one of the Scots most cherished love song – Ca’ the Yeows to the Knowes – when in reality it was Pagan’s song Burns simply revised. One should not overlook the misogyny at play in this attribution, as one historical editor surmised:

Tibby gave the world the first verse of Ca’ the Yowes to the Knowes, which was changed by Burns from the obscene thing it was to the flawless gem it now is… With a Godly upbringing, and the encouragement that her talents should have had, she would have ranked with the poets that have made the songs of Scotland the finest in the world.

Whether Burns and Pagan ever met is a matter of debate. Admiral Keith Stewart, son of Alexander Stewart, Sixth Earl of Galloway, gave Pagan a cottage at the Garpel waters that would be her lifelong home. Located about a mile from the village center, Pagan’s howff served as a popular gathering hole. She offered both ale and entertainment in way of poems and songs, a virtual 18th Century version of a Karaoke hangout.

At the time, Burns was friends with another Muirkirk poet, John Lapraik. Burns is reported to have penned one of his most famous poems – A Man’s a Man for a’ That – in tribute to Lapraik. On his travels to Edinburgh, Burns reportedly would stop to visit with his friend, who was the postmaster and owner of a local inn in Muirkirk. It is entirely feasible that he would have met Pagan, perhaps even heard her sing the tune he helped popularize. Not surprisingly, however, Burns takes credit for the song. In a 1794 note to his friend, George Thompson, who was collecting the folk songs of Scotland, Burns states: “I am flattered at your adopting ‘Ca the yeows in the knowes,’ as it is owing to me that it ever saw the light.”

It is clear that as a disabled woman living in poverty, Pagan overcame far more obstacles as a creative than Burns ever did. Virginia Woolf was correct about the many hinderances to women writing: “The world did not say to her as it said to them, Write if you choose; it makes no difference to me. The world said with a guffaw; Write? What’s the good of your writing?”

Pagan lacked the money, the ability to travel, and the inclusion afforded handsome young men like Burns. Instead, she was regarded as physically unappealing, not only was she lame, but she had a sizable growth on her side and she squinted. One clergy described her as “the most perfect realization of a witch or hag that I ever saw.” It could be argued that whatever impediments to his career Burns faced were more the result of his own actions, whereas, Pagan’s literary achievements seem all the more remarkable because of things totally beyond her control – like being born a lame girl into poverty.

Yet, Pagan carved out a life in defiance of the pious martyrs of Muirkirk. She did not pen pithy platitudes about a better life in the by and by. Rather, she embraced the present life she had with a gusto uncommon among women of her era. Whether it was drinking or telling the bawdy tale, Tibby Pagan could hold her own with any man. That and her skill with the quick and often humorous repartee, earned her a cult standing among the glens and moors of Muirkirk and beyond. When a neighbor made some disparaging remark about her, Pagan retorted with a keen rhyme: “Mr. ___ in the Kyle, Ca’d me a common whore; But if he had not tried himsel’, He wadna been sae sure!”

Hers was not an easy life by any means, yet, Pagan managed to find the mirth in most things. Undoubtedly, the ale helped keep her in good spirits. While rejecting the pious faith of the martyrs on the hillsides, Pagan still managed to live a life of devotion and compassion. Consider the following poem, M’Lellan’s Lament for His Master’s Death, that she penned for a deceased friend:

Adieu to my neighbors, I’m sorry to leave you

Yet happy it is at this time of year,

I would have been more sorry, had it been in sweet July,

When beautiful flowers in the garden appear. (Lines 29-32)

It is widely reported that Pagan, presumed to be illiterate, never actually penned a poem, not necessarily a wrong assumption, given her lack of a formal education. Pagan’s only book of poetry, A Collection of Songs and Poems on Several Occasions, is believed to have been transcribed from oral tradition by a Muirkirk local for publication in 1803, when Pagan was 60 years old. However, she reportedly could recite most of the Bible from memory, indicating she must have been able to read quite well. Additionally, a Muirkirk historian has turned up a letter reportedly written by Pagan herself dated July 5, 1821, four months prior to her death.

While alive, Tibby Pagan was admired by those coal miners, farmers, hunters and iron-workers, even as they feared her flailing crutch and sharp wit. She had wooed them with her whiskey, rhymes, and one of Scotland’s most beloved love songs:

Ca’ the yowes to the knowes,
Ca’ them where the heather grows,
Ca’ them where the burnie rows,
My bonnie dearie.
As I gaed down the water side,
There I met my shepherd lad;
He row’d me sweetly in his plaid,
And he ca’d me his dearie

No longer are martyrs the only ones with monuments looming over fields of heather. On the Garpel waters where the Curlew and Wagtail breed, stands Tibby’s Brig and a stone monument laden with an enameled yeow marking the place where a beloved poet once sat at her spinning wheel, weaving together wool and words. When Tibby Pagan died in 1821, neighbors journeyed from all across the moors and glens to sing her praises – their very own poetess of Muirkirk.

Karen Spears Zacharias is the author of The Murder Gene 

Karen Spears Zacharias

Author/Journalist/Educator. Gold Star Daughter.



about 1 year ago

Thanks for sharing! 👊❤️


Ed Lowe

about 1 year ago

Hi Karen, Thanks for this an awfae guid read. What a woman she must have been! Cheers Ed (from Muirkirk).


Karen Spears Zacharias

about 1 year ago

Ed from Muirkirk: How did you ever find this post? And yes, she was a remarkable woman. Have you made the hike out to Tibbie's brig?


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