Best known for his Scottish dialect poem, ’The Braes of Yarrow’, William Hamilton was born in Bangour and succeeded to the Bangour family estate after his brother’s death in 1750. His health is said to have been delicate, leading him to spend a deal of his time indoors, in study; where he become enthusiastic about literature, and began to write poetry.
Hamilton has been described as an ‘adventurer in English literature.’ Many Scottish poets before Hamilton’s time had composed their works in Latin. Hamilton was among the first to write in English and Scottish dialect. Some single poems were published in Allen Ramsay’s Teatable Miscellany in 1723; his first published collection was a pirated publication in 1748, without his name, consent or knowledge, and full of errors. He was abroad when it appeared, and though on his return to Scotland he corrected and edited many of those poems, it would be his friends who would publish the first genuine volume - Poems on Several Occasions - after his death.
The volume appeared in 1760, and did not attract much notice at first, until it was praised in a criticism by Professor Richardson of Glasgow, appearing in The Lounger. ‘The poems of Hamilton display regular design, just sentiments, fanciful invention, pleasing sensibility, elegant diction, and smooth versification… Mr Hamilton’s imagination is employed among beautiful and engaging.. engaging tenderness.’ This judgement was backed up by stronger praise from Mr M’Kenzie, the editor of The Lounger, and echoed by Lord Woodhouselee.
Hamilton is often spoken of as a Jacobite, but his involvement was something of a flirtation. He joined the cause of Prince Charles (Bonny Prince Charlie) in the insurrection of 1745, gaining the Jacobite label and forced exile to France after the prince’s defeat at the Battle of Culloden. His health would deteriorate as a cause of his trials, though he would be pardoned as a result of his friends’ influence in the space of a few years.
Hamilton wrote a great deal of love poetry which, over the years, have appeared in various anthologies and collections.