Loudoun Kirk

Copyright Friends of Loudoun Kirk © 2015

JANET LITTLE


Janet Little, known as "The Scottish Milkmaid," local poetess and contemporary of Robert Burns lies buried in the kirkyard. Born 1759; died 15th March 1813, daughter of George Little of Ecclefechan, she received a fair education as far as education went for girls in her station of life at the time. Her first employment was in the home of The Rev John Johnston, minister of the dissenting church of Eccelfechan. It was he, and his son, also Rev. John Johnston who taught Thomas Carlyle Latin. Secessionist ministers were required to be thoroughly grounded in Greek, Latin and original Hebrew and with an emphasis on education and no doubt he would therefore have a well stocked library which Janet would have access to.


She is reported to have been tall, dark haired, rather masculine looking, described by one of her contemporaries as “no bad representation of some of Sir Walter Scott’s gigantic heroins, but without their impudence.” She was employed by Mrs Dunlop of Dunlop who encouraged her reading and interest in writing poetry and no doubt was greatly influenced by the works of Robert Burns whilst at Dunlop House. After the suicide of the 5th Earl of Loudoun, Mrs Dunlop’s daughter, Susan Henri leased Loudoun Castle and Janet was offered charge of the dairy. She was a great admirer of the writings of Burns although she made it clear in her poems, she did not approve of his rather baser exploits. Much of her work, although praising and appreciating the works of Burns, also identifies herself with him as both being of working class. She was deeply interested in all she heard about Burns and much encouraged by Mrs Dunlop, Janet (Jenny) wrote to Burns, sending him a rhyming epistle in the hope that she may meet him and share their love of poetry and writing. Burns did not appreciate this as was hoped, whether because she was a reminder of his humble station in life, unappealing in looks or didn’t want bothered by another competitive poet, we cannot tell. He replied instead to Mrs Dunlop making feeble excuses about his inability to write a "fine-drawn" letter.


In 1791, Janet Little, encouraged by Mrs Dunlop, made the journey to Ellisland, near Dumfries but timing was bad however at the same time as her arrival, Jean was giving birth and Burns had taken a fall from his horse and broke his arm. She did however manage to speak to him and reported back to Mrs Dunlop that he was in so much pain he could not lie down but spent the night on the chair. There are many references to Janet between Burns and Mrs Dunlop and in one of her letters, she asks Burns "what did you think of Jenny on sight?".


Janet married widower John Richmond in 1792, a worker on the Loudoun Estate. That was the same year as her book of poems was published.


Her poems brought her support from working-class public and gentry alike and with advice from people like James Boswell to dedicate the book to a titled lady instead of Burns, and Mrs Dunlop's patronage, no doubt increased the subscribers to around 700. Janet dedicated the book to 12 year old Lady Flora Mure Campbell, countess of Loudoun. A shrewd move, as after the dedication and a poem there was no further mention of the family, instead, Janet’s poems reflected the working class conditions of the day. Burns did eventually advise and subscribe to the publication of the poems. She is also known to have knowledge of the works of other writers such as Addison, Rowe, Montagu, Pope & Johnston amongst others, and was in communication with Alexander Wilson from Paisley. Wilson gave up working in the mill in Paisley to become a herd boy at a farm in Beith as work in the mill did not allow enough time for his writing. He was imprisoned for libel as a result of his satirical poem, The Shark, about a Paisley mill owner. After his release, he went to America and eventually became one of America best known ornithologists.


Janet was known to be a devoted stepmother, well liked in the community, was a “burgher”, a member of the dissenting church of Galston and was considered one of it’s most devout and intelligent members. Her memory was good enough that on hearing a sermon for the second time, could remember if the speaker omitted a sentence. When Rev Mr Schaw asked, what she thought of the sermon, she replied “I thocht it was rather flowery. Ye’ ken what I mean, Mr Schaw—a wi’ hue mair soun’ than sense” After such an astute answer, and a little taken aback at this reply from a servant woman, he warned, on his departure, that they would have to beware of their sermons with such a critic as Janet Little.


In 1792 she published a volume of poems under the title of "The Poetical Works of Janet Little, the Scottish Milkmaid". The dedication, on page 3, of the book reads "TO THE RIGHT HONOURABLE FLORA, COUNTESS OF LOUDOUN, THE FOLLOWING POEMS ARE WITH PERMISSION, HUMBLY INSCRIBED, BY YOUR LADYSHIP'S EVER GRATEFUL, AND OBEDIENT HUMBLE SERVANT, JANET LITTLE." The Full Text of this work is available online from the University of California, Davis library.


Janet Little died in 1813 and 5 years later her husband John Richmond died at the age of 78 in 1819.

REFERENCES


Other references:-

The Works of Robert Burns: with his life by Allan Cunningham, printed 1834 by Jas Cochrane & Co. London

The Complete Works of Robert Burns etc published by W.P. Nimmo, Hay & Mitchell, 1889

(From Janet Little & Robert Burns, by Moira Ferguson)Romantic women writers By Paula R. Feldman, Theresa M. KelleyUniversity Press of New EnglandHanover & LondonISBN 0-87451-724-9