James Hyslop’s ‘Cameronian Dream’ #History #Poetry #Scotland

James Hyslop’s poem, the ‘Cameronian Dream’, was probably Victorian Scotland’s favourite imagining of the Covenanting martyrs of the Killing Times. It is easy to see why. Its hallucinatory quality takes the reader from slumber back in time to the day of the Battle of Airds Moss in July 1680, to the kingdom of Heaven and back to the poet on the banks of the Crawick Water in 1820. Take the flight. No drops of Laudanum are required…

Airds Moss

Airds Moss Martyrs’ Monument © Walter Baxter and licensed for reuse.

James Hyslop (b.1798), perhaps through birth, locality and disposition, was a little obsessed with the Covenanters. He died tragically young in 1827. The Original Secession Magazine take up the story of how the ‘Cameronian Dream’ came about:

‘We now approach that incident in the life of James Hyslop which gave publicity to his name and established his reputation as a poet— the publication of his famous piece, entitled the “Cameronian Dream.” He was in the habit, as we have seen, of visiting the scene where the godly [Richard] Cameron and his little band were attacked and mostly massacred by [Andrew Bruce of] Earlshall’s dragoons, on the 22nd July 1680; and it was while seated on the grey stone which still indicates the “martyr’s grave,” that he penned the skeleton of the poem. But it was the following occurrence which completed the idea, and gave birth to its designation:—A young countryman had occasion to pass through Airsmoss about midnight, and naturally recurring to what had taken place there in the times of old, his mind became so excited, that he lost all sense of the distinction between the imaginative and the real, and fancied that he actually saw chariots of fire and horses of fire around him; and so vivid was the impression, that he believed he saw the wheels of fire turning upon the heather. The effect made on his mind was so strong, that he was unwell for some time after. During this time, he was visited by Hyslop, to whom he related his imaginary vision in Airsmoss. The kindred spirit of the poet caught fire at the rehearsal of the story, and to this we are indebted for the “Cameronian Dream,”—a piece which, for power of description, exquisite feeling, and sublime simplicity, is equal to anything we have seen, either in ancient or modern poetry.’ (Original Secession Magazine, 517-8.)


In a dream of the night I was wafted away.
To the moorland of mist where the martyrs lay;
Where Cameron’s sword and his Bible are seen,
Engraved on the stone where the heather grows green.

‘Twas a dream of those ages of darkness and blood,
When the minister’s home was the mountain and wood;
When in Wellwood’s dark moorlands the standard of Sion.
All bloody and torn, ‘mong the heather was lying.

It was morning, and summer’s young sun, from the east
Lay in loving repose on the green mountain’s breast,
On Wardlaw, and Cairn-Table, the clear shining dew,
Glisten’d sheen ‘mong the heath bells and mountain flowers blue.

And far up in heaven in the white sunny cloud,
The song of the lark was melodious and loud,
And in Glenmuir’s wild solitudes, lengthened and deep,
Was the whistling of plovers and the bleating of sheep.

And Wellwood’s sweet valley breath’d music and gladness,
The fresh meadow blooms hung in beauty and redness;
Its daughters were happy to hail the returning,
And drink the delights of green July’s bright morning.

But ah, there were hearts cherish’d far other feelings,
Illum’d by the light of prophetic revealings,
Who drank from this scenery of beauty but sorrow,
For they knew that their blood would bedew it to-morrow.

‘Twas the few faithful ones who, with Cameron, were lying
Concealed ‘mong the mist, where the heath-fowl was crying;
For the horsemen of Earlshall around them were hov’ring,
And their bridle-reins rang through the thin misty cov’ring.

Their faces grew pale, and their swords were unsheath’d.
But the vengeance that darken’d their brows was unbreath’d;
With eyes raised to Heaven, in meek resignation,
They sang their last song to the God of salvation.

The hills with the deep mournful music were ringing,
The curlieu and plover in concert were singing;
But the melody died ‘midst derision and laughter,
As the hosts of Ungodly rush’d on to the slaughter.

Though in mist and in darkness and fire they were shrouded,
Yet the souls of the Righteous stood calm and unclouded;
Their dark eyes flashed lightning, as proud and unbending
They stood like the rock which the thunder is rending.

The muskets were flashing, the blue swords were gleaming,
The helmets were cleft, and the red blood was streaming,
The heavens grew dark, and the thunder was rolling,
When in Wellwood’s dark moorlands the mighty were falling!—

When the righteous had fallen, and the combat had ended,
A chariot of fire through the dark cloud descended,
The drivers were angels on horses of whiteness,
And its burning wheels turned upon axles of brightness.

A seraph unfolded its doors bright and shining,
All dazzling like gold of the seventh refining,
And the souls that came forth out of great tribulation,
Have mounted the chariot and steeds of salvation.

On the arch of the rainbow the chariot is gliding,
Through the paths of the thunder the horsemen are riding,
Glide swiftly bright spirits, the prize is before ye,
A crown never fading, a kingdom of glory!

Banks of the Crawick,
17th Nov. 1820.}’

Text as published in the Edinburgh Magazine and Literary Miscellany, Vol. 87, (1821), 112.

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Text © Copyright Dr Mark Jardine. All Rights Reserved. Please link to this post on Facebook or other social networks or retweet it, but do not reblog in FULL without the express permission of the author @drmarkjardine

~ by drmarkjardine on March 17, 2016.

5 Responses to “James Hyslop’s ‘Cameronian Dream’ #History #Poetry #Scotland”

  1. […] posting about a James Hyslop poem composed on the banks of the Crawick Water in Sanquhar parish, Nithsdale, Daniel James Hyslop tweeted me that he remembered when he was a boy […]

  2. […] Dodd’s followed in the poetic footsteps of James Hyslop, who composed an acclaimed poem on the same subject in 1820. […]

  3. How can one get permission from an author from the 19th Century? I am so thrilled to find this record of my ancestor, James Hyslop, because I too am a poet of the 21st C. maiden name: Joan Hyslop.

  4. Thank you very much!!!

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