Updated: Feb 2, 2020
A time of political movement; big questions and strong feelings over Scotland and England's relationship; plus ça change. But a character from Ratho made the most of tumultuous times via a moderate talent for poetry and better talent for smooth-talking, to climb all the way up into the pocket and patronage of Sir Robert Walpole, the first Prime Minister of the new Great Britain.
Joseph Mitchell was born in Ratho around 1684 (exact date not established), so his lifetime spanned the “Glorious Revolution,” the union of the parliaments and the Jacobite risings. His father was a stonemason in Ratho who worked for some of the titled nobility in the area (in particular the Earl of Lauderdale who owned the then-grand local Hatton estate) and through hard-work, ambition and possibly the patronage of these customers, managed to send his son to university. The intention was for Joseph to have a career in the church. Joseph, however, was more interested in literature and the arts, and headed to London to seek his fortune as a poet and playwright.
If heading to London as a poet sounds like a risky strategy for making a fortune, it was. Joseph never got the recognition and fortune that he craved and spent most of his life poor. He must have had some personal charm and qualities though that kept him afloat - many literary friends as well as members of the nobility helped him out financially. Once, a fellow writer even wrote a play (or by some accounts he wrote part of it) for Mitchell to publish in his own name during a particularly hard time. The play went reasonably well and Mitchell did afterwards publicly acknowledge the real author.
He was introduced to Sir Robert Walpole and moved in elevated circles considering his lowly birth. Confidence is everything though, and Joseph appears to have had it by the bucket-load. He addressed poems to Walpole with outrageous, tongue-in-cheek petitions for honour and positions in his government – ranging from a place as Poet Laureate in Scotland, for the Office and Importance of Secretary of State for Scotland, to Superintendent of the next Public Lottery or the next General Assembly of the Kirk. And for the Government of Duck Island in St James' Park. Walpole appears to have been fond of Mitchell who appealed to his sense of humour, but never elevated him above what seems to have been a kind of court jester role. He paid him a moderate amount of money which Mitchell squandered through bad management and extravagance. He shrugged off criticism of his poems and plays, dived into literary criticism of his peers, and turned out a body of work which was generally considered to be of average merit.
What caught my eye though in researching Mitchell was that he published a work called “Ratho: A Poem to the King.” I went into the National Library of Scotland to read a beautifully bound copy of the poem published in 1728, hoping to find some nuggets of information about the village of Ratho itself at that time. I found however that rather than a work of history, the poem is one long appeal to the new King George II to cast his gracious eye on the village of Ratho – and in particular on one Joseph Mitchell – and to grant it “some mark of your Beneficence.”
Mitchell's description of Ratho is very fanciful; (in its early days he imagines it as a city, where “Columns, and Spires, and Palaces appear'd/Domes crowd on Domes, and Fanes with Temples Vye!/And Courts and Castles tire the wondering Eye!”) He bemoans that Ratho has sunk into poverty and obscurity, and showers the king with all manner of flattery to convince him that his native village and its inhabitants are worthy of royal favour to restore the village to its apparent former glory.
It's hard to tell whether the lickspittling language of the poem is serious or Mitchell's special vein of outrageous petition in an attempt to get the attention of the king himself. Mitchell impresses on the King that the people of Ratho were on the right side of every political question (where “right” is defined as Mitchell being in with a chance of recognition). He prefaces the poem, on behalf of all the inhabitants of Ratho: “We are unanimously attach'd, without mental Equivocation or secret Reservation, to the Protestant Succession in your august Family,” referencing the “late unnatual Rebellion” - the Jacobite risings. Mitchell begs for Ratho “a Charter, constituting us really what we now are only in Idea and Desire -- or a yearly Fair and weekly Market, to bring Money and Meat among us----or a Turnpike or Toll, for Reparation of our Street and Walls, which Alas! lie buried like those of Troy---or whatever else your Majesty in your great Goodness, Wisdom and Power, shall think fit.”
A moment of genuine reflection in the poem itself gives a flavour perhaps of the quality of work that kept him just within the attention of his literary colleagues:
Of ancient Ratho rear'd with Cost and Pain, How few and wretched Monuments remain! Sometimes the Plough, from fields adjacent, tears The Limbs of Men, and Armour, broke with Years; Sometimes a Medal all effac'd is found, And mouldering Urns are are gather'd from the ground: But who, ah! who can decent Honours pay, Or sep'rate Vulgar from Imperial Clay?
Dire Fate of Mortals! Cottagers and Kings
Promiscuous lie, alike unheeded Things! Destroying Time and the devouring Grave Alike confound the Coward and the Brave! Distinction's lost! no Marks of State adorn! And Ratho looks, like Troy, a field of corn!
In the latter part of the poem, Mitchell begs the monarch to pay a visit to Scotland, describing the delight his Scottish subjects would have: “Let every Tongue with Transport sound his Praise/And every Eye, as on an Angel, gaze/Who, like a God, in glory deigns to move/The publick wonder and the publick Love!” Then acknowledging that the Hanoverian king was not necessarily guaranteed warm reception everywhere -
“But howe'er a Rebel-Race behave,
Open, ye gates of Ratho, to receive
The British king, your Patron ever dear!
Let grateful Gladness in each Face appear!
He even entices the king by suggesting there would be a gold statue of George II on horseback erected at Ratho...
There's no evidence that the king took the slightest notice of Mitchell’s appeal. The poet died in 1737 or 1738 (exact date not established) in Islington having never received the patronage he craved. Ironically, in Mitchell's vision of Ratho post-regal attention, “Bridges and Boats for pleasure crown the scene/And ne'er was Ratho known so sweet and clean!” - a picture that could describe Ratho today!
One of the most remarkable features in St Mary's churchyard in Ratho is related to Joseph Mitchell's family. The large gravestone carved in the shape of a panelled coffin, prominent near the front of the church, is said to have been carved by Joseph's father, John Mitchell. The date 1729 is engraved on one end. There is some doubt as to whether John Mitchell is buried there or not. It must have been used as a gravestone for a descendant of the family 80 years later as one side is inscribed: “Here lyes the Remains of Mr William Mitchell Preacher of the Gospel who in the flour of his age suffered an instantaneous death by a strok from a thrashing machine on the farm of Grays Mill in the Parish of collins town the 4th December 1809 his worth endeared him to his friends and his talents rendered him the ornament of his family.” Joseph's own burial site is unknown.
First published in Konect February 2016
Author: Helen-Jane Shearer