The Ulster-Scots Language Society, formed to promote the Ulster-Scots language, our own hamely tongue

David Herbison

Taken from The Select Works of David Herbison, with Life of the Author by Rev. David M'Meekin, Ballymena.

David Herbison, the author of the accompanying volume of poems, was born in Mill Street, Ballymena, County Antrim, Ireland, on the 14th October, 1800. He was the third son of William Herbison and Elizabeth Wilson, who, at the time of our poet's birth, kept an inn in Ballymena. David Herbison was early sent to school to a Mr. Kinkade, a respectable teacher in Ballymena at that time. But our scholar was of a very sickly constitution. This delicacy continued until he was nine years of age. He subsequently attended a writing school for about half a year. This was all the school education he ever received. Whatever progress he afterwards made in the matter of education was solely owing to his own perseverance and natural abilities.

In the year 1810 David Herbison's father removed to a small farm in the townland of Laymore, adjacent to Ballymena. Here our author was, much against his own wishes, put upon the loom to learn to weave linen. He was now fourteen years of age. Linen weaving thus became his daily occupation up to the time of his father's death, which occurred in the year 1825. The farm was afterwards sold. Two years later our poet and an elder brother sailed from Belfast for Canada, on the 5th May 1827, in a vessel called the Rob Roy. The passage across the Atlantic was a pleasant one. They had reached the St. Lawrence in safety. Here a pilot had been brought on board; but, unfortunately for both the crew and the passengers of the Rob Roy, he was neither a steady nor a trustworthy man. The day had passed; the night had settled down. A dark and dismal night it was—

"The wind blew as it 'twad blawn its last;
The rattling showers bore on the blast:
The speedy gleams the darkness swallowed,
Loud, deep, and lang the thunder bellowed;
That night, a child might understand,
The Deil had business on his hand."

Suddenly the sailor who was having the lead cried, "Five feet of water." A moment after and the ship was among the rocks. She was at this time about one mile from the shore, and not more than fifty from Quebec. The confusion that followed was indescribable. In the morning our author saw twenty-four of the passengers lying dead! His sister-in-law and her child formed two of that number. In company with his brother, and afte surmounting many difficulties, David Herbison succeeded in reaching Quebec. The climate of North America, however, did not suit his constitution; and so, after having lost his little worldly all, he returned to his native country in the year 1830. Here he married Margaret, daughter of Alexander Archibald, Dunclug, by whom he had a large family. One son, Matthew, still lives in the old home. Some of the children are dead, while others reside in America.

David Herbison was by conviction a Unitarian. He was not, however, in any sense a bigot. While attached to his own views he was very tolerant of those of his neighbour. During his whole life he was a most industrious man; and, as a result of his perseverance, at the period of his death he was in comfortable circumstances. During the latter years of his life he acted as the representative in Ballymena of the Messrs. Finlay Brothers & Co., linen merchants, Belfast.

Personally the poet was an amiable man. He was of a disposition that was genial and obliging. A high sense of honour and integrity regulated every action of his life. While he could at times be humorous, yet he could wither by his severity, as passages in his writings abundantly testify. The house he lived in during the closing years of his life, and in which he died, is situated on the Cushendall road, a short distance out of Ballymena. It is in the townland of Dunclug. It was, and still is, a neat little cottage, inside which, during the lifetime of our author, there was a carefully selected library comprising thousands of volumes. David Herbison was a great reader. His favourite author was James Hogg. Ramsay and Burns held a high place also in his estimation.

What prompted his earliest poetical composition was the occasion of the assembling of one of the old country singing classes, which were held in this neighbourhood some sixty or seventy years ago. At these weekly gatherings each member had in turn to compose a stanza of poetry, which the entire company afterwards joined in singing. It was on an occasion of this kind that Herbison first manifested the possession of a poetical gift. His father had, however, long previously to this written poetry.

The Bard of Dunclug's earliest production which apepared in the public prints of the day was - "The sun had set low o'er the hills of Slieve Gallen." Next to this was his "Elegy on the death of Sir Walter Scott." Pieces from his pen appeared about this time in the Dublin Penny Journal. He was also now a frequent contributor to the Larne Journal. The career thus entered upon was persevered in for many years, and as a result of his labours the reading public has been favoured with several volumes from his gifted pen.

But it was evident for the last few years of his life that the Bard of Dunclug would soon be numbered with the dead. His bent form, tall and stately once, his wrinkled brow, and hair whitened by the snows of eighty winters, all joined in saying, "David Herbison is fading away." The end came much sooner than had even been expected. Laid aside by what appeared to be a severe cold, he gradually sank, and on the 26th May, 1880, he breathed his last. The news of his departure spread rapidly, producing a feeling of heartfelt sorrow among the large circle of friends both at home and abroad. On the Thursday evening succeeding his death he was buried in the New Cemetery, adjoining his late residence. His remains were followed to their last resting place by a large concourse of the inhabitants of Ballymena and the surrounding neighbourhood.