James Hogg Hogg, James (1770 - 1835) - Essay


(Gothic Literature)

James Hogg (1770 - 1835)

Scottish poet, novelist, short story and song writer, journalist, editor, playwright, and essayist.

A nearly illiterate shepherd until the age of eighteen, Hogg became a prolific writer of poetry, ballads, songs, short stories, and historical narratives who was ranked among Scottish writers only below Robert Burns and Sir Walter Scott. He established a persona as the "Ettrick Shepherd," a rustic and provincial poet, and gained fame through his association with the influential Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine. Yet that reputation declined after his death, and a century later he was remembered, if at all, only for an unconventional novel, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824), which during his life had been dismissed as an obtuse satire on Christian fanaticism. Featuring Gothic and supernatural elements, including a schizophrenic narrator and a psychological double/devil figure, as well as proto-modern narrative complexity, the work has been rediscovered by modern critics who have come to view it as a masterpiece of prose fiction. In recent years, the revival of Scottish nationalism has led to new interest in Hogg and the reprinting of his other works as well. Despite his many imitations of Burns and Scott, the pieces that utilize the supernatural folk traditions represent Hogg's best achievements and also provide the most interest for modern readers. Ghosts, both real and explained, appear regularly in Hogg's works, as do less familiar creatures: brownies, fairies, kelpies, and wraiths. Critics continue to reevaluate Hogg's work and find much to recommend in it, showing how the author uses the occult for purposes other than mere shock and integrates his own humor and folk wisdom with strange and lively narratives to produce highly moral, extremely entertaining tales.


Born to a pious tenant farmer in 1770, Hogg spent his early life as a shepherd in the Ettrick hills of Scotland following his family's bankruptcy in 1777. With minimal formal schooling, he taught himself to read using the only book available, a Bible, while his early interest in literature was founded on the Scottish oral tradition of ballads, songs, and fairy tales that were recited to him by his mother. As his self-education continued in his late teens, Hogg began to read the great works of English and Scottish literature and composed his first pieces of poetry, including verses imitative of John Milton, Alexander Pope, and others. By 1802 he had met Sir Walter Scott as the famous writer was collecting folk ballads for his Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. Hogg later read the work and, largely unimpressed with its quality, determined to compose superior verse on the same subject. He subsequently sent several poems to Scott, both his own original ballads and adaptations of those his mother had taught him. Hogg's poetic abilities and his knowledge of Scottish lore impressed Scott, and in the following years a friendship grew between the two men that had an important influence on Hogg's career. Hogg's writings of this period appeared in his 1807 collection, The Mountain Bard: Consisting of Ballads and Songs, Founded on Facts and Legendary Tales.

In February of 1810, after Hogg had lost two farms due to lack of funds, he departed the pastoral tranquility of Ettrick for several years and moved to Edinburgh. His weekly periodical, The Spy, containing articles, poems, and tales mostly written by Hogg himself, was published between 1810 and 1811, but collapsed following the printing of a particularly scandalous story. Meanwhile, Hogg began crafting his literary persona as the "Ettrick Shepherd," a self-taught poet of provincial Scotland. He contributed poetry and prose to Scottish literary magazines and established himself as a national literary figure with his collection The Queen's Wake in 1813. The parodies of The Poetic Mirror; or, The Living Bards of Britain (1816) delighted audiences and maintained Hogg's popularity, though many of his other works of this period were ignored or denigrated by contemporary critics. In 1817 Hogg began a successful relationship with the newly founded Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, which published the collaborative "Translation from an Ancient Chaldee MS." in October of that year. Coauthored with John Wilson and John Gibson Lockhart, the anonymous satire written in biblical form lampooned prominent Edinburgh Whigs and created a stir in the city. By 1820 Hogg had married and returned to rural life, retreating to his Altrive farm near Yarrow. The sales of his 1824 novel The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner proved discouraging, and Hogg's writings of the subsequent period were frequently ignored or panned by his contemporaries, though he remained a recognizable figure in Scottish literary circles. His reminiscences of a lifelong friendship, Familiar Anecdotes of Sir Walter Scott, appeared in 1834 and capitalized on interest in Scotland's most popular writer, but his later collection of short stories, Tales of the Wars of Montrose (1835), was a failure. Hogg died in November of 1835 after a prolonged illness and was buried in Ettrick.


With few exceptions, Hogg's writings about the occult and paranormal are acknowledged to be his best. His attitude toward the supernatural is ambivalent: his ancestors believed fully in the existence of creatures from another level of reality, and Hogg constantly shifts between providing rational explanations of strange events and presenting them without comment—a technique that effectively increases the suspense. He recognized that religious faith, like superstition, demands the acceptance of things unseen, and although he was a devout Presbyterian, he saw no inconsistency in maintaining beliefs in both fairy lore and Christianity.

In the poem "Superstition" (1815), Hogg laments that "gone is [Superstition's] mysterious dignity, / And true Devotion wanes away with her." Supernatural creatures, he says, not only teach the necessity of accepting the unseen but also fill guilty hearts with dread and make known their dark deeds. Hogg's fiction features various supernatural beings, from conventional ghosts to fairies. "The Barber of Duncow" (1831), one of his best ghost stories, tells how a spirit reveals to a new bride her husband's profligate past. After the wife disappears, her ghost—with throat nearly severed—leads villagers to her corpse, and when the husband touches the body, it begins to bleed profusely. Other tales depict more unusual supernatural creatures, those found in the folklore with which Hogg was familiar such as wraiths, fairies, and brownies. In "Adam Bell" (1811), some servants, having seen the apparition of their missing master, learn that a wraith appearing in daylight prognosticated very long life. In "The Wool-Gatherer" (1811), a young shepherd, Barnaby, whiles away a journey by telling the heroine some fine ghost stories. His seriousness provokes her to ask if he truly believes in such events. He believes in them, he says, a much as he believes in the gospels; he believes in the apparitions that warn of death, that save life, and discover guilt. Brownies figure in two of Hogg's best works, the historical novel The Brownie of Bodsbeck (1818), which mixes legends of a preternatural creature with the efforts of several defeated revolutionaries to hide from political and religious persecution in the hills and farmlands of Scotland, and the story "The Brownie of the Black Haggs" (1828). Witches appear in the entertaining novel The Three Perils of Man (1822) and the story "The Hunt of Eildon" (1818).

In his poems, too, Hogg writes extensively of otherworldly creatures. In "Lyttil Pynkie" (1831), a beautiful elf-girl begins a wild dance that causes the death of the evil Baron and his profligate retainers; at the end, she enables the good priest who has come to exorcise her to see clearly the invisible evil at work throughout the world. The Pilgrims of the Sun (1815), Hogg's most ambitious poem, combines an allegorical and philosophical journey through the universe with an effective ghost story, while "Kilmeny" (1813), often praised as Hogg's best lyric, deals with the visit of the purest maiden on earth to Fairyland—a conjunction of the fairy and Christian paradises—from which she returns to recount what she has seen. Hogg's comic poem "The Witch of Fife" (1813) presents a pleasure-loving old man who finds himself married to a witch, who later saves him as he is about to be burned at the stake.

Hogg's acknowledged masterpiece, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, is more overtly religious than his other works and rather than using supernatural creatures presents supernatural events that emphasize terror and evil. The figure alluded to in the title is Robert Wringhim Colwan, the illegitimate son of a reverend, who is brought up as an Antinomian Calvinist and thus believes himself a member of God's elect—and therefore assured of divine salvation regardless of his sins in life. After the strange disappearance of his elder brother, Robert meets a mysterious individual, Gil-Martin, who encourages him to commit acts of violence against the "ungodly," culminating in several murders and Robert's own suicide. The novel features a dual narrative, first that of the deluded and possibly schizophrenic "sinner," followed by the apparently objective account of the work's fictional editor who had purportedly discovered Robert's memoirs after his body was exhumed some one hundred years later. The work, which explores questions about morality, religion, psychology, and the demonic, works up to a terrifying climax, and some critics have claimed that the character of Gil-Martin is one of the most convincing representations of the power of evil in literature.


Hogg was a prolific writer who had enjoyed renown in his day, yet after his death and until the mid-twentieth century most of his work was ignored by commentators. Many of Hogg's short poems and tales were written purely to turn a profit, and these hastily composed works are generally regarded as deeply flawed and of little merit. But even his best writings, much appreciated by his contemporaries who enjoyed his celebrations of Scottish rural scenes and superstitions as well as his imitations of ancient Scottish ballads, generated little critical interest after his death. Those who read his work generally found his plots inadequate, his endings haphazard, and his poetry poorly crafted. A turning point in Hogg's critical reputation occurred in the 1920s when André Gide (see Further Reading) "rediscovered" Hogg's novel The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, recognizing it as a significant work of world literature and as Hogg's masterpiece. Gide praised Hogg's depiction of the supernatural side of faith and the work's moral and religious effects. Since Gide's comments, numerous scholars have studied the novel and praised its sophisticated narrative technique, psychological complexity, and deeply ironic and ambivalent elements. Critics have begun to investigate the author's other neglected writings as well, and some have shown how the supernatural informs nearly all of the writer's best work. They have pointed out how it achieves its effects through the tension of belief and unbelief rather than through gratuitous horror and shows that supernatural events should not be ignored because the wonders of the invisible world reveal the moral universe. Critics acknowledge that much of Hogg's writing is ordinary and uninteresting, but his best work is enjoying renewed attention and gaining stature as some of the most original writing from the nineteenth century in its depiction of the tension between things of this world and those of other realms.

Principal Works

(Gothic Literature)

Scottish Pastorals, Poems, Songs, etc., Mostly Written in the Dialect of the South (poetry) 1801
Memoir of the Author's Life (memoirs) 1806
The Mountain Bard: Consisting of Ballads and Songs, Founded on Facts and Legendary Tales (poetry, songs, and autobiographical sketch) 1807
The Forest Minstrel; A Selection of Songs, Adapted to the Most Favourite Scottish Airs [with Thomas M. Cunningham and others] (poetry and songs) 1810
The Spy [editor and main contributor] (journalism, poetry, and sketches) 1810–11
The Queen's Wake (poetry) 1813
The Pilgrims of the Sun (poetry) 1815
Mador of the Moor (poetry) 1816
The Poetic...

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Primary Sources

(Gothic Literature)

SOURCE: Hogg, James. "Expedition to Hell." In Gothic Tales of Terror, Volume One: Classic Horror Stories from Great Britain, edited by Peter Haining. 1972. Reprint edition, pp. 496-506. Baltimore, Md.: Penguin Books, 1973.

In the following excerpt from a story first published in 1836, the narrator addresses the reader on the significance of dreams.

There is no phenomenon in nature less understood, and about which greater nonsense is written than dreaming. It is a strange thing. For my part I do not understand it, nor have I any desire to do so; and I firmly believe that no philosopher that ever wrote knows a particle more...

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General Commentary

(Gothic Literature)

SOURCE: Mack, Douglas S. "Aspects of the Supernatural in the Shorter Fiction of James Hogg." In Exhibited by Candlelight: Sources and Developments in the Gothic Tradition, edited by Valeria Tinkler-Villani, Peter Davidson, and Jane Stevenson, pp. 129-35. Atlanta, Ga. and Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1995.

In the following essay, Mack explores the sources that inform Hogg's use of the supernatural in his works.

This essay focuses on some of the roots of the use of the supernatural in the works of James Hogg; this subject will be approached through an examination of specific examples provided by The Shepherd's Calendar, a series of...

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Title Commentary

(Gothic Literature)


SOURCE: "New Publications, with Critical Remarks: The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner." The New Monthly Magazine 11 (1 November 1824): 506.

In the following excerpt, the critic offers a strongly negative assessment of The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, objecting especially to Hogg's "bad grammar."

[The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner is,] we presume, intended to bring that exaggerated and extravagant style of writing which has lately become too prevalent, into...

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Further Reading

(Gothic Literature)


Bligh, John. "The Doctrinal Premises of Hogg's Confessions of a Justified Sinner." Studies in Scottish Literature 19 (1984): 148-64.

Interprets The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner as a didactic but finally ambivalent attack on Antinomian Calvinism and the associated theological doctrine of Predestination.

Campbell, Ian. "James Hogg and the Bible." Scottish Literary Journal 10, no. 1 (May 1983): 14-29.

Considers Hogg's understanding of the Bible and his use of this knowledge for artistic and satirical ends in The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner.

Gide, André. Introduction to The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, by James Hogg, pp. ix-xvi. London: The Cresset Press, 1947.

Influential introduction, in which Gide pioneered the concept of the psychological nature of Hogg's personal demon. Gide's comments triggered a resurgence of interest in The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, and provided a foundation for later critics' interpretations of the work.

Gosse, Edmund. "The Confessions of a Justified Sinner." In Silhouettes, pp. 121-30. London: William Heinemann Ltd., 1925.

Grudging appraisal of Hogg's novel that finds fault with its ambiguity and reckless introduction of the supernatural.

Groves, David. "Allusions to Dr. Faustus in James Hogg's A Justified Sinner." Studies in Scottish Literature 18 (1983): 157-65.

Explores the ways in which Christopher Marlowe's Dr. Faustus is reflected in the imagery, theme, and structure of The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner.

―――――. "Other Prose Writings of James Hogg in Relation to A Justified Sinner." Studies in Scottish Literature 20 (1985): 262-66.

Emphasizes the theme of Christian moderation in Hogg's writing, concluding that neither of the narrators in The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner entirely represent the author's own beliefs.

―――――. James Hogg: The Growth of a Writer. Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1988. 160 p.

Study of Hogg's self-education and development as a writer.

Heinritz, Reinhard Silvia Mergenthal. "Hogg, Hoffmann, and Their Diabolical Elixirs." Studies in Hogg and his World, no. 7 (1996): 47-58.

Considers Hogg's relationship to the Gothic tradition and compares his work to that of E. T. A. Hoffmann.

Hutton, Clark. "Kierkegaard, Antinomianism, and James Hogg's Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner." Scottish Literary Journal 20, no. 1 (May 1993): 37-48.

Compares Hogg's treatment of antinomianism in The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner with that of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard.

Jackson, Richard D. "James Hogg and the Unfathomable Hell." Romanticism on the Net, no. 28 (November 2002): 〈http://www.erudit.org/revue/ron/2002/v/n28/007206ar.html〉.

Examines Hogg's depiction of opium use in the nightmarish experiences of Robert Wringhim in The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner.

Jones, Douglas. "Double Jeopardy and the Chameleon Art in James Hogg's Justified Sinner." Studies in Scottish Literature 23 (1988): 164-85.

Argues against psychoanalytic interpretations of The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, concentrating instead on the narrative's concern with subjectivity, ambiguity, circularity, and disguise

Mack, Douglas S. "James Hogg in 2000 and Beyond." Romanticism on the Net, no. 19 (August 2000).

Maintains that despite Hogg's status as a disenfranchised marginal writer, his texts have a part to play at the heart of current discussion of British literature of the Romantic era because they give voice to the insights, culture, and concerns of non-elite, subaltern Scotland.

Mackenzie, Scott. "Confessions of a Gentrified Sinner: Secrets in Scott and Hogg." Studies in Romanticism 41, no. 1 (spring 2002): 3-32.

Discusses the allusions in The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner to Walter Scott's authorship of the Waverley novels.

Oost, Regina B. "'False Friends, Squeamish Readers, and Foolish Critics': The Subtext of Authorship in Hogg's Justified Sinner." Studies in Scottish Literature 31 (1999): 86-106.

Contends that in The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner Hogg comments on the writing profession and the act of authorship.

Pope, Rebecca A. "Hogg, Wordsworth, and Gothic Autobiography." Studies in Scottish Literature 27 (1992): 218-40.

Argues that The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner parodies William Wordsworth, undermines conventional realism, and utilizes a Gothic logic of ironic reversal.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. "Murder Incorporated: Confessions of a Justified Sinner." In Between Men: English Literature and Male Homosocial Desire, pp. 97-117. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

Examines the articulations of male paranoia in The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner.

Simpson, Louis. James Hogg: A Critical Study. Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1962, 222 p.

Detailed analysis of Hogg's life and works.

Smith, Nelson C. James Hogg. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1980, 183 p.

Critical study of Hogg's life and works.


Additional coverage of Hogg's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Thomson Gale: British Writers Supplement, Vol. 10; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 93, 116, 159; Literature Resource Center; Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vols. 4, 109; Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2; St. James Guide to Horror, Ghost & Gothic Writers; and Supernatural Fiction Writers, Vol. 1.