The North Prospect of the City of Edinburgh

The North Prospect of the City of Edinburgh.

Print from engraving by John Slezer, c. 1690.

Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.


“WHO WAS ALEXANDER PENNECUIK?—A curious volume lately fell into my hands. . . . The contents are a mixture of the grossest obscenity and the most devout piety, the aim of the work evidently being to ridicule Whiggism and Presbyterianism. . . . There is an infinite amount of wit and cleverness in the satirical pieces, coarse though they be, while a number of curious epitaphs are calculated to delight the heart of any collector. . . . Is anything known of Pennecuik, or any of the 'others' who assisted him in compiling this delectable mélange?" - W. B. Cook, Notes and Queries (1873)

   Who was Alexander Pennecuik? The aim of this exhibit is to grapple with this query, and above all to suggest that much work remains to be done, and is worth doing, in pursuit of an answer. This introduction will provide a concise account of what is presently known about this figure, and the problems and intrigues that exist in what is not known. Although Pennecuik has turned up fleetingly in many works of scholarship dating from the nineteenth century to the twenty-first, he has been the object of very little focussed attention. With the small selection of Pennecuik's poems that follows, I hope to demonstrate the kinds of historical and literary interest that might be found in the works of a minor poet.

Life and Works

   To begin with, Alexander Pennecuik (d. 1730, pronounced Pennycook) was not always so obscure. During his short career, roughly 1715-1730, he seems to have been a well-known Edinburgh character. In response to W. B. Cook’s above-quoted query, J. O., who evinces comprehensive familiarity with Pennecuik’s works, labels Pennecuik, with somewhat ironical flourish, “the town laureate” (1873). The title page of An Historical Account of the Blue Blanket; or, Crafts-Mens Banner (1722) identifies the author as a “Burgess and Guild-Brother of Edinburgh,” and Pennecuik’s pseudonym was Mercator Edinburgensis; while this is thought to reflect his probable trade of book-selling (Chalmers 1800, lvii), it is tempting to consider Pennecuik one of early eighteenth-century Edinburgh’s poetic cartographers. Many of Pennecuik’s works respond to current local events, describe various locations around Edinburgh, or alternately eulogize and pillory local figures.  A few pieces are presented as ditties written upon impromptu requests (1750, 64), in one poem earning the poet pay in drink (1750, 59-60), which seems to have been an overimportant feature in his life. Many poems focus on criminals or the representatives of the law—the latter sometimes portrayed none-too-favourably. The circumstances of Pennecuik’s brief imprisonment on suspicion of being an accomplice of Nicol Mushett, Lord Boghall, in the murder of the latter’s wife in 1720, are not yet entirely clear (Pennecuik and Boghall, 1721). Pennecuik died, impoverished, “‘in a stair of a Land in the Cowgate opposite the Foot of the Old Fishmarket Close’” (Gillis 1957, 298).

   Pennecuik had some reputation for vulgarity, exaggerated by the Victorian sensibilities of J. O.: “[he] pander[ed] to the depraved tastes of the democrats of Auld Reekie,” and, “given the loose notions of propriety entertained by Pennecuik,” his advertisement for a (never realised) spiritual treatise “reads very like a satire upon the Undertaker” (1873). Even a modern eye might widen upon such of Pennecuik’s titles as “The Lost Maidenhead” (1787, 24-25) and “The Webster’s Wife’s Tears over her Husband’s Testicles, Who Castrate[d] Himself” (1750, 50-52). The intention behind the rather gratuitous accounts of Christ as bridegroom in Part II of Streams from Helicon is obscure to the compiler of this exhibit—perhaps Pennecuik is mocking the often-amatory language of Presbyterians, as Archibald Pitcairne did, equally explicitly, in his 1722 play The Assembly (1972, 20-21). A few of Pennecuik’s inconsistencies in character and expression are dealt with below, but his antipathy towards the Kirk is probably his most consistent trait, even permitting a collection of his Satires on Kirkmen (1744). Colin Kidd has suggested that Pennecuik’s criticisms of the Kirk seem “to have informed the New Licht satire of Burns,” with “distinct echoes” of Pennecuik in Burns’s work (2016, 104-05). Pennecuik sometimes expresses an ostensibly sincere and deep spirituality, as in his “Morning Walk to Arthur’s Seat” (1720, 165-181), but it is not presently possible to comment with any certainty on his formal religious commitments.

   Pennecuik wrote much in English, but also in Scots, and was a figure of “the Edinburgh vernacular revival coterie” (Rorke 2017, 35). During his lifetime, Pennecuik published two sizeable collections of verse, many broadsides, and one prose history of Edinburgh trade organizations. Various selections from these works were published well into the first half of the nineteenth century—some of which include contributions from unidentified “others,” complicating questions of authorship. Most of Pennecuik’s works were printed in Edinburgh, but some found their way to London (1720), Aberdeen (1769), and Glasgow (1787). Further research would give a better account of Pennecuik’s reach than I am able to give here. Most troublingly, no copies of Pennecuik’s second collection of poetry, Flowers from Parnassus (1726), are known to survive, and this seems to have been the case from at least the late nineteenth century; many if not all of the works from Flowers from Parnassus must have migrated into other collections, but very few are noted as such. A Compleat Collection of All the Poems Wrote by that Famous and Learned Poet Alexander Pennecuik was published in three parts circa 1750, but only two of the three parts are possessed by the National Library of Scotland. Much of Pennecuik’s output has not been digitized in original form, and a manuscript volume of Pennecuik’s works at the National Library of Scotland (one of an original set of two) contains unpublished material, some of which is described by James Maidment (1841, xxxvii-xxxviii). However, most of his remaining printed works have been helpfully transcribed and made available online through Chadwyck-Healey’s English Poetry, Second Edition (2018), and organised under the Digital Miscellanies Index (n.d.).

   The narrow selection of Pennecuik’s poems included in this exhibit can scarcely begin to do justice to the range of topics on which Pennecuik wrote. Some pieces were selected as illustrations of Pennecuik’s politics, and especially his Jacobitism, which is of interest to the compiler of this exhibition. Walter Scott judged Pennecuik as of a kind with Archibald Pitcairne: a Jacobite "wag" (1826, 104). Jacobites were adherents of the Stuart monarchy, the main line of which had been dislodged in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Jacobitism appealed to people from a broad variety of backgrounds, and for any number of reasons—it is not within the scope of this exhibition to give any kind of overview of the voluminous literature on this phenomenon. Two things, however, should be noted when approaching Pennecuik's Jacobitical works: I) After the 1603 Union of the Crowns of Scotland and England, some British monarchs require a double set of regnal numbers to respect both Scottish and English contexts. For example, James VII of Scotland was James II of England. Although he was not the de facto monarch, I have retained the regnal numbers of James VII and II's son, James Francis Edward Stuart, because Jacobites such as Pennecuik would have regarded him as James VIII and III. II) In 1688-89, James VII and II was overthrown by William II and III for reasons related to his Roman Catholicism. James went into exile where he and two generations of his offspring continued to press their claim to the throne. Jacobites were by no means exclusively Catholic; in Scotland, Jacobitism found support among many adherents of the Episcopalian Kirk, which had been displaced in 1688-89 as the national church of Scotland by the puritanical Presbyterians, who were mostly anti-Jacobite (Pittock 1991, 22). 

   Jacobitism was treasonous, and open expression carried risks. Pennecuik could be surprisingly brazen, although some of the poems featured will demonstrate the caution normally required in expressions of Jacobitism. In a few publications, Pennecuik expresses devout loyalty to the Hanoverian monarchy, which had supplanted the Stuarts; this may represent an effort to secure favour in interest of Pennecuik’s career, or this output may be satirical, although it does not read as satire. Aside from these inconsistent expressions of dynastic loyalty, Pennecuik was uncompromisingly anti-Union, and had a tendency towards historical-mindedness and nostalgia, which has widely been observed as a consequence of Union (e.g. Davis 2011, 76)

Possible Relations

   Although Pennecuik’s claimed title of “Gentleman,” along with the signs of his good education, speak to a more socially elevated background, his dissipation stands in contrast to his possible family connections. It is often noted that Pennecuik is likely the nephew of Dr. Alexander Pennecuik of Newhall (1652-1722), also a productive poet (Wood 2004)—although the quality of his poetry has mostly prompted swift dismissal, and he has also been found out as a casual plagiarist (Irving 1861, 588-89). Dr. Pennecuik served as an army surgeon, including for the troops of John Grahame of Claverhouse (1648-1689)—later the leader of the first Jacobite rebellion in Scotland—and Sir Thomas Dalziel of The Binns (1615-1685) during the so-called “Killing Time” (Wilson 1891, 171). Dr. Pennecuik seems to have gotten along happily under later regimes, writing in praise and welcome both of William II and III (1715, 1-6) and of the 1707 Union of the Scottish and English parliaments (36-37). Our Pennecuik contributed some laudatory lines to the older Pennecuik’s Description of the Shire of Tweeddale (1715, n.p.), reprinted in Pennecuik’s own work as “to my honoured Friend” (1720, 61-62), but addressed in the manuscript version of the work to his “uncle” (Maidment 1841, xxxviii). Certain works of the two poets, and some elements of their biographies, have been confused several times. William Brown published a short book for the Edinburgh Bibliographical Society differentiating the two Pennecuiks’ major publications (1906), although it is still possible that undetected cross-pollination occurred within collections due to the misapprehensions of printers.

   Dr. Pennecuik is usually noted as having just one brother: James Pennecuik, an Edinburgh lawyer, to whom Dr. Pennecuik addressed a poem justifying his preference for rural living (1715, 58-62). However, the compiler of the Annals of Penicuik discovered two additional brothers. On January 20, 1709, John Lauder, Lord Fountainhall (1646-1722) presided over a precedent-setting decision regarding the informal will of Robert Pennecuik, who had been captain of the Saint Andrew and commodore of the first Darien expedition fleet (Wilson 1891, 170-71). Dr. Pennecuik, being predeceased by his brothers Robert, Stephen, and James, was ignored in the will, with everything of Robert’s going to his nieces by Stephen (Lauder 1769, 482-83). There is no mention of a younger Alexander Pennecuik being the son of any of the four brothers; however, if our Pennecuik did belong to this family, it is possible that he was involved in the same rift that saw Dr. Pennecuik excluded. The young Pennecuik may also have already exhibited signs of his future habits of living, or his animosity towards the Kirk—Robert Pennecuik was chosen for the Darien voyage in part due to his Presbyterian credentials (Taylor 1892, 65).

   The family of Pennecuik had many serious scandals in its history, and was long in decline. In 1604, the family estate of Penicuik passed out of the ownership of a reckless, violent, and finally banished ancestor (Wilson 1891, 142-46). Penicuik was acquired by the merchant John Clerk in 1654 (149), whose grandson, John Clerk of Penicuik (1676-1755) was one of the architects of the 1707 Union (153).  The estate of Newhall in Penicuik, which had come into the family in 1646, was sold by Dr. Pennecuik’s spendthrift son-in-law to Sir David Forbes, although the doctor continued to spend a good deal of time there as a guest. John Forbes, David Forbes’ son and inheritor of Newhall, was a patron to Allan Ramsay (1686-1758), who was also a frequent visitor, and through this connection counted Dr. Pennecuik as a friend. It has long been claimed, and contested, that the setting of Newhall had provided the inspiration for that author’s wildly popular pastoral play, The Gentle Shepherd (Wood 2004). William Henry Oliphant Smeaton pointed out the similarity between Sir William Worthy and Dr. Pennecuik’s father, who had purchased Newhall and who went into exile during the Commonwealth (1896, 94).

Rivalry with Allan Ramsay

   The younger Pennecuik’s relationship to Allan Ramsay may have been an important feature of his life, and even more his legacy. It is tempting to wonder whether Pennecuik was included among the “Scriblers” against whom Ramsay did battle in 1720 (1802), but the alleged rivalry between the two is largely based on the speculation of Ramsay’s various editors and biographers. The story of The Gentle Shepherd's being inspired by Newhall, and the literary circle that gathered there, seems to have morphed into a rumour that Ramsay did not originate the text. Pennecuik, in turn, has been accused of designing this accusation (Oliphant Smeaton 1896, 88). George Chalmers further “suspect[ed]” that Pennecuik was the author of “The Flight of Religious Piety from Scotland, upon Account of Ramsay’s Lewd Books” (1800, lvi), although that poem was likely first published in 1736, when Pennecuik was six years dead (Atherton Aitken 1895).

   Pennecuik is often euphemistically called Ramsay’s “imitator,” or some variant thereof (Atherton Aitken 1895). This charge seems to have begun with George Chalmers, who compiled a list of six works that Pennecuik and Ramsay wrote “on similar subjects.” These include: I) elegies on successive Kirk-treasurers, II) poems on the topic of misers, III) poems on the Company of Bowmen, IV) congratulatory poems on the marriage of the Duke of Hamilton, V) elegies on the Duchess of Hamilton, and VI) (Ramsay) the prologue for an unspecified play, and (Pennecuik) the prologue to The Beggar’s Opera, “when first acted . . . at Holyrood-house, 1728” (1800, lviii). This is hardly a damning case for two poets who frequently wrote on current events and were obliged to seek patrons for their work. If Pennecuik did pen a prologue for The Beggar’s Opera, it would be much to his credit, although I have found no trace. If some of Pennecuik’s work was inspired by Ramsay, it is fair to ask whether he had in mind to test his skill against Ramsay’s, or merely to capitalise on Ramsay’s successes. While not within the scope of this exhibit, perhaps further investigation will sort out the nature of the relationship between these poets’ outputs.

   Aside from this charge of coattail-riding, which another recent evaluation found to be unfair (Rorke 2017, 35), the quality of Pennecuik’s work has sometimes been judged worthless when he is placed next to Ramsay–Oliphant Smeaton terms Pennecuik “the doggerel poet” (1896, 88). One notable exception is David Daiches's assessment of Pennecuik’s vernacular “The Merry Wives of Musselburgh’s Welcome to Meg Dickson,” which, with an aside doubting Pennecuik’s authorship, Daiches pronounces “as good as Ramsay’s best in this vein” (1973, 168). In Notes and Queries, William Gillis helpfully points out that this poem is present in the manuscript collection of Pennecuik’s works—although, I should like to complicate his assertion that it is “Pennecuik’s only claim to notice in Scottish literary history” (1957). Whatever the relative quality of Ramsay’s work, I hope to show that dismissing Pennecuik in this way is going too far.                 

   Putting aside the question of quality, there were other factors that may have contributed to the success of one over the other. In marked contrast to Ramsay, Pennecuik does not seem to have contributed to the culture of Scottish song that would be seen as "core to . . . Scottish" culture (Pittock 2007, 336). Ramsay was certainly more skillful in securing friends and patrons. While Pennecuik seems to have written some pieces strictly according to market or elite demands, he also had an occasional habit of indelicacy when it came to certain of his principles. An anonymous poem appended to the manuscript of Pennecuik’s works declares that Pennecuik’s “pen [wa]s brimstone dipt in fyre” (Maidment 1842).  For example, on the occasion of Sir Richard Steele’s (1672-1729) visit to Edinburgh in 1715, as a member of a Commission to punish the participants in the recent Jacobite uprising, Ramsay seems to have made a friend of his fellow writer (Dobson 1886, 188-90). On the other hand, Pennecuik’s address to Steele (in Streams from Helicon, orginally published in 1715), while largely conciliatory, ends more ambiguously: Scotland still “loves you, tho’ you come to kill. / In midst of Fears and Wounds, which she doth feel, / Kisses the hurting Hand, smiles on the wounding STEELE” (1720, 49).


   While a few modern scholars have found Pennecuik a valuable source of literary historical evidence, he has only ever been of secondary or incidental interest. While he may be justly overshadowed by other figures of the eighteenth-century Scottish literary scene, he should not be ignored. Understanding Pennecuik may even help to better understand those more prominent literary figures who have come to represent the era. The fact of his historical popularity is enough to call for a reassessment. In reading Pennecuik, we are reading what many in the Edinburgh of his day found compelling, or simply entertaining—apart from this considerable historical value, it may not be too much to imagine that some readers might still feel the same.


Editorial note: The poems that follow, arranged in alphabetical order, have not been altered except where indicated by square brackets. Original spelling is retained, and only marked with [sic] if it appears to be a typographical error. In the titles to the pages, the years in parentheses do not indicate the original dates of publication, which in many cases are not known, but the years of publication of the versions transcribed. Where the Dictionary of the Scots Language ( or online Oxford English Dictionary ( have assisted in my annotations, they are included as references - all other citations are in-text.



"Alexander Pennecuik." Digital Miscellanies Index. Leverhulme Trust and Bodleian Library's Centre for the Book. Accessed April 15, 2018.

"Alexander Pennecuik." 2018. English Poetry, Second Edition. Chadwyck-Healey.

Atherton Aitken, George. 1895. "Alexander Pennecuik." In Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. 44. Edited by Sidney Lee, 323-325.New York: Macmillan.

Chalmers, George. 1800. "The Life of Ramsay" and "Poems on Similar Subjects." In The Poems of Allan Ramsay. Vol 1. 5-60. London: A Strahan.

Cook, W. B. 1873. "Who was Alexander Pennecuik?" Notes and Queries S4-12, no. 288 (July 5): 7. XII/288/7/4421032?searchresult=1.

Daiches, David. 1973. "Eighteenth-Century Vernacular Poetry." 150-84. In Scottish Poetry: A Critical Survey. Edited by James Kinsley. London: Cassell and Company. 

Davis, Leith. 2011. "Imagining the Miscellaneous Nation: James Watson's Choice Collection of Comic and Serious Scots Poems." Eighteenth-Century Life 35, no. 3: 60-80.

Dobson, Austin. 1886. Richard Steele. English Worthies. New York: D. Appleton and Company.

Gillis, William. 1957. "Alexander Pennecuik: Two Manuscripts." In Notes and Queries 202 (July): 297-98.

Irving, David. 1861. The History of Scotish Poetry. Edited by John Aitken Carlyle. Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas.;view=1up;seq=7.

Kidd, Colin. 2016. "Enlightenment and Ecclesiastical Satire before Burns." In The Scottish Enlightenment and Literary Culture. Edited by Ronnie Young, Ralph McLean, and Kenneth Simpson, 95-114. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press.

Lauder, John, ed. The Decisions of the Lords of Council and Session, from June 6th, 1678, to July 30th, 1712. 1761. Edinburgh: G. Hamilton and J. Balfour. Eighteenth Century Collections Online.

Maidment, James. 1842. Scottish Elegiac Verses 1629-1729. Edinburgh: Thomas G. Stevenson.

O., J. 1873. "Alexander Pennecuik." Notes and Queries S4-12, no. 290 (July 19): 53.

Oliphant Smeaton, William Henry. 1891. Allan Ramsay. Famous Scots Series. Edinburgh: Oliphant, Anderson, and Ferrier.

Pennecuik, Alexander [the older]. 1715. A Geographical, Historical Description of the Shire of Tweeddale. With a Miscelany and Curious Collection of Select Scotish Poems. Edinburgh.

Pennecuik, Alexander. 1720. Streams from Helicon: or, Poems on Various Subjects. In Three Parts. 2nd ed. London: the author. Eighteenth Century Collections Online.

Pennecuik, Alexander, and Nicol Mushett. 1721. "A Gentleman's Letter to the Laird of Boghall, the Day before his Execution, with Boghall's Answer." The Word on the Street. National Library of Scotland.

---. 1722. An Historical Account of the Blue Blanket: or, Crafts-Mens Banner. Containing the Fundamental Principles of the Good-Town, with the Powers and Prerogatives of the Crafts of Edinburgh, etc. Edinburgh: John Mosman. Eighteenth Century Collections Online.

---. 1744. A Collection of Poet Pennicuicke's Satires on Kirkmen, etc. [Edinburgh?] Eighteenth Century Collections Online.

---. 1787. A Collection of Scots Poems on Several Occasions, by the Late Alexander Pennecuik, Gent. and Others. Glasgow: Alexander Buchanan. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. 

Pitcairne, Archibald. 1972. The Assembly. Edited by Terence Tobin. Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press.

Pittock, Murray G. H. 1991. The Invention of Scotland: The Stuart Myth and the Scottish Identity, 1638 to the Present. London: Routledge.

---. "Allan Ramsay and the Decolonisation of Genre." The Review of English Studies 58, no. 235: 316-37.

Ramsay, Allan. 1802. "The Scriblers Lashed." In The Poems of Allan Ramsay. Vol. 1. 112-119. Edinburgh: J. Robertson.;view=1up;seq=125.

Rorke, Mary Gordon. “A Full, Particular and True Account of the Rebellion of the Years 1745-6, by Dougal Graham. The Man, the Myth and the Modus Operandi.” Master’s thesis, University of Glasgow, 2017.

Scott, Walter. Provincial Antiquities and Picturesque Scenery of Scotland. Vol. 1. London: 1826.;view=1up;seq=7

Taylor, Benjamin. 1892. "The Darien Expedition." The Scottish Review 19, no. 37: 54-73.

Wilson, John James. 1891. The Annals of Penicuik: Being a History of the Parish and of the Village. Edinburgh: T. and A. Constable.

Wood, Harriet Harvey. 2004. "Alexander Pennecuik." In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford: Oxford University Press.