Herbison, David (1800–80), linen weaver and poet, was born 14 October 1800 in Mill St., Ballymena, Co. Antrim, third son of William Herbison, innkeeper, and his wife Elizabeth (née Wilson). They probably had at least one more child, a daughter. David suffered from smallpox when he was three years old, and lost the sight of both eyes. He was blind for four years, but (after some medical treatment) regained sight in one eye. His education was of course adversely affected, but he attended school in the town for a short time. The inn was not a success, and the family moved to a small farm at Laymore outside Ballymena. When David was fourteen, he was apprenticed to learn handloom weaving.
Like many others in the early nineteenth century, in the Scots-settled areas of Ulster, the young man participated in a culture which was still largely oral, but he was aware of printed poetry and other literature, and particularly impressed by the work of Scots poets. Herbison saved all he could from his earnings and walked the twenty-six miles (42 km) to Belfast to buy the works of Allan Ramsey, the Scots poet; a year later, he went back for the poems of Robert Burns. These volumes formed the basis of what became a very considerable book collection; he is said to have owned more than 3,000 volumes at the time of his death. His first verses were produced at a psalm-singing practice; secular verses were used to help people learn to sing psalm tunes.
In 1825 his father died, and his mother sold the farm. Herbison, still unmarried, with an older brother and his family, decided to emigrate to Canada to join another brother there. They left Belfast (5 April 1827) on the brig Rob Roy, bound for Quebec. On the night of 30 April the vessel ran aground at L'Islet, on the St Lawrence river, forty miles (64 km) from her destination, and twenty-four emigrants perished, among them David's sister-in-law and her child. David would have drowned in a small boat being blown on to the rocks, but two young Québecoises waded chest-deep into the river to seize the boat and save him. He and his brother lost all their belongings, including manuscripts of David's verse. Local French-speaking farmers were very helpful, as was his brother in Quebec, but Herbison, deeply shocked, returned to Ballymena within a few weeks of the tragedy.
He married (1830) Margaret Archbold or Archibald (1805–81), and worked as a linen weaver. He became an agent for a Belfast linen firm later in life, and was reasonably prosperous, with a neat cottage at Dunclug. Retaining something of the radical outlook that had characterised earlier Antrim weaver poets such as James Orr (qv), he strongly supported the tenant-right movement, and at the age of seventy spent a night in the police barracks after over-enthusiastic involvement in a political controversy on the issue. He published verse in 1830 in the Northern Whig, and continued to publish in local papers (and in newspapers in Canada, Scotland, and the USA), throughout his life. His first book of poetry, The fate of McQuillan and O'Neill's daughter (1841), contained competent verse in English on the mythological and historical subjects then popular, as well as lyrics on sentimental topics and nature. Herbison's poems on topics such as linen weaving, in Scots, were locally very popular in his day, and are still of interest to social historians and students of the Antrim dialect of Scots, but he increasingly eschewed such subjects and the vernacular language, hoping to please a more metropolitan audience.
His poems were favourably reviewed in periodicals such as the Dublin University Magazine of August 1848, and Herbison's name and work were comparatively well known; Co. Antrim exiles read him in Canada and elsewhere. Margaret McDougall (qv), who emigrated to Canada, was inspired to write poetry by reading one of his books, and Sir Samuel Ferguson (qv) thought well of Herbison's poetry and was a correspondent. Others who were in contact with the ‘Bard of Dunclug’, as he was widely known, included Robert Huddleston (qv), and other local poets; together they formed the last generation of Scots-speaking, intellectually ambitious writers, and they chronicled the devastating cultural and economic changes in mid-nineteenth-century Ulster. Herbison's ‘My ain native toun’, written in 1853, is a particularly eloquent lament for the world of the handloom weaver. There are several poems about the trauma of emigration, which affected so many families; of the Herbisons’ four sons and a daughter, only a son remained in Ireland. One of the sons died on his way back to Ireland from Charleston, South Carolina, and was buried at sea on 8 December 1860, aged just twenty-one; the poet's brother was drowned in Mobile, Alabama in 1832.
Herbison died 26 May 1880 in Dunclug. His five books of verse were collected in a posthumous edition, which included a short biography by a presbyterian minister. Ballymena people, proud of their own poet laureate, subscribed to a handsome memorial with a bust of Herbison, which was placed over his grave in the town's New Cemetery.