Hogg was born on a farm near Ettrick Forest in Selkirkshire. He had little education, and became a shepherd, hence his nickname, "The Ettrick Shepherd". In 1796, his employer, William Laidlaw of Blackhouse, seeing how hard he was working to improve himself, offered to help by making books available. In the same year, Robert Burns died, and Hogg, who had only just come to hear of him, was devastated by the loss. He struggled to produce poetry of his own, and Laidlaw introduced him to Sir Walter Scott, who asked him to help with a publication entitled The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border. In 1801, Hogg visited Edinburgh for the first time. His own collection, The Mountain Bard, was published in 1807 and became a best-seller, allowing him to buy a farm of his own. Having made his name, he started a literary magazine, The Spy, and his epic story-poem, The Queen's Wake (the setting being the return to Scotland of Queen Mary (1561) after her exile in France), was published in 1813 and was another big success. William Blackwood recruited him for the Edinburgh Magazine, and he was introduced to William Wordsworth and several other well-known literary figures. He was given a farm by the Duke of Buccleuch, and settled down there for the rest of his life.
Hogg had already made his reputation as a prose writer with a practical treatise on sheep's diseases; and in 1824 his novel, The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, was another major success. He became better known than his hero, Burns, had ever been.