Scotland’s Poet: Robert Burns in Special Collections
People in Scotland, and all around the world, will be cutting into a haggis today or lifting a wee dram to the memory of Robert Burns. St Andrews does not have a huge amount of holdings in relation to Burns, but we have selected something from the beginning of his life, something from his publishing career, and a rare item from the last month before Burns died. If you are interested in the life of Burns, or you’d just like to know more about why this day has been set aside for this poet, you might like some of these items found in our collections. Enjoy!
“… T’was then a blast o’ Januar Win’
Blew hansel in on Robin …”
(from the song ‘There was a lad’ by Robert Burns)
Now a forming part of a complex heritage site that includes a new museum and the Auld Kirk of ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ fame, the old cottage, or as Burns referred to it “the auld cley biggin”, built by his father, William, was home to the poet up to the age of seven. It later became a public house, as can be noted here by the signs either side the main door, the one to the left is obscured but appears to commemorate the poet, whilst the one on the right reads “M Alexander. Licensed [to sell] Wines, spirits and ales”. It had various tenants after the Burns family moved and became an ale house in the latter half of the 18th c. Known by the 19th c. as ‘The Burns Heid’, the cottage was by then something of a pilgrimage site and watering hole. It was registered as ‘Ayr. Burns Cottage’ in 1878. This cottage was integrated as part of the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, opened in 2011.
The photograph is held in the Valentine collection in a scrapbook album (VGA 101) into which various Scottish topographical photographs plus a few scenes of London (by Scottish photographer Francis Godolphin Osbourne Stuart) have been tipped-in (pasted). It was registered in 1878 but may well predate that year, as 1878 was the first year the Valentine’s began registering their expanding stocks of photographic plates.
Like many Scottish libraries, St Andrews has many editions of Burns’s works. One of the more curious items is the 1787 2nd Edinburgh edition of Poems, chiefly in the Scottish dialect, known as the ‘stinking’ edition. This edition was printed by William Creech,who is notorious for giving Burns trouble, Burns’s Edinburgh publisher. This editions is known as the ‘stinking’ edition because of a typographical error on page 263, the last lines of ‘Address to a haggis’, in which “skinking” has been replaced with “stinking”:
“… Ye Pow’rs, wha mak mankind your care,
And dish them out their bill o’ fare,
Auld Scotland wants nae stinking ware
That jaups in luggies;
But, if ye wish her gratefu’ prayer
Gie her a haggis!”
(from the poem ‘Address to a haggis’ by Robert Burns)
St Andrews has three copies of this edition, the item pictured above is from the library of James David Forbes (1809-1868). It has a contemporary inscription at the head of the title page: “Lady Jane Belsches Augt. 31st 1789”, i.e. Lady Jane Belsches of Fettercairn in Kincardineshire, mother of Williamina Belsches (who would become Walter Scott’s love interest).
The final item comes from the Playfair collection, a collection of personal papers relating to the Playfair family, a prominent family in St Andrews and beyond, particularly during the 19th century. This item is from the travel journal of James Macdonald, of Anstruther Wester, who travelled in Scotland and Europe in the late 18th century. He married Jessie Playfair, 3rd daughter of Rev James Playfair, Principal of University College to 1819 (a marriage opposed by her father due to Macdonald’s radical ideas). This entry is from Macdonald’s Scottish tour from between 24 May and 25 July 1796, during which he dined with Burns on 1 June 1796 (a month and-a-half before Burns died). This record forms the last extended account of Burns’s conversation written down in his lifetime and an important insight into his republican Scottish Political thought. During this dinner Burns recounts the night he composed ‘Lines on Stirling‘ on a window pane in a local pub in Stirling. A transcription of the entry follows the image:
“Sanquhar June 2
I arrived here from Dumfries this evening, after a ride of about 30 miles in the most romantic country the mind can conceive. Yesterday Burns the Ayrshire Poet dined with me; and few evenings of my life passed away more to my satisfaction.
He looks consumptive, but was in excellent spirits, and displayed as much wit and humour in 3 hours time as any man I ever knew. He told me that being once in Stirling when we was a young lad, [a] heated with drink, he had nigh got himself into a dreadful scrape by writing the following lines on the pane of a glass window in an Inn
Here Stewarts once in triumph reign’d,
And laws for Scotland’s weal ordain’d;
But now unroof’d their Palace stands,
Their sceptre’s fall’n to other hands;
Fall’n indeed unto the Earth.
Whence grovelling reptiles take their birth;
And since great Stewart’s line is gone,
A race outlandish fills their throne;
An idiot race to honour lost,
Who know them best dispise them most.
These lines are a proof of Burns’ rashness & folly. He promised to send me an ode he composed when chosen poet Laureat to a meeting of Jacobite gentlemen once in Edin[burgh]. When Old Farquharson of Monalterie happened to meet with a poor man who had fought by his side at the Battle of Culloden, which circumstance when he mentioned it brought the tears into the Poets eyes. He told me many anecdotes of himself and others in the very best & most genuine spirit of pleasantry. The landlord of our Inn commonly known by the name of the Marquiss Johnstone, is also a good humoured fellow and served as a whetstone for Burns’ wit. they are both staunch republicans. Burns repeated an ode he composed on the Pretender’s birth day, replete with grand imagery & brilliant expression. I am sorry I do not remember the words of the ode, one simile which referred to the Swiss Avalanche was sublime. He promised to send me a copy of it. At parting the poor Poet with tears in his eyes took an affectionate leave of me. He has vast pathos in his voice, and as he himself says in his Vision, “His eye e’en turn’d on empty space, beams keen wi’ honour”. I am happy to have seen, and enjoyed the company of this true heaven born genius, whose conversation is at least correspondent to his published thoughts, and whose personal appearance and address, partake more than is generally allowed of those of the gentleman & of the scholar.”
with contributions from
Pam Cranston Photographic Research and Preservation Officer & Rachel Hart Muniments Archivist and Deputy Head of Special Collections