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Publications and manuscripts

In this video, Gerard Carruthers chats with David Hopes of the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum about Burns's publications and manuscripts
GERRY CARRUTHERS: So David, you are director and general manager of this fine museum, could you tell us a wee bit about it please?
DAVID HOPES: Robert Burns Birthplace Museum was open to the public in January 2011. The building itself sits within yards of the Burns Monument, the ‘Auld Kirk’ in Alloway mentioned in ‘Tam o’ Shanter’, and it’s also near Brig o’ Doon, which of course is the setting for the end of Burns’s great poem. It’s about a quarter of a mile from the Burns Cottage itself. The museum itself is owned by the National Trust for Scotland and we have about 5500 artefacts here in one place for visitors to enjoy.
GC: It’s a phenomenal collection. You just mentioned the size of it there and you have very kindly extracted some items for us to have a wee look at. Can you tell us about this item here first of all? This is a real rarity - it might not look all that much to the untrained eye but we’ve really got something special here haven’t we?
DH: Well, this is a ‘Burns bestseller’. It is Burns’s first ever book, which was published in Kilmarnock in 1786. It was produced at the end of July 1786,
and it was a kind of last throw of the dice for Burns: he was considering emigration to Jamaica at the time and he thought ‘well, I’ll try my hand at printing the poems that I’ve been writing for the past 5-6 years’. He went to the only press in Ayrshire at the time, which was owned by John Wilson at the Cross in Kilmarnock, and 612 copies of his Poems, Chiefly in The Scottish Dialect were published and it sold out within a few weeks. It comprised of about 37 poems and songs, a combination of Scots and English used throughout.
GC: As you say it begins as an Ayrshire phenomenon, but before long it widens out doesn’t it? I know that we have here another version of Poems, Chiefly in The Scottish Dialect but this was published elsewhere?
DH: Yes this was published in Edinburgh. Owing to the success of the Kilmarnock volume, Burns travelled to Edinburgh, but actually copies of his Kilmarnock edition travelled ahead of him and people in Edinburgh were quite impressed by it. So he went in the winter of 1786 to arrange for the publication of a much fatter, fuller volume and he got subscriptions - you can see the subscription list here - to enable him to publish that bigger volume. It also has a bigger glossary at the back because this was intended for a much wider readership, so a lot of the Scots words had to be explained to people.
GC: Yes, quite interesting too because [with] the Kilmarnock edition we’ve got the lawyers, shopkeepers and so on subscribing; but by the time we get to Edinburgh, it’s the grand folk isn’t it?
DH: It is yes. So, for example, the Duke of Roxburgh is one of the subscribers here but unfortunately the first 2000 volumes of the Edinburgh edition had a misprint - so it was the ‘Duke of Boxburgh’.
There was also a misprint in ‘To a Haggis’ as well: ‘Auld Scotland wants nae stinking ware’ (the first printing had) when it should be of course ‘skinking ware’. So these are known as ‘stinking’ editions and there were about 2000 produced.
GC: Is this a ‘stinking’ edition David? Or is it ‘skinking’?
DH: I think it is a ‘stinking’ edition actually, if we go to ‘To a Haggis’ we can check that out.
GC: And the real hardline collectors want both the ‘stinking’ and the ‘skinking’ -that is the way it is in the Burns world.
DH: Exactly, yes. In fact this one belonged to Lord Byron - this was his personal copy, so he was a fan of Burns and so it continues the chain.
GC: So we go from Ayrshire to Edinburgh; we see Burns becoming in a sense a national Scottish poet with the publication in 1787. Then I suppose the story widens even further again when we think about that same volume essentially expanding a bit but being published elsewhere in the world. And you’ve got another example here.
DH: Yes, that’s right, this is the 1788 New York edition: so Burns goes transatlantic. This is the second American edition; the first one was published in Philadelphia in the same year. This was published in December 1788 and the paper quality wasn’t quite so good apparently, which is probably the reason why this one has browned quite so much, but it was published by a couple of expats, the Macleans, who travelled over to New York in 1783. Five years later they produced this great edition of Burns which is largely a reprint of the Edinburgh edition. But interestingly Burns didn’t get a single cent from the profits of this.
GC: So very interesting. As you say a couple of expatriates are arranging the publication of this, but within two years, we see Burns becoming a world poet, with that reach, that transatlantic reach as you say - quite something. You know we know of Burns as a world poet today but it’s happening very early on.
DH: That’s right. Within eighteen months of the first ever publication of his poems and songs we see Burns in America.
GC: Quite something!
DH: He is the One Direction of his day!
GC: I prefer Lennon and McCartney, but that’s another story! So as well as these books, we have some of your manuscripts - just a small sample of the manuscripts you have here in the museum.
An early poem is ‘The Vision’: a very interesting poem that’s one of the showpieces in the Kilmarnock edition and then the subsequent printings of Poems, Chiefly in The Scottish Dialect. So we’ve got ‘The Vision’ here - could you tell us a little bit about the manuscript we have here David?
DH: It’s part of the Stair manuscripts. So, Burns produced ‘fair’ copies (it doesn’t look very fair because you have problems reading it) produced for Lady Catherine Stewart of Stair in 1786, the same year Burns became published in Kilmarnock. He was quite confident in quoting some of the nobility and he ran off a number of poems, which we have here in the collection in manuscript form. ‘The Vision’ is a personal favourite. The circumstances of the poem have
become the stuff of legend: Burns is ‘weary’ as a farmer coming in after a hard day’s work, winter day, and wondering what the hell he’s doing. He’s a ‘stringer’ of rhymes and is thinking what is the point of all this? And then he is greeted by his ‘vision’ of Coila who represents the area of Ayrshire (Kyle) that Burns grew up in. And Burns gets kind of enthusiastic after that - she’s a good looking woman!
GC: Yes he even fancies his muse, doesn’t he? He likes her legs and he gets turned on by that and writes about her legs in the poem, which is quite nice.
DH: Yes, I think it gave him a boost, even if it is slightly pretentious I would say.
GC: Then among our other manuscripts, we have the fragment of ‘Auld Lang Syne’, of course very much
a worldwide song in due course: the song that we associate with Hogmanay, with New Year in Scotland and elsewhere. And you’ve got a very precious fragmentary manuscript version of that very song. Could you tell us a wee bit about this David?
DH: Well, this is one of only 6 extant copies of the song that Burns gave us. We have another actually within a couple of meters here in the museum. Burns thought he could improve upon a traditional song and in the other copy that we have on one side of the page we have Allan Ramsay’s version of ‘Auld Lang Syne’, whose origins date back to the 16th century we think. Burns says this is my preferred version and he goes one up on Allan Ramsay. This is a fragment of that - the first verse is missing.
But I think there was a fashion for fragments at the time, so Burns even writes at the top of it ‘fragment’ to ‘Auld Lang Syne’, so it was a kind of aging mechanism. It was the time of Ossian and ‘found’ poetry, found elements of ancient poetry.
GC: So short lyrical bursts, fragments - these are, as you say David, all the rage.
DH: Yes, but perhaps the lower right-hand corner here was taken by an autograph hunter - we’re not sure. But it has been made into even more of a fragment through the process of collecting.
GC: This happens so often with Burns doesn’t it? Souvenir hunting. Of course, no surprise, especially these days because even a few lines of Burns’s writing
are worth a lot of money: thousands of pounds upwards.
DH: That’s right yes. In fact, a manuscript of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ went to Glasgow Libraries about 10-15 years ago for 130, 000 pounds. Of course, our collection is priceless but it gives you some idea of the rarity of these things.
GC: Yes, it is quite something. The other thing, I suppose, about ‘Auld Lang Syne’, as you say, he adapts it from much older songs, and Burns’s genius is, in the late eighteenth century, he takes this song at a time when people are parting for all kinds of reasons. They might be going overseas emigrating for a better life. They might be going into the army. It becomes a great song of people taking leave of one another and particularly poignant for that. Burns is great at pushing the buttons of emotion isn’t he? And ‘Auld Lang Syne’ is certainly that.
DH: Well he tells us that he began writing songs in particular beginning with the sentiment, and actually the sentiment is carried in ‘Auld Lang Syne’ through the music as well as the words. I recently went to an exhibition in Linlithgow - it was works by a number of artists responding to ten poems and songs by Burns. One of them was ‘Auld Lang Syne’. A Japanese calligrapher had written lines from ‘Auld Lang Syne’ as one of the exhibits and I was speaking to her and she said that in Japan supermarkets at the end of the day play ‘Auld Lang Syne’ as a parting song. Actually the words that they have for ‘Auld Lang Syne’
are different from Burns’s words: they’re all about graduation. So it’s a song that’s sung at graduations about ‘may you always see your book from the light of the firefly and the light of the snow’. So the sentiment is carried in the music as well as the words.
GC: So again we have seen we go from Ayrshire, to America, to Japan. This world reach is quite something. And then a third item of manuscript that we have here,
one of Burns’s most stirring, most rousing songs: ‘Scots Wha Hae’.
DH: That’s right. Burns was quite taken by Scottish history. Although he alludes to this work in a letter saying that it was inspired by struggles ‘more recent’. So we are left to wonder whether Burns is actually veiling some contemporary or current affair in a much older song.
GC: Yes, because he talks about ‘tyrants’, and ‘freedom’, and ‘liberty’, and ok that might be the fourteenth-century Wars of Independence - Robert the Bruce, William Wallace against the English - or it might be the 1790s when this is written, when after the French Revolution ‘liberty’ is a new watchword. And of course Burns is assumed, I think rightly, to be onside and to be in favour of greater democracy, greater liberty.
DH: The manuscript we have here (we’ve got two in the collection - we always seem to have two for some
reason: one for safe keeping?!), but this is quite unique in that the last line of each verse has extra syllables. So instead of ‘or to victorie’ it’s ‘or to glorious victorie’. Instead of ‘chains and slaverie’ it’s ‘Edward, chains and slaverie’; ‘traitor, coward, turn an’ flee’. So Burns is being a bit more verbose in this copy.
GC: And this very much, although it is a bit faded (although still a very fine piece), this is a kind of fair copy isn’t it? This is Burns’s handwriting at its proudest in a sense. It’s a very fine object.
DH: Yes, he has a beautiful hand. Actually, interestingly, the tune to ‘Scots Wha Hae’ changed because Burns sent this to George Thomson, and Thomson didn’t like ‘Hey Tuttie Tatie’ which is the tune that we know and he changed it. Burns had a dispute with him at the time, but actually posthumously - after the death of Burns - he changed it back to ‘Hey Tuttie Tatie’.
GC: Yes and it’s the thing we know today as a rousing anthem of Scottish independence and ‘liberty’ and all those kinds of things. Very fine piece. So thanks very much David for showing us these items; just a few in what is a magnificent collection and magnificent museum - where lots of people come every year?
DH: Yes, we have about 200,000 visitors a year from all parts of the globe. We also have a lot of local people who use the museum as a meeting place, which is great and very much in the spirit of Burns.
GC: Well thank you very much David, that was most enlightening.
DH: Thank you.

In this video, Gerry Carruthers chats with David Hopes of the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway about key publications and manuscripts by Burns held in their collection.

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Robert Burns: Poems, Songs and Legacy

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