Rare Burns’ Manuscripts Go On Display

Robert Burns

As we approach the celebrations to mark the birth of Scotland’s greatest poet, Robert Burns, 12 original manuscripts written by the bard himself are to go on display this January as part of a new exhibition entitled Homecoming.

The important pieces include letters, poems ‘Donocht Head’ and ‘Queen of the Lothian’ and songs ‘As I was walking up the street’ and ‘O wat ye wha’s in yon town’ giving further insight into the creative process of Scotland’s most famous poet. 

They were donated to the National Trust for Scotland from the Blavatnik Honresfield Library by the Friends of the National Libraries in 2022 following a successful campaign to raise funds to secure these, and other important literary pieces, including works by Sir Walter Scott and the Brontës, for the public which were part of a private collection that was put up for sale in 2021.

The manuscripts join more than 5000 Burns-related items which are in the care of the National Trust for Scotland at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway. The site includes an award-winning museum experience, as well as the cottage where Burns was born in 1759.

Sarah Beattie, Curator for the National Trust for Scotland with Burns First Commonplace Book  Image credit:  Peter Devlin
Sarah Beattie, Curator for the National Trust for Scotland with Burns First Commonplace Book Image credit: Peter Devlin

Also part of the exhibition is the Burns First Commonplace Book which was given jointly to the National Library of Scotland and the National Trust for Scotland from the Blavatnik Honresfield Library by the Friends of the National Libraries in 2022. The book was last displayed in Scotland in 1896 at the major Burns exhibition held in Glasgow and provides an invaluable record of his development as a man and poet.

L-R Mary Garner, Conservator for the National Library of Scotland, Sarah Beattie, Curator NTS and Suzanne Reid, Regional Conservator, NTS with the First Commonplace Book Image credit Peter Devlin

National Trust for Scotland Chief Executive Philip Long OBE said:

“Securing this outstanding collection for the public was an excellent example of our sector working together to raise the funds and support needed to save them for our cultural heritage and ensure that they would be protected for and enjoyed by future generations. We are incredibly grateful to everyone who helped make this possible.

“Burns was inspired by nature, beauty and heritage and his work is of deep significance to Scotland. As the custodians of the place where Burns was born, and many of his most important works, the National Trust for Scotland is honoured to add these important pieces to our collection and to share these with the public through our new exhibition.”

National Librarian and Chief Executive of the National Library of Scotland, Amina Shah, said: 

“It’s fantastic to finally offer members of the public the opportunity to see these priceless items up close, after they were hidden away for so long. This is why we, alongside National Trust for Scotland and other organisations, worked so hard to acquire these items when they came up for sale – it was unthinkable that they would once again end up in private hands. It’s also fitting that the First Commonplace Book makes its first appearance at Burns’s birthplace – it will feel like a true homecoming.”

Homecoming is open daily at the Robert Burns Birthplace until 12 March. Entry is free.

The Burns ‘Homecoming’ collection includes:

Letters

  • Robert Burns to John Tennant, 13 September 1784
  • Burns to James Johnson on forthcoming publications, 19 June 1789
  • Burns to Mrs Miller with a poem [not present], 2 November 1789
  • Burns to John Edgar on wine accounts, 25 April 1795

Poems, songs etc

  • Poem: ‘Donocht Head’
  • Poem: ‘Queen of the Lothian’
  • Poem: draft fragments of ‘Brigs of Ayr’
  • Poem: ‘Broom Besoms’
  • Song: ‘O wat ye wha’s in yon town’
  • Song: ‘As I was walking up the street’
  • List of songs for the 3rd vol. of the ‘Musical Museum’
  • ‘Sweet fa’s the eve on Craigieburn’

The Burns First Commonplace Book

The practice of collecting material with a common theme into a ‘commonplace book’ was most popular among the aristocracy. Commonplace books were a means of communicating people’s opinions, education and culture and they can provide invaluable insight into the owner’s beliefs and personality, or in some cases, the personality that they wanted to project to the world.  Burns produced three commonplace books during his lifetime, the First or ‘Ayrshire’ Commonplace Book (1783-5), the Edinburgh Journal (1787-90), and the Glenriddell Manuscripts (1791-3). The manuscript was assembled by Burns between 1783 and 1785 and provides an invaluable record of his development as a man and poet, offering a unique insight into his thoughts, influences, and creative processes. It was collated when Burns was still a young unpublished poet living in Ayrshire and contains early drafts of some songs, prose and poetry, alongside his observations of the world and expressions of his hopes and ambitions.

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