Letter, 1789, August 24


Robert Burns (1759-96) is best known for his poems and songs that reflect Scotland's cultural heritage. He was born in Alloway, Ayrshire, Scotland, the first of seven children belonging to William Burnes, a tenant farmer, and his wife Agnes Broun. Burns had little formal education, but he read English literature and absorbed the traditional, largely oral Scots-language folk songs and tales of his rural environment. He began to compose songs in 1774, and published his first book, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, in 1786. The work was a critical success, and its poems in both Scots and English, on a range of topics, established Burns's broad appeal. While building his literary reputation, Burns worked as a farmer, and in 1788 he was appointed an excise officer in Ellisland. He spent the final 12 years of his life collecting and editing traditional Scottish folk songs for collections including The Scots Musical Museum and A Select Collection of Original Scotish [sic] Airs for the Voice. Burns contributed hundreds of Scottish songs to these anthologies, sometimes rewriting traditional lyrics and setting them to new or revised music. This poetic letter from Dr. Thomas Blacklock, a blind clergyman-poet living in Edinburgh, commends the newly published Kilmarnock edition of Burns's works. Following this encouraging message, Burns decided in summer 1786 to abandon his planned emigration to Jamaica, and instead go to Edinburgh. Burns later wrote to Dr. John Moore, "Blacklock's letter of September 1786 fired me so much that away I posted to Edinburgh without a single acquaintance in town." In 1789, the two friends exchanged rhyming epistles (initiated by this poem), and Blacklock, like Burns, contributed songs to Johnson's Scots Musical Museum. Burns's response to this poem began, "Wow, but your letter made me vauntie!" While the manuscript was made available to Burns's biographer, James Currie, no manuscript was known to James Kinsley. The Roy Collection version is the only known manuscript, and constitutes unique evidence on a friendship of crucial importance in establishing Burns's poetic reputation.

Last updated: September 18, 2015