Elegy on Sir J. H. Blair


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 elegy was written by Burns in memory of the Scottish financier and former Lord Provost of Edinburgh, Sir James Hunter Blair, two weeks after his death in 1787. Like Burns, Blair was a freemason, and had subscribed to eight copies of Burns's Edinburgh edition of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. Burns addressed the elegy to his friend Robert Aiken, enclosing "rather an incorrect" printed copy as well. He commented in an accompanying letter that "The melancholy occasion of the foregoing Poem affects not only individuals but a Country. That I have lost a friend is but repeating after Caledonia."

Last updated: February 12, 2016