Letter: 1788, October 11, Dumfries to Robert Ainslie, Edinburgh


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. In this letter, Burns confides his anxiety about the well-being of his farm in Ellisland to his friend, Robert Ainslie. At the same time, he seems reassured that "I have my excise commission in my pocket; I don't care three skips of a fur-dog for the up-and-down gambols of fortune." Burns first met Ainslie when he was in Edinburgh in 1787, seeing a new edition of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect through the press, and Ainslie subscribed to two copies of the work. Thereafter becoming intimate friends, the two became traveling companions on a border tour in May 1787.

Last updated: September 18, 2015