Portion of a Letter. Holograph of Burns from the Thornhill Letter Book


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. 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. Burns worked as a farmer while building his literary reputation, but following the success of the Edinburgh edition of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, he was appointed an excise officer in Ellisland, 1788. This document is a file copy of a business letter Burns wrote while serving as an excise officer. A strong oak chest containing excise documents from the Thornhill office near Ellisland, purchased at a sale of Burns's effects by the antiquary Joseph Train, was exhibited by the Greenock Burns Club in 1859. Pages from these documents in Burns's handwriting were among the relics displayed at the Glasgow Memorial Exhibition in 1896.

Last updated: September 18, 2015