Address to the Unco Guid or the Rigidly Righteous


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. Burns sent a copy of Thomas Randall's Christian Benevolence to John Leslie in June 1789, "as a remembrance of his interest in the Case lately before Ayr Presbytery." The "Case" refers to a running dispute between the Reverend William Auld, minister at Mauchline, and Burn's friend Gavin Hamilton, who was charged with unnecesary absences from church. The Presbytery of Ayr and the Synod of Glasgow ultimately found in Hamilton's favor, but the pitting of Auld Licht (conservative) against New Licht (liberal) aroused considerable interest and animosity in the vicinity, giving rise to Burns's great satire "Holy Willie's Prayer." Burns then transcribed the entire text of his poem "An Address to the Unco Guid or the Rigidly Righteous," on the endpapers and blank preliminary pages of the copy. This appears to be the only known manuscript of the poem in the poet's hand. A collation with the first printing of the poem in the 1787 Edinburgh edition shows several minor differences, and one major variant. In stanza seven, where Burns points out that "To step aside is human," the last two lines read "An just as lamely as can ye mark, / How far perhaps they rue it." The manuscript version appears to make better sense with the word "plainly" in lieu of "lamely."

Last updated: September 18, 2015