Letter, 1788, February 13, Brown Square, to Robert Burns, Mr. Cruikshank's, St. James Square


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 is a signed autograph letter from Henry Mackenzie, with manuscript jottings adding up a column of numbers (1000, 500, 1500, 250) for a total of 3250 in Robert Burns's hand. The numbers relate to the size of the two print runs for the Edinburgh edition of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. Henry Mackenzie was an important literary figure in Scotland, and established himself as a novelist, playwright, poet, and editor. He contributed a critique of Burns's works to the literary magazine The Lounger, of which he was editor, and commended the Kilmarnock Edition of Burns's Poems.

Last updated: September 18, 2015