Letter, 1794, May to Collector Syme


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 document contains a poem addressed to John Syme, with a contemporary endorsement in another hand, dated May 1794. This extempore verse was included by James Currie in his Works of Robert Burns(1800), but without Syme's name in the title or in line 4 of the poem. Syme first met Robert Burns in Dumfries, 1791, when Burns lived in the floor above his office of Distributor of Stamps. Burns respected his critique on literary matters, and the two became traveling companions for a tour of Galloway in 1793. After Burns's death, Syme assisted his friend's family and encouraged the publication of his later works, which were edited and published by Currie.

Last updated: September 18, 2015