Letter, 1789 Janry. 17th, Mauchline, to Mr. John Smith, Jun., Bookseller, At the Circulating Library, Glasgow


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 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. The spring and early summer of 1788 saw many significant transitions in his life. After leaving Edinburgh for Mauchline, Burns married Jean Armour, took a lease on the farm at Ellisland, and was appointed an excise officer in Ellisland. It is hardly surprising that he was also trying to clear up outstanding debts owed to him. In this letter, Burns asks the bookseller John Smith to "please send me if convenient the value of nine copies of my book which I sent you last from Kilm. and are yet unaccounted for." This letter is following up on an earlier letter sent July 18th, 1788, which requested payment for nine copies of his books sent from Kilmarnock (See related item link to "Letter, 1788 July 18th, Mauchline, to Mr. John Smith..."). Five months later, Burns had still not received this additional payment. This unsuccesful correspondence conveys the complexity and delay in settling accounts, where both individual subscribers and multiple booksellers were involved.

Last updated: September 18, 2015