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.
John McMurdo, to whom this letter is addressed to, was Chamberlain to the Duke of Queensberry at Drumlanrig. He and Burns likely met in 1788, establishing a lifelong friendship - Burns's poem "Bonnie Jean," for instance, was written about McMurdo's younger daughter. After Burns's death, McMurdo became one of the trustees of the money raised for Burns's widow and children. The second section of this letter reads, "I think I once mentioned something to you of a collection of Scots songs I have for some years been making. I send you a perusal of what I have gathered...There is not another copy of the collection in the world..." The collection of Scots songs to which Burns refers was his manuscript of "The Merry Muses of Caledonia." The songs included in this collection were circulated to a few chosen friends, but the manuscript disappeared after Burns's death, possibly removed from his papers by Dr. James Currie. In 1799 a collection of songs appeared anonymously, bearing Burns's working title. The following year Currie included this letter in his edition of Burns's works, but added a spurious sentence: "A very few of them [the poems] are my own." (Liverpool, 1800) The extra sentence may have been intended to play down Burns's role in producing the collection of bawdy poems.