Robert Burns Manuscripts – gie us a job!

It’s the time of year for all things Robert Burns. Here in the DIU I have recently finished digitising a collection of Robert Burns Manuscripts. These are highly treasured manuscripts which make up part of our Iconics Collection. A fitting status for the bard himself. So, time raise a glass! The manuscripts comprise of letters of correspondence and poems such as Holy Willie’s Prayer, Love and Liberty: A Cantata and Address to Edinburgh.

What I enjoy about writing up blog posts on the collections that arrive in the DIU, is that it provides a rare opportunity to delve a little deeper in to the stories that lie behind the materials themselves. Acquisitions and Scottish Literary Collections Curator, Dr Paul Barnaby, kindly pointed me in the direction of a particular letter addressed to the Earl of Glencairn, written in 1788. In this letter Burns rather earnestly requests that Earl of Glencairn might use his influence to help him gain employment as an exciseman:

‘I wish to get into the Excise: I am told that your lordship’s interest will easily procure me the grant from the commissioners; and your lordship’s patronage and goodness, which have already rescued me from obscurity, wretchedness, and exile, embolden me to ask that interest.’

‘I am ill-qualified to dog the heels of greatness with the impertinence of solicitation, and tremble nearly as much at the thought of the cold promise as the cold denial; but to your lordship I have not only the honour, the comfort, but the pleasure of being your lordship’s much obliged and deeply indebted humble servant.’

The letter is bold in its intent and takes the form of a plea. With his little income from working on his family farm and his income as a poet, Burns was struggling to make ends meet, fearing a financially unstable future. At this stage he was known as the ‘Ploughman’s Poet’ and it was through the success of his poetry publications that he had come to meet the likes of the Earl of Glencairn. Burns was not one to shy away from seeking out the potential benefits of nepotism. Despite having no experience other than farming, thanks to this emotional appeal, Burns would go on to work as an exciseman rising quickly up the ranks.

Whilst on the subject of Burns, another key Burns item in our collection is one his letters to engraver James Johnson. In fact, we hold two of these letters, one the genuine article (1795) and the other a forgery  by Alexander Howland ‘Antique’ Smith. Johnson was compiling songs for volumes of The Scots Musical Museum (a publication of traditional Scottish songs) and had asked Burns to contribute. Alexander Howland ‘Antique’ Smith became known as an infamous forger, who forged letters of Sir Walter Scott and Mary Stuart. He was charged for his criminal actions in 1893, with the forgery of Burns’ hand occurring more than 50 years after his death. Considering Burns’ profile it is unsurprising that this forgery found its way in to the university collections. The existence of forgery serves to give weight to the cult status of Robert Burns and plays an important part in the story of collecting and collections.

This goes to show that no collection is immune to forgery although this can lead to greater understanding of the item or collection. I spoke with Deputy Head of Special Collections and Archives Manager, Rachel Hosker on the subject of palaeography where she mentioned that forgeries can provide an interesting area of research. Consequently, such research may shed further light on certain items with regards to their provenance, life and story of existence. The fact that in the DIU we create such high quality images may help with this kind of research as users are able to zoom in to the finer details in order to compare and contrast handwriting, marks and unique features.

Letter to James Johnson
Forgery of Letter to James Johnson

John Bryden

Assistant Photographer


Further Links –

Burns Manuscripts La.III.586 on the University of Edinburgh Collections website – here

General, Burns on the University of Edinburgh Collections website – here

Forgery, on Archives Hub – here

Robert Burns Birthplace Museum –  here


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