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A landmark in Scottish literature
Rare first edition of Robert Burns sells for over £40,000
After whisky, Scotland’s most famous exports are its authors and intellectuals – Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns and R.L. Stevenson spring immediately to mind. But whereas Scott and R.L. Stevenson are famous for a dozen works or more, Burns’s reputation the world over rests on a single volume.
It nearly never saw the light of day.
Burns’s farming activities at Mossgiel farm, near Mauchline in Ayrshire, were not profitable and his willingness to marry Jean Armour, who was pregnant by him, was opposed by her father, so Burns made plans to emigrate. It was only the suggestion of a local lawyer, Gavin Hamilton, that he could finance his voyage to Jamaica by publishing some of his poems, that led to him approaching a local printer, John Wilson, in Kilmarnock.
When, on July 31, 1786, Wilson published a slim volume of poetry under the unassuming title Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish dialect, Scottish literary history came of age. Selling for three shillings the entire print-run of 612 copies sold out within a month, justifying Burns’s belief in his abilities and the merit of his poems. The volume contained much of his best writing, including The Twa Dogs, Address to the Deil, Halloween, The Cotter’s Saturday Night, To a Mouse, Epitaph for James Smith and To a Mountain Daisy, many of which had been written at Mossgiel farm. The success of the work was immediate.
Hugely rare, this slim volume has now become a high spot in the world of books, listed in the The Grolier Club’s One hundred books famous in English literature. An informal census lists 74 surviving copies of which 42 are in universities, 22 in libraries, eight in museums and a mere 12 copies left in private hands. Our sale on May 2nd, 2012, therefore represented an exceedingly rare opportunity to purchase the most desirable and famous volume of Scottish literature and this was confirmed when the book sold for a staggering £40,250.
Equally exciting was an autographed and signed letter, apparently unpublished, and selling for £7500, from Burns’s lover, Agnes M’Lehose, known by Burns’s epithet ‘Clarinda’, to Burns’s Dumfries friend John Syme (1755-1831) written only six months after the poet’s death. In it Clarinda pleads for, cajoles and demands the return of her love letters to Burns, protesting that she would never “destroy those precious memorials of an attachment the recollection of which would warm my very soul were it to live till I was four score! No – no!”, and, as an enticement, promising in return to select passages from Burns’s letters to her for possible publication “as will do honour to his memory [as] every mind of the leasttaste must be gratified by any thing that flowed from the pen of him! Who was indeed his Country’s glory and her shame.”
The sale also included an original autographed and signed letter from Robert Burns to David Staig, the Provost of Dumfries, dated January 10, 1793, in which he begs Mr Staig’s wife and daughters to patronize the performance of an actor friend, Mr Guion, and promises in return to not just to write a congratulatory ode when Staig is made a Commissioner of the Customs, but to write an Epithalamium when every one of his daughters marries and moreover “your lady shall command my Muse of any theme she pleases”. The autograph and letter sold for £6500.
Who could possibly have resisted such blandishments from the greatest poet of the day?
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