A fascinating array of Robert Burns related items starred in our live online auction of Rare Books, Manuscripts, Maps & Photographs on 17th June, achieving a grand total of just under £60K.
A highlight of the sale included an autographed letter from Robert Burns to his 'kind funny friend', Francis Grose regarding Burns's renowned poem 'Tam O’Shanter'. Grose is well-known for publishing The Antiquities of Scotland in 1791, and Burns had written some verse to accompany the entry for one of the Alloway Kirk stories in the books. The poem was none other than Burns’s great mock-heroic narrative, Tam o'Shanter. In the letter, Burns refers to sending the manuscript for the poem to Grose. He modest about his famous poem: “I am not, God knows, vain of my composition, & if you like intellectual food more substantial than the whipt syllabub of epistolary compliment”. He writes: “Should you think it worthy a place in your Scots Antiquities, it will lengthen not a little the altitude of my Muse's pride.”
The letter ties together two of Scotland’s most well-known and significant literary outputs: Burns’s Tam O’Shanter, to be found in every collection of the Bard’s Poems and acted out by schoolchildren nationwide, and Grose’s Antiquities of Scotland, a copy of which was to grace nearly every 19th century Scottish private library.
Lot 191 in the auction was also a highly significant document, giving us an insight into Burns’s famously turbulent romantic affairs. It was a letter, again signed Robt. Burns, and written to his friend in Mauchline, James Smith. In Mauchline, Burns had fallen in love with Jean Armour. By spring of 1786 it was apparent that Jean was pregnant and, according to the custom of the country and the morals of the people, Burns gave her a document acknowledging her as his lawful wife. However, Jean’s father, a master mason, bristled at the idea of his daughter wed to a poor ploughman, and insisted the union be dissolved. Jean surrendered the document, and Burns was offended. Obtaining £20 from the sale of the Kilmarnock edition of his poems (the first edition of his celebrated poetry collection), he contemplated emigrating to Jamaica with another young woman, Mary Campbell. Significantly, the letter reveals some of Burns’s thoughts regarding sex and marriage. Referring to Jean, Burns writes: "Against two things however, I am fix'd as Fate: staying at home and owning her conjugally. - The first, by Heaven I will not do!. The last, by Hell, I will never do!"
Despite Burns’s apparent protestations, upon hearing about his planned elopement with Mary Campbell, Jean's father obtained a warrant against Burns which would force him to provide for Jean's child. She gave birth to twins on 3 September 1786. Burns abandoned his plan for the West Indian expedition and finally married Jean in 1788, with whom he had nine children.
Other unusual items included the poet’s grid-iron, along with a testimony recording how the cooking grill was retrieved when Burns’s Dumfries house was being emptied after the death of Jean Armour (see lot 185), and a working draft in Burns’s handwriting entitled ‘Sonnet’. Comprising only 9 lines of verse, lot 187 begins “No more, ye warblers of the wood, no more' and appears to be a lamentation on the death of Robert Burns’s dear friend, Thomas Riddel. It achieved £6,875 in our June 2020 sale.