Rare Burns poems to be sold at auction


A FIRST edition book of Robert Burns poems is to be auctioned next month.

The Kilmarnock edition, the 1786 book of the Ayrshire poet’s work, is expected to fetch £35,000 when it comes up for sale.

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.

The poems will be sold at Lyon & Turnbull in Edinburgh on May 2.

Burns impersonator Christopher Tait shows off the book that made the bard famous

Simon Vickers, Book Specialist at Lyon & Turnbull said “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 and 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.

Just 12 copies are in private hands

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.

Burns compiled the edition to fund a planned move to Jamaica

Vickers continued “This is hugely rare, this slim volume has now become a high spot in the world of books, listed in The Grolier Club’s One hundred books famous in English literature.   Our sale on May 2, 2012, therefore represents an exceedingly rare opportunity to purchase the most desirable and famous volume of Scottish literature.”

There is also an autographed and signed letter, apparently unpublished, from Burns’s lover, Agnes M’Lehose, known by Burns’s epithet ‘Clarinda’, to Burns’s Dumfries friend John Syme (1755-1831) written only six months after the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.”