The Glenriddel Manuscripts, volume two: MS 87

The second of the Glenriddell manuscripts, MS 87, contains 27 copies of the poet's letters to various recipients. There is not so much to be gained from a detailed analysis of these copies since their existence in this volume is rather more artificial than the gathering together of some of the poems in the preceding volume (see 'Glenriddell Manuscripts' page). Nevertheless, in many cases the transcription in this Glenriddell volume is the only means of our knowing the contents of some of the letters.

The recipients include:

  • William Nicol, the infamously ferocious Classics Master in the Edinburgh High School.
  • John Arnot of Dalquhatswood.
  • Charles Sharpe of Hoddam, father of the antiquary Charles Kirkpatrick Sharpe.
  • Alexander Cunningham. When first acquainted with the poet, Cunningham (1763-1812) was an Edinburgh lawyer who formed part of the set that Burns socialised with when he came to the capital. He became one of Burns's longest-standing friends to whom the poet offered support when he was thrown over by his intended wife, Anne Stewart. He did recover from this disappointment, despite the tradition which maintains otherwise, and married Agnes Moir in 1792. Burns maintained his friendship until his death. A few days before his death, 7 July 1796, Burns wrote to Cunningham concerning the imminent birth of his last child: '… but I shall be at home soon, when I will, send it [a song] you. — Apropos to being at home, Mrs Burns threatens in a week or two, to add one more to my Paternal charge, which, if of the right gender, I intend shall be introduced to the world by the respectable designation of Alexr. Cunningham Burns. My last was James Glencairn, so you can have no objection to the company of Nobility.' In later life Cunningham abandoned the practice of Law and set up business as a jeweller with an uncle. He was one of the principal movers in establishing a subscription for the maintenance of Burns's widow and children after his death.
  • Mrs Stewart of Stair.
  • Miss Wilhelmina Alexander of Ballochmyle, the recipient of the poem 'The bonnie lass of Ballochmyle', who was perceived as having been somewhat dismissive of the poet's attentions in 1786 to such a degree that in this copy of his letter Burns has added: 'No! She was too fine a Lady to notice so plain a compliment'.
  • John McMurdo, factor of the Duke of Queensberry at Drumlanrig, and his daughter, Jean, the recipient of the poem 'There was a lass and she was fair'.
  • The patron James, 14th Earl of Glencairn is the recipient of an extremely toadying letter which demonstrates the capacity of the poet to know the value of servile attentions: '… there is my noble Patron, my generous benefactor! Allow me, my Lord, to [pr]offer my warm, [my fond] request, to be permitted to publish these verses … I owe much, very much indeed to your Lordship … Almost every Poet has celebrated his Patrons, particularly when they have [were] Names dear to Fame, and illustrious in their Country; permit me then, my Lord, if you think the lines [verses] have intrinsic merit, to tell the World how much I have the honor to be …'
  • The only known text of a lengthy letter to John Francis Erskine of Mar (1741-1825) is given on pages 59-64: this relates to an unfortunate incident in which Burns's posturing political opinions had got the better of him to such a degree that his future in the Excise was in jeopardy, the support of influential friends like Erskine of Mar — 'a gentleman indeed' — saved the day.
  • Two letters to William Corbet, Supervisor General of Excise, who saw to it that Burns's career in the Excise did not stagnate and was instrumental in arranging for the poet's transfer to the Dumfries Port Division of the service.
  • There are copies of four letters written by the poet in defence of James Clarke, school-master of Moffat, who was charged with cruelty to his pupils, the recipients of the letters were the Rev William Moodie, a minister in Edinburgh, Alexander Cunningham, James Stirling, the Provost of Edinburgh [a letter which the poet notes in the Glenriddell Manuscripts as 'The following letter which was sent by Mr Clarke to the Provost of Edinr, was of my writing'], and the Factor of the Earl of Hopetoun, one of the principal movers behind the charge against Clarke.
  • A letter to William Smellie, the publisher of the 1787 edition, served as an introduction for Mrs Maria Riddell of Woodleypark.
  • The odd inclusion of a copy of a letter to the Duke of Queensberry in which he sent a copy of 'The whistle — A ballad'.
  • The volume concludes with copies of three of the poet's letters to ladies — a typically torrid and effusive letter to Mrs Agnes [Nancy] McLehose / 'Clarinda' [the only known version of this letter which James Currie has annotated: 'These letters appear to me to be nearly the worst he wrote'], Lessly Bailie and Deborah Duff Davies.

In this volume of copy letters there is also an abridged version of the 'First commonplace book' on pages 31-43 which is prefaced by Burns: 'On rummaging over some old papers, I lighted on a M.S.S. of my early years in which I had determined to write myself out; as I was placed by Fortune among a class of men to whom my ideas would have been nonsense — I had meant that the book would have been … in the fond hope that, some time or other, even after I was no more, my thoughts would fall into the hands of somebody capable of appreciating their value. It sets off thus … — '.

The volume covers the period April 1783 to October 1785 only. The commonplace book, the original of which is in the Burns Cottage Museum at Alloway, contains poems, songs and evidence that the poet's fascination and interest in Scottish song was already developing at this stage in his life.

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