The Watson Autograph collections: MSS 586-587

This collection comprises a series of volumes collected by the Edinburgh bookseller, William Finlay Watson (died 1881) and thereafter bequeathed to the National Galleries of Scotland. They were placed on deposit in the National Library of Scotland in 1930 and cover a wide range of letters and documents on the autograph of literary, political, social, artistic, naval, military and legal celebrities.

MS 586 — a volume of 55 folios — is wholly devoted to the writings (letters, poems, accounts, etc) of Burns. The following, in particular, might be noted:

Letter of Burns, January 1783, to John Murdoch, his former school-master, telling him of the way in which his life has developed: 'I seem to be one sent into the world, to see, and observe' (folios 1-2).

Letter of Burns, June 1786, to David Brice, a Mauchline man, concerning the poet's love for Jean Armour and details their ill-starred affair which has resulted in his waiting for a ship 'to take me out to Jamaica, and then, farewel [sic] dear old Scotland, and farewel [sic] dear, ungrateful Jean, for never, never will I see you more', he then discusses the Kilmarnock edition of his poems (folio 4). (See the 'Kilmarnock Burns' page for images and more information. You can also read the Kilmarnock edition online.)

Some of the stylised correspondence between Burns (calling himself 'Sylvander') and Mrs Agnes (Nancy) McLehose (calling herself 'Clarinda') during the days of their platonic relationship. Some of the letters are famously torrid:

  • Letter, January 1788, to 'Clarinda, my life, you have wounded my soul … O Love and Sensibility, ye have conspired against my peace' (ff.11-12). Letter, July 1791, to Clarinda in which he sent his poem 'Sensibility how charming' (f.26).
  • Burns's posturing Jacobite sympathies are demonstrated in the poem 'Lament of Mary Queen of Scots on the Approach of Spring' which was sent to 'Clarinda' in a letter of December 1791 (ff.27-28).
  • One of the most famous letters in all this exchange of correspondence is contained within this manuscript: it is the final letter of farewell from 'Sylvander' to 'Clarinda' on her departure for the West Indies. Within the letter Burns sends Nancy McLehose his famous song 'Ae fond kiss and then we sever' (ff.32-33). (See the 'Ae fond kiss' page for an image of the first page of this letter.)

An excessively flattering poem addressed and dedicated to Robert Graham of Fintry, a patron of the poet, written at Ellisland, September 1788: 'When Nature her great masterpiece designed' (ff.13-14).

An example of Burns v 'The Establishment' is seen in a poem ['Address of Beelzebub'] addressed to the Earl of Breadalbane (John Campbell, 1762-1834), 1786. (ff.20-21). This poem was provoked by the controversy over whether Highlanders should be encouraged to remain at home or to emigrate. Burns felt strongly that Lord Breadalbane and the Highland Society of London (of which Breadalbane was President) had been high-handed in their attitude to Highlanders' desire to emigrate; they attempted to thwart the plan. In view of Burns's own decision not to emigrate that same year — after the successful publication of the Kilmarnock edition — he did not imagine that anybody could want to leave their native land unless economic necessity dictated it. The irony in all this is that the some of the people who tried to frustrate this plan should, within a few years, take up the notion of forcible emigration wholeheartedly and bring about the Clearances.

Letter of Burns, August 1787, to William Tytler of Woodhouselee, a Jacobite sympathiser and writer of music. In this letter Burns explains his own approach to collecting traditional Scottish music: 'I invariably hold it sacriledge [sic] to add any thing of my own to help out with the shatter'd wrecks of these venerable old compositions' (f.24).

Letter, of Burns, August/September 1795, to James Johnson sending the results of his latest musical investigations for inclusion in what ultimately became Johnson's famous work 'The Scots Musical Museum'. The poet was the major contributor to this six-volume work (ff.37-38).

Letter of Burns, 12 July 1796, to Alexander Cunningham, sending the results of more musical investigations 'the last I made or probably will make for some time' he wrote with disturbing foresight (f.42).

The earliest known example of the poet's handwriting is an entry in an account book, dated probably 1772, 'to a hoe mended' (f.44).

The contents of MS 587 comprise copies of letters of the poet, together with letters and memorabilia of Burns's family and friends, rather than letters and poems of the poet himself. The contents are not described here, but those interested in Burns heritage and legacy should consult the wide, rich and varied contents of this manuscript.

The Earnock manuscripts >>

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