Feature

Jan 2014

The Immortal Memory

First and foremost, of course, Burns was a poet. He took as his subject, everyday life, women and drink. With a faithful and often satirical eye, the Ploughman Poet provided a detailed record of life in 18th century Scotland. For an eye witness account of how his fellow rural Scots lived, look no further than Burns' The Cotter's Saturday Night or for impassioned comment on the apparent hypocrisy of certain sections of the Kirk, read Holy Willie's Prayer. In all of his poems, letters and songs, Burns immortalises not only his own ability, but the life and times, culture and politics of the day.

Entering Edinburgh's cultural scene

It was in his capacity as an avid collector of traditional songs and tunes that Burns entered Edinburgh's cultural scene. Unable to find a patron to support his writing, despite the success of "Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect", Burns began working for an Edinburgh music-seller, James Johnson, who had embarked on a project to collect and publish the words and music of every Scottish folk-song. Although the collection was produced by Johnson, Burns was its virtual editor and principal contributor, writing over 150 songs, including For a' that an' a ' that, Ae fond kiss and Auld Lang Syne. The work, entitled "The Scots Musical Museum", eventually ran to six volumes of 100 songs each. A prolific writer, Burns also contributed 114 songs to "A Select Collection Of Original Scottish Airs", a collection of 'classical' arrangements of Scottish folk-songs on which he collaborated with musical enthusiast George Thomson.

Preserving and popularising Burns' gift

Burns, then, clearly did his bit to preserve Scotland's heritage, not to mention language, for future posterity. But what of our generation? Charged with the safekeeping of his crucial work, what are we doing to preserve and popularise this gift?

For sheer volume of material, it's hard to beat the Mitchell Library in Glasgow. From the moment the library opened in 1877, its committee declared its intention to honour the memory of Robert Burns. Today, the collection has grown to over 4,000 items, making it one of the largest, if not the largest, collection of material relating to Burns in the world. Among its many treasures are more than 900 different editions of Burns' poetical works, including two copies of the Kilmarnock edition and two printings of the Edinburgh and London editions. What is particularly interesting about one of the Kilmarnock editions is that it belonged to a neighbour of Burns, Robert Aird. Blessed with a local knowledge, Aird filled in some of the blanks in the text where Burns used only initials or asterisks. Other interesting and valuable items include a letter to William Nicol (an Edinburgh schoolmaster and drinking companion) and one of only six remaining original manuscripts of Auld Lang Syne. Reflecting Glasgow's cosmopolitan appeal, the collection also houses translations of Burns' works in more than 30 languages, the most recent addition being Polish.

Burns in the digital world

Just 45 miles to the east but accessible from anywhere in the world via the internet is the National Library of Scotland's digital Burns collection. Here, scholars and enthusiasts alike can dip into an ever-growing online resource of the National's outstanding collection. As well as reading fascinating articles on the life, work and legacy of Scotland's Bard, you can study his handwriting, listen to audio clips and view contemporary drawings and engravings. Among the original manuscripts which have been digitised for the world's benefit are extracts from the rollicking Holy Willie's Prayer, the powerful yet tragic Ae fond kiss and Burns' touching poem on the birth of his first child, A Poet's Welcome to his love-begotten Daughter.

Add to that a remarkable collection of original manuscripts, including a letter from Burns to his former schoolmaster in which he wrote "I seem to be one sent into the world to see and observe", and rare books charting Burns' work from the Kilmarnock and Edinburgh editions to first publications in Dublin, London, Philadelphia and New York, and you can appreciate the significance of the National Library's collection.

Burns goes global

A different 'National' Burns Collection is the website created by a partnership of museums, galleries, libraries and other organisations that together care for over 36,000 manuscripts, books, artworks and other artefacts. Here you can explore a searchable database, take virtual tours of the poet's haunts, sample textual and audio versions of some of his best-known work and follow links to Burns organisations. One link that's missing is to the World Burns Club. As well as providing a useful Beginners Guide to Robert Burns, this offers expert analysis, a discussion forum and guidance on how to host the greatest Scottish feast, the Burns Supper.

There are other online resources too, each with their own particular strengths. Burns Country, for instance, offers an exhaustive Burns encyclopaedia with the full text of the authoritative Robert Burns reference volume. It also features his Complete Works with a glossary translation of harder Burns words into German, French, Spanish and American, plus the best of Burns translated into 'the de'il's tongue', English.

Sing them as they were meant to be sung

The written word is all well and good, but Burns' songs were meant to be sung. Here too, devotees of Scotland's Bard are doing everything they can to record his work for posterity and the enjoyment of many. A particularly fine example of this is Scottish company Linn. One of the most modern manufacturing operations in the UK, Linn uses its state-of-the-art technology to produce the most authentic recordings of Burns' songs all 368 of them. Variously described as 'hauntingly authentic', 'the definitive collection of Scotland's most famous son', and all 'performed with skill, feeling and, most importantly, pride', Linn's "The Complete Songs of Robert Burns" is the only series of its kind in the world.

Delve a little deeper into Linn's founding principles and you appreciate that this is a match made in heaven. Linn's egalitarian regime all of the office staff have identical desks and chairs, everyone eats at the same staff canteen and given names are used throughout would surely have been applauded by the man who wrote For a' that and a' that.

In the words of the 19th-century scholar and educationalist J S Blackie, 'When Scotland forgets Burns, then history will forget Scotland.' Long live the Bard!

National Library of Scotland

The Robert Burns Federation

National Burns Collection