THEY were star-crossed lovers whose affair was doomed. And now a rare, handwritten love letter from Robert Burns to his married friend Nancy McLehose is to go on show in Edinburgh.
The letter contains the poet’s most famous love song, Ae Fond Kiss, which he wrote as a farewell to Nancy.
Penned on 27 December 1791, as Nancy prepared to leave for Jamaica to attempt a reconciliation with her husband, the song expresses Burns’s despair at the end of their relationship.
Burns and McLehose had first met four years earlier in Edinburgh when he was unmarried. The couple exchanged a series of love letters using the pseudonyms Sylvander and Clarinda.
It was a delicate situation given Nancy was a married woman and mother, whose husband was living in the West Indies. The attraction between her and Burns was intense and they soon started to exchange passionate letters, but the relationship remained platonic.
Written in Dumfries, the letter informs Nancy that Burns is sending her some recently composed songs. Then, for the first time ever, he presents a song that has become famous around the world with its familiar opening lines: Ae fond kiss, and then we sever; Ae fareweel, and then forever!’
The letter was gifted to the library in the 1930s and is one of around 50 pieces of correspondence between the pair that still exists.
Ralph McLean, 18th-century manuscripts curator at the National Library of Scotland, said the letter was “bittersweet”. He added: “It’s the last letter that he wrote to her and the first time Ae Fond Kiss appears. He wrote it for her and it’s in his own hand.
“The poem is bittersweet and sad – he is never going to see her again.”
Tragically, McLehose’s attempt to reunite with her husband was ill-fated. When she arrived in Jamaica she discovered he was having an affair with one of his maids, and the liaison had resulted in a child.
Mr McLean said: “She was back in Scotland within a year but never saw Burns again. Her cousin William Craig, who was very influential on her and supported her financially, was concerned she had no more dealings with Burns. Supposedly she met Burns’ wife a number of years later and they exchanged stories about him, which must have been quite strange.”
The letter can be seen at the National Library of Scotland on George IV Bridge on Monday from 12:30pm-2pm, as part of its Burns celebrations. The tiny timeslot is down to the delicacy of the paper.
Kenneth Dunn, the library’s manuscript and archives collection manager, said: “Burns is widely celebrated on January 25 and we are pleased to be able to offer the opportunity to show this letter and song.”