50 Burns songs not written by Bard, research finds

Fifty songs attributed to Robert Burns were not actually written by him, new research has found.
Robert Burns.Robert Burns.
Robert Burns.

They are among 600 tunes included in 18th century song collection The Scots Musical Museum, 200 of which were long thought to be by Scotland’s national bard.

However new research has found songs including moderately well known ones - such Hey, the Dusty Miller; O that I Were Where Helen Lies and O Let Me In Thes Ae Night - were not penned by Burns.

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One of the poet’s most famous works, A Red Red Rose, only just makes it as the great bard’s work with enough input from Burns for it to be classed as his.

Professor Murray Pittock, who led a research team from the University of Glasgow, said his new edition of The Scots Musical Museum re-establishes Burns as one of the “greatest editors” of Scottish folk music.

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Burns Night traditions

Professor Pittock said: “Burns has been for too long seen an author of Scots songs. But in fact his greatest role was as an editor - who collected, partially rewrote, tinkered with and on occasions wrote new words to traditional airs.

“On one level this has always been acknowledged: but despite this, Burns continues to have songs attributed to his authorship which he only edited.

“My research suggested removing 50 songs from the Burns canon. These songs are in the middle of the range not very well known but still well-known enough as Burns works until now.

“This new edition will settle the question as to what is a Burns song.”

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The announcement on the BBC’s The One Show was made to coincide with Burns Night on January 25.

The Scots Musical Museum is a collection of traditional music of Scotland and is considered to be a major text for understanding the history and development of Scottish song and music.

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The six-volume publication was initiated, printed and published by James Johnson between 1787 and 1803.

Burns was the main contributor to The Scots Musical Museum - collecting, reworking and writing new lyrics for folk tunes.

He is also credited with inspiring the movement that preserved these folk songs for future generations.

Professor Pittock’s two-volume 1100-page edition from Oxford University Press is the first research edition of The Scots Musical Museum.

It is the first time all six first edition volumes have been brought together.

Researchers used four separate sources including a private collector and various university and national libraries to bring the six volumes together.

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They consulted a comprehensive range of previously published collections of songs and tunes produced through the British Isles in the 18th century to establish which songs were by Burns, which were almost by him, which were edited by him and which he just collected.

Professor Pittock said: “In 1803 some 100 songs were attributed to Burns but by the 1960s that has risen to more than 230 plus.

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“As the brand of Burns increased, more and more songs authorship began to be handed over to him. This newly edited Scots Musical Museum will return Burns from the brand to the editor. “

The new edition forms volumes 2 and 3 of the Oxford Edition of the Works of Robert Burns.

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