Burns song ‘writted on office stationery’ saved

Robert Burns. Picture: Contributed
Robert Burns. Picture: Contributed
Share this article
Have your say

A HAND-written draft of one of Robert Burns’ most famous songs – which he jotted down on the “office stationery” – has been saved for the nation after being bought at auction.

Ye Banks and Braes O’Bonnie Doon was written by Burns in the early 1790s and first published in James Johnson’s Scots Musical Museum, a collection of Scottish folk songs, in 1792.

The lyrics of Ye Banks and Braes O'Bonnie Doon on Burns' handwritten manuscript from 1792. Picture: Saltire news

The lyrics of Ye Banks and Braes O'Bonnie Doon on Burns' handwritten manuscript from 1792. Picture: Saltire news

The signed manuscript had been in private ownership for more than 100 years, but was recently sold for £35,000 at Bonhams auction house in London.

Mystery had initially surrounded the identity of the buyer, who had been rumoured to be an American businessman, and it was feared that the item would again be kept from public view.

But yesterday it emerged the work had been bought for the Burns collection at Glasgow’s Mitchell Library, where it is likely to be on display during the Commonwealth Games.

This paper bears the Royal Hanoverian watermark of a hunting horn over the “GR” cipher of George III – a reminder of Burns’ occupation as an exciseman for the Crown.

Susan Taylor, a special collections librarian at the library, said the manuscript was a significant piece, and one of only two with the final lyric to the song in existence.

“For us, this is very significant,” she told The Scotsman.

“We’re trying to develop this particular strand of our Burns collection, which we’ve had on the go since 1877. We’re trying to collect more manuscripts, particularly songs.

“As a public library, we want to make it accessible to the public, and this item has been in private hands somewhere in Britain for more than 100 years.”

Ms Taylor said the manuscript was one of only two in existence with a lyric Burns had adapted to fit the song Caledonian Hunt’s Delight.

“Even the paper it’s written on is quite remarkable,” she said.

“We know from the watermark that it was taken from an excise ledger at a time when Burns was an exciseman, so he was actually writing it on the office stationery.”

Written about the Doon, the Ayrshire river which flows past Burns’s birthplace of Alloway, the poet singled the song out for its “pathos” while The Burns Encyclopedia describes it as “possibly the most popular of all his songs”.

The item went under the hammer at Bonhams’ books, maps, manuscripts and historical photographs sale in Knightsbridge, London last month.

After a bidding frenzy among collectors, it ended up selling to an unnamed buyer in the auction room for £35,000.

Speaking at the time, Matthew Haley, Bonhams’ head of books, said: “We are very pleased at this result.

“Burns took songwriting very seriously and Ye Banks and Braes O’Bonnie Doon surely stands out as one of the loveliest among his many beautiful and memorable lyrics.”

The establishment of a Burns collection was one of the first decisions made by the Mitchell Library’s original trustees in the late-19th century.

The library’s collection contains unique holograph manuscripts.

These include poems such as the only extant copy of The Ordination: A Scotch Poem (1786), and the only existing copy of a letter by Burns written in Scots, sent to William Nicol in 1787.