Robert Burns’s ‘Kilmarnock’ Edition (1786)

Frontispiece of Burns's Kilmarnock Edition

Contributor: Gerard Carruthers

Location: University of Glasgow Library

Description: John Wilson of Kilmarnock, the printer of Robert Burns’s debut work, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1786), produced only 612 copies, of which this copy is one of only 84 that survive worldwide. Over half of these are now located in North America (Young & Scott, 2017). This should come as no surprise: an edition of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect appeared in the United States of America as early as 1788 (first in Philadelphia, and then in New York). In contrast, it might be tempting to think that Burns must have had a comparatively limited effect on mainland Europe given that only one copy of this book survives there, in the Fondation Martin Bodmer Library, in Cologny, Switzerland. The provenance of this particular copy is something of a mystery, but the story of Burns and Europe is less obscure than it might suggest.

Burns’s Poems were put out within a year in a new, enlarged edition published in Edinburgh. Burns’s fame soared, and in the following months unauthorised copies were printed in Belfast and Dublin, and an edition in London was fashioned, known as ‘the third edition.’ The ‘Edinburgh’ edition of 1787 immediately found an audience in the well-connected Scottish Catholic seminaries and Benedictine monasteries in Italy, Spain, France and Germany. Burns’s poems and songs were translated throughout the 1790s, predominantly in Germany. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, Burns’s name was publicised wider still, with both Haydn and Beethoven setting Burns’s songs in lavish new musical editions. In 1835 The Works of Robert Burns, published in Leipzig, Germany featured a 28-page essay on Burns by the editor, Dr Adolphus Wagner. After sketching Burns’s upbringing and the impact of the Kilmarnock Edition, Wagner declares that all the poet’s early works were ‘conceived and borne in a glowing heart… of an overflowing soul, and [were] therefore true, sincere and candid without the least affectation’ (Wagner, 1835: ix). This may be read as a manifesto of the Romantic in poetry, and indeed, from the time of the first collected works of Burns (published posthumously by James Currie in 1800), through to Wagner’s edition, we find Burns’s verse gradually becoming recognised as a benchmark of European Romanticism.

The majority of Burns’s greatest hits can be found in the Kilmarnock edition (with the exception of ‘Tam o’ Shanter, not written until 1790; and ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’, available, having been written in 1785 but thought by its author too scurrilous to include). During the 1820s many of those early poems – notably ‘To a Mouse’, ‘To a Mountain Daisy’, ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’, and ‘The Vision’ – began to appear in France, Germany, and Switzerland (Mackay, 2014: xxiii-lxvii). In these verses perorations to nature, thoughts on humanity and worries over the status of the ‘rhyming trade’ recur, such as Burns’s narrator sketching his wasted labours (in both senses):

All in this mottie, misty clime,
I backward mus’d on wasted time,
How I had spent my youthfu’ prime,
An’ done nae-thing,
But stringing blethers up in rhyme,
For fools to sing.

‘The Vision’, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1786), p. 88

Most significantly for the development of European Romanticisms, Burns’s ‘Preface’ to the Kilmarnock edition sets up a template for the Romantic poet and poetry as regionalised, unlearned, and realistic. He writes: ‘The following trifles are not the production of the Poet, who, with all the advantages of learned art, and perhaps amid the elegancies and idlenesses of upper life, looks down for a rural theme.’ He gives credit to his supportive friends and his surroundings for rousing his sleeping talents, and he places the source of his ‘little creations… amid the toil and fatigues of a laborious life’ (Burns, 1786: iii-iv). All of this of course amounted to rhetorical trickery; indeed, in his insistence on the intensity of poetry as flowing from its ‘natural’ landscape and language, Burns reveals himself to be imbued with the concerns of the Scottish and European Enlightenments. The success of dialect poems first published in provincial Kilmarnock embodies this contradiction; the idea of the poet and poetry as native, natural, and above all local would prove to have Europe-wide appeal.

The Works of Robert Burns, with Selected Notes of Allan Cunningham, a Biographical and Critical Introduction, and a Comparative Etymological Glossary to the Poet. By Adolphus Wagner. Complete in One Volume

Date: July 1786

Creator: Robert Burns, John Wilson

Subject: Robert Burns; Scottish Literature; Romanticism; Poetry

Object type: book

Format: octavo print book

Language: Scots, English

Publisher: University of Glasgow Special Collections

Catalogue number: University of Glasgow, Special Collections (Sp Coll 21)


Burns, Robert, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (Kilmarnock: John Wilson, 1786)

[Burns, Robert], The Works of Robert Burns, with Selected Notes of Allan Cunningham, a Biographical and Critical Introduction, and a Comparative Etymological Glossary to the Poet. By Adolphus Wagner. Complete in One Volume (Leipsic [sic]: printed for Frederick Fleischer, 1835)

Mackay, Pauline, ‘Timeline of the European Reception of Robert Burns, 1795-2012’, in The Reception of Robert Burns in Europe ed. Murray Pittock (London: Bloomsbury, 2014)

Young, Allan & Scott, Patrick, The Kilmarnock Burns: A Census (University of South Carolina Libraries: on behalf of Studies in Scottish Literature, 2017)