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Robert Burns

Published 23 January 2013

'A wild scene among the hills of Ochtertyre' illustrating Robert Burns's peom 'On scaring some water-fowl in Loch Turit'

In celebration of Burns Night on 25th January, links to the Scottish poet have been explored across the collections.

Robert Burns' "Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect" is one of the seminal texts of Scottish literature. It was printed by John Wilson of Kilmarnock in July 1786 and was priced at three shillings. The entire print-run of 612 copies was sold out within a month. Special Collections holds one copy of the 'Kilmarnock Edition', along with two editions printed in 1787.

Although often referred to as the "heaven-taught ploughman", Burns was indebted to a number of literary influences; poets such as Allan Ramsay (1686-1758) and Robert Fergusson (1750-1774) who promoted the use of Scots as a literary language and celebrated traditional folk ballads and forms.

Burns' influence has, in turn, spread across the world. As a national figure, he became near-ubiquitous on his death; as a literary influence, his stature only grew throughout the twentieth century. Beyond Britain, Burns' work also had a major impact. In Russia, for instance, translations of Burns had huge popularity, before and after the revolution of 1917.

Local links between Burns and Leeds exist in two silhouette portraits by the renowned English silhouette artist John Miers (1756-1821), both of which are held in Special Collections. Miers had his first studio at The Golden Tarr, Lowerhead, Leeds, and quickly became well-known for capturing striking likenesses, which led to almost everyone of importance wanting to sit for him. 

On one of his visits to Edinburgh, Miers famously took a silhouette portrait of Robert Burns. He cut the silhouette from black card and added details of facial features, curls of hair and shadows in pencil. The other silhouette by the same artist, created using a different technique on convex glass, is of Burns' mother late in life.

Of interest to Burns enthusiasts, and also held in Special Collections, is Burns' 'Courting Ring', a twisted gold ring given by Burns to Jean Armour; "Bonnie Jean", later the poet's wife. Set in the ring is a miniature scene depicting trees, a cottage, and a windmill. On the back is engraved "Rob.t Burns to Bonnie Jean 1786".

This month, visitors to the Special Collections reading room can see the Robert Burns material on display.