Few objects associated with Robert Burns are as well-known, or as instrumental to his fame, as the ‘Kilmarnock Edition’. Published on the 31st July 1786 by John Wilson of Kilmarnock, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect was the first volume of poetry and song to be written by the man who was to later become Scotland’s National Bard. The Kilmarnock Edition contains some of Burns’ best-loved works, including Tae a Mouse, The Cotter’s Saturday Night and The Holy Fair. It’s one of the most treasured items in the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum’s collection for staff and visitors alike.
The Robert Burns Birthplace Museum (RBBM) is based in Alloway, South Ayrshire and run by the National Trust for Scotland. The site consists of the Birthplace Cottage; Alloway Auld Kirk and the Brig o’ Doon (both of Tam o’ Shanter fame); Burns Monument and gardens; and of course the museum itself. The site is one of three in the ‘Burns Group’, which also includes the Bachelors’ Club where the young Robert set up his own debating society, and Souter Johnnie’s Gallery, once the home of John Davidson (on whom Burns may have based the character Souter Johnnie in Tam o’ Shanter), and now an art gallery and craft shop showcasing local work.
The museum collection is made up of over 5,500 objects including two Kilmarnock editions. Only 612 copies of this first edition were printed, each containing 44 poems and songs. Although John Wilson was known for celebrating local talent, he was still reluctant to take a chance on an unknown poet from Ayrshire. In the end, he agreed to print the work only if Burns could raise enough advance subscriptions. The book cost 3s each – 350 copies went directly to subscribers, and the rest quickly sold out within a month.
Reviews of the Kilmarnock edition were largely positive, although some made reference to Burns’ supposed lack of education. This was despite his home schooling by tutor John Murdoch and familiarity with literary and enlightenment figures including Alexander Pope, Adam Smith and Robert Fergusson. The Monthly Review in December 1786 also lamented Burns’ use of, ‘an unknown tongue, which must deprive most of our readers of the pleasure they would otherwise naturally create; being composed in the Scottish dialect, which contains words that are altogether unknown to an English reader…’. This seems a strange notion today, when Burns’ use of Scots is seen by many as one of his best-loved and most distinctive features.
Despite these criticisms, the book began to circulate in Edinburgh, attracting positive attention from eminent society figures. Within eight weeks, Burns was thinking of re-printing. The second edition of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (the First Edinburgh edition), was printed by William Smellie and published by William Creech in Edinburgh on 21st April 1787. Over 3,000 copies were published, sold for 5s to subscribers and 6s to other buyers. This firmly established Burns’ reputation and paved the way for his future success as a poet and songwriter, both during and after his lifetime.
Today, RBBM displays a Kilmarnock edition alongside a touch screen. This allows visitors to browse the pages digitally, therefore preserving the original for future generations. But this is not the only item of interest we have relating to this first volume of Burns’ works.
Above we have the printing stocks used to decorate books published by John Wilson in Kilmarnock. To the left is an elaborate seat fashioned from the printing press used to print the first edition of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. It was converted into a chair during the Victorian period in an early example of ‘upcycling’.Muhammed Ali famously sat in the chair when he visited Burns Cottage in 1965.
There are 5,500 objects in RBBM’s collection. These include original manuscripts of Burns’ works, letters to and from the Bard, artefacts belonging to Burns and his family/friends, artworks, books, Burnsiana (trinkets relating to Burns), and more. Together they make up the most extensive collection of Burns related objects in the world. But none would be important today without the book of 44 poems and songs, originally sold for 3s each, which represented an Ayrshire farmer’s first step towards becoming Scotland’s National Bard.