New Robert Burns letter discovery

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Staff at the National Archives of Scotland (NAS) have uncovered a previously unknown letter that throws new light on Robert Burns’ state of mind and lively spirit, despite illness, in 1796.

The letter unveiled today, and written by Burns’ superior officer John Mitchell, to the Commissioner of Excise Robert Graham of Fintry, details a journey by Robert Burns to the Dumfries Excise office to collect his salary on July 14, 1796. Mitchell described Burns as “reduced & shattered … in the extreme”, but noted that his “wit and humour remained”.


Staff at the National Archives of Scotland (NAS) have uncovered a previously unknown letter that throws new light on Robert Burns’ state of mind and lively spirit, despite illness, in 1796.

The letter unveiled today, and written by Burns’ superior officer John Mitchell, to the Commissioner of Excise Robert Graham of Fintry, details a journey by Robert Burns to the Dumfries Excise office to collect his salary on July 14, 1796. Mitchell described Burns as “reduced & shattered … in the extreme”, but noted that his “wit and humour remained”.

The letter also explains why an Excise salary book, long held in the NAS, bears Burns’ signature, dated July 14, 1796. On that day, he is known to have been trying a sea-bathing cure (for what is believed to have been rheumatic heart disease, complicated by bacterial endocarditis) at Brow on Solway, ten miles from Dumfries.

Until the discovery of this letter, it was not known whether Burns was visited at Brow by his superior officer Collector John Mitchell, or if he received his salary on his return to Dumfries on July 18. The letter reveals for the first time that Burns did actually make the journey to Dumfries, despite being urged not to, because of his weak state. Mitchell wrote: “Once more he [Burns] hoped to be able to go & draw it [his salary] from me, at the proper place”. Burns died one week later on July 21, 1796.

Burns is also quoted as saying to Mitchell: “I’m only 36, 10 of which only I have been in the world &, in that time, all I shall say, My good sir, I have not been idle.” The poet was in fact 37½ years old, and he was referring to the ten years since his Poems were first published at Kilmarnock.

Visiting the NAS to unveil the letter, Culture Minister Fiona Hyslop said:
“This is a once in a lifetime find, uncovering details about the final days of one of Scotland’s most famous sons and our national bard, Robert Burns.

“Undertaking this journey in what must have been a fragile state tells us something of the spirit of the man.

“I am sure there will be great interest in this find, from Burns enthusiasts and from those whose interest has been sparked by last year’s celebration of the 250th anniversary of the great man’s birth.”

George MacKenzie, Keeper of the Records of Scotland, said:
“This is the sort of find we as archivists always hope is just around the corner. The letter is of huge significance to our understanding of the life of Robert Burns, and we anticipate much interest when the document goes on display next week as the centrepiece of our exhibition ‘I have not been idle – Robert Burns’ farewell’.”

The Graham of Fintry collection is the subject of efforts by The National Archives of Scotland and Edinburgh University to obtain funding to support cataloguing and research.

Dr Alexander J Murdoch, an expert in eighteenth century Scotland, and Acting Director of the Scottish Centre for Diaspora Studies in the School of History, Classics & Archaeology at the University of Edinburgh, said:
“This is a good example of the discoveries that await increased research and cataloguing efforts to broaden access to the rich heritage of documentation in the National Archives of Scotland. Our efforts are certain to be helped by the discovery of a letter relating to “the memory of so uncommonly rare a character” as Robert Burns, and his tragic death while in the excise service.”

The newly discovered letter can be viewed alongside other important documents relating to Robert Burns in the exhibition ‘I have not been idle – Robert Burns’s farewell’ , which will run from Monday August 9 to Friday September 3, 2010 at the National Archives of Scotland, West Register House, Charlotte Square, Edinburgh.

The collection was purchased from the Graham family by the National Archives of Scotland in 2009. It is a relatively small but important collection of papers charting over 500 years of the Grahams, who were lairds of Fintry in Angus, from 1423 to 1946. The papers include personal and official correspondence of Robert Graham of Fintry (1749-1815), the 12th laird, who was forced to sell the estate. He became a Commissioner of the Scottish Excise in 1787 and was a friend of Robert Burns, who dedicated three poems to him. It was through him that Burns got his Excise job in 1789.

The National Archives of Scotland is an agency of the Scottish Government, which selects, preserves, and makes available the national archives of Scotland, and is a centre of expertise on record-keeping and archives. Alongside the public records are historical documents created by businesses, landed estates, families, churches and other bodies.

Every year tens of thousands of people across the world use the NAS’s services to carry out research, seek advice on record-keeping, and enhance the learning and teaching of history. NAS staff deal with about 12,000 annual visits to its search rooms, and provide visitors with access to around 250,000 records. Its web resources at www.nas.gov.uk attract over a million visits a year.

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