Previously unseen letter offers new insight into last days of Rabbie Burns

August 4, 2010

(Scotland’s Posts) Aug 3 2010
A PREVIOUSLY undiscovered letter which offers a new insight into the final days of Scots poet Robert Burns has been revealed to the public.
The recently-found letter, from Burns’s superior officer John Mitchell to the Commissioner of Excise, explains how the very ill writer made a journey to Dumfries to collect and sign for his salary exactly a week before his death on July 21, 1796.
Mitchell described Burns as “reduced & shattered… in the extreme”, but noted that his “wit and humour remained”.
Before his death at just 37, Burns worked for the Excise at Dumfries.
The letter also explains why an Excise salary book, long held at the National Archives of Scotland (NAS), bears the writer’s 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, at Brow on Solway, 10 miles from Dumfries.
Until the discovery of the letter, it was not known whether Burns was visited at Brow by his superior officer 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.
Burns is also quoted as saying to his superior officer: “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 actually 37 and was referring to the 10 years since his poems were first published at Kilmarnock.
The letter, part of the Graham of Fintry collection, was uncovered by David Brown, head of collections development at the NAS.
Culture Minister Fiona Hyslop visited the Archives today to unveil the document, which will go on display next week.
She 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, added: “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.”
The letter will go on display from August 9 until September 3, as part of the NAS’s “I have not been idle – Roberts Burns’ farewell” exhibition at West Register House in Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square.

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