Reading Robert Burns: an Ulster perspective, 1786-1796

Author: John Erskine

Date: 2010

Source: Ullans: The Magazine for Ulster-Scots, Nummer 11 Ware 2010

John Erskine

Robert Burns

In the autumn of 1786 readers of the Belfast News Letter opened their issue for the start of November to discover within it a column entitled ‘Fragments of Scotch Poetry’[1]. No author was named for these ‘fragments’; nor was any one of the three fragments identified by the title of the poem from which it was taken. A couple of weeks later, Belfast’s other newspaper, the Belfast Evening Post, published under the broad heading ‘Scotch Poetry’ a poem entitled ‘To a Youth on his Entering the World’ (‘I lang hae thought, my youthfu’ friend …’)[2].

Once again, although it carried a title, no author was given for the poem. The author of the poetry in both papers was, of course, Robert Burns. The publication of these two columns seems to have been the first appearance in print of the poems of Robert Burns in Ulster. The three fragments in the Belfast News Letter were the ‘Postscript on New-light an’ Auld Light’ from the poem ‘To W. S[impso]n, Ochiltree’; a stanza from ‘The Twa Dogs’; and stanzas from the ‘Epistle to John R[ankine] ’. Poetry was a regular feature of the newspapers of the time, but why the Belfast News Letter chose to publish these particular pieces is not clear. This query, the wording of the title of the poem in the Belfast Evening Post, and many other questions about Burns’ texts as they appeared in the north of Ireland, all stand in need of further and more detailed investigation than is possible here[3].

Early Burns in the Belfast press

How had the two newspapers sourced the poems for publication? There is, unfortunately, no simple answer. The ‘Kilmarnock’ edition of Burns’ Poems, chiefly in the Scottish dialect had been published by John Wilson at the end of July 1786. The Edinburgh edition and its reprint were not to appear until 1787. The earliest review to draw the attention of the public, and particularly the Scottish public, to this new poetic talent appeared in the Edinburgh Magazine of October 1786; and two later reviews — the notice contained in the Monthly Review and particularly the review by Henry Mackenzie in The Lounger (which uses the phrase ‘heaven taught ploughman’) — did not appear until the issues of the two magazines for December 1786. If there was a copy of the Kilmarnock edition in Belfast it seems now to be unrecorded. Laws of copyright were much less developed in the eighteenth century and the practice of reprinting material from other publishers and from other publications was fairly widespread.

Both Belfast papers continued to publish the poetry of Robert Burns but now attached his name to the poems. The Belfast News Letter, in its final issue for 1786, carried extracts from ‘The Vision’[4], and reproduced ‘To a Mountain Daisy’ in its first issue for 1787[5], (These were precisely the extracts reproduced by Mackenzie in his review in The Lounger). In March and April 1787, the Belfast News Letter reproduced several of what were to become some of Burns’ best known poems: ‘To a L[ouse]’, ‘To a Mouse’, ‘To W. S[impso]n, Ochiltree’, ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’, ‘Address to the Deil’, and ‘Halloween’[6]. Perhaps not quite sure how to introduce ‘To a Louse’ to its readers, the newspaper remarked that the poem had been written ‘in the ludicrous [i.e, playful or jocular] style’; and the paper also observed that when it had first published the poems of Burns ‘it was little expected that his productions would have been esteemed among the first of the age’[7]. Few copies of the Belfast Evening Post have survived from 1787 and yet it is possible to find poems by Burns within those issues which do exist. For example, in mid-August the paper carried the poem ‘John Barleycorn, a ballad’ written ‘by Robert Burns, the Ayrshire Ploughman’[8]. And at the Belfast Burns Club dinner in 1891 Andrew Gibson, Belfast’s foremost collector of Burnsiana, was able to produce an issue of the Belfast Evening Post from September 1787 which, he reported, contained not only the poem ‘To a Mountain Daisy’ but also, accompanying it, extracts from the Mackenzie review in The Lounger[9].

The Belfast edition, 1787

So it was that in September 1787 James Magee, the publisher and proprietor of the Belfast Evening Post, issued his Belfast edition of the poems of Robert Burns to an expectant market. Indeed, because many of the poems had already appeared in both the Belfast newspapers, Magee was able to advertise his new publication under the simple heading ‘Burns (the Ayrshire Ploughman’s) poems’, secure in the knowledge that readers of the advertisement would know precisely whose poems he meant[10].

Magee’s edition, as the advertisement freely — indeed, unashamedly, if not triumphantly — admitted, was taken directly from the ‘last Edinburgh copy … with a copious glossary not in some of the former editions, and embellished with an engraving of the head of the author, which is esteemed a striking likeness’. The Belfast edition, probably the first to be published outside Scotland and pre-dating the Dublin and London editions[11], was a page-for-page copy of the Edinburgh edition, although the portrait (a mirror image of the original) seems to have been made locally. The glossary, it should be noted, was not added to the Belfast edition by Magee for a local readership but was taken directly from the Edinburgh edition where it had been included to assist those Scottish readers who were unfamiliar with Scots. In fact, the glossary, in addition to facilitating understanding of the text, may also have been added to lend significance to the work and to associate it with a longstanding and established tradition of writing.

Magee’s edition was what is termed a ‘pirated’ edition. In other words, because, as indicated above, copyright law did not extend throughout the British Isles, Irish publishers were free to republish texts of their choice, often in cheaper formats, and to sell them in Ireland, Britain and abroad. The Magee edition is an example of this difference in price: Magee advertised his edition at 2s. 8 ½d. ‘in boards’ and 3s. 3d. ‘bound’ and pointed out that the Edinburgh edition had retailed at 6s. 6d. ‘in boards’. Burns certainly received no royalties from Magee’s edition. Magee was also cooperating with other publishers in Ireland, for he seems to have sent printed sheets of the text south to Dublin where his colleague, William Gilbert, used them to issue his Dublin edition of Burns in the same year. Magee’s edition of the poems was succeeded by his further editions of Burns’ work in 1789 and 1790 and, in a two-volume edition, in 1793.

Later Burns in the Belfast press

Burns, it would seem, was good copy and this topicality is reflected in the newspapers of the day which were happy to reproduce not only poems by Burns, poems to Burns, and poems about Burns but also information about Burns and his activities. For example in July 1787 the Belfast News Letter reported that Burns was to be established on a farm by ‘some of his spirited countrymen’[12]. And when Burns erected, at his own expense, a memorial to the Scots poet Robert Fergusson, whom he greatly admired, both the Belfast News Letter and the Northern Star, using some common source, covered the event in precisely the same words[13].

Indeed, by this time, Burns himself cannot have been unaware of his popularity only a few miles away across the North Channel. Some months earlier it seemed that he had written to the editor of the Belfast News Letter offering a poem, ‘Delia’, for publication. The paper, pleased to have the poem but probably even more delighted to have the letter, reproduced it in its pages.[14]


If the productions of a simple Plow-boy can merit a corner in your paper, your insertion of the inclosed trifle will be succeeded by future communications from

Your’s, &c.


Elliesland, near Dumfries

May 18, 1789

Unfortunately, the authenticity of both the poem and the letter are in doubt. Editors of Burns collections have been undecided whether to include ‘Delia’ as a genuine production of the poet; and the letter was received by, among other newspapers, the London Star. It looks as if it may have been a hoax. Indeed the Belfast News Letter may simply have taken the item from some other source. The piece is headed ‘To the Printer’ but there is nothing in the letter, as published, to indicate that it had been sent specifically to the Belfast News Letter.

Nonetheless, the paper was certainly aware of the impatience of many of its readers for more of Burns’ work. Indeed, the newspaper took considerable pride in having been the first publisher of Burns’ work in Ireland, stating that: ‘… this Paper first introduced the Poems of ROBERT BURNS to Irish readers, before they appeared in a volume …’[15] However, in December 1792, to those readers who were frustrated by the absence of new poems from the bard, the Belfast News Letter could offer only the following encouraging if imprecise information:

We have pleasure in announcing that the Ayrshire Bard, Robert Burns, whose admirable poems gave universal delight, has not, as it was feared, taken his leave of the muses; for a gentleman who saw him very lately assures us, that he informed him he either had a second volume in the press, or ready for it.[16]

Indeed, personal contact seems to have been an important means of bringing poetry to the newspapers. In the summer of 1792 ‘A. K’ (Alexander Kemp, originally from Coleraine but living in Lurgan) had apparently offered some poems by Burns to the Belfast News Letter[17]. And in March 1794, for example, the Belfast News Letter reproduced two poems by Burns and introduced them in the following manner: ‘The following are given us as the Production of ROBERT BURNS, who very lately gave them to a Gentleman who favors us with the copy’[18]. In the year following Burns’ death, the Belfast News Letter included the poem ‘Address to the Tooth-Ach’ [sic] which had been supplied by ‘Albert’ (Alexander Kemp) who introduced the poem in this way: ‘The following Poem is the production of the late ROBERT BURNS; it was dictated to me by himself, and I believe was never published. I am proud to say that I had the honor of his intimate acquaintance’[19]. The previous month ‘Alexis’ (probably Samuel Thomson) had submitted another seemingly unpublished poem to the Belfast News Letter, prefacing it with these words: ‘The following Lines were written by Mr. BURNS on the blank leaf of a Copy of the first Edition of his Poems, which he presented to an old Sweetheart, then married’[20]. This is the poem beginning ‘Once fondly lov’d, and still remember’d dear …’, now usually known as ‘To an old Sweetheart’, although it carried no title in the Belfast newspaper. Both these poems do indeed appear to have had their first publication in the columns of the Belfast News Letter.

As indicated earlier, the poems as reproduced in the local press present an interesting local dimension to the transmission of the text of Burns’ poetry. For example, some weeks before his death, the Belfast News Letter printed a piece by Burns entitled simply ‘Song’[21]. This is in fact the composition better known as ‘A Man’s a Man for A’ That’. This particular version, however, represents a variant on the standard text. It contains only four stanzas — it omits the first — and also presents some differences in wording, more significant than could be attributable simply to errors in type-setting (although some poems, no doubt, could be subject to inexpert editing by the newspaper). The scholar Matthew M‘Diarmid, writing at the time of the bicentenary celebrations in Belfast in 1959, drew particular attention to the provision of texts to the local newspapers by ‘A. K.’[22].

Dissenting voices

Not all readers, however, were convinced that the poems of Burns were the productions of a ‘simple Plow-boy’. One ‘Jamie Fleck’ of Lurgan clearly felt that the poems, while works of merit, were the production of a college-educated man with a grievance against the Established Church. In two stanzas from his ‘An Epistle to Robert Burns in imitation of his own style and manner’, published by the Belfast News Letter, he wrote:

… I’m thinking ye’ve been at the schools,

Ye cou’d na just, ’mang contra fools,

Ye cou’d na, handling spades and shools

Get sic knowledge;

Ye gat it handling ither tools,

In some college.

A word I’ll whisper in your ear,

Upon the clergy ye’re severe;

Like naughty bairns, ye whip them fair

We’ taws and birch,

Especial in your Holy Fair,

Ye shame the Church …[23].

Such criticism was not to go unchallenged. ‘O Fleckie! Fleckie! haud thy tongue’ began a poetic response in the Belfast News Letter from a writer in Moneymore[24]. And in a lengthy contribution to the Northern Star, ‘L. M.’ (Luke Mullan) of Craigaroggan replied to Fleck’s point thus:

… We ken right weel that Rabin’s muse,

Ne’er offers undeserv’d abuse,

Tho’ on the hypocrytic crews

She sallies forth,

Ye’ll fin her ay, amaist profuse

To honest worth.

Ken’d ye auld Levi’s baerns as I do,

Their cause ye never mair wad fly to;

Ken’d ye the knavery and the pride o’

The wily toads!

Ye’d shun them as the wise folk ay do

In unken’d roads…[25].

And, almost as a further tribute to Burns, the following issue of the Northern Star published Samuel Thomson’s ‘An Epistle to Mr. Robert Burns’. Thomson had sent a copy of the poem to Burns, the paper reported, and ‘… Mr. BURNS … was not only pleased with the compliments it contains, but expressed his admiration of his [Thomson’s] talents and genius, and requested Mr. THOMSON to accept a present of Books, as a token of esteem from his Scotch friend’[26].

However, while Burns may have been pleased with Thomson’s poetry, the writing of verse in Scots was by no means pleasing to all readers of the local press. One contributor to the Belfast News Letter, writing under the name of ‘Civilis’, objected to ‘the disgusting gibberish of Scottish versification’ written in a dialect so ‘absolutely barbarous’ that it had already been abandoned ‘by the best authors among the Scots themselves’. The ‘mongrel language’ of these poets, able as they might be, Civilis suggested, must alienate many readers:

Their works undoubtedly, many of them at least, indicate poetical genius, and possibly might please the bucolic inhabitants of Galloway, or some of our own countrymen round the shores of Newtown Lough, or the back parts of Island Magee; but sure I am, that with all persons of correct and cultivated minds they must appear disagreeable, purely on account of the orthography and phraseology.[27]

‘Civilis’, it would seem, was not one of those readers anxious for news of Burns’ next publication.

Personal contacts with Burns

The presence of a living poet of such renown just across the North Channel led inevitably to considerable interest and excitement. Linde Lunney has remarked that ‘contemporary sources are full of enthusiastic references to his poems and there are so many ascriptions of visits to Burns by Ulster men that it seems he must have done little after 1787 but drink the health of his visiting Ulster fans’[28].

Among the visitors to Burns was Luke Mullan who, as we have seen, defended Burns in the columns of the Northern Star. Mullan’s sister, Rose, had married Jemmy Hope, the United Irishman. The antiquarian FJ Bigger owned Rose Mullan’s copy of the Magee edition of 1787; and Bigger noted that on the fly leaf of the book her son had recorded:

This copy of Burns belonged to my mother. Her brother, Luke Mullan, had something of a poetic taste, and had the pleasure of being introduced to the bard, I think, in Edinburgh. I remember seeing a letter of his which was in the possession of John Williamson, which gave a description of the interview with Burns and the enthusiasm with which he spoke of him and his genius. He was greatly delighted with Burns’ company during the few hours spent with him. I remember my mother frequently repeating some of Burns’ best lines[29].

Bigger imagined what the effect of this meeting must have been on Mullan’s companions in the Four Towns Book Club. ‘From henceforth’, he wrote, ‘their friend Luke was the richest man they knew, because he had shaken hands with the Scotch bard.’[30]

Other visitors included the poet Samuel Thomson, the Bard of Carngranny, who corresponded with Burns in the early 1790s and who had received the present of books from the bard. Thomson (also a member of the Four Towns Book Club), in the company of his close friend John Williamson, visited Burns early in the year 1794, taking two days to walk from Portpatrick to Dumfries, and celebrated the visit in a poem which ends triumphantly:

O yes, Hibernians, I beheld the Bard,

Old Scotia’s jewel, and the muses’ darling,

Whose matchless lays, despite of wasting time,

Shall to the last of earthly generations,

Remain old Nature’s boast and Scotia’s pride[31].

A little later that year Henry Joy, the proprietor of the Belfast News Letter and the first man to have published Burns in Ireland, visited the poet in Dumfries. Joy, in the company of his friend and colleague William Bruce, was returning from a visit to the lakes and mountains of north-west England and the two men had reached Cumbria on their journey home. On 6 July 1794 Joy recorded in his commonplace book: ‘Left Wigtown [i.e. Wigton] so as to reach Bowness and cross the strands at low water for Annan in Scotland. We reached Dumfries in time for dinner, desirous to devote the rest of the day to Robert Burns, the Ayrshire ploughman & poet’. Burns was late for the meeting. Burns and Joy discussed a wide range of topics, from politics to poetry. Burns, Joy records, said that he ‘preferred a republic for a new country’ since a republican system gave ‘dignity and importance to every individual in society and tends to the cultivation of talents often lost in an inequality of ranks’. However, he appears to have agreed with Joy’s view that ‘our own constitution, improved, is preferable for us’. Among Scottish poets he admired Ramsay and [James] Thomson (Joy disagreed about Thomson) and he also admired Cowper. Of his own works, he told Joy, he preferred ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’. Joy expressed his own admiration for ‘To a Mountain Daisy’. Burns also remarked to Joy that he had never had a classical education but that all he knew had been taught to him by his father. Joy went on to enquire about Burns’ method of composition:

His muse was most propitious, he said, at night, when his family were at rest. At that time he usually sat down with his box of Lundy Foot’s ‘Irish Blackguard’ and a tumbler of spirits and water; and as often as he found himself ‘gumm’d’ in a passage, he started to his feet, and was sure to find relief in a hearty pinch of ‘Lundy’[32].

The conversation between the two men is interesting. First of all it is Joy’s record of the conversation; and, furthermore, it may also be that Burns is tailoring his responses to the image which he wants to create or which he thinks is required.

However, poets less distinguished than Mullan and Thomson, and citizens less eminent than Joy and Bruce, also visited Burns. Two such visitors are said to have travelled from Ballycastle to Ayr to meet the Bard. As they walked back to the port to take the boat home, one of the friends was deep in discussion with Burns while the other ‘got into conversation with a sour-looking Scot, to whom he had proudly told the purpose of their visit to Ayr. “Hech, mon,” exclaimed the latter, “ye canna hae muckle to dae at hame when ye hae cam sae far on sic an errand!”’[33].

Almost inevitably, Burns enthusiasts were anxious to locate Burns on Ulster soil. Rumours of visits to Ulster by Burns, some in connection with his collection of folk tunes, were rife even if they were highly unlikely. A typically imprecise example, entitled ‘Was Burns ever in Co. Antrim?’, was reported in 1894:

Some four or five years ago an old gentleman, now dead, told me that when he was a boy he knew an aged farmer who professed to have met Burns repeatedly in different parts of the north-east of Co. Antrim, at country jollifications especially, when the poet, he said, would sometimes sing his own songs for the company. According to this tradition he would seem to have been here ‘fou for weeks thegither’. The point was thrown out to me by my informant as worth investigating. Since I first heard of it I have, at odd times, turned over a mass of Burnsiana, in the hope of finding something that would corroborate the statement made, or disprove it; but my search has been fruitless. Can any reader help me to some light on this dark subject?[34]

The Revd George Hill replied by stating bluntly that ‘Burns was never in Ireland’, though further correspondents continued to hope that it might be so[35]. To date, no record of such a visit has been found.

Then and now

Burns’ death in 1796 was marked in the Belfast press by the reproduction, in both the Belfast News Letter and the Northern Star, of a text from some common source but also by the publication of extracts from some of Burns’ own poems as well as various poetic tributes to him. The local press continued to take an interest in Burns. It reported the Burns Festival in Ayr in 1844; and, following the festival, it covered, with some enthusiasm, the visit of Burns’ son, also Robert Burns, to Belfast where his widowed daughter Elizabeth was a long-term, and celebrated, resident. The various celebrations in Belfast of the centenary of the poet’s birth in 1859 were covered, as was the purchase for the city, at the end of the century, of Andrew Gibson’s collection of Burnsiana[36]. The bicentenary of the poet’s birth was marked in 1959 by a civic dinner and by an exhibition in the Linen Hall Library using some of the Gibson material. That exhibition (and a similar but smaller one some years ago) marked, to some degree, an exercise in the rediscovery of Burns’ links to Belfast and Ulster. It is perhaps significant that, half a century on, this essay has also been an exercise in re-exploration and rediscovery, at least for those outside the knowledgeable circle of Burns enthusiasts[37].

‘The visitor to the exhibition realizes what he had perhaps only vaguely known before’, wrote Matthew M‘Diarmid of the bicentenary exhibition in Belfast, ‘that there are special reasons why Ulster should be interested in Burns’. A new generation of scholars, writing fifty years later, is again investigating not only Burns and his links to Belfast and to Ulster but also the work of those local writers who admired Burns, who were inspired by his achievement and who shared his tradition. As a result we are now beginning to realize once more that there are indeed special reasons for a local interest in Burns and, furthermore, that what we already vaguely knew about Burns and about the local literary environment of the day is more complex, more profound and infinitely more interesting than we had previously imagined.


[1] Belfast News Letter, 31 Oct. - 3 Nov. 1786.

[2] Belfast Evening Post, 13 Nov. 1786.

[3] A recent selection of articles exploring more widely the reception of Robert Burns and the writing of verse and prose within the Scots tradition in Ulster will be found in Frank Ferguson and Andrew R. Holmes (eds.) Revising Robert Burns and Ulster: literature, religion and politics, c.1770-1920 (Dublin: Four Courts, 2009).

[4] Belfast News Letter, 26-29 Dec. 1786.

[5] Belfast News Letter, 29 Dec. 1786 - 2 Jan. 1787.

[6] Belfast News Letter, 13-16 Mar.; 16-20 Mar.; 20-23 Mar.; 27-30 Mar.; 13-26; Apr.; 24-27 Apr. 1787.

[7] Belfast News Letter, 13-16 Mar. 1787.

[8] Belfast Evening Post, 16 Aug. 1787.

[9] Belfast News Letter, 28 Jan. 1891; I am grateful to Kyle Hughes for drawing this to my attention.

[10] Belfast News Letter, 21-25 Sept. 1787.

[11] J W Egerer, A bibliography of Robert Burns (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1964) places the Belfast edition before those of Dublin and London.

[12] Belfast News Letter, 27-31 July 1787.

[13] Belfast News Letter, 1 Sept. 1789; Northern Star, 1 Sept 1789.

[14] Belfast News Letter, 2-5 June 1789.

[15] Belfast News Letter, 5 Apr. 1793; the poems published by the paper came after the issue of the Kilmarnock edition but pre-dated the Edinburgh and Belfast editions.

[16] Belfast News Letter, 11 Dec. 1792.

[17] Belfast News Letter, 8-11 May 1792.

[18] Belfast News Letter, 14 Mar. 1794.

[19] Belfast News Letter, 11 Sept. 1797.

[20] Belfast News Letter, 7 Aug. 1797.

[21] Belfast News Letter, 6-10 June 1796.

[22] Matthew P. M‘Diarmid, ‘Robert Burns: his the voice of freedom that spoke “language of the heart”’, unsourced newspaper cutting (1959).

[23] Belfast News Letter, 27-30 Mar. 1792.

[24] Belfast News Letter, 17-29 Apr. 1792.

[25] Northern Star, 14-18 Apr. 1792.

[26] Northern Star, 18-21 Apr. 1792.

[27] Belfast News Letter, 5-8 June 1792.

[28] Linde Lunney, ‘Ulster attitudes to Scottishness’ in Ian S. Wood (ed.) Scotland and Ulster (Edinburgh: Mercat, 1994), p. 61.

[29] F J Bigger, ‘Association books’, Irish Book Lover, vol. 14, no. 4, April 1924, p. 78.

[30] F J Bigger, ‘Rural libraries in Antrim’, Irish Book Lover, vol. 13, no. 4, Nov. 1921, p. 49.

[31] Thomson, ‘A Jonsonian fragment, occasioned by a visit to Mr. Burns in Spring 1794’ in Ernest A Scott and Philip Robinson (eds.) The country rhymes of Samuel Thomson, the Bard of Camgranny, 1766-1816 (Bangor: Pretani, 1992) p. 46.

[32] Joy Manuscripts, Linen Hall Library, Belfast. I am grateful to the Board of Governors for permission to quote from these papers. Lundy Foot was a Dublin tobacconist and ‘Irish Blackguard’ a snuff which he manufactured.

[33] George Hill, ‘Robert Burns’, Ulster Journal of Archaeology, 2nd ser., vol. 1,1894-95, pp. 149-150.

[34] SJ, ‘Was Burns ever in Co. Antrim?’, Ulster Journal of Archaeology, 2nd ser., vol. 1, 1894-95, p. 77.

[35] George Hill, ‘Robert Burns’, pp. 149-150.

[36] For further details of these events see Frank Ferguson, John Erskine & Roger Dixon, ‘Commemorating and collecting Burns in the north of Ireland, 1844-1902’ in Ferguson and Holmes (eds.) Revising Robert Burns and Ulster, pp. 127-147.

[37] This essay is a revision of part of the article ‘Scotia’s jewel: Robert Burns and Ulster, 1786-c.1830’ in Ferguson and Holmes (eds.) Revising Robert Burns and Ulster, pp. 15-36. I am grateful to the editors and publishers for facilitating this revision.



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