Opening section of Burns letter


A letter from Robert Burns to one of his oldest friends, which has not been seen in public for more than 100 years, is to go on special display at the National Library of Scotland on Thursday (January 25) to celebrate Burns Day.

It was acquired last year by the Library at auction and tells of an evening Burns spent with his former school-friend William Niven in Maybole in Ayrshire, near to where they went to school.

The letter was written in August 1786, just weeks after publication of his first work Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect which was to make his name. At the time he was still considering emigrating to Jamaica but this plan was shelved following the positive reaction to his poems. 

In the letter, Burns thanks Niven for what was clearly a very enjoyable encounter.  "I thank you with the most heart-felt sincerity for the worthy knot of lads you introduced me to. Never did I meet with so many congenial souls together……... To all and each of them make my most friendly compliments particularly ‘Spunkie, youthful Tammie’.

There is a suggestion Burns may not have behaved as well as he would have liked. He refers to “two truly worthy old gentlemen” and adds: “I am afraid the conduct you forced me on may make them see me in a light I would fondly think I do not deserve.”

Although his life was about to change due to the success of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, Burns appeared willing to  play down the importance of his writing. “Never blaze my songs among the million, as I would abhor to hear every prentice mouthing my poor performances in the streets,” he writes to Niven.

The letter, which has been in private hands since 1899, is an important addition to the Library’s collection of material by and about Robert Burns.

It goes on show at the National Library, George IV Bridge in Edinburgh on January 25 from 11am to 3pm.  Entry is free.

Contact Information

Bryan Christie

0131623 3738


Notes to editors

The National Library of Scotland

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