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Robert Burns Lives!
The Kilmarnock Census: A Personal Perspective By Allan Young

Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Greater Atlanta, GA, USA

Many thanks to Patrick Scott and Allan Young for sharing with us the results of their search of the original work of Robert Burns entitled POEMS Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. Due to a slight physical set back, I have been unable to do much work on Robert Burns Lives! recently but hope to resume my work on the column in the near future, As usual, Patrick Scott stepped in to assist and the article below is the interesting account of the book he and Allan Young have put together. These two gentlemen have blessed the Burns community with a volume worth more than its weight in gold. My deepest thanks to both, and I say “thank you” on behalf of all of us who will buy and treasure the book for many years to come. (FRS: 11.1.17)

The Kilmarnock Census: A Personal Perspective
By Allan Young

Patrick Scott writes: I first met Allan Young soon after he started on this project, when he came up to South Carolina to talk about it with Ross Roy. As I learned when sorting old files after Ross’s death in 2013, Ross himself had tried at least twice, in the early 1960s and again in the early 1990s, to pin down the number of copies of the Kilmarnock that had survived, but he had never been able to get definite information for more than forty or so copies in libraries, so he had had to settle for a very provisional estimate to allow for copies in private hands. Allan Young, a Scot now retired and living in Florida, had spent his career in the construction industry (he was a Fellow of the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors), and by the time he visited us he had already made an effective and systematic start on the project, putting the search on a much firmer basis. He and Ross got along well, and Ross was able to put him in contact with several other friends who owned Kilmarnock editions [including Susan and Frank Shaw]. Allan’s reports on what he had found in 2009 and in the Burns Chronicle made it clear that his research was breaking new ground. In the following years, several people had asked me whether Allan planned to do more with it. My original idea two years ago when he agreed that I could help him get the census published was that we would just format his previous findings as a small pamphlet. As we began that process, we realized that there was additional background information to be gathered, both from older printed sources and from newly-available on-line resources. I wrote a short article about this stage of the research for Robert Burns Lives! no. 230, which put us in contact with further owners. Allan has been wonderful to work with, as we compiled and edited and proofread this additional research, through email and long telephone calls. The result is a book of 234 pages, just a few short of the Kilmarnock edition itself (and after allowing for inflation the price is also almost exactly the same as the original subscribers paid for the Kilmarnock). I am very proud to be credited as a coauthor, but I still think of the book as “Allan Young’s census.” The essay that follows gives his personal account of how he got interested in the census project, together with some of the interesting findings in the book. (PS: 11.1.17)

Allan Young presenting a copy of the new book to Robert Betteridge, Curator, Rare Books, at the National Library of Scotland, October 24, 2017.

The Kilmarnock Census: A Personal Perspective
Allan Young

We have just completed and published the first-ever attempt to record all the surviving copies of Robert Burns’s first book, Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1786), usually known as the Kilmarnock Burns or the Kilmarnock Edition. For me, it has been a fifteen-year project, and now the book is out the best way to introduce it may be to write a little about how I became interested. More formal details about the research are given in my introduction to the book itself.

Though I now live in Florida, I was born in Scotland, and lived there before my career took us to the States in 1979. When I went to school in Glasgow in the 1940s and 1950s, we learned about Robert Burns before we learned about William Shakespeare. My grandfather was a Burns enthusiast and could sing all the verses of James Thomson’s song “The Star o’ Rabbie Burns,” once a standard at Burns suppers:

Though he was but a ploughman lad
And wore the hodden grey,
Auld Scotia's sweetest bard was bred
Aneath a roof o' strae.

Unfortunately, my grandfather’s singing and memory genes did not come down to me, but his interest in Burns did. Later, when my two sons went to school in Alloway and Ayr in the 1970s, they too learned about Burns. I remember my younger son, aged about seven, coming home from Alloway Primary School to tell us about his Burns experience that day. Part of the discussion in class had been about Burns suppers, and my son asked us what “champit titties” were. My wife took on the task of explaining that champit tatties were mashed potatoes. Fortunately, their discussion did not extend to the definition of his phrase.

What got me started hunting down copies of the Kilmarnock edition was the vagueness of the available information. I first saw a Kilmarnock in wrappers at Burns Cottage when I was a boy. Of course back then I didn't know the significance of that particular copy, but many years later I examined it there, before it went to the Birthplace Museum. In 1996, the bicentenary year of Burns’s death, the Burns scholar Ross Roy had estimated that “fewer than 70 copies are known to exist.” It was reading about this estimate, in 2002, that led me to undertake this census, and I began checking catalogues and writing to libraries. As opportunity allowed, I also visited libraries that owned copies, both in Scotland and the United States. The first Kilmarnock that I got to handle for myself was in the Mitchell Library in Glasgow. It brought a tear to my eye, but I made sure it didn't fall on the book.

By 2009, when I first reported on this research for a conference at the University of South Carolina, I had located 71 copies with confirmed locations, and I had credible reports on three others. I also had a fair bit of evidence about copies that seemed to have vanished. As I wrote soon afterwards in the Burns Chronicle (Summer 2011), the question remained “Where are they now?” One such copy was in Sir Walter Scott’s library at Abbotsford in the 1830s; even though it contained one of Burns’s handwritten excise reports, and some poems printed in newspapers, it was reported missing in 1889, and is still unlocated.

There the project rested, though in 2012 an Edinburgh auction house cited my research when cataloguing a copy coming up for sale (which I later got to inspect with its new owners, the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland). Then, in 2015, Patrick Scott offered to help prepare the research for publication, and as more material accumulated we agreed he should join me on the title-page as second author. The number of copies found has continued to grow, and the Census has now identified and described 84 copies with confirmed locations. Each of the copies is described, often in great detail, including any inscriptions or annotations, and sometimes bits of Burns’s own manuscript. Most copies are now in institutional libraries (Part A, 69 copies), with a smaller number located in private ownership (Part B, 15 copies). 48 copies of the copies we found are in the United States, 25 copies are in Scotland, 6 elsewhere in the U.K., three in Canada, and one each in Switzerland and Australia. Only a few preserve the original binding that I first saw at the Burns Cottage. Four copies are still in the original wrappers as issued, one has the wrappers bound in, one has a single wrapper bound in, and one seems to have the original wrappers surviving under a later marbled paper cover. One copy preserves unbound, uncut, folded sheets. A further twenty-five copies have contemporary or other early bindings. The majority, of course, are in later fine bindings, which would themselves be prized by collectors.

But as well as describing the surviving copies as they are now, we had been collecting information from older sources, and with additional research this section of the book now runs to over 80 pages. Several of the stories in this section are about lucky Burnsians who made unexpected discoveries. In 1857, a Scottish mathematician, Dr William Burns, found a copy in wrappers “among a lot of odd volumes bought for a trifle” or in “a parcel of old books in an auctioneer’s office,” a perfect copy which passed from owner to owner till it reached the Harvard library. In 1898, a copy fetched 70 pounds at Sotheby’s; the previous owner was a slater from Laurencekirk who had bought it in a batch of five books for which he had paid just two pence.

Sometimes also, you weep for what had happened to a book or what happened after it was discovered. A barber’s shop in Shrewsbury had been using a Kilmarnock as a razor strop, and by the time John Murison, a commercial traveler for a seed company, rescued it, the first 48 pages were lost and many others damaged. It has an ownership inscription from 1796, and it is preserved with the rest of Murison’s Burns collection in Dunfermline. In 1850 or thereabouts, the Edinburgh bookseller James Stillie purchased a copy in wrappers for one shilling, inscribed, and with several poems in Burns’s hand. It was Gavin Hamilton’s copy, but because the covers were “somewhat frayed,” he sent it to be rebound. However, that copy, including the manuscript poems, was also preserved, and its current ownership is known. Worst of all is the 1908 newspaper story, just after one of the big auctions, where the reporter had overheard a Stirling bookbinder discussing the rarity of the Kilmarnock, and a local man said he had torn a copy apart leaf by leaf to make tapers to light the gas.

At least one discoverer was too honest to profit from what he found. In August 1926, a tenant farmer near Lamlash, returning from sheep-shearing, went to put away his tools in a hole high in the cottage wall, and discovered a copy of the Kilmarnock “covered with dust and cobwebs.” It had the name of someone who’d lived in the house in the 1870s, and he gave it back to the man’s daughter.

Other stories, like fishermen’s yarns, are about the one that got away. On August 2, 1832, the Shakespearian John Payne Collier recorded in his diary:

I was passing through Turnstile into Lincoln’s-Inn-Fields, and so to Somerset House, when I cast my eyes upon some shelves with books, outside a shop.… I saw one book that I much desired to purchase, viz., the Kilmarnock edition.… I put it back on the shelf, making up my mind to purchase it on the way home: the price was only 1s. 6d., but I knew it would not be dear at a guinea; and when I returned by the same way, I did not for a moment forget my book—for I already considered it mine. My mortification, therefore, was not a little when, as I passed the place again, I found it gone—sold for 1s. 6d. To somebody else.

In conclusion, it is worth emphasizing that the Kilmarnock Burns really is a very rare book. Censuses like this have only been published for a few very important works: the Gutenberg Bible, Copernicus, the Shakespeare First Folio, Audubon’s Birds of America. There are fewer documented surviving copies of the Kilmarnock edition than of any of the other titles except the Gutenberg Bible, perhaps because the others were all big imposing books that were collectible from first publication. Even for the Gutenberg, the original print-run was smaller, so the percentage of surviving copies is higher than for the Kilmarnock. The most recent census of the Shakespeare First Folio found 232 complete copies, with one more discovered since, so the Kilmarnock Burns is still nearly three times rarer than Shakespeare.

Any census is a snapshot of what we know now, and these statistics are likely to change if new information comes to light and further copies are discovered. Based on the records of copies sold at auction in the past we think there could be twenty or more Kilmarnocks out there in private ownership that we haven’t yet located (see the list on pages xvii-xviii of the introduction to the book). Eighty years ago, in The Story of the Kilmarnock Burns (1933), John D. Ross had made the same point, quoting from a letter written by one W. E. Wilson forty years earlier still, in 1892:

Perhaps these facts may stimulate someone with sufficient leisure to make a systematic search for that little volume of ‘Poems chiefly in the Scottish Dialect,’ which is of so much interest to the bibliophile, and if the searcher’s patience be rewarded, surely like Snuffy Davie <sic>, he will be thrice happy.

Snuffy Davy, in Scott’s The Antiquary, is described as “the very prince of scouts for searching ... for rare volumes.” Our hope is that this Census will stimulate another Snuffy Davy to hunt down some of the copies that remain unlocated.

Details about the book:
Authors: Allan Young and Patrick Scott
Title: The Kilmarnock Burns: A Census
Series: South Carolina Scottish Literature Series, no. 3.
Publisher: Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Libraries, 2017.
Pp. xxxvi + 198. Paperback, $24; £18. ISBN 978-1976245107

The book is not available for purchase directly from the library, only through Amazon, Amazon UK, CreateSpace, and several other online vendors, with wide variation in pricing and shipping charges.

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