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Robert Burns Lives!
Robert Burns, The Fornicators Court

Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA

Robert Burns and Walter Scott comprise the heart of a creative article I recently received from Gerry Carruthers. The “chat” article is thought provoking and will raise your awareness of Scotland’s two greatest writers. I have requested additional information on the subject of this article which, when received, will be added to these pages. In the meantime, enjoy this rare piece of writing about Burns and Scott.

This is exciting reading for me. I was a Scott enthusiast long before I became deeply involved with Burns. I have written and spoken about the two “side by side” from their births until their deaths. I look forward to the works being published by the various parties involved in this study.

In addition, you will have the opportunity to purchase a new book on Burns entitled Robert Burns, The Fornicator’s Court. Please see the information at the end of this article. (FRS: 12.10.09)

Robert Burns, The Fornicators Court a limited edition publication for 2009 published by the Abbotsford Library Project Trust and the Faculty of Advocates, Edinburgh

Robert Burns, The Fornicators Court

An interview with editors, Gerry Carruthers (GC) & Pauline Gray (PG), Honorary Librarian at Abbotsford, Professor Douglas Gifford (DG) and Senior Librarian, Faculty of Advocates, Andrea Longson (AL).

What is the background to Burns’s poem, ‘The Fornicators Court?’

PG: ‘The Fornicators Court’ is believed to have been written in 1786, although it was never published in Robert Burns’s lifetime. The only dated version of the poem is included in the Hastie Manuscript (held by the British Library) and is dated 4 June 1786. This is also the only version in Burns’s hand that bears a title. The title that Burns employs is ‘Libel Summons’, but the poem has since been published under the titles ‘The Court of Equity’ and ‘The Fornicators Court’.

Burns uses ecclesiastical and legal language for parodic effect. The poem imagines an official club of virile young men meeting to discuss their conquests and with the presiding idea that none of these young bucks should be shy about their exertions. It imagines punishment for those who try and hide their illicit sexual unions. ‘The Fornicators Court’ is a poem that cheekily vaunts the pleasures of the flesh

Burns’s poem is clearly informed by experiences, perhaps his own and perhaps those of others, of the eighteenth century Kirk and its chastisement of sex out with marriage. By June 1786, Burns had fathered an illegitimate child with Elizabeth Paton (‘Dear bought Bess’ born on the 22nd May 1785), and also impregnated Jean Armour who would eventually give birth to twins on the 3rd of September. The session records for Tarbolton parish for the time of Burns’s residence there are unfortunately no longer extant. So although it is likely, there is no concrete evidence that Burns and Elizabeth Paton were publicly disciplined for fornication. However, it is recorded that in July and August of 1786 Burns and Jean Armour were publicly rebuked on three consecutive Sundays at Mauchline parish. It may well be then that ‘The Fornicators Court’ can be read as among his most joyously defiant texts.

What about this particular version and what is Scott’s connection?

GC: Scott’s copy is one of only ten of a book printing that would have been illegal until well into the twentieth century, in fact only really publishable as literature after the Lady Chatterley’s Lover Court case in the late nineteen-fifties. So Scott’s copy is from a “privately printed” rather than a “published” text.

Scott’s possession of ‘The Fornicators Court’ in book form demonstrates an increasingly clearer picture of his tastes. He was a man more open to diverse kinds of expression than is sometimes thought. We see this diversity in his huge collection of broadsides, chapbooks and ballads; in other words, what we would call today “popular culture” to which ‘The Fornicators Court’, to some extent, might be seen to belong.

Some people will not naturally see a connection between Robert Burns and Walter Scott?

DG: At first sight there would seem to be little common ground between Burns and Scott, other than that of nationality and literature in general. Yet in another light, one which casts itself over Scotland entire, and they can be seen as opposite ends of the spectrum of Scottish history and culture. Burns identifies with Ayrshire, its people, its landscape, its creatures, farm and wild. With his astonishing humanity he moves out from his native territory to engage through passion and devastating satire with political and religious issues of Britain and the world – and in a sense this is the mirror image of Scott, identified so strongly with his beloved Edinburgh and Borders, but seen through the Waverley novels as very much the Man of the World, engaging with the wars of the Crusades, France, and indeed all Europe. His bringing of George IV to Edinburgh in 1822 can in the light be seen as an attempt to forgive the past, by bringing a British monarch back to the country which monarchy had failed to visit for well over a hundred years. His motives were mixed, but understandable – and we remember that Burns could contradict his image so often also – as when he attacks the idea of ordinary people choosing their own ministers in ‘The Ordination’ as giving the brutes the power to elect their herd, or when in danger of losing his excise job he alters his tone to that of Establishment supporter in ‘Does Haughty Gaul Invasion threat’. So often we forget the complexities of Burns for convenient mythology like that of ‘The Heaven-Taught Ploughman’, when Burns and his brother had in reality a private tutor who went on to teach in Ayr academy. Burns had in a sense to unlearn his polite English education to rediscover his native Scots traditions.

In the end both writers were of their confused and difficult times, and very different West – East, rural – urban backgrounds. Yet both deeply valued the traditions and continuity of Scottish culture – Burns as pioneer collector for Johnson’s Musical Museum, Scott as collector of The Minstrelsy of The Scottish Borders, arguably our two greatest song collections. It is time to strip away so much of cliché and misrepresentation of both these writers so that their different, yet complementary achievements can be clearly seen.

Tell us about the Abbotsford Library Project.

DG: To claim that Walter Scott’s huge Library at Abbotsford may be the outstanding library in the world of an individual author is bold – but valid. Add the location for the Library, the magnificent mock-baronial ‘Conundrum Castle’, with its priceless artefacts (paintings, armour, historical memorabilia) which Scott created and collected as the heart of his dream to be a Border Laird, and the claim becomes even more tenable. Abbotsford Library is certainly extremely rare, and probably unique, in being the personal library of such a well known figure yet still intact and in situ and arranged exactly as it was when he was alive. And since the Library has never been open to casual research, since it is first and foremost a conservation Library, being available for external viewing only as part of a more general ‘big house’ experience, its riches are now being re-discovered.

This is where The Abbotsford library Project, a recent joint venture between The Advocates library and the universities of Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh, came in some 12 years ago. When Scott died in 1832 his estate, the Library and the Collections passed to his son, Major Sir Walter Scott. In 1839 Major Scott executed an Entail of the Heritage and a Trust Assignation of the Library and various Collection items. Residuary Trustees were the Dean of the Faculty of Advocates in Edinburgh and his Council; in the event of the Entail coming to an end, the books and articles were to vest in the Dean and Faculty. The Entail was broken just after the death of Major-General Sir Maxwell-Scott in 1954, and Scott’s Library, virtually as he had left it, came into the care of The Faculty of Advocates.

The Project aims to make the Library and information about it more accessible to scholars and students. The 1837 catalogue, while useful and extensive, is rare, and badly in need of updating. With the support of The Faculty of Advocates in Edinburgh (who have inherited the custodianship of the Library collection), a new on-line Catalogue is presently being undertaken by Lindsay Levy and her team. Already, several research discoveries of international importance indicate that the Project will make major contribution to literary research nationally and internationally. The Project has already published the two last substantial unpublished Scott manuscripts, the Reliquiae Trotcosienses and Sylva Abbotfordiensis, and is now making a database of the most important of Scott’s own manuscript annotations to his books, with the intention of reducing physical consultation of what is essentially a conservation library.

The library is far more than a reference collection of the history and folk lore Scott used as subject matter in his novels. There are officially 9000 volumes in Scott’s library, but from a cataloguing perspective this number is meaningless as so many volumes contain multiple items. His collection is so broad that it is almost easier to list the subject areas Scott did not cover rather than those that he did – for example, one of the small shelves which surround the lintels of the door contains only 3 books - the works of Confucius, with original Chinese text; an illustrated account of the fish of the Ganges; and a dissertation on ear wax!

What makes this library special is, of course, the fact that, having been preserved exactly as it was in Scott’s day, down to its curious classifications systems and its homely wooden cases, it contributes enormously to Abbotsford’s evocation of a sense of being in Scott’s own time, with Scott the nostalgic, trying to recreate the library of tales he remembered reading as a child, or searching for one particular item for over 10 years. Scott’s presence fills Abbotsford, even in matters such as his frequent and fascinating annotations to his books.

Many treasures have been uncovered, including a long lost 15th century Middle English manuscript (described as ‘the most important find in medieval studies since the 1930s’), the visually spectacular examples of early printing from Holland, with a 15th century history of the world from Adam and Eve to 1474 with hand coloured woodcuts (recycled!). There are the poems and songs described above, handwritten by Burns, a copy of Tam o’ Shanter sent to Scott, and annotated by Burns, and innumerable rare tracts and pamphlets from the time of the Jacobites and Covenanters.

Examples of Scott’s own manuscripts are to be found in the library in the Reliquiae Trotcosienses and Sylva Abbotsfordiensis, lengthy manuscripts on the making of the library and the estates and woods of Abbotsford, both of which have now been published for the first time by The Library Project. Unpublished as yet are Scott’s translations of two German dramas, his notebooks of collected mythology and ballads, and his charming Commonplace Book, containing some translations, cartoons and newspaper cuttings – and countless other materials which library research will uncover.

And in another area which shows how Scott enthusiastically shares with Burns a deep interest in the cultures of ordinary people, Scott’s Library has one of the largest known collections of tracts, broadsheets and chapbooks, popular publications on sensational subjects that were sold door to door in the 19th century. Add Scott’s unique collection of writings and pamphlets on folk tradition and the supernatural, and preliminary assessment suggest that once research has fully explored his library we will have to reconsider Scott as a pioneer in his interest and collection of popular culture – yet another example of how we need to completely revalue his unmatched contribution to and enduring influence on Scotland.

Abbotsford and the Future

AL: There are broadly three lines of development, working in tandem, for Abbotsford and its Library. The first is the obvious and major development of the house and grounds as a heritage site and outstanding visitor location. This is the business of the current Abbotsford Trust, based in Abbotsford itself, and made up of representative interests including The Faculty of Advocates. Jacquie Wright is Chief Executive, and the trustees have been successful in gaining lottery approval to complete their substantial bid for lottery funding to re-develop the house with a new visitor centre, so that visitors will be able to appreciate much more the wealth of Abbotsford’s contents, and to find out so much more through seminars and school visits. Abbotsford is a huge building, and there are exciting possibilities for exhibition and activities, not just of Scott’s legacy, but using Abbotsford as a centre for Border and Scottish culture generally, with the great Scottish Border Ballads and writers like James Hogg featuring, as well as regular visitors from The Lake School of Poets, such as Wordsworth and Southey. Exhibitions on Scott and his place in Scottish culture and history, Scott, Europe, and America, Scott’s Contemporaries – all these make fascinating stories, since hardly a nation in the nineteenth century was unaffected in its politics, its literature, its art and music (there are over seventy-five international operas on Scott’s novels). And an intriguing last pairing, which would draw out the remarkable contrasts between them, both as men and writers - Scott and Burns – could explore the issues which are raised here all too briefly, as to the very genuine bonds between these two greatest of Scottish writers. The University of Glasgow has established its Centre for Burns Studies, which is set to become the world leader in its area; a team of its academics have also pioneered work on the Library over the last decade as part of the Faculty of Advocates Executive Committee for the Library Project, and would enthusiastically collaborate here. The future is exciting!

How can a copy of this new publication be obtained?

Each copy, individually numbered, of Robert Burns, The Fornicators Court introduced by Gerard Carruthers & Pauline Gray (ISBN 978-0-9561291-0-9) can be obtained from:

Andrea Longson
Senior Librarian
Advocates Library
Parliament House


Tel: 0131 260 5637

Cheques should be made payable to: Abbotsford Library Project


United Kingdom £20 + £1.50 P&P
Euro €25 + £3.00 or €4 P&P
United States $30 + £6.00 or $9 P&P
Canada $40 + £6.00 or $12 P&P
Australia $45 + £6.00 or $15 P&P

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