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Robert Burns Lives!
The Luath Kilmarnock Edition of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect

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

Luath Book CoverI'm holding in my hand Volume 4 of the 612 copies of the Subscriber Edition of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect by Robert Burns, published by the Luath Press, which sells for £40. I must also tell you that there is another edition of the same book entitled The Luath Kilmarnock Edition which sells for £15. Both were published in 2009 to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the birth of Burns. All 612 copies of the Subscriber Edition are signed and numbered. With apologies to an old Coca-Cola commercial, both editions are wonderful copies of “the real thing” which was first printed in 1786. New material by three key people identified with this book, John Cairney, Bob Dewar, and Clark McGinn, make it a fascinating read. Each is an expert in his own right.

John Cairney:

Known most of his life as “the man who played Robert Burns”, Cairney wrote the superb introduction to this book. He is an actor, writer, lecturer and consultant, yet he simply describes himself as writer, actor, and raconteur. He is as familiar with television, radio, and theatre performances as he is writing about Burns. He is an unusual man, to say the least. Cairney is best known for his work on Burns, but earlier in his career he earned a PhD in his study of Robert Louis Stevenson. As recently as April of this year, Dr. Cairney returned to Glasgow to give a lecture on “Robert Louis Stevenson and Theatre” for the Friends of Glasgow University. Among his other publications I have read and can highly recommend to you are On the Trail of Robert Burns, The Luath Burns Companion and The Man Who Played Robert Burns, An Autobiographical Journey. I even have an old 78 record set entitled John Cairney Tells the Robert Burns Story which is highly entertaining. In conclusion, I think he will always be remembered as a painter - with brush, oils and words.

A quote or two from Cairney’s Introduction:

“There are some events in the Scottish Story which are considered significant by all Scots” and Cairney goes on to list the Battle of Bannockburn in 1314, the Declaration of Abroath in 1320, the Darien Disaster in 1699, the Union of the Parliament in 1707, and among the important dates in the life of Scotland is 31 July 1786, “the publication date of the first, and only, book of poems published by Robert Burns of Ayr”, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. To be listed amongst these events and dates by one of the top Burns scholars shows how important Burns’ book of poetry is 250 years after his birth!

“In no time he [Burns] was as popular in the gentry’s with-drawing rooms as the performing pig in the Grassmarket, and recited for his supper at the best tables in Edinburgh. But he wrote nothing new in the capital except ‘To A Haggis’ and a sweet little song, ‘A Rosebud by my Early Walk’ for a 12-year old girl. He hated his life among the literati and he hated himself for pandering to them. He knew he must get away or he’d never be his own man again. The matter was decided for him when…”

Bob Dewar:

Then there is the well-known political artist Bob Dewar. The illustrator of many books, he has worked for The Scotsman and other newspapers. Having held many exhibitions, he has “had caricatures hung in the House of Commons”. Born in Edinburgh he published, at the tender age of 16, his first illustration. He was “specially commissioned” to illustrate this book, and you will enjoy over a dozen of his own original line drawings.

Bob Dewar Drawing "To a Louse"
To A Louse

His work, to me, brings to mind John Kay’s 19th-century work, A Series of Original Portraits and Character Etchings and more recently, and much more affordable, the book by Sheila Szatkowski entitled Capital Caricatures, A Selection of Original Etchings by John Kay. Yes, Dewar is that talented! You can also see more of his work in Valentina Bold’s 2009 edition on The Merry Muses. I personally look forward to more of Dewar’s work, hopefully in the near future. Like most of us, I know what I like, and I like Bob Dewar’s work!

Clark McGinn

Another treat for me is that the book’s Afterword was written by Clark McGinn, immediate past president of the Burns Club of London and currently probably the most well-known international Burns speaker on the planet. I am intrigued by the word “afterword” since it is seldom seen in today’s publications. But you will see, as I did, these pages by Clark speak about Burns in ways you will find to be refreshing and contemporary. Too often we look back when talking about Burns but, as Clark is wont to do, he speaks of the continuing legacy of Burns with a look forward, not just dwelling on what happened between 1759 and 1796.

Clark is the author of two popular books – The Ultimate Burns Supper Book and The Ultimate Guide to Being Scottish. He is a contemporary speaker with an equally contemporary message about Burns, a poet who needs to be brought up to date by many of today’s speakers. Over the past five years Clark has traveled 105,300 miles speaking about Robert Burns. That is equal to 4.2 times around the globe. He has given 63 speeches during that time in 20 different cities and eleven continents! Could it be that Clark McGinn just may well be “The Ultimate Burns Speaker”?

Quotes from McGinn’s Afterword:

“Kilmarnock saw that first edition of a young man’s poems published in 1786 and Burns has not been out of print for a single day since.”

“…and (theft being the most profitable form of flattery) in pirate copies in Dublin, Belfast, Philadelphia and New York”…just a year later in 1787!

“If poetry is an ability to take complexity and distil it into order, then RB captures the genius of the human soul.”

“More people celebrate the life of Burns each year – whether at a formal Burns Supper, or just informally around their own kitchen table – than populated Scotland the day he died.”

How many of you have ever held in your own hands an original Kilmarnock edition of Burns’ poems? A few years ago I witnessed a former president of the Burns World Federation hold a Kilmarnock in his hands for the first time and could not help but notice how his eyes watered with emotion while doing so. Here was a man who had traveled the world over representing the Federation and speaking to hundreds of people. It is indeed a rare occurrence to hold that book in your hands. Think of the odds.

Only 612 copies of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect were published in 1786. Today, approximately 70 can be identified worldwide. As to holding an original in your hands, chances are you will make your first million dollars first. The chances are extremely slim you will ever own a copy. The odds are in your favor to become a multi-millionaire before you own a copy! This little book of 240 pages turned Scotland on her literary ear, and since its publication in 1786 until now, 224 years later, Scotland has never been the same!

It has been many years since a facsimile of the Kilmarnock was published. You might find an older edition out there somewhere but chances are you will pay hundreds of dollars for it. Since you have an opportunity to buy a beautiful new hardback facsimile today for a reasonable price, I urge you to visit the website to find copies of the limited and number 612 Subscriber’s Edition. You will discover what is called in the trade the “bookshop edition” as well. The good folks at Luath Press will direct you how to complete your order. (FRS: 6.3.10)

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