Rare archive find offers glimpse of Bard at work

Pages of Robert Burns’ handwritten prose, written on his employer’s stationery, suggest that the Scottish Bard’s passion for poetry couldn’t escape him during his working day.

Photo of handwritten text Robert Burns wrote on Excise Office stationary

The 220 year-old manuscript from the University’s collection shows Burns’ writing on paper featuring the red watermark of the government’s excise office.

The unique document contains notes and poetry that form part of Burns’ essay, ‘Notes on Scottish Song’.

The essay reflects upon his contributions to publisher James Johnson’s much-loved collection of Scottish folk music, the ‘Scots Musical Museum’.

Burns contributed a range of works to the folk music publication, including his famous version of Auld Lang Syne. 

Working poet

The celebrated Scottish poet and lyricist was employed at the excise office from 1788 until his death in 1796.

As an exciseman, he was responsible for collecting taxes and intercepting illegal goods, such as smuggled alcohol.

Burns had previously struggled to earn money as a tenant farmer.

Important archives

The University holds a number of manuscripts from Robert Burns in its Centre for Research Collections, including 19 poems, 13 letters and extracts from ‘Notes on Scottish Song’.

This insight into how Burns’ may have spent his time at the excise office came to light through manuscripts bequeathed to the University by antiquarian David Laing.

Studied by students, staff and available to the public, it is the University’s largest archival collection and includes a wide range of historical manuscripts dating from the 16th to the 19th century.

Alongside his notes on excise office stationery, the archive includes a letter to the Earl of Glencairn, a nobleman and patron of Robert Burns, asking for help in getting a job as an exciseman. 

His letter includes a copy of his well-known poem, ‘Holy Willie's Prayer’, a satirical rendition about kirk of Scotland elder Willie Fisher.

Our collections have many interesting stories to tell about Robert Burns and it is fascinating to see this unique insight into his life and career. We are very fortunate to have these works to help us to gain a broader understanding into Scotland’s most famous poet.

Paul BarnabyModern Literary Collections Curator, the University of Edinburgh

Related links

University of Edinburgh Collections | Robert Burns

Laing Collection | online images