Burns was told writing in Scots would ‘limit his audience in London’

The advice has been brought to light in a study by the University of Glasgow's Centre for Robert Burns.

Burns was told writing in Scots would ‘limit his audience in London’ iStock
Burns: Ignored advice not to write in Scots.

Robert Burns was warned that writing in Scots would limit his audience as readers in London wouldn’t be able to understand what he meant.

The advice has been brought to light in a study by the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Robert Burns which has been looking into letters from Scotland’s national bard more than 250 years from his death.

Burns ignored the suggestion from Dr John Moore and went on to produce words and poetry that are still known around the world to this day, including the Hogmanay classic Auld Lang Syne.

The team looked at some 800 letters written by Burns and around 300 to 400 letters from his friends and admirers – and have put together both sides of the letter correspondence when available.

They say the findings reveal a new insight into the man who “continues to remain a bit of an enigma to the public”.

Dr Rhona Brown, a senior lecturer in Scottish Literature at the university’s Centre for Robert Burns Studies, said: “In the correspondence, we get closer to Burns ‘the man’ than anywhere else: his letters reveal his triumphs, failures, anxieties, fears and joys.

“Our edition of the correspondence is also presenting, for the first time, letters written to Burns as well as by Burns, allowing us to reconstruct personal dialogues from throughout Burns’s life.

“Two of Burns’s relationships stand out – with Dr John Moore and Mrs Frances Dunlop – as we have both sides of the correspondence.

“What is fascinating, for example, is that early on, Moore advised Burns not to write in Scots. He cautioned Burns that he was limiting his audience and felt that London readers wouldn’t understand or connect with the Scots language. Dunlop advised him to avoid political subjects.

“But Burns is his own man and ignores the advice and carries on regardless. I think history has now shown that he was right.”

People around the globe will celebrate Burns Night on January 25 to celebrate the anniversary of the poet’s birth on that date in 1759.

The correspondence will be published as part of the new Collected Works of Robert Burns published by the Oxford University Press.

The new edition’s publication of responses to the poet’s letters also reveals that reactions to his works were not always what people might expect.

Dr Craig Lamont, a research associate in Robert Burns Studies at the University of Glasgow, said: “Burns sends Dr John Moore a long, heartfelt letter giving a detailed account of his childhood and life up to 1787: this letter is now known as Burns’s autobiographical letter.

“In response, Moore asks Burns to ‘divide your letters when they are so heavy’, because ‘I was obliged to pay six & eightpence for it’.”

The team will premiere their video documentary on the “Editing Robert Burns for the 21st Century: Correspondence” project at 10am on January 17.

The Centre will also host an online question and answer session on Thursday January 20 so that members of the public and Burns scholars can find out more about the project, with more information available via @GlasgowBurns.