Guest blog by Professor Patrick Scott: ‘At Roslin Inn’
Burns editors face a special problem when a poem was not published by Burns himself and there is no manuscript in his hand. The problem is compounded when the poem in question is a minor or occasional poem, and short enough to have been circulated orally and been written down from memory, with inevitable variation. Yet before an editor tackles the problem of the text itself, there are prior problems: simply finding out what textual evidence there is about the poem, where that evidence came from, and whether and where the evidence has been published over the years.
One example is the short 8-line (or is it four- line?) verse ‘At Roslin Inn’. This was, Egerer tells us, first published in part 3 of the Hogg-Motherwell edition (1834), with 8 lines, where it was titled ‘Verses Addressed to the Landlady of the Inn at Roslin’ (Hogg-Motherwell II: 167; Egerer, p. 167).
My blessings on you, sonsie wife;
I ne’er was here before;
You’ve gi’en us walth for horn and knife,
Nae heart could wish for more.
Heaven keep you free frae care and strife,
Till far ayount fourscore;
And while I toddle on thro’ life
I’ll ne’er gang by your door.
Kinsley prints the slightly different 8-line version, from Robert Chambers’s edition (1851-52), where it is untitled (Chambers, 1851, II: 43). The key variants in the Chambers text occur in line 1 (‘ye, honest wife’), line 3 (‘Ye’ve wealth o’ gear for spoon and knife’), and line 7 (‘and by the Lord o’ death and life’). The verses, as Chambers tells the story, were an impromptu response by Burns to the breakfast that he and Alexander Nasmyth had received at Roslin Inn. The night before, in Edinburgh, they had reportedly stayed up drinking into the early hours, and instead of going home to bed they walked out into the Pentlands. By the time they reached Roslin, ‘having thus cleared the effects of their dissipation’, Burns was extremely hungry, and ‘Mrs David Wilson’s little inn’ provided ‘such ample solacement that in a fit of gratitude he scrawled a couple of verses on the reverse side of a wooden platter’. Chambers doesn’t say where he got his text, but he footnotes these circumstantial details as having been ‘obligingly communicated by James Nasmyth, Esq., of Patricroft, near Manchester, son of the painter’.
Forty years later, the Chambers-Wallace revision (1896) printed a different text, reverting to the version in Hogg-Motherwell, and now claiming to rely on ‘information derived many years ago from the late Matthew Stobie, Kirklandhill, Haddingtonshire, who lived in Roslin at the time’. The revised edition also added a new footnote about Nasmyth sketching Burns at Roslin Castle, based on a passage in James Nasmyth’s Autobiography (London: John Murray, 1885, pp. 33-34; Chambers-Wallace, II: 55-56). Of the other major 19th century editors, Scott Douglas (1877), II: 65, uses the Hogg-Motherwell text, while Henley and Henderson (1896), I: 241 and 430, use the Chambers text from 1851.
The wooden platter itself never seems to have surfaced, not even among the items on display in the 1896 Memorial Exhibition. Later sources asserted that the platter was pewter, rather than wood (A Handbook to Edinburgh and a Complete Guidebook to the City and Neighbourhood, Edinburgh: Middlemass, [1871 etc.], p. 63). In 1931, when King George V visited Roslin Chapel, he was shown what purported to be Burns’s scratched inscription of the first line on a pewter plate (Hartlepool Daily News, Monday, 13 July 1931, p. 7).
Neither Kinsley’s collation nor the Index to English Literary Manuscripts lists any autograph manuscript or even any transcript. Yet hidden away in the annotations in his third volume Kinsley reports the existence of an early non-Burnsian manuscript source: a letter from Alexander Nasmyth that says the verse was written, not on a platter, but on the bill, and that the bill had been retrieved by an unnamed ‘autograph collector’. Kinsley then quotes a four-line version of the bill version from a transcript by Robert Dewar, the Reading professor who had originally been commissioned to edit the Clarendon edition. Kinsley doesn’t say who the letter was to, or whether he’d seen the letter himself or got the information from Dewar, or whether he was relying on Dewar for both the letter and the verse-text, or whether Dewar had seen the letter, or whether Dewar was transcribing the four lines from the letter or from the bill, (Kinsley III: 1238-1239). Dewar’s transcription does not seem to be among his distinctively-illegible penciled marginalia or laid-in notes in his copy of Scott Douglas, now in the Roy Collection. The Canongate editors print the 4-line Dewar transcript text from Kinsley’s notes, alongside the 8-line version, in the Chambers (1851)-Henley & Henderson-Kinsley text rather than the Hogg-Motherwell text, but in the absence of a manuscript for Nasmyth’s letter they left the authenticity of the verses as ‘undetermined’ (Canongate, pp. 979-980).
However, shortly before the Great War, the then-owner of the Nasmyth letter, William K. Bixby, sponsored a handsome outsize volume titled Poems and Letters in the Handwriting of Robert Burns Reproduced in Facsimile (St Louis, MO: printed for the Burns Club, 1908), and the volume (unindexed and with no table of contents) included a final smaller group of Burns-related material not in Burns’s hand. One of these added items was the Nasmyth letter (facing p. 100). Nasmyth’s rendering of the verse itself looks like this:
The full letter reads as follows:
London Monday Aug 23 1829.
My Dear Sir
As you wish me to give you some account of a walk to Rosslynn, and a breakfast I had with my Ald Aquaintance R. Burns The much admired Poet of Nature, and of Scotland it is as follows. One Morning in the early part of the summer of 1787 we met at my house in Edinburgh at 5 o clock, the morning was fine and we walked out to that Romantic Spot it was the first time my Friend had been there I had the pleasure of taking him down to the Rocky and well wooded banks of the Esk and after scrambling along them, two or three hours, we returned to the Inn where a good Breakfast awaited us, which we did ample justice to being both young and healthy.—
The charge was very moderate, in our opinion and on paying the bill 3/6, my Friend wrote on the under part of the slip of paper (on which stated, Tea, Eggs, and some Whisky.)—
To Mrs Willson (the Landlady of that Inn)
My Blessings on you Honest Wife
I neer’ was here before,
But b’ my soul as long ’s I live
I’ll neer gang by your Door.—
After we had gone onwards to Hawthorn Dean Lasswade and Dined at Dalkeith, we walked home to Edinburgh, and Mr Burns and his Bookseller, the well known and Witty Baillie Creech supt with me and Mrs Nasmyth then a very young wife, This one of the days of my life that I look back to with entire pleasure.
I therefore have a particular pleasure in complying with your request, as I find the Breakfast bill has been preserved by some curious Person as a relict of Burns
I am My Dear Sir yours truly
For Mr William Cribb
William Cribb, of King Street, Covent Garden , was the art dealer and connoisseur who acted as Cunningham’s London agent. After his death, his library and other collections were auctioned by Sotheby, Wilkinson and Hodge (Athenaenum, 18 March, 1871, p. 323).
In the years after publication of the St Louis facsimile volume, Bixby dispersed his Burns manuscripts, and the Nasmyth letter ended up in the Huntington Library, in San Marino, California. It seems much more likely that Dewar made his transcript from Bixby’s Burns Club facsimile than from the original Nasmyth manuscript. Sometime in the 1970s, a photocopy of the Huntington manuscript in the National Library of Scotland was transcribed by the Nasmyth scholar Janet Cooksey, in her remarkable PhD thesis, retrievable now via the British Library and EThOS: see Janet Cooksey, ‘Alexander Nasmyth, 1758-1840: His Life and Work’, unpublished St Andrews PhD, 1980, 5 vols, vol. II: Appendix C, item C26, p.56, citing NLS MSS 7198, ACC 322 ff 49-50 (and cf. Robert Crawford, The Bard, 2009, p. 435, n. 111).
Since Nasmyth was present when Burns wrote down some kind of short poem for Mrs Wilson, the ‘authenticity’, that is, authorship, platonic existence, of such a Burns poem is surely beyond dispute, but Nasmyth’s letter doesn’t solve the problem of finding or identifying an authentic text of what Burns actually wrote. The four-line version in the letter is of course in Nasmyth’s handwriting, not in Burns’s. The brevity of his version and its occasional textual false starts (as with be or perhaps by for b’ in line 3) suggest it was being written down from memory. But there is no reason to attribute greater reliability to Hogg and Motherwell, Chambers, Chambers-Wallace, James Nasmyth, or Matthew Scobie. Unless the bill, or the platter, turns up, any more exact wording of Burns’s impromptu remains elusive.
What strikes me in this instance, as with several other Burns problems over the past few years, is how difficult, and often chancy, it can often be finding out what is ‘known’ about Burns or what was known about him, and even printed about him, in the past. I came on the Bixby facsimile accidentally while leafing through the volume looking for something else, and neither it nor the Cooksey thesis would be discoverable through the standard Burns reference sources. One of the great values of the new edition is not only the attempt to reexamine Kinsley’s treatment of specific poems and problems, but the opportunity to document the sources more fully, to recover material Kinsley didn’t find or report on fully, and so to provide a more reliable guide for future research.
Prof Patrick Scott
I am especially grateful to Cameron Roger, of St Andrews University Library, for pointing me towards the British Library EThOS site during my search for Dr Cooksey’s thesis, as her subsequent book, James Nasmyth, 1758-1840: A Man of the Scottish Renaissance (Haddington: Paul Harris, 1991) was not available to me. One sentence from Nasmyth’s letter to Cribb was also quoted, without citation, by Mark Oxbrow in his article ‘Annie Wilson and Roslin Inn,’ Scottish Book Collector (2006), now available on the Textualities site at: http://textualities.net/mark-oxbrow/annie-wilson-and-the-roslin-inn. On the general issue of Burns facsimiles, which are not listed in Egerer, see my ‘A Neglected Source for Burns Manuscripts: Some Old Guides for Autograph Collectors,” Robert Burns Lives!, no. 260 (December 14, 2017): http://www.electricscotland.com/familytree/frank/burns_lives260.htm