Prose & SongCorrespondence & Poetry

Guest Blog by Professor Patrick Scott – The mysterious ‘WR’ once more: a mid-Victorian reminiscence

This is a follow-up to Nigel Leask’s blog-posts last June and again in October, commenting on the identity of the mysterious ‘WR.’ WR was one of several people who made annotations to Burns’s First Commonplace Book, and Professor Leask has shown that WR’s was the first or earliest level of annotation, commenting on which poems Burns should include in the Kilmarnock edition, so WR’s identity matters. In his introduction to the earlier facsimile (Glasgow: Gowans and Gray, 1938, p. ix), J. C. Ewing also dated the annotations as being made ‘probably in 1786.’ Professor Leask’s fullest treatment of the issue is in the new Oxford Edition of Robert Burns (OERB I: 37-38), where he reviews several candidates, discarding James Currie’s Liverpool friend, the poet William Roscoe, because the annotations are too early, and discarding William Ronald, a farm worker at Lochlie, the solution proposed in the 1870s by William Scott Douglas, because the annotations are improbably acute and too neatly written. Professor Leask also considered two other William Ronalds, a Tarbolton bonnet laird and a Mauchline tobacconist, both known to Burns, but found them equally unlikely. Last summer, the BBC, the Herald, and the Scotsman all ventilated the question, and Professor Leask raised it also with a roomful of 200 Scottish literature scholars at the World Congress. His October blogpost reported that he had been ‘bombarded with suggestions, but despite some excellent hints, there were no conclusive answers to the riddle. … the hunt goes on.’


A couple of weeks ago, quite by chance, I came on a mid-Victorian anecdote that may bear on this mystery. The passage, a ‘reminiscence’ from John Reid, of Glasgow, with whom Waddell had been at school, is tucked away in the Appendix at the back of P. Hately Waddell’s Life and Works of Robert Burns (Glasgow, 1867), in a section headed ‘Reminiscences Original’; more precisely, Reid’s memories appear as ‘Reminiscences Original. Part II. Miscellaneous. B. Burns’s First Visit to Glasgow’ (Appendix, pp. xxxvii-xxxviii). Waddell’s edition is unindexed, and not yet in Google Books, and the appendix is not included on the digital version on Electric Scotland [], so I should perhaps confess I didn’t first hit on the anecdote in Waddell, or indeed on purpose: I was looking for Victorian and early twentieth-century references to the Kilmarnock poet Gavin Turnbull, found Turnbull’s name linked to Burns in an unfootnoted talk about Burns and Glasgow in the Burns Chronicle for 1906 (volume 15, p. 114), recognized the name William Reid, went from there to James A. Kilpatrick’s Literary Landmarks of Glasgow (Glasgow St. Mungo’s Press,1893, p. 57), and thence, on Monday morning when the library reopened, set out to hunt it down in the multi-sectioned incoherence of Waddell.


Once I found it, I found it, however, John Reid’s reminiscence ran as follows:


Mr. Reid’s father, the late William Reid, Esq., of Brash and Reid, booksellers, Glasgow, served his apprenticeship with Messrs. Dunlop and Wilson, the most extensive bookselling, publishing, and printing firm in that city, or indeed in the west of Scotland. Mr. Reid himself, then a very young man, had already begun to cultivate the muses, and was even projecting little literary ventures of his own unknown to his employers. One of his correspondents at the date of which we speak, from 1785 to 1788, was Gavin Turnbull of Kilmarnock, … On one occasion, precise date now unknown, a stranger of most remarkable aspect, of rustic appearance and with a shepherd’s plaid on his shoulders, presented himself to Mr. Reid on Dunlop and Wilson’s premises—with an introduction to him, it is believed, from his friend Gavin Turnbull. This stranger’s errand was two-fold—first to obtain publication, or more extensive publication, for a volume of poems, which he had in manuscript, or in printed sheets—uncertain which—in his hand; and second, an introduction through Mr. Reid or his employers to some of the wealthiest merchants in Glasgow, with a view to obtain a settlement for himself in the West Indies. He looked and spoke in the deepest distress—in distress approaching to despair, and was occasionally moved even to tears. The poems he produced at the same time were of so great beauty, that, between sympathy and admiration, Mr. Reid was at a loss what to do. Finally, after discussing all the circumstances of the case and carefully scrutinising the poems, Mr. Reid, though a much younger man, affectionately struck his visitor on the shoulder and said, “Your country, Sir, cannot afford to send you to the West Indies; you must go to Edinburgh and not to Jamaica.” The stranger, we need hardly say, was Robert Burns. It was not in Messrs. Dunlop and Wilson’s line to publish volumes, much less small volumes of poetry; but Mr. Reid, though still a youth, gave the unknown a letter of introduction to Mr. Creech, with whom he was personally acquainted, and the interview for the present terminated ([Vol. II], Appendix, p. xxxvii).


The core incident John Reid communicated to Waddell, of Burns visiting Glasgow early in 1786 to find a publisher for his poems, though missing from most biographies, is certainly not unmentioned in Burns scholarship. J. C. Ewing called it ‘apocryphal’ (Ewing, Brash and Reid, Glasgow: Maclehose, 1934, p. 3, n. 4), James Mackay gave it half a sentence, dismissing it as ‘unsubstantiated’ (Mackay, RB: A Biography, Edinburgh: Mainstream, 1992, p. 232). More recently, in a talk about the Mitchell Library, Gerard Carruthers mentioned it parenthetically as ‘a story that has gone round’, adding he thought it ‘a bit dubious’ (see Robert Burns Lives! no. 133, February 23, 2012).


As a trustworthy biographical source, the Reid-Waddell anecdote does have all sorts of problems. It is almost too good to be true. When it was first published in part-issue, the bright yellow cover was accompanied by a smaller blue advertising handbill featuring it as BURNS’S FIRST VISIT TO GLASGOW: ROMANTIC PARTICULARS [see attached image]. What was printed in 1867 is at best Waddell’s dramatically-written version of what he was told by John Reid about a story that John Reid had heard his father William tell and retell years before, about an event that had happened years before that. Though his edition included previously-unpublished Burns poems and letters, Peter Hately Waddell (1817-1891), theological gadfly and minister of a breakaway Free Kirk congregation that he renamed the Church of the Future, has never been one of the canonical names in Burns scholarship. In Waddell’s account, John Reid was uncertain exactly when the incident was meant to occur, and whether Burns was looking for a publisher for his manuscript poems (i.e. for the Kilmarnock edition) or for a new edition of previously-printed work (i.e. for what became the Edinburgh edition). The references to despair and to Burns still wanting an introduction to find a job in the West Indies argue for the first (even though we have no other evidence Burns went to Glasgow before 1788), while the mention of Edinburgh and Creech argue for the second (even though we have no evidence that Burns went to Glasgow in 1787 en route to Edinburgh, and in any case, once he had Blacklock’s letter he would hardly have been bothering to seek publishing advice from Reid).


To his credit, Waddell follows the anecdote itself with a remarkably honest discussion of such issues, but he concludes firmly: ‘this remarkable interview, therefore, … must have occurred early in 1786; and if so, the poems submitted to Mr. Reid’s examination must have been still in manuscript’ (ibid.). Waddell’s edition came out in 25 monthly parts, over a two-year period beginning in April 1867, and this allowed additional information to be gathered in response to the early numbers and added in later. In effect, part publication functioned for printed books rather as blog comment-windows or crowd-sourcing function now. The Roy Collection has a bound part-issue set, but with the covers bound together at the end after the text pages, unlike the set in the National Library of Scotland, which retains its original arrangement. Robert Betteridge kindly examined the NLS set for me, and found that, instead of the appendix being issued as a final 110-page mega-part, it was added in smaller segments spread over several of the later regular numbers. The pages with the Reid anecdote were issued with Part XXIII (presumably in February 1869). A month later, Part XXIV included pp. xlix-xl, allowing Waddell to insert under a section of ‘Supplementary Gossip’, a paragraph of ‘spontaneous collateral testimony’ that he’d just received from someone whose father had worked as a boy with William Reid, at the Brash and Reid shop, and had heard him tell the same story (Appendix, p. xlix). However, this ‘collateral testimony’ only confirms that such a story was told, not the story itself or the reliability of any detail.


It is worth revisiting Mackay’s dismissal of the story. In discussing Burns’s decision to print his poems in Kilmarnock by subscription, Mackay briefly introduced what he called ‘an unsubstantiated story that Robert sought a publisher in Glasgow, Dunlop & Wilson being mentioned’ (Mackay, RB, p. 232). He rejected the story on the negative grounds that ‘there is no record of the poet visiting the metropolis of western Scotland until November 1787,’ and on the a priori assumption that ‘it would have been logical for Robert to try a printer closer to hand first’ (ibid.). There indeed seems to be no other record of Burns in Glasgow before November 1787, but Mackay leaves the story not only as unsubstantiated but also as unfootnoted, probably picking it up from a later recycling rather than from Waddell himself; in dismissing it, he doesn’t mention the involvement of William Reid, and he seems to have missed the possible link between Waddell’s story and the annotations in Burns Commonplace book.


Once one has Waddell’s account, William Reid (1764-1831) emerges as a rather plausible candidate for the ‘WR’ of the Commonplace Book, certainly by comparison with the names previously canvassed. The annotations concern the choice of manuscript poems for publication, and none of the earlier candidates save Roscoe seemed qualified as literary advisors. Only one modern scholar to date, Arthur Sherbo, has suggested that WR is Reid (see Sherbo, Notes & Queries, 246:2, June 2001, 117-118, and cf. Sherbo’s entry on Reid in ODNB). As Sherbo notes, Reid had not only publishing contacts but also literary interests. The entry for Reid in the Scottish Book Trade Index confirms he had followed an apprenticeship to a typefounder with a period at Dunlop and Wilson learning the book trade, and it sets the terminus ad quem for this training as 1790, when he entered partnership with James Brash as a bookseller (cf. also Ewing, Brash and Reid, and G. Ross Roy, “Robert Burns and the Brash and Reid Chapbooks of Glasgow,” in Literatur-im-Kontext, ed. Schwend et al, Bern: Peter Lang, 1992, pp. 53-69). More important is Reid’s plausibility as someone who might offer literary advice. He was a known admirer of Burns’s writing, composing additional verses for two of Burns’s songs, ‘Of a’ the airts’ and ‘John Anderson, my jo’, writing a very competent Monody after Burns’s death, and with his partner James Brash making many of Burns’s poems and songs available in chapbook form in their series Poetry Original and Selected (96 parts, 1795-1798, plus three extra chapbooks).


But Sherbo’s argument for WR being William Reid required that the Commonplace Book annotations be dated much later than Leask’s analysis suggests—indeed, it requires them to be dated too late even to influence the Edinburgh edition. Based on a reference in Mackay’s biography, Sherbo takes Burns’s first encounter with Reid as in March 1788, when according to Mackay Burns visited Duncan and Wilson’s shop in the Trongate to pick up some books for Nancy McLehose (see Mackay: RB: A Biography, Edinburgh: Mainstream, 1992, p. 407: the relevant Clarinda letter to Burns, dated March 8, 1788, asks Burns, then in Mauchline, to ‘send for’ the parcel so he could bring it with him to Edinburgh, not to visit the shop himself). If Mackay’s date for their first meeting is accepted, Leask’s (and Ewing’s) earlier date for the annotations becomes an insuperable objection to Sherbo’s case for William Reid as the mysterious WR.


Mackay’s reasoning is surely circular: if there is even a kernel of truth in Waddell’s retelling of John Reid’s reminiscence of his father’s account of first meeting Burns, with an introduction by Gavin Turnbull, before Burns had found a publisher for his poems, and before Burns abandoned the idea of going to Jamaica, then there is a record of Burns being in Glasgow well before November 1787, indeed before April 1786, when the Proposals or subscription forms for the Kilmarnock edition were printed by John Wilson (cf. Letters, ed. Roy, I: 30). If one looks for confirmation of the Waddell-Reid anecdote, and the earlier date for the meeting, then the WR annotations provide possible documentary confirmation that is wholly independent of Waddell himself or oral tradition.   The barrier to Sherbo’s suggestion therefore breaks down.


And it is not unreasonable to infer some such kernel of historical truth in multi-generational oral sources. People elaborate, and conflate, and muddle, and then try to rationalize, the stories they have heard and are retelling, but there is usually something factual, some historical incident, behind the incremental changes that result from oral repetition. Some aspects of the story—the plaid, the tears—may have been elaboration, but other details—that Reid met with Burns in Glasgow while he was still working for Dunlop and Wilson, for instance, or the letter of introduction from Gavin Turnbull—seem much less likely to be invented. Indeed, once the Kilmarnock edition was out, Burns would not have needed an introduction from Turnbull, whose own first book would not appear for a further two years. One of the next big frontiers for Burns scholarship might be learning how to interrogate more positively and systematically the after-documents of oral history.


Waddell’s story is not, obviously the ‘conclusive answer to the riddle’ one might hope for, but meantime, I believe, it provides our best evidence yet for the identity of the mysterious WR. By setting the date of Burns’s first meeting with Reid before the Kilmarnock proposals, by providing a reason and occasion for that meeting, and by making the meeting concern the publishability and therefore quality of Burns’s poems, the anecdote makes Reid’s name the best current match.


Once again, I am amazed at the sheer energy of the often-maligned nineteenth-century Burns editors in collecting documents and memories that were fast disappearing. I am amazed also at how much in the older Burnsian printed sources has been dropped from the modern scholarly awareness, is literally untraceable, irretrievable, pretty much lost, even in the Age of Google Books. Such mid-Victorian sources as Waddell are indeed mixed in reliability. But it is still worth checking to see what they have to offer.

Patrick Scott


[Editor, Professor Nigel Leask, Comments:

This is a very exciting development in the search for the identity of ‘WR’, whose signed annotations appear handwritten in Robert Burns’s ‘First Commonplace Book’. I believe that Patrick Scott’s serendipitous discovery of John Reid’s reminiscence of his father William’s meeting with Robert Burns in 1786 (buried in an appendix to Hately Waddell’s rather forbidding Victorian biography of the poet) is the best suggestion to date concerning the identity of ‘WR’, raised in my two blogs of 2014. Prof Scott was actually on the trail of Ayrshire poet Gavin Turnbull (not ‘WR’), but his chance finding was subsequently backed up by characteristically scrupulous detective work. He proposes that Reid’s reminiscence contains a very significant kernel of truth that has evaded the notice of previous scholars, myself included. Not completely, however: he mentions that Burns’s biographer James Mackay referred to the poet’s early visit to Glasgow, only to reject it as spurious; and that in 2001, American scholar Arthur Sherbo identified ‘WR’ with the Glasgow printer William Reid, but failed to produce any evidence of Reid’s early contact with Burns which might have substantiated his claim that he was the author of the annotations in the ‘First Commonplace Book’.


Prof Scott nicely underlines the rather sensational manner in which John Reid’s reminiscence was advertised as ‘BURNS’S FIRST VISIT TO GLASGOW: ROMANTIC PARTICULARS’. The story is indeed, almost ‘too good to be true’, and it’s the only evidence we have of the poet’s early visit to the city. Unfortunately Reid’s anecdote is distorted, confused with the celebrated account of Burns’s desperate bid to publish his poems to raise money for the voyage to Jamaica, and his abandoning that nefarious scheme in the light of plans to publish his Edinburgh edition in 1787. Reid’s confusion is pardonable, however, given the time that had elapsed since his father’s encounter with the poet, and the fact of its tendentious links to to one of the most celebrated anecdotes of ‘Burnslore’.


Here I think is ‘the kernel of truth’ to which Prof Scott alludes. Early in 1786 Robert Burns called on Dunlop and Wilson with a view to interesting the celebrated Glasgow publishers in printing his poems; one of their younger employees, William Reid (himself an aspiring poet) took responsibility for evaluating them, on the recommendation of their mutual friend Gavin Turnbull. In the end, Reid knew that his employers wouldn’t be interested in publishing a slim volume of verse ‘chiefly in the Scottish Dialect’, so he instead suggested that Burns try William Creech in Edinburgh. I believe that it more likely, in fact, that Reid recommended Burns to approach John Wilson in Kilmarnock (and not Creech), which of course he did – and the rest is history.


Although no mention is made of the fact in John Reid’s reminiscence, Burns may have lent his Commonplace Book to William Reid to give him an opportunity to peruse his youthful writings at leisure, and it was in the course of this perusal (rather than during a brief conversation with a tearful poet in the printers’ shop) that Reid entered and initialed the comments that strongly influenced Burns’s decisions as to which poems he should publish in the Kilmarnock volume, and which he should exclude. I agree with Waddell in thinking it improbable that Burns possessed ‘printed sheets’ of his poems at this stage, unless what he had in his hand were pages of the Kilmarnock volume, and that he was actually pursuing a second edition, which would date this episode to 1787. Internal evidence in WR’s commentary, however, rules this out, as WR’s marginal notes refer to the poems that have never before been printed, as I point out in my annotations to Burns’s Commonplace Books, Travel Journals, and Miscellaneous Prose.


It is indeed quite likely that the poet was in a state of ‘the deepest distress’ when he encountered Reid, although again this makes for attractive anecdotage. Reid’s patriotic declaration “Your country, Sir, cannot afford to send you to the West Indies; you must go to Edinburgh and not to Jamaica” looks like a a coup de theatre, based on Burns’s well-known decision in 1787 to pursue a second, Edinburgh edition of his poems, enabling him to postpone or discard the desperate Jamaican scheme. Regarding the mention of William Reid’s letter of introduction to Creech, no evidence of any such letter survives; and in any case, by 1787 Burns already possessed leverage with well-placed patrons which would have obviated the need to rely on a letter from a young Glasgow printer to recommend him to Scotland’s leading publisher. Once again Reid conflates the genesis of the first, Kilmarnock edition of the Poems with that of the second, Edinburgh edition.


Patrick Scott’s research insightfully sifts the chaff from the grain of Reid’s reminiscence, and I believe that the core episode that it describes has a ring of truth to it, suggesting a highly plausible candidate for the elusive ‘WR’ in Burns’s ‘First Commonplace Book’. Scott makes the valuable observation that ‘one of the next big frontiers for Burns scholarship might be learning how to interrogate more positively and systematically the after-documents of oral history’. His insightful commentary on the Reid reminiscence is an exemplary instance of this sort of approach, revealing the new light it can shed on the poet’s career, networks, and publishing history. Further research will perhaps either confirm or confute his theory: until that time, I believe that this is the best explanation that we have.

Nigel Leask ]

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