ROBERT BURNS, 1759-1796

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Island 5: Burns and Religion

The Holy Bible, containing the Old and New Testaments 
2 vols. Edinburgh: Printed by Richard Watkins, 1743. 
Contemporary Scottish wheel binding in red morocco, gilt; leather library label of James Balfour, 1747.

The Bible in which the eighteenth-century Scottish family kept its records was usually a folio-sized book, and not suitable for taking to services on Sunday. While it was not obligatory to do so, families often did. These Bibles were frequently nicely bound. On display is a mid-eighteenth century Bible with a rather simple Scottish wheel binding. The fact that the tooling on the two volumes is different, as are the ndpapers inside the volume, suggests that this set probably belonged to a family of modest means, which could only afford to have one volume bound at a time.

Robert Burns 
Burns and the Bible; a series of parallels 
Selected by W. D. Fisher 
Glasgow: Printed and published by William McLellan, 1926. 
Original dark blue wrappers.

That Burns knew his Bible very well is evidenced in the number of references there are to it in his poems; his correspondence, too, is filled with references to and quotations from the Bible.

Fergus Ferguson, 1824-1897 
Should Christians commemorate the birthday of Robert Burns? 
Edinburgh: Andrew Elliot, 1869. 
Late 19th century calf.

Because of poems such as "Holy Willie's prayer" the ultra-religious formed the opinion that Burns was an atheist (or at best a deist, which is a possibility) although it would not have been possible to openly admit this in the Scotland of his day. To Mrs. Dunlop he was equivocal: "Religion . . . has not only been all my life my chief dependence, but my dearest enjoyment. . . . A Mathematician without Religion, is a probable character; an irreligious Poet, is a Monster." As late as 1869 the Revd. Fergus Ferguson preached a sermon about celebrating the birthday of Robert Burns, which he then published in pamphlet form. The thrust of the sermon and the pamphlet, entitled Should Christians commemorate the birthday of Robert Burns?, was that we should not do so. We cannot, Ferguson said, extract from the poet's works "the sweet and wholesome from the poisonous. . . . They have one influence, and that influence we believe to be evil." This statement, of course, opened a lively debate in various Scottish newspapers. Uncharacteristically even Queen Victoria voiced an opinion on the topic. As reported in the North British Mail, the Queen expressed "at considerable length to her fondness for Burns . . . [and] also alluded with some force of words to the bad taste and folly of the attack made upon the memory of the poet by the Rev. Fergus Ferguson." Bound in with the pamphlet are several newspaper cuttings concerning the controversy.

William Burnes, 1721-1784 
A manual of religious belief 
Kilmarnock: Printed and published by McKie & Drennan, 1875. 
Original blue boards, printed buff paper spine; no. 486 of 600 copies.

The Bible and the Church of Scotland played very important roles in the life of Robert Burns. He grew up at a time when the "New Lichts" (new lights, more liberal) were becoming more powerful in the cities, but the "Auld Lichts" (old lights, very conservative) still held sway elsewhere. William Burnes, the poet's father, while more tolerant than most in his area, deeply resented his son attending dancing classes, this pastime being considered the work of the Devil. To further the Christian education of his family William composed a short catechism which was taken down by the children's tutor, John Murdoch, but passed to Gilbert Burns. The manual was not published until 1875. It shows Burnes to have been a moderate. This copy is inscribed from Burns's two nieces, Agnes and Isabella Begg, to their nephew John Begg. Tipped in is a fragment containing accounts for the year 1772 in the hand of William Burnes.

Robert Burns 
The cotter's Saturday night 
Boston: Bibliophile Society, 1915. 
Original red morocco.

From its first publication in the Kilmarnock edition of 1786, "The cotter's Saturday night" has been a favorite, frequently separately published or anthologized. The Bibliophile Society of Boston published this finely produced edition in 1915, limited to the number of members of the society, in this instance 475 copies. The book is unusual in that it is engraved throughout, from copper plates, designed and engraved by Arthur N. MacDonald.


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