An Unpublished Letter from Burns
to Prof James Gregory MD - with an early draft MS of 'On seeing a
wounded Hare' By Prof. David Purdie MD FRCP FSA Scot. Editor, The Burns
Professor David Purdie,
originally from Prestwick, Ayrshire and now based in Edinburgh, was educated
at Ayr Academy and Glasgow University. He concluded a medical academic and
research career in 2007 and now devotes his time to writing, broadcasting
and lecturing. He has had a lifelong interest in the scientific and literary
components of the 18th
century Scottish Enlightenment, particularly on the works of Burns, Scott,
Boswell and Hume.
He is the Secretary of the
Edinburgh Burns Club, Chairman of the Sir Walter Scott Society, and a
parliamentary speechwriter. In 2000 he was selected by the Burns Federation
to give the Immortal Memory at the Millennium Burns Supper in
Edinburgh. David is Editor-in-Chief of the Burns Encyclopaedia, the
new edition of which is being prepared with his co-editors: Drs Gerald
Carruthers and Kirsteen McCue of Glasgow University.
The Daily Telegraph says
simply that David Purdie is: “Arguably our best after-dinner speaker of the
Also, along with
Hugh Dodd, David published a new book in June of 2010 entitled The
GreatestGame - The Ancyent & Healthfulle Exercyse of the Golff
with foreword by Colin Montgomerie, which explores the real and fictional
history of the game from its foundations in ancient times to the present in
humorous prose and brilliant illustrations.
Some years back Professor David
Purdie and I came into contact by swapping several emails about Sir Walter
Scott. In addition, I sought and received permission several months ago to
add his article “WhatBurns Means to Me” to the Robert
Burns Lives! web site, and I have always found David to be a “tower of
power”, ready to assist in furthering the cause of either Burns or Scott, my
two Scottish heroes.
Earlier this month it was my
good fortune to travel to Scotland for the “Burns and Beyond Conference”
hosted by the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Robert Burns Studies.
Following my speech, David and I talked about an article he would make
available for our web site at the appropriate time in the near future. I
can’t help but be thrilled to have a part in making this news available on
the internet by sharing with our readers the in-depth article below by
Welcome back, David Purdie, the
thrill is always ours!
An Unpublished Letter from
Burns to Prof James Gregory MD - with an early draft MS of
'On seeing a wounded Hare'
Prof. David Purdie MD FRCP
Editor, The Burns Encyclopaedia.
Prof. David Purdie
In October 2010 in Selkirk,
Scottish Borders, I was giving a lecture on Sir Walter Scott to the Patrons
Club of the National Trust for Scotland. Over lunch at Eildon Hall, the
childhood home of the Trust's President, Richard, 10th
Duke of Buccleuch, the Borders historian Walter Elliot drew me aside to ask
if I would care to examine a letter and a manuscript poem. These he had
observed in an ancient autograph album in the basement of Floors Castle at
Kelso and he wondered if they had been published. The hand which had written
both documents was, he was certain, that of Robert Burns.
The poem, which was On seeing
a Wounded Hare I could tell him at once, had indeed been published. It
appeared in the 1793 Edinburgh edition of Burns's Poems. As to the
letter, I asked Walter to send up a copy to my home in Edinburgh where I
would check the text against my copy of the Collected Letters of Burns,
edited by Prof. Ross Roy.
Up came the scanned copy from
the Borders. To my last day, I will remember sitting in my study and
reaching down the book. The letter was not there. Nor was it in the
collected letters published by James Mackay. In fact I could not find any
published correspondence from Burns to Gregory, anywhere.
I then consulted my colleague Dr
Gerald Carruthers, Director of the Centre for Robert Burns Studies at
Glasgow University and my co-editor on the Burns Encyclopaedia.
Having searched with his due diligence, Gerry confirmed that no such letter
had been published.
And so, at the Duke of
Roxburghe's invitation, I went down to Floors Castle at Kelso, bringing with
me Dr Iain Gordon Brown, Principal Curator of Manuscripts at our National
Library in Edinburgh. In the meeting room of the Estates Office at Floors on
December 2010, almost 222 years after they were written, we formally
identified the letter and MS as genuine - and by Burns.
Robert Burns letter found at Floors Castle. The
unpublished letter was found in an autograph album at Floors Castle in the
Borders, the home of the Duke and Duchess of Roxburghe (Angus Blackburn)
Ellisland near Dumfries 13th
I beg your pardon for not returning Mrs Hunter's
poem sooner. The fact is, I did not wish to send it till I could
accompany it with something of my own, not indeed as a
reward for, but as a mark of my sense of your goodness.
In the inclosed piece I have at least attempted to catch a little
of Mrs Hunter's spirit. If you could spare a leisure mo-
ment to mark the faulty lines with your pencil, and
give the bagatelle, so corrected, to Peter Hill, Bookseller,
it will reach me & lay me under an additional [obligation] to
you. I have received so many oblidging instances
of your attention both to the poet & his works, that
to trouble you with a tedious apology for this freedom would
be affectation. As for your abilities as a Critic, I am in the predicament
of the devils, "I believe & tremble."
I have the honor to be,
your deeply indebted humble Servt
Thus wrote Scotland's greatest
poet and songwriter to one of the finest physicians of the Age of
Enlightenment. The letter found at Floors Castle is the only one known to
have been written by Burns to Prof. Gregory and is highly illustrative of
several aspects of the poet's life and work.
As can be seen from the text,
Burns had clearly received from Gregory some poetry by Mrs Anne Hunter, the
wife of the famous Scots surgeon and anatomist John Hunter. A minor poet
whose work is little known now, she achieved local celebrity for her lyrics
some of which were set to music by Haydn during his stay in London. Anyone
familiar with Burns's acute sense of humour, however, will spot the dry
irony with which he assures Gregory that he has tried to catch ' a little
of Mrs Hunter's spirit ' in his own work.
At first sight It may seem odd
that an established and famous poet should submit new work for criticism by
Edinburgh University's Professor of Medicine and head of the city's great
medical school. Burns, however, had a high regard for Gregory and often sent
new works to men whom he rated as literary critics - although very rarely
accepting the advice offered. On the advice of the historian Prof. Alexander
Fraser Tytler, he did take out four lines from Tam o' Shanter
mercilessly flaying the lawyers and the clergy, while the respected divine
Dr Hugh Blair of St Giles managed to effect only a one-word change to The
Holy Fair, Burns's great satire on hellfire open-air preaching. Other
Edinburgh literati to whom the poet sent work for comment included
Andrew Dalzell, Professor of Greek at the University and of course James
Gregory. The latter, a man of seismic personality, was perhaps best summed
up by Lord Cockburn in Memorials of his Time as:
'a curious and excellent man,
a great physician, a great Lecturer, a great Latin scholar and a great
talker, vigorous and generous, large of stature and with a strikingly
He was treated warily by Burns who
lamented to the philosopher Prof. Dugald Stewart that, as a critic:
'Gregory is a good man, but he crucifies me!'
Indeed the Floors
letter ends humorously with the poet quoting from the New Testament (James
2:19 Authorised Version) to the effect that, like the Devil,
he believes and trembles when faced with Gregory as a critic.
The two men, if not close
personal friends, clearly had a warm regard for each other. Burns was the
recipient from Gregory of eight volumes of Cicero's Select Orations
edited by the Aberdonian scholar Dr William Duncan; the poet inscribing it:
present from the truly worthy and learned Dr Gregory. I shall preserve it to
my latest hour, as a mark of the gratitude,
esteem, and veneration I bear the Donor. So help me God!'
On Sunday 19 April 1789,
Scotland’s greatest poet and songwriter was out early and sowing grass seed
on his farm of Ellisland by the river Nith. The thirty year-old Robert
Burns, tenant of the lower Nithsdale farm some six miles north of Dumfries,
had just moved his wife Jean Armour and their 18 month old son Robert Jr.
into the newly rebuilt farmhouse. Striding the field and broadcasting
rhythmically from his sowing sheet, Burns suddenly heard the report of a
shot from a neighbouring plantation; and as he later wrote to his patroness,
Frances Dunlop of Dunlop:
‘shortly afterwards, a poor
little wounded hare came crippling by me… you will easily guess that this
set my humanity in tears and my indignation in arms….’
Enraged that a doe hare should
have been hunted and shot in mid-April when their leverets are newly born,
Burns left his sowing and became a hunter himself. He soon caught up with
the shotgunner who turned out to be James Thomson, the son of a neighbouring
farmer. Burns himself was never to describe the confrontation which followed
- but Thomson was never to forget it. Decades later, the poet’s biographer
Allan Cunningham interviewed the now middle-aged farmer who clearly
remembered the incident as if it had been yesterday.
Burns, he recalled: ' was in
great wrath, and cursed me, and said little hindered him from throwing me
into the Nith; and he was able enough to do it, though I was both young and
A farmer's son, brought up in
the Ayrshire countryside, Burns had an abiding affection for all the
varieties of animal and plant life which surrounded him in his early years.
All his life he was opposed to hunting for sport and had a remarkably modern
and inclusive approach to what he called ‘nature’s social union’ some
two centuries before the emerging concept of the ecosystem. In 'Song
composed in August' written when he was only sixteen we hear first of
his aversion to killing for pleasure:
'Now westlin winds and
bring Autumn's pleasant weather…
We have the old farmer's New
Year Salutation to his auld Mare as he hands here the traditional
ripp of corn on Ne'erday morning, while in the famous poem 'To a Mouse'
he apologises for turning her out of her nest while ploughing for his spring
barley, reflecting that:
' the best laid schemes of
mice and men, gang aft agley,
and leave us nought but grief and pain, for promised joy'
No living thing seems to have
been too small for his regard. The 'modest crimson-tipped' mountain
daisy, ploughed under by that same coulter at his farm of Mossgiel merits a
greeting, or rather parting: Thou's met me in an evil hour,
For I maun crush amang the
stour, thy slender stem,
To save thee now's beyond my pow'r,
thou bonny gem'
Even a tiny pediculus capitis
(the head louse) spotted marching across a lady's bonnet in Mauchline Kirk,
invokes ironic censure for its impudence - and Sabbath breaking - and then
produces a poetic diamond:
'O wad some pow'r the Giftie gie
us,. to see oursels as others see us !…
'The Wounded Hare' is
thus seen to lie at the heart of one of the poet's great leitmotifs;
the defence of living creatures no match for the power of Man and the
assertion of their right to unmolested life.
The Floors manuscript of the
poem and the letter to Gregory will go on display when the Duke of Roxburghe
re-opens Floors Castle to the public in April 2011 ; meanwhile I and Dr
Brown will try to identify the provenance trail followed by the letter and
The Wounded Hare from Prof Gregory's home in Edinburgh's Canongate,
back to Ellisland by the Nith - and on to the great house where the Tweed is
joined by the Teviot upon our Border Marches. The full story of the
Letter and poem together with their discovery will be brought together in a
paper to be submitted to the editors of the Scottish Literary Review,
the country's premier academic literary journal.
The letter and manuscript now
take their place alongside the over 700 known letters of Burns, his 360
songs and almost 300 poems. These works stand to the name of a man who was
gone at 37, leaving a desolate widow, no child above the age of ten, and a
body of poetry and song which will ever remain a glittering diadem in the
crown of our literature.
His poems and songs, first laid
before his family and neighbours in the farmlands of Ayrshire, were to
become the property and the patrimony of Mankind.
Prof. D.W.R. Purdie MD FRCP Ed FSAScot Duncan's Land
4 India Place
Edinburgh EH3 6EH
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