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Robert Burns Lives!
Robert Burns’s First Printer: John Wilson of Kilmarnock. Part 1: The Book Market in Burns’s Ayrshire by Patrick Scott

Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA

One of the movers and shakers in the Burns community goes quietly and happily about his work with great distinction. He has planned and coordinated as many conferences on Burns as anyone I know, and he did it with much style and grace. He does not seek attention. He is a behind-the-scenes fellow who helps advance the cause of 18th century literature and who is a strong proponent of Robert Burns. He is diligent in his research; his footnotes are impressive and clearly give credence to his research. His writing skills exhibit clarity that few possess. Say hello again to Professor Patrick Scott.

I have written so much about Patrick in previous pages of Robert Burns Lives! that it would be very easy to simply quote from those articles. But instead I ask you to read “A Tribute to Patrick Scott” in Chapter 135 of our Index. This accolade was written on the occasion earlier this year of his well-attended retirement celebration hosted by his colleagues at the University of South Carolina.  Welcome home, Patrick!  (FRS: 9.6.12) 

Robert Burns’s First Printer: John Wilson of Kilmarnock
 Part 1:  The Book Market in Burns’s Ayrshire
By Patrick Scott

The most coveted book for any Robert Burns collector is Burns’s first book, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, printed in 1786 in the small market-town of Kilmarnock in the west of Scotland by John Wilson. That one book has deservedly given its printer lasting fame, but who was John Wilson?  Given that Burns’s book was unique, what other kinds of books did Wilson and his brother Peter publish, and what can the books published under the Wilson imprint tell us about the community and culture in which Burns became a poet? 

Robert Burns—Kilmarnock edition

Burnsians have long been interested in some of the “new” books that Wilson printed, especially the volumes of poetry by other Ayrshire poets.  They have paid less regard to the many reprints of earlier works that were the bread and butter of the provincial book trade in eighteenth-century Scotland.  These reprints are the primary focus in this first part of a two-part survey of Wilson as printer and publisher; the second part will shift focus to the new books he printed.  It was the reprint trade that had precipitated major legal cases in the 1760s and 1770s over the “question of literary property,” cases in which the right of Scottish publishers to reprint older works was eventually vindicated, and it was the reprint trade, not new books, that made provincial bookselling financially viable in Burns’s time.  The Edinburgh bookseller William Creech was quoted in 1774 as lamenting that the multitude of cheap reprints was undermining the quality of Scottish publishing:

In every little town there is now a printing press. Cobblers have thrown away their awl, weavers have dismissed their shuttle, to commence printers.  The country is over-run with a kind of literary packmen, who ramble from town to town selling books ... (MacDougall, as below, 38).

John Wilson, who made a career as a bookseller and printer, and was eventually a local magistrate, was a more established and upstanding citizen than that, but his business also was made possible by the expanding opportunities of the reprint market.  Indeed, the list of works that he published, especially during his first ten years, is a very interesting index to the character of, and strains within, contemporary Scottish small-town culture.

There has been growing research interest recently in this kind of question.  While one could cite a host of earlier individual studies, the book that defined the subject for modern researchers was Richard Sher’s prize-winning study The Enlightenment and the Book: Scottish Authors and their Publishers in Eighteenth-Century Britain (2006).  Sher was followed by Mark Towsey’s Reading the Scottish Enlightenment: Books and their Readers in Provincial Scotland, 1750-1820 (2010), which focuses on local libraries and the availability of Enlightenment books to readers.  These have been followed up earlier this year by The Edinburgh History of the Book in Scotland, Volume 2: the Eighteenth Century, edited by Stephen Brown and Warren MacDougall (2012).  This 600-page volume has over fifty essays by experts on different aspects of Scottish book production and publishing, including an essay by G. Ross Roy on “Robert Burns and his publishers.” For detailed information on Wilson, however, though there have been some interesting shorter pieces, the best sources are still two older studies, a 1967 article by Frances Thomson and a substantial 1976 list of locally-published items by Carreen Gardner (see below for references). 

John Wilson (1758-1821) is representative of the growing importance in 18th century Scotland of small-town printers and booksellers.  By 1780, when he was just twenty-two, Wilson had already established a shop in his home town of Kilmarnock, Ayrshire, selling books and stationery.  Kilmarnock, which grew from some five thousand people in 1763 to 6,700 in the early 1790s, was the largest town in the county. As his next step in business, Wilson bought a wooden printing-press and other equipment that had been brought to the county by another bookseller, Peter M’Arthur, and began doing “jobbing work”—advertisements, legal notices and the like—in a printing-shop in Star Inn Close, Kilmarnock. From 1782 on, alongside the regular work of a jobbing-printer, Wilson began printing quite substantial books. Some of the books Wilson printed, especially as he started, were reprints of older standard titles (which could be sold not just in Kilmarnock but to booksellers in other towns), but once he was established he also undertook to print new works, and these would typically be printed either at the author’s expense or (as with Burns’s poems) by gathering advance payments or “subscriptions” from friends and well-wishers. In 1790, Wilson moved the printing press, under the supervision of his brother and partner, Peter Wilson, from Kilmarnock to the county town of Ayr, and subsequently established the first county newspaper, the Ayr Advertiser. The firm would last, in various permutations of partnership, another thirty years, but the Kilmarnock imprint itself lasts less than ten years (1780-1790), and books published by the Wilsons after 1790 carry Ayr  or Air as place of publication.  

As well as the Kilmarnock Burns, the Roy Collection at the University of South Carolina now has some twenty-eight Wilson titles from Kilmarnock and Ayr, and these provide a fascinating window into Burns’s world.  (Other similar Scottish small-town presses well represented in the collection include Neilson of Paisley, Morison of Perth, and Tullis of Cupar.) While both Sher’s study and the Edinburgh History acknowledge the existence of Scottish printing outside Edinburgh and the other university cities, and Towsey’s study is primarily concerned with provincial readers, the emphasis in all three is more on cultural change than the cultural continuities of small-town Scotland.  An imprint study of the Wilson firm can cast an interestingly different light on Burns’s Scotland. 

As one would expect, a significant proportion of the books Wilson published were religious, and traditional in their religious approach.  From Burns’s early satires, we might well think of late eighteenth-century Scotland religion as an evenly-matched struggle between the unco’ guid and the restless young. From a bookseller’s perspective, certainly in the West of Scotland, it was not evenly-matched.  The religion of the seventeenth-century Covenant, of the English Puritans, and of such eighteenth-century traditionalists as the Marrow-men and the Seceders, was still a much safer investment than the newer ideas of Enlightenment Scotland.  In 1781, before he sold the press to Wilson, M’Arthur had reprinted a sermon originally preached by Gabriel Wilson during the Marrow controversy in 1721. The first books to carry the Wilson name were reprints in 1782 of the Covenanter Samuel Rutherford’s 1633 sermon, Christ’s Napkin, and of the secession leader Ralph Erskine’s Gospel Sonnets, first published in 1726, followed in 1783 by a reprint of a work by the leading orthodox minister in Edinburgh, John Erskine, An Attempt to Promote the Frequent Dispensing of the Lord’s Supper, first published in Edinburgh in 1749.  

The earliest Wilson volume in the Roy Collection is also a reprint of this kind, and also dated 1783.  This is a collection of three works originally published in 1693, 1649, and 1678 (each with its own title-page and also sold separately) that were sold together under the collective title Faithful Witness-Bearing exemplified: A Collection. The book came with a new general preface (concerning association, toleration and what is now called liberty of conscience”) by John Howie, the local keeper of Covenanting tradition and author of the often-reprinted Scots Worthies.  As to “what is called liberty of conscience,” authors and editor were all against it: as his subtitle shows, the first of the three authors, Hugh Binning, was specifically against Associations and Confederacies with Idolaters, Infidels, Hereticks, Malignants, or any other known Enemies of Truth and Godlinesse, etc.  One might perhaps argue that the very vehemence or absolutism of such reprints indicates that by the 1780s the views they put forward were already under pressure and felt by their proponents to be losing ground.  Nonetheless, the reprinting suggests the views resonated with a significant group of book buyers in the community.  If this was what sold well in Kilmarnock, it is small wonder that Burns chose carefully which of his own poems he should include in his first volume and that he chose to exclude his sharpest religious satires, such as “Holy Willie’s Prayer.”

Faithful witness-bearing

When Wilson reprinted works of this kind, it was not for sale only in his own shop.   Among the earliest books to carry Wilson’s name is the Erskine reprint, which was printed by Wilson, but to be sold by Peter M’Arthur in his new shop in Paisley.  Conversely, that same year, Wilson was listed among several booksellers for Thomas Walker’s Essays and Sermons, which had been printed by Murray & Cochran in Glasgow.  This was a well-established pattern for small-town booksellers: Burns’s  brother Gilbert reports that when Robert Burns was a boy, his father had subscribed for a six-volume reprint of Stackhouse’s New History of the Holy Bible, first published in 1737 but reprinted in Edinburgh in 1764 “for James Meuros, Bookseller, in Kilmarnock.” This was the reprint at issue in a pivotal legal case, Hinton, vs. Donaldson (1773), where against the claims of English publishers to perpetual common-law copyright, the Scottish Court of Session upheld the rights of the Scottish reprinters, among whom Meuros was cited as co-defendant (Pottle 98-101). Gilbert also notes that William Burnes had borrowed for his sons a copy of Salmon’s New Geographical and Historical Grammar, first published in 1749, but reprinted in Edinburgh in 1767, specifically for Meuros, who had issued a subscription proposal in 1765 with a Kilmarnock imprint. Even after he started printing on his own press, Wilson still appeared on title-pages as selling works printed elsewhere, as for instance in a 1785 reprint of the Confession of Faith and Catechisms, printed in Glasgow by Bryce, surely the ultimate steady seller for an eighteenth-century small-town Scottish bookseller. 

The first thirteen titles Wilson published were all religious, and all conservative.  It is not till 1784 that he branches out to risk more secular works.  Even the first secular publications were still reprints of safe steady sellers.  One of the first was a letter-writing manual that had first been published in London in 1758, Dilworth’s Complete Letter-Writer: or Young Secretary’s Instructor.  Containing a Great Variety of Letters on Friendship, Duty, Love, Marriage, Amusement, Business, &c.;  Burns’s uncle had gone into Ayr to buy this very practical manual for his nephews’ education, but came back by mistake instead with a different volume of literary letters by eminent writers (recently identified by Robert Crawford as John Newbery’s Letters on the Most Common, as Well as Important Occasions in Life, 1756 etc., also in the Roy Collection), with lasting results for Robert’s epistolary style and ambition.  

In 1785, Wilson followed Dilworth’s manual with a  cheap, small-format reprint of one of the most dramatic eighteenth-century exploration narratives, first published in 1748, Lord Anson’s Voyage Round the World, in the years MDCCXLI, II, III, IV . . . Compiled from his Papers and Materials.  This is perhaps a reminder that one of Burns’s motives in publishing his poems would be to raise money to leave the west of Scotland and seek his fortune overseas; Burns and other young men like him (one thinks of young James Currie from Dumfries sailing to Virginia or the radical poet Alexander Wilson of Paisley going to Pennsylvania) might also have found out about the voyages on which they were embarking from returning sailors or about their hoped-for destinations from geography books like Salmon, but travel and exploration sold well; the Anson title sold well enough to encourage Wilson to do a second reprint in 1790, soon after the move to Ayr.


That same year, 1785, Wilson published his first literary title, again a reprint of a standard work in regular demand.  This was his small-format edition of John Milton’s Paradise Lost, first published in 1667, and one of the titles the London booksellers had tried in vain to protect from Donaldson and the Scottish reprinters.  While we don’t know that Burns bought his copy from Wilson, we do know he read Milton in this kind of small-format reprint; on June 18, 1787, Burns wrote to his friend William Nicol that he had “bought a pocket Milton, which I carry perpetually about with me” (Letters, ed. Roy,  I: 123). Milton’s Paradise Lost proved to be Wilson’s most popular publication, being reprinted once more at Kilmarnock in 1789, and then twice more after the press moved to Ayr, in 1791 and 1795. In this period, before the invention of stereotype plates, each new reprint required the complete resetting of all 300 pages of type.  Between the Roy Collection and the library’s Robert J. Wickenheiser Milton Collection, the University of South Carolina has copies of all four Wilson editions of Paradise Lost.

Paradise Lost 1785

Wilson would go on to do other reprints of older literary works, particularly older Scottish works, notably Allan Ramsay’s Tea Table Miscellany (Kilmarnock, 1788), Blind Harry’s History of the Life and Adventures and Heroic Actions of the Renowned Sir William Wallace, as modernized by Ramsay’s contemporary William Hamilton of Gilbertfield (Ayr, 1793, reprinted 1799), and King James I’s The Kingis Quair (Ayr, 1815).  Reprinting Ramsay did not show that Wilson had an unusual commitment to Scottish authors, though it does show Ramsay was in continuing local demand; Wilson’s Kilmarnock rival Meuros had appeared in 1784 on the title page of a reprint of Ramsay’s Gentle Shepherd. 

Tea Table

The copy of the 1793 Wallace in the Roy Collection carries the ownership signature of ‘Jane B Welsh, Haddington” (later better known as Jane Welsh Carlyle), evidence that Wilson’s reprints were not just for local sale.  The date is interesting, too: it was in August 1793 that Burns wrote his song about Bruce at Bannockburn, beginning “Scots wha hae wi’ Wallace bled,” though as he told Mrs. Dunlop in 1786 the life of Wallace was one of the books he had pored over as a boy years before.


The reprinting of standard works, both religious and secular, continued to be an important part of Wilson’s business throughout his career.  The reprints were nearly always done in the smaller duodecimo format, and printed sheet by sheet, between other printing jobs.  Indeed, they were usually set up as half-sheets, further reducing the quantity of type that was tied up at any one time.  How the book work was fitted in around the job work, and later the newspaper, is shown by the extract for July 9, 1803, that Frances Thomson published from the firm’s manuscript “Case Book.” This was a record of the work done by Wilson’s compositors, broken down into separate jobs, with the value of each piece of work noted.  That day, the shop had set type for two half-sheets of a book (a school text of Caesar), three folio playbills, a quarto public notice, four octavo pages from the Scheme appended to a Berwickshire Report, lease particulars for a farm and also for a house, an advertisement for a local grocer, one form letter for “A. MCreath,” and an invitation card for a ball (Thomson p. 50).  The skilled work on setting Latin for the book was set down as worth 5s. 6d., while the other work, the jobbing work, was worth more than double that, 11s. 6d. 

As time went on, the Wilsons were reprinting works for much wider wholesale distribution, as with reprints of schoolbooks (classical texts from Virgil, Caesar and Sallust, Mair’s Latin Syntax, books on arithmetic, English grammar, spelling, even French), Goldsmith’s History of England (Air: Wilson, for Andrew Brydon, bookseller, Glasgow, 1799), and Arthur Masson’s Collection ... from the Best English Authors, which  Burns had studied with John Murdoch in the 1760s (Letters I: 135), reprinted by Wilson in 1796. Their 1797 reprint of the Shorter Catechism was printed in Ayr for a Glasgow bookseller, while their 1798 edition of the Metrical Psalms was printed for sale by four Glasgow booksellers and one in Paisley.  Their last (1795) reprint of Milton’s Paradise Lost, printed in Ayr, nonetheless carried as the most prominent firm on its title-page “London: Vernor and Hood.”  Yet mixed in with this more secular reprinting continued to be older, sterner standbys, such as Thomas Boston’s Human Nature in its Fourfold State (Air: J. & P. Wilson, 1797),  originally published in 1720-29 and said to be the most widely reprinted Scottish book during the 18th century. 

How do these reprints relate to what we know from other sources about late eighteenth-century Ayrshire as a place of cultural, economic, and religious change?  First, the expansion in the provincial book trade represented by Wilson’s press and its record of reprinting was in itself a sign of economic development, but there was some time-lag between economic development and its cultural consequences.  In an important recent article, the Oxford historian Bob Harris has taken Kilmarnock as one of his test cases for investigating cultural change in eighteenth-century Scottish towns, and concluded that it was only in the last decades of the century that towns of that size showed any dramatic economic and cultural development.  If anything, Kilmarnock was slower than that. 

Reprinting was central to Wilson’s publishing business, but even his reprinting differed from the reprinting that was revolutionizing the book market for Edinburgh and London publishers.  William St Clair’s influential study The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period makes the legal decisions over copyright from the 1760s and 70s a major turning point in cultural history, because it permitted the Edinburgh printer Donaldson and his imitators to issue great series of out-of-copyright standard authors as the British Poets, British Dramatists, British Novelists, and so on, creating for the first time a sharp division between the business of republishing older works and that of publishing new ones.  Bookseller-printers in Paisley and Glasgow regularly issued rather similar kinds of book to those that Wilson printed, showing as his reprints showed as much cultural continuity as they do change. 

Ayrshire readers like Burns were not of course dependent on Wilson’s reprints, or Paisley or Glasgow, for what they read.  As Mark Towsey has documented, both through direct purchase, through local booksellers and subscription or other libraries, or through borrowing from friends (as Burns borrowed from Robert Riddell), readers had access to a much wider and more modern world than that represented by locally-printed books like Wilson’s.  Robert Burns’s letters to Peter Hill ordering books for the Monkland Friendly Society (Letters, ed. Roy, II: 9-10, 19-20), and his subsequent report about it in Sinclair’s Statistical Account of Scotland (in Letters, II: 106-108), indicate that there were Ayrshire readers whose book world embraced national developments.  Even for Monkland, however, the ordinary members wanted books more like those that Wilson published (Knox’s History of the Reformation, Adam Gib’s Act and Testimony of the Secession), and Burns and Riddell were once reduced to pretending to order for the Society a second copy of Watson’s Body of Divinity, obviously in high demand for borrowing, while secretly instructing Hill to write back that the edition they asked for was no longer obtainable (Letters, II: 10). 

Bob Harris, in the article cited above, argues that the many economic and social changes in late eighteenth-century small-town Scotland were not simply modernization, or convergence on a trickled-down metropolitan culture, but one where “different local and national traditions ... merged without losing their inflections in local settings” (Harris 140).  The core reprint work of John Wilson’s Kilmarnock print-shop certainly represents these “local ... traditions” and “inflections,” and some of the later reprints (Milton, Ramsay, Anson) do follow, at a decent distance, trends in the wider book market. Nonetheless, the overall impression is less of a merger with national culture, however inflected, than of a conscious market-differentiation from, even a resistance to, wider cultural developments.  It makes Wilson’s historic role as printer of Burns’s first book all the more extraordinary. 

Part 2 of this essay will take up the question of a local Kilmarnock book culture in reassessing the new books by local authors that carry the Wilson imprint.


Brown, Stephen, and Warren MacDougall, eds., The Edinburgh History of the Book in Scotland, II: the Eighteenth Century (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012).

[Dawson, Bill], “Kilmarnock Clubs Commemorate the Printer,” Burns Chronicle (Summer 2011): 2-3.

Gardner, Carreen S., Printing in Ayr and Kilmarnock: Newspapers, Periodicals, Books, and Pamphlets Printed from about 1780 until 1920 (Ayr: Ayrshire Archaeological and Natural History Society, 1976).

Harris, Bob, “Cultural Change in Provincial Scottish Towns, c. 1700-1820,” Historical Journal 54:1 (2011): 105-141.

MacDougall, Warren, “The Emergence of the Modern Trade,” in Brown and MacDougall (above), 23-39.

Mackay, James A., “Wilson, John,” in Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004). 

Pottle, Frederick A., The Literary Career of James Boswell, Esq. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1929).

St Clair, William, The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).

Sher, Richard, The Enlightenment and the Book: Scottish Authors and their Publishers in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006).

Thomson, Frances M., “John Wilson, an Ayrshire printer, publisher, and bookseller,” The Bibliotheck, 5:2 (1967): 41-61. 

Towsey, Mark R.M. Reading the Scottish Enlightenment: Books and their Readers in Provincial Scotland, 1750-1820 (Leiden: Brill, 2010). 

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