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Robert Burns Lives!
Robert Burns’s First Printer: John Wilson of Kilmarnock. Part 2: Printing Books for Local Authors
by Patrick Scott

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

I have often wondered what would have been the outcome of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect if Robert Burns and John Wilson had come to an agreement for Wilson to publish the second edition of Burns’s book. It is a mere question of speculation - just as I’ve often wondered what might have happened if two Atlantans, Robert Woodruff and Herman Lay, had sat down for a drink or dinner at The Capital City Club and discussed The Coca-Cola Company’s (rather than that “other” soft drink group) buying Lay’s potato chip business.  Although both are mere speculations, it tickles my backbone to consider both possibilities. Burns and Wilson could never reach a financial agreement so Burns, encouraged by the quick sale of the first 612 copies of his cherished book (reportedly all copies sold within a month), made his way to Edinburgh to test the waters in Auld Reekie. The rest is history and little did we know a “skinking” and a “stinking” haggis poem would play such an important part in the publication of not one Edinburgh copy but both of them.

I would be remiss in my responsibility if I did not point out that as in last week’s Part 1 article by Patrick Scott on John Wilson, all of the illustrations, then and now, come from the G. Ross Roy Collection at the University of South Carolina. Professor Scott has another exemplary presentation for us, and my personal thanks seem inadequate for two outstanding back-to-back articles that will add another dimension to our pages.

(FRS: 9.13.12)

Two statues on one base of Wilson and Burns standing back to back taken by Frank Shaw

Robert Burns’s First Printer: John Wilson of Kilmarnock
Part 2:  Printing Books for Local Authors
By Patrick Scott

The first part of this essay (Robert Burns Lives!, Chapter 151) asked the question: “What kinds of books did John Wilson publish, and what can the books published under the Wilson imprint tell us about the community and culture in which Burns became a poet?,” and it focused on Wilson’s involvement in the reprint trade.  This second part reassesses Wilson’s role in bringing into print new writing by local authors.

It was as a normal part of regular jobbing printing, rather than as a dramatic shift in business plan, that Wilson began printing new works.  Where his reprints of older titles would have been undertaken at his risk or the risk of booksellers elsewhere with whom he was allied, the newly-written items that Wilson printed were, as far as we know, all printed at the risk and instigation of the author or local institution that hired Wilson to do the work.  Local authors were less suppliers of text for Wilson to publish than they were customers purchasing services from Wilson’s printing shop.  Some of the items discussed below may never have been offered for sale to the public, being printed only for private distribution.  Unlike the consensus conservatism of Wilson’s market-driven reprints, the new titles that his firm printed reflect the variety of their individual sponsorship, across a broad spectrum of cultural attitudes, suggesting both rapid development and cultural tensions in the Ayrshire of Burns’s early writing career.

Some of the locally-commissioned items that Wilson printed help build up a lively picture of local social development, in libraries, education, self-help or friendly societies, economic development, and agricultural innovation.  As the only local printer, it was perhaps natural that Wilson would get the job of printing an updated Catalogue of the Present Collection of Books in the Ayr Library (1785), which reminds us of Burns’s efforts to establish the Monkland Friendly Society library when he lived at Ellisland; Wilson would do another update for the same library in 1802.   In 1798, the Wilsons printed off copies of the Charter Erecting the Managers and Directors of the Academy of Air, the burgh’s secondary school, recently refounded from a much older foundation, and they reprinted the charter in 1798.  Wilson was printer for the eight-page Regulations of the Weavers Society of Strathaven (1786), twenty miles further inland from Kilmarnock, an example of the contemporary growth of self-help societies in response to economic uncertainty, as well as a reminder that the towns in the area were growing centers for manufacture and that when farming was proving hard the young Burns himself had once tested out the possibilities of the flax trade.  Later the Wilsons would print similar regulations for the Tarbolton Friendly Society (1791), the Air Union Society (1794), the Air Universal Friendly Society (1795, reprinted 1802), the Brotherly Society of Maybole (1802), and the Farmers Society of the Rhins of Galloway (1806). 

Local proximity also explains Wilson printing a short work illustrating the cross-over between scientific experiment in Scottish universities and Scottish commercial innovation.  Lord Dundonald, a friend of the Edinburgh University chemist Joseph Black, had hoped to recoup his fortunes by exploiting the commercial (and naval) possibilities of tar manufacture.  Some of Dundonald’s tar kilns were at Muirkirk, beyond Mauchline, managed by his cousin James MacAdam (after whom Tarmac is named).  Dundonald certainly had access to printers in Edinburgh and elsewhere, so it was presumably the Muirkirk connection that brought Wilson the commission to print Dundonald’s Account of the Qualities and Directions for using British Tar . . . for Ships (1787), essentially a prospectus for Dundonald’s entrepreneurial but doomed British Tar Company.  The local Muirkirk poet, James Lapraik, would include a tribute to Dundonald’s efforts at local economic development in the volume that Wilson printed for him the following year.    

A little later, the agricultural innovations of Burns’s time would be reflected in two works by William Aiton, his Treatise on Labouring, Manuring and Cropping of Earth (Air: John and Peter Wilson, 1809) and Treatise on the Origin, Qualities, and Cultivation of Moss-earth (Air: Wilson and Paul, 1811).  Aiton (not to be confused with the better-known father and son of the same name who were horticulturalists at Kew Gardens) was a lawyer from Strathaven who had issued an earlier work on moss-earth in 1805, a plan for a coastal railway or tramway from Kilmarnock to Troon in 1811, and a General View of the Agriculture of the County of Ayr, with colored engraved maps, also in 1811, though all three were from Glasgow printers. (There don’t seem to be any items printed by Wilson with engraved maps or illustrations, at least in the Kilmarnock years.)


Once Wilson’s press became established, not just for doing job work, but for printing books, his output began to include more frequent titles by local authors.  In particular, some of the local ministers had Wilson print copies of their sermons and pamphlets.  It was chiefly religiously conservative ministers who had their work printed by local printers, while the works of moderates were more likely to be printed in Edinburgh. Several of these local religious authors figure among the ministers portrayed in Burns’s religious satires, such as “The Kirk’s Alarm” or “The Holy Fair,” and their writings have therefore been noted over the years by Burns scholars and collectors (see e.g. J. Walter McGinty’s study Burns and Religion). 

Though Wilson did not limit his printing work to any particular religious group, several of his earlier items have links with various seceder groups.  His earliest work for a local author seems to be a sermon on The Scriptural Plan of Treating Private Offences Explained (Kilmarnock: John Wilson, 1784), by Robert Jaffray, minister of the oldest seceder congregation in Kilmarnock (M’Kay 150). The following year, Wilson issued a reprint of Sermons on Sacramental Occasions, by the anti-moderate James Fraser of Pitcalzian (1700-1769), with two prefaces, one by John Russel, the ‘Auld Licht’ minister of Kilmarnock’s High Church, and the other by James Robertson, longtime minister of the Clark’s Lane (Anti-Burgher) meeting house (M’Kay, 151-155); the printer himself was therefore positioned as neutral between the denominations.   

What is important to note is the basis on which Wilson was printing these works, as it begins to explain the basis on which he printed some of the local poets.   In 1787, Wilson printed a would-be controversial work by the same John Russel, a sermon titled The Reasons of Our Lord’s Agony in the Garden, and the title-page (like several others) read “Printed by John Wilson,” not even “Printed and sold by ....”  Russel’s work was a detailed Auld Licht theological attack on another local minister, Burns’s friend and fellow Mason, William M’Gill, the New Licht minister of the second charge in Ayr, who had included a much more human account of the Agony in the Garden in his Practical Essay on the Death of Jesus Christ, published in Edinburgh the previous year.  Russell’s sermon does not seem to have made more than a local impact, and M’Gill, apparently a mild shy man, did not immediately reply in print. 


A year later, on the centenary in November 1788 of the (Protestant) Glorious Revolution, the Auld Licht party returned to the attack. Wilson was the printer celebratory sermons by no less than three local ministers.  The most senior, the moderate John Robertson, minister of the first charge in Kilmarnock (not  to be confused with the anti-burgher James Robertson discussed above), preached without apparent controversy on Britain the Chosen Nation: A Thanksgiving Sermon (Kilmarnock: Printed by John Wilson, 1788).  However, Russel’s Auld Licht ally, William Peebles, minister of Newton-upon-Ayr, used the occasion to bait M’Gill further in his The Great Things which the Lord hath done for this Nation Illustrated and Improved in Two Sermons (Kilmarnock: Printed by John Wilson, 1788), to which Peebles added a poetical Ode to Liberty of his own composition, incautiously praising the British constitution for restraining his listeners with “liberty’s endearing chain.” 


This time, M’Gill did not ignore the attack, nor did he use an Edinburgh printer. There was only the one local printer, so McGill’s sermon for the same occasion appeared from the same press as his antagonist, as The Benefits of the Revolution (Kilmarnock: Printed by John Wilson, 1789), but with an appendix answering Peebles, titled Remarks on a Sermon Preached the Same Day at Newton-upon-Ayr.  Wilson was the neutral businessman in the middle, providing printing services to both sides of the debate.  

Peebles did not wait as long as M’Gill had done to counterattack.  Peebles was clerk to the local presbytery, and casting himself as the aggrieved party and M’Gill’s victim, he used his position to denounce M’Gill as both unorthodox and disrespectful to his fellow ministers, and the charge went up the hierarchy from presbytery to synod and from synod to the General Assembly.  Despite strong support in the local community, McGill ended up apologizing to the General Assembly in order to keep his charge. It is of course this conflict that Burns depicts in “The Kirk’s Alarm,” with its scathing portrait of Peebles as “Poet Willie,” and Peebles also figures in Burns’s “The Twa Herds.”  It is the same William Peebles who with Burns safely dead took up the cudgels for orthodoxy again with his Burnomania, ... considered in a Discourse addressed to All Real Christians (Edinburgh, 1811), a ineffectual diatribe against Burns’s posthumous celebrity.  But neither Burns’s satire, not Peeble’s belated counter-attack, would be printed by Wilson. 

The temper of the times was changing.  Wilson went on printing and reprinting religious works throughout his career, both in Kilmarnock and in Ayr, but it would be several years before he printed any further sermons for Peebles or Russel—Peebles’s The Universality of Christian Worship (1796) and Russel’s The Nature of the Christian Gospel (also 1796; second edition, corrected, 1797).  After the move to Ayr, Wilson seems to have avoided controversial new works, preferring the older reprints with which he had begun, and more practical or devotional works.  Characteristic of this change was the series of titles that Wilson printed by William Dalrymple (1723-1814), longtime minister of the first charge in Ayr, and himself moderator of the General Assembly in 1781.  As the titles show, Dalrymple’s locally-printed works focused on teaching religion to children. They were orthodox enough, but by no means disputatious:  Family Worship Explained and Recommended (Kilmarnock: Printed for the Author by John Wilson, 1787), For the Use of Lord’s Day Schools: Two Catechisms (Kilmarnock, 1788; second edition, 1788), A Sequel to the Life of Christ ... for the Unlearned (Air: Printed by John Wilson, 1791), The Acts of the Apostles Made Easy for the Young (Air, 1792), and The Scripture Jewish History, Illustrated and Improved (Air, 1803).  The Dalrymple example illustrated below is of special interest, because the imprint shows it as being printed for two local schoolteachers, not for the author himself, and because earlier sources record only copies with “second edition” on the title-page, while the Roy Collection copy appears to be the first edition. 

Dalrymple, 1788

It could be argued that, though the influence of the Moderates is not much seen in the content of most of the books Wilson printed in Kilmarnock and Ayr, it is to some degree increasingly evident in a softening of religious tone or manner.

Both the older, safer reprints and the new printing-jobs that Wilson undertook for local institutions, entrepreneurs, and clergy, suggest the key difference between Wilson and the modern definition of a publisher.  Wilson was a bookseller and printer, but he was hardly in the modern sense a publisher.  When Burns or Burns’s friends approached him early in 1786 about printing a volume of Burns’s poems, he saw it as a printing job, not as his own publishing investment. 

Burns’s book of poetry was in fact without precedent for Wilson’s printing-shop: it was the very first volume of modern secular literature to appear under the Wilson imprint.  Burns himself did not have the money to invest for paper and printing, hence the resort to publishing by subscription, soliciting advance orders to lessen the author’s financial risk.  Subscription had changed significantly since its heyday in the early eighteenth-century, when printed lists of high-born subscribers, managed by the printer-publisher, showed their patronage of the author by pre-purchasing copies of an especially elegant first edition (Sher 224-227, 235). Burns’s 1787 Edinburgh edition retained elements of that earlier pattern, but the Kilmarnock subscription was more local and communal, aiming simply to assure the author himself that he could go forward.  When Wilson printed up the subscription order forms, in April 1786, Burns does not seem to have settled the scope, title or contents of the volume, only the (very modest) price of 3 shillings that his subscribers would commit to paying after the book appeared. 

The subscription form

There is abundant material in Burns scholarship over the years on the subscription process, including the names of many subscribers, print figures, and the financial outcome (Chambers 1: 361-362).  Interestingly, Wilson’s account for printing the book is solely between him and Burns, with no money shown as paid directly from subscribers to Wilson, and with no prepayment required from Burns to Wilson before the book was printed and distributed.  Ross Roy estimates that 350 of the 612 copies printed had been spoken for before publication (Roy, “Burns and his Publishers,” 571).  Richard Sher describes the publication of Burns’s Poems as following “a modified subscription-distribution” model, where several of Burns’s friends subscribed for or bought on publication quite large numbers of copies, presumably for resale in their particular locality; seven ‘subscribers’ took over 400 copies between them, with Burns’s friend Robert Aitken alone accounting for 145 copies, in four separate batches (Sher, 230; Chambers, 362; Burns Chronicle, 1893, p. 14). 

On its publication on July 31, 1786, Burns’s volume, now titled Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, was not only a literary but also a financial success.  Within a month, only 13 copies remained on hand.  Burns himself reported that he had received £20 from the book, but other analyses suggest he may have cleared over £50 (Mackay, RB 236-237; cf. Burns Chronicle, as above).  Wilson himself took 70 copies, and then another 9, but in his accounts he paid (credited) Burns for these copies.  The most famous of Wilson’s books, the book that made him famous, was not in short published at Wilson’s risk.  Notoriously he declined, despite the rapid sale of the original edition, to undertake a second one unless Burns paid up front for the paper that would be needed; this is usually explained as a purely economic decision, poper caution about the likely local sale of a book that many people had already purchased, but Wilson’s resolve to insist on prepayment for the second edition, when he had not done so for the first, might well indicate some local conservative or clerical criticism or resentment that the book had appeared at all. 

Burns’s Kilmarnock edition was new in format also, at least for Wilson; it seems to have been the first Wilson title to be printed in octavo, and it established a printing-style followed by most of the later poetry volumes that Wilson published. Wilson’s pressmen had done a particularly handsome printing job, with the tall octavo format and the decorative frame on the title-page (cf. Ross Roy, 2001).  After Burns’s success, Wilson only used that format and title-frame for very few volumes, notably Russel’s 1787 sermon discussed above and the poets discussed below.

he Kilmarnock title page

The success of Burns’s book encouraged other local poets to take on the risks of authorship and may have increased Wilson’s willingness to take on the printing of their volumes, but he seems to have limited himself to one such title a year.  After Burns, Wilson printed just three further volumes of new poetry in Kilmarnock--George Campbell’s Poems on Several Occasions (1787), John Lapraik’s Poems on Several Occasions (1788), and David Sillar’s Poems (1789).  Campbell’s book, printed in duodecimo and written in formal Augustan verse, stands apart from the other two volumes, which both appeared like Burns in octavo and which both make a feature of their author’s personal relationship to Burns.  George Campbell (1771-1818) was a Kilmarnock shoemaker who hoped to raise money to go to college and become a minister (as he eventually did); his poem “A Morning Contemplation” (pp. 80-87) is a staider echo of Burns’s “The Cottar’s Saturday Night,” including Burns’s invocation of Scotia.  John Lapraik (1727-1807), older and more battered by life, writing poems often in Scots and sometimes in the standard habbie, was much more conventional than Burns in moral and religious outlook and took fewer risks.

Lapraik’s Poems

His “Epistle to R****T B***S” (pp. 35-41), written in the common metre of the metrical psalms, concludes teasingly with the hope that Burns will be worthy of his recent fame (“May that great Name that ye hae got/Untainted aye remain!”).  There is more energy (and more difficulty in judging Lapraik's tone) when Lapraik offers his own verse response to a poem of Burns, “The Devil’s Answer to the Poet’s Address” (pp. 170-174):

Thy chance is little mair than mine:
Thou mock’st at everything divine:
Thy rhetoric has made thee shine
To please the
But ere thou round the corner twine,
I’ll hae thee nicked.

David Sillar (1760-1830) was close in age to Burns, and a fellow member of the Tarbolton Bachelors Club.  His book has been prized by collectors because it was prefaced by Burns’s own “Second Epistle to Davie” (pp. 9-11) and it includes Sillar’s “Epistle to R. Burns” (pp. 53-60).  But it also includes other poetic exchanges, including an Epistle to Lapraik, a poem to another Kilmarnock poet Gavin Turnbull, an exchange of epistles to and from one J. H*******n, and several more. 

Sillar’s Poems

There has been much written over the years about these poets and the relationships between them and Burns, from James Paterson’s book The Contemporaries of Burns (1840) onwards. As Gerard Carruthers has recently suggested, there has sometimes been a temptation to exaggerate their accomplishments, and to sentimentalize their significance to Burns.  Yet, from a book history perspective, these Kilmarnock poets had one important element in common.  All four of the poets Wilson printed in Kilmarnock relied on local or community support for financing their books.  Each preface carries much the same acknowledgement.  Burns’s “To his Subscribers, the Author returns his most sincere thanks” becomes in Campbell, “He returns his most sincere thanks to his Subscribers, especially those who have exerted themselves in procuring a number of Subscriptions” (p. vii), phrasing which is repeated almost exactly in Lapraik (p. 4). Sillar augments the standard acknowledgement of his supporters with a reference to others in the community who were hostile:

For the liberal encouragement his respectable and numerous Subscribers
has <sic> given him, the Author returns his sincere thanks:

For back’d by them, his faes, thro’ spite,
May girn their fill, but darena bite (Sillar, p. vi).

Aside from Burns, none of these later poetry volumes needed a second edition.  Neither Lapraik nor Sillar found publication led to financial success.  Sillar indeed went bankrupt shortly after his book appeared, though he prospered in business in later life.  One later poetry volume printed by Wilson soon after the press was moved to Ayr,  Poetical Works of Janet Little, the Scotch Milkmaid (1792), did make money, but Little’s volume was not based on the same kind of community subscription as Lapraik or Sillar.  Little’s volume boasted a printed list of gentry-subscribers, among them the reluctant Burns, herded into supporting her protégée by the formidable patronage of Mrs. Dunlop.

Burns in the subscription list for Little

It is also clear that a number of contemporary poets from the Kilmarnock area, or writing about it, could not reach agreement with Wilson to print their work, or chose to take it elsewhere.  Of the twelve contemporaries of Burns discussed by Paterson, only four were printed by Wilson.  For some this was perhaps a matter of finance.  Neither Janet Glover, whose song Burns sent for publication to James Johnson, nor William Simson, whose friendly verse epistle drew a reply from Burns (“I got your letter, winsome Willie”), ever reached separate volume publication.  The impoverished Kilmarnock carpet maker Gavin Turnbull, acquainted with both Burns and Sillar, nonetheless printed his volume Poetical Essays (1789), with poems addressed to both of them, in Glasgow.  James Fisher’s Poems on Various Subjects (1792) was printed in Dumfries.  Isobel Pagan’s 76-page Collection of Songs and Poems on Several Occasions (1803) was printed by the same Glasgow printer as Turnbull. 

For other local poets, one wonders if perhaps Wilson had declined their business as rancorous or unseemly.  The Ochiltree tailor Thomas Walker had written two hostile verse epistles to Burns, but he had to wait to see either in print till the Glasgow printer Stewart included one of them along with the Burns reply (“What ails ye now, ye lousie b---h!”) in the chapbook The Kirk’s Alarm (1799), and thence in Poems Ascribed to Robert Burns (1801). Some of Burns’s poetic antagonists had ties to other towns.  Ebenezer Picken (1769-1816), author of two anti-Burns parodies, The Unco’ Calf’s Answer and The De’il’s Answer to his vera worthy frien’ Robert Burns, had them printed anonymously as a chapbook, with Burns’s own satire “The Calf,” in Glasgow in 1787; the prefatory headnote suggests the printer may have been John Mennons, founder of the Glasgow Advertiser, later the Herald.  Picken subsequently reprinted The De’il’s Answer in his volume Poems and Epistles, Mostly in the Scottish Dialect (1789), with another attack on Burns, in his home town of Paisley. It was perhaps natural that James Maxwell of Paisley had his attack on Burns and Lapraik, Animadversions on Some Poets and Poetasters of the Present Age (1788), printed there, but it was not so natural for Alexander (or Saunders) Tait, tailor and mantua maker from Burns’s back yard, Tarbolton, to have gone to Paisley to print his  Poems (1790), with its virulent attacks on both Burns and Sillar (cf. Roy, “The mair they talk,” p. 53; Carruthers, p. 43).

Poetry, certainly new poetry, was never a large proportion of Wilson’s business. All five books together (Burns, Campbell, Lapraik, Sillar, and Little) make up only a small proportion of the more than one hundred titles that the firm printed.  An interesting sidelight on local awareness of such publications can be seen in one of the last Wilson books with the Kilmarnock imprint, Sermons in Two Volumes (Kilmarnock: Wilson, 1790), by John Dun, longtime parish minister at Auchinleck, some fourteen miles south of Kilmarnock.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, Dun’s sermons seem to have evaded the scrutiny of Burns scholars.  Yet hidden away as Appendix XII (volume I, p. 256-259), in a note to a communion sermon, is evidence that Dun was aware both of Burns and of Burns’s critics.  In defending the mass outdoor Scottish communion gatherings from charges that they encouraged drunkenness and promiscuity, Dun comments:

A late author indeed, who has abused his GOD and his King, has ridiculed the communion in the parish where he lived, under the sarcasm of a HOLY FAIR.  He pretends to be only a ploughman, though he mixes Latin with his mixture of English and Scottish.

Once having mentioned Burns, however, Dun proceeds to attack a second poem from the Kilmarnock edition, Burns’s “Address to the De’il” (“a profane poetical address”), which Dun refrains from quoting, preferring instead to print an eight-stanza parody “The Deel’s Answer  to his Verra Worthy Friend R. Burns” (the one by Picken mentioned above). Dun doesn’t name the parody’s author (“our anonymous poet”), so he must have picked it up not from Picken’s book but from the anonymous Glasgow pamphlet, from some unrecorded newspaper, or maybe even from a manuscript copy making the rounds of clerical dinners.  Dun asserts that he had never seen Burns himself, but he must have seen the Kilmarnock edition of Burns’s poems, because he concludes by adding his own extra stanza to the parody, to answer Burns’s hint (lines 123-124) that the devil himself might repent.  Dun was not otherwise a poet, nor as far as we know much interested in current poetry, so that his almost gratuitous references to Burns in a volume of sermons are the more surprising as evidence of the poet’s local impact.

Although in 1786 Wilson had dodged the opportunity to print a second edition of Burns’s first book, later, in the early 1800s, the Wilson press did produce some Burns reprints. I have been unable to find information on the first of these, an 1802 volume, Beauties of Burns, listed among Wilson publications by both Thomson and Gardner (based on James Gibson’s 1881 Bibliography of Burns), though neither had actually seen it, and no copy is cataloged in the National Library of Scotland, the Mitchell Library, or the Roy Collection.  Priced at only 3d., it must have been at most a modest pamphlet.  One speculates on its relation to a chapbook that Wilson printed the same year, in the Roy Collection though not listed by Thomson or Gardner: Four Funny Tales: Alloway Kirk or Tam o’ Shanter, Watty and Meg … (Air: Printed by J. & P. Wilson, 1802). 

Four Funny Tales

But it is the last title in the Roy Collection with the Wilson imprint that links Burns and the main argument offered in the first part of this survey. This is The Poems & Songs of Robert Burns, with a short life of Burns by the Reverend Hamilton Paul (Air: Printed by Wilson, M’Cormick & Carnie, 1819).  Without formally demitting his status as a Presbyterian minister, Paul had been editor of the Ayr Advertiser and eventually became a partner in the business.  As Clark McGinn has recently pointed out (in Robert Burns Lives!, ch. 141), Paul’s brief life offers an important defense of the poet.  From the perspective of this essay, it is also worth noting that, by 1819, most of Burns’s works were out of copyright.  John Wilson is now known because his press once printed a new book of startling originality, by the then-unknown Robert Burns, but the last book he produced, like so many of his earlier ones, was the reprint of a safe steady seller for the local market.  By 1819 Robert Burns had himself become the kind of well-known out-of-copyright author that Wilson could reprint with little risk.  

This two-part survey, primarily concerned with the books that John Wilson printed in Kilmarnock rather than in Ayr, has drawn a broad contrast between the books, chiefly reprints, that Wilson published himself and the books that he printed for local authors and institutions.  Both kinds of book illustrate something of Robert Burns’s world.  The reprints (discussed in part 1) tell us about readership: they show the kind of books that Wilson knew would sell steadily, and so illustrate the underlying continuities of the local culture.  The new titles that he printed (discussed in this second part) show more of the variety and change, and conflict, in that culture. Printed at the author’s expense and risk, even if there were subscription orders in hand, the new titles illustrate the hopes and ambitions of individuals, or emerging groups, or contesting groups, within the older continuity.  The books give us surprisingly little sense of John Wilson himself, but taken together they provide a wonderful picture of the Ayrshire community and its book culture in Burns’s time.  The context they provide enriches, but also reaffirms the uniqueness of, the book that made John Wilson, as well as Robert Burns, famous: Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (Kilmarnock: Printed by John Wilson, 1786).


Carruthers, Gerard, “Robert Burns’s Scots Poetry Contemporaries,” in Burns and Other Poets, ed. David Sergeant and Fiona Stafford (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012): 38-52.

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).

Mackay, James A., RB: A Biography of Robert Burns (Edinburgh: Mainstream, 1992).

McGinn, Clark, “A Forgotten Hero [Hamilton Paul],” Robert Burns Lives!, Chapter 141 (2012), at

McGinty, J. Walter, Robert Burns and Religion (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003). 

M’Kay, Archibald, The History of Kilmarnock, third edition (Kilmarnock: Archibald M’Kay, 1864).

Paterson, James, The Contemporaries of Burns, and the More Recent Poets of Ayrshire (Edinburgh: Hugh Paton, etc., 1840).

Roy, G. Ross, “‘The mair they talk, I’m kend the better’: Poems about Robert Burns to 1859,” in Love and Liberty: Robert Burns, a Bicentenary Celebration, ed. Kenneth Simpson (West Linton: Tuckwell, 1997): 53-68.

___________, “A Prototype for Robert Burns’s Kilmarnock Edition,” Studies in Scottish Literature, 32 (2001): 213-216.

___________, “Robert Burns and his Publishers,” in The Edinburgh History of the Book in Scotland, II: the Eighteenth Century, ed. Stephen Brown and Warren MacDougall (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012):  570-582.

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. 

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