By John Erskine

In the autumn of 1786 readers of the Belfast News-Letter (which appeared twice a week in those days) opened their issue for the start of November to discover within it a column entitled ‘Fragments of Scotch Poetry’.[1]  No author was named for these three ‘fragments’ nor was any one of the fragments identified by the title of the poem from which it was taken, although one of them was headed ‘Postscript on New-light and Auld Light’.  A couple of weeks later, Belfast’s other newspaper, the Belfast Evening Post, published under the broad heading of ‘Scotch Poetry’ a poem which it entitled ‘To a Youth on his Entering the World’ (this is the poem beginning: ‘I lang hae thought, my youthfu’ friend …’).[2]  Once again, although this one carried a title, no author was given for the poem.

The author of the poetry in both columns was, of course, Robert Burns.  The publication of these two columns seems to have been the first appearance in print of the poems of Robert Burns in Ulster.  The three fragments in the Belfast News-Letter were the ‘Postscript on New-light an’ Auld Light’ from the poem ‘To W. S[impso]n, Ochiltree’; a stanza from ‘The Twa Dogs’; and stanzas from the ‘Epistle to John R[ankine]’.  Poetry was a regular feature of the newspapers of the time but why the Belfast News-Letter chose to publish these particular pieces is not clear.  This question, as well as the wording of the title of the poem in the Belfast Evening Post, and many other questions about the transmission of Burns’ texts as they appeared in the north of Ireland all stand in need of further and much more detailed investigation than is possible here.[3]

Scottish literary and cultural influence before Burns

However, the presence of Scots poetry in the local Belfast newspaper should not be altogether surprising.  Scots literature, notably the works of Allan Ramsay (1686-1758), the father of the painter of the same name, had been popular, read and published in Belfast earlier in the century.  John Hewitt noted that ‘from 1730 in Belfast, and a little later in Newry, Allan Ramsay’s The Ever Green and The Gentle Shepherd, Alexander Montgomerie’s The Cherry and the Slae and the works … of Sir David Lyndsay were frequently reprinted.’[4]  The earliest published writings in Scots from Ulster, probably written by William Starrett of Strabane who corresponded with Ramsay, appeared in the Ulster Miscellany in 1753 in a short final section to the selection entitled simply ‘Scotch Poems’.

But it was Ramsay who was the most popular Scots author for most of the eighteenth century.  J. R. R. Adams, a former Librarian of the Linen Hall Library, has noted that Ramsay’s most popular work, The Gentle Shepherd, was published ‘in Belfast in 1743, 1748,1755, 1768, and 1792, in Newry in 1764, 1776, and 1793, and in Strabane in 1789, making it one of the most locally reproduced texts of the century.’[5]  Though a verse play, Adams notes, The Gentle Shepherd ‘is better adapted for reading as poetry … However, it took Ulster by storm, and …  held a pre-eminent place during most of the century, until in the 1780s a new poet was to change things utterly and sweep most of the older material away – Robert Burns.’[6]

Early Burns in the Belfast press

Given the literary and personal impact that Burns was to have, his anonymous beginnings in the local press seem inauspicious.  Indeed, where had the two newspapers sourced the poems for publication?  The earliest edition of Burns’ poems, entitled Poems, chiefly in the Scottish dialect, had been published in Kilmarnock by John Wilson at the end of July 1786.  This is the famed and much sought-after ‘Kilmarnock’ edition which consisted of a print run of only 612 copies.  The ‘second’ or Edinburgh edition and its reprint or resetting — Creech, the Edinburgh publisher, realised that he had not printed enough copies and had to reset the text — were not to appear until April 1787; so Burns appears in the Belfast press at the start of November 1786 just over three months after the publication of the Kilmarnock edition and several months before the Edinburgh edition of the following year.  (Now, of course, Burns had been composing poems for many years before this but how had they become known and been circulated?)

The earliest review to draw the attention of the public, and particularly the Scottish public, to this new poetic talent, appeared in the Edinburgh Magazine of October 1786; and two later reviews – including the review by Henry Mackenzie in The Lounger (where he uses the phrase ‘heaven taught ploughman’) – did not appear until December 1786.  If there was a copy of the Kilmarnock edition in Belfast it seems now to be unrecorded.  But laws of copyright, certainly between Great Britain and Ireland, were much less developed in the eighteenth century and so the practice of simply reprinting material from different sources and from other publications was fairly widespread.  And the Belfast printers seem quite happy to follow this practice.

Both Belfast papers continued to publish the poetry of Robert Burns, but they now attached his name to the poems.  The Belfast News-Letter, in its final issue for 1786 carried extracts from ‘The Vision’;[7] and printed ‘To a Mountain Daisy’ in its first issue for 1787.[8]  These were precisely the extracts reproduced by Mackenzie in his review in The Lounger.  In March and April 1787, the Belfast News-Letter, encouraged by what it referred to as ‘some Readers of the first taste’, printed several of what were to become some of Burns’ best known poems: ‘To a L[ouse]’; ‘To a Mouse’; ‘To W. S[impso]n, Ochiltree’; ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’; ‘Address to the Deil’; and ‘Halloween’.[9]  Perhaps not quite sure how to introduce ‘To a Louse’ to its readers, the newspaper remarked that the poem had been written ‘in the ludicrous style’ (that is, a playful or jocular style); and the paper also observed that when it had first published the poems of Burns – ‘which,’ it noted, ‘was many months ago’ – ‘it was little expected that his productions would have been esteemed among the first of the age’.[10]  This, it should be remembered, is March 1787.  

Few copies of the Belfast Evening Post have survived from 1787 and yet it is possible to find poems by Burns within those issues which do exist.  For example, in mid-August the paper carried the poem ‘John Barleycorn, a ballad’ written ‘by Robert Burns, the Ayrshire Ploughman’.[11]  And at the Belfast Burns Club dinner in 1891 Andrew Gibson, Belfast’s foremost collector of Burnsiana and whose Burns collection was to come to the Linen Hall Library, was able to produce an issue of the Belfast Evening Post from September 1787 which, he reported, contained not only the poem ‘To a Mountain Daisy’ but also accompanied it with extracts from Mackenzie’s review in The Lounger.[12]

The Belfast edition of Burns, 1787

It was no coincidence that James Magee had the poem ‘To a Mountain Daisy’ typeset and ready.  In September 1787 Magee, the publisher and proprietor of the Belfast Evening Post, issued his Belfast edition of the poems of Robert Burns to an expectant market.  Indeed, since many of the poems had already appeared in both the Belfast newspapers, Magee was able to advertise his new publication under the simple heading of ‘Burns (the Ayrshire Ploughman’s) poems’, secure in the knowledge that readers of the advertisement would know precisely who the Ayrshire Ploughman was and what poems were meant.[13]  

Magee’s edition, as the advertisement freely – indeed, unashamedly – admitted, was taken directly from the ‘last Edinburgh copy … with a copious glossary, not in some of the former editions, and embellished with an engraving of the head of the author, which is esteemed a striking likeness’.  The Belfast edition was the first to be published outside Scotland and was, quite simply, a copy of the text of the reset Edinburgh edition and plundered by the Belfast presses.  Egerer, in his authoritative bibliography of Burns (1964), places the Belfast edition (no. 3) before the Dublin and London editions.[14]  The ‘striking likeness’ is again a copy, executed by the Dublin engraver (Patrick or Philip?) Halpin, and appears as a less flattering mirror image from the Nasmyth original that appeared in the Edinburgh edition.  The glossary, it should be noted, was not added to the Belfast edition by Magee for a local readership but was taken directly from the Edinburgh edition.  It may have been intended to assist those Scottish and other readers who were unfamiliar with Scots but it may also have been added to lend additional significance to the work and to associate it with a longstanding and established tradition of writing.

Similarities between James Magee’s Belfast edition and William Gilbert’s Dublin edition, issued in the same year, have always been noted.  Recent bibliographical investigation has now shown that the source of both the Belfast (Magee) and Dublin (Gilbert) editions was the same and that their different title pages were not added later nor were from a different source but were part of the original printing process.  Magee, it seems, printed not only his own Belfast edition but also the Dublin edition on behalf of Gilbert.[15]  This should not surprise us for many of the printers in Belfast and Dublin had not only business but also family connections.  A recent, detailed bibliography of early Burns editions has, somewhat unhelpfully, merged the Belfast and Dublin editions into a single ‘Irish’ edition with different ‘issues’ for Belfast and Dublin.  Unfortunately, this lacks the locational specificity accorded to other editions.[16]   The Linen Hall Library published a facsimile of Magee’s Belfast edition in 2011.[17]

The Belfast and Dublin publications are what is termed ‘pirated’ editions.  In other words, in the absence of copyright legislation throughout the British Isles, Irish publishers were free to republish texts of their choice, often in smaller and cheaper formats.  Stack-them-high-and-sell-them cheap.  The Magee edition is an example of this practice, certainly in format and in price: Magee advertised his edition at 2s. 8½d. ‘in boards’ and pointed out that the Edinburgh edition had retailed at 6s. 6d. ‘in boards’.  Burns certainly received no royalties from Magee’s edition.  Magee’s 1787 edition of the poems was succeeded by his further editions of Burns’ work in 1789 and 1790 and, in a two-volume edition, in 1793.

Later Burns in the Belfast press

Robert Burns himself was, it would seem, good copy.  The newspapers of the day were happy to reproduce not only poems by Burns, poems to Burns, and poems about Burns but also information about the poet and his activities.  For example, in July 1787 the Belfast News-Letter reported that Burns was to be established on a farm by ‘some of his spirited countrymen’.[18]  And when Burns erected, in the latter part of 1789 and at his own expense, a memorial to the Scots poet Robert Fergusson, whom he greatly admired, both the Belfast News-Letter and the Northern Star, using some common source, covered the event in precisely the same words.[19]

The Belfast News Letter was certainly aware of the impatience of many of its readers for more of Burns’ work.  Indeed, the newspaper took considerable pride in having been the first publisher of Burns’ work in Ireland, stating that: ‘… this Paper first introduced the Poems of ROBERT BURNS to Irish readers, before they appeared in a volume …’.[20]  (It would be interesting to know precisely how they understood this.)  However, in December 1792, to those readers who were frustrated by the absence of new poems from the poet, the Belfast News Letter could offer only the following information, notable as much for its enthusiasm as its imprecision:

We have pleasure in announcing that the Ayrshire Bard, Robert Burns, whose admirable poems gave universal delight, has not, as it was feared, taken his leave of the muses; for a gentleman who saw him very lately assures us, that he informed him he either had a second volume in the press, or ready for it.[21]


Indeed, personal contact with the poet seems to have been one means, and an important one, of bringing Burns’ poetry to the newspapers.  In the summer of 1792 ‘A. K.’ (Alexander Kemp, originally from Coleraine but living in Lurgan) had apparently offered some poems by Burns to the Belfast News-Letter.[22]  And in March 1794, for example, the Belfast News-Letter reproduced two poems by Burns and introduced them in the following manner: ‘The following are given us as the Production of ROBERT BURNS, who very lately gave them to a Gentleman who favors us with the copy’.[23]  In the year following Burns’ death, the Belfast News Letter included the poem ‘Address to the Tooth-Ach’ [sic] which had been supplied by ‘Albert’ (also Alexander Kemp) who introduced the poem in this way: ‘The following Poem is the production of the late ROBERT BURNS; it was dictated to me by himself, and I believe was never published.  I am proud to say that I had the honor of his intimate acquaintance.’[24]  Matthew McDiarmaid also noted ‘O Willie brew’d a peck o maut’ as another poem transmitted from the same source and suitable for similar textual investigation.[25]

In the month before ‘Address to the Tooth-Ach’ had been published,‘Alexis’ (Samuel Thomson) had submitted another seemingly unpublished poem to the Belfast News-Letter, prefacing it with these words: ‘The following Lines were written by Mr. BURNS on the blank leaf of a Copy of the first Edition of his Poems, which he presented to an old Sweetheart, then married’.[26]  This is the poem beginning ‘Once fondly lov’d, and still remember’d dear …’, now usually known as ‘To an old Sweetheart’, although it carried no title in the Belfast newspaper.  Both these poems do indeed appear to have had their first publication in the columns of the Belfast News-Letter

As suggested earlier, the poems as reproduced in the local press present an interesting local dimension to the transmission and evolution of the text of Burns’ poetry.  For example, in 1795 the Northern Star published what it termed ‘A SONG. (Tune, for a’ That and a’ That.)’ carefully observing the author’s wish for anonymity.[27]  And some weeks before his death, the Belfast News-Letter, casting anonymity aside, printed what it entitled simply ‘SONG. By R. BURNS’.[28]  These are, of course, the composition better known as ‘A Man’s a Man for A’ That’.  Both versions, however, represent variants on what is now the standard text: they contain only four stanzas – they both omit what is now the first stanza (‘Is there, for honest poverty …’) – but they also differ from each other in certain wording and some word order.  And these differences are more significant than simply errors in type-setting.  They each mark a place in the wider development of the text and may be indicative of their source.

Dissenting voices

However,  there were dissenting voices.  Not all readers were convinced that the poems of Burns were the productions of a ‘simple Plow-boy’.  One ‘Jamie Fleck’ of Lurgan clearly felt that the poems, while works of merit, were the production of a college-educated man with a grievance against the Established Church.  In two stanzas from his ‘An Epistle to Robert Burns in imitation of his own style and manner’, published by the Belfast News-Letter, he wrote:

… I’m thinking ye’ve been at the schools,
Ye cou’d na just, ’mang contra fools,
Ye cou’d na, handling spades and shools
     Get sic knowledge;
Ye gat it handling ither tools,
     In some college.

A word I’ll whisper in your ear,
Upon the clergy ye’re severe;
Like naughty bairns, ye whip them fair
     We’ taws and birch,
Especial in your Holy Fair,
     Ye shame the Church …[29]


Such criticism was not to go unchallenged.  A poetic response in the Belfast News-Letter from a writer in Moneymore signing himself ‘A FRIEND OF BURNS’, began thus:[30]  

O Fleckie! Fleckie! haud thy tongue;
Ne’er shew thy verse to auld or young,
If Burns were near thee wi’ a rung (cudgel)
     Or murd’ring pettle (plough-stick)
Losh man! Thou shouldst be soundly bung, (beaten)
     To cool thy mettle.

Thou ha’st nae voice ava to sing;
Thy muse is but a silly thing;
She mounts upon a feeble wing,
     And flies but laigh. (low)
Thy drink’s no frae Castalia’s spring,
But frae Lough-Neagh.


And in a lengthy contribution to the Northern Star, ‘L. M.’ (Luke Mullan) of Craigaroggan replied to Fleck’s point thus:

… We ken right weel that Rabin’s muse,
Ne’er offers undeserv’d abuse,
Tho’ on the hypocrytic crews
     She sallies forth,
Ye’ll fin her ay, amaist profuse
     To honest worth.

Ken’d ye auld Levi’s baerns as I do,
Their cause ye never mair wad fly to;
Ken’d ye the knavery and the pride o’
     The wily toads!
Ye’d shun them as the wise folk ay do
     In unken’d roads …[31]

And, almost as a further tribute to Burns, the following issue of the Northern Star published Samuel Thomson’s poem ‘An Epistle to Mr. Robert Burns’.  Thomson had sent a copy of the poem to Burns, the paper reported, and ‘… Mr. BURNS … was not only pleased with the compliments it contains, but expressed his admiration of his [Thomson’s] talents and genius, and requested Mr. THOMSON to accept a present of Books, as a token of esteem from his Scotch friend.’[32]

However, while Burns may have been pleased with Thomson’s poetry, the writing of verse in Scots was by no means pleasing to all readers of the local press.  One contributor to the Belfast News-Letter, writing under the name of ‘Civilis’, objected to ‘the disgusting gibberish of Scottish versification’ written in a dialect so ‘absolutely barbarous’ that it had already been abandoned ‘by the best authors among the Scots themselves’.  The ‘mongrel language’ of these poets, able as they might be, Civilis suggested, must alienate many readers:

Their works undoubtedly, many of them at least, indicate poetical genius, and possibly might please the bucolic inhabitants of Galloway, or some of our own countrymen round the shores of Newtown Lough, or the back parts of Island Magee; but sure I am, that with all persons of correct and cultivated minds they must appear disagreeable, purely on account of the orthography and phraseology.[33]


‘Civilis’, it would seem, was not one of those readers anxious for news of Burns’ next publication.

The Rural Bards

Much has now been written on the so-called Rhyming Weavers, and authoritative monographs have been published on both James Orr[34] and Samuel Thomson.[35]  However, these poets are the subject of a relatively recent academic rediscovery.  And for that rediscovery much is owed to the art curator and poet, John Hewitt.

Writing on poetry in The Arts in Ulster (1951) J. N. Browne observed: ‘Until quite recently it was customary to describe the revival of poetry in Ulster as a phenomenon somehow connected with the literary renaissance in Ireland half a century ago.’  However, such a view, Browne noted, omitted John Hewitt’s ‘researches into a neglected period in the literary history of the Province.  Between 1800 and 1850 a score of poets representative of every class of urban and rural society in Ulster’ were at work.[36]

Hewitt himself was at first dismissive of the Rhyming Weavers.  ‘Every weaver seems to have had his sheaf of verses,’ he wrote almost contemptuously in 1945. ‘Porter … Orr … [and] Herbison are the best of those whose volumes survive, but they and the others were almost indistinguishable from the host of Burns imitators that the poet-ploughman’s prestige had spawned over his country.’[37]

However, as he read more deeply into the work of the ‘rural bards’ Hewitt came to change his mind.  He distinguished two parallel traditions in the writing of poetry in Ulster in the first half of the nineteenth century: ‘the colonial, based on contemporary or near-contemporary English usage … and the vernacular, which, although still colonial because of its dispersal over the Scots planted districts … began, by comparison with the English colonial, to appear a rooted activity.’[38]

In a lecture to the Belfast Literary Society in 1951 Hewitt wrote: ‘Too often superficial readers leap to the easy conclusion that these rural bards were merely Burns-imitators. I should not like to dispute the fact that the Ayrshire ploughman was a strong influence …  While I can point to direct imitations of specific Burns’ poems, or to compositions which lean heavily on his example, it is, nevertheless, true that writing in Lallans in Ulster did not arise simply from this one source of inspiration.  I believe it fair to assert that Burns taught them to do better what they should have done in any case …’[39]

It was another twenty years before the fruit of Hewitt’s work became more widely available when he published his book Rhyming Weavers and other country poets of Antrim and Down.  It contained a discussion of the work and background of the rural bards and a select anthology of their writings.[40]  While the phrase ‘Rhyming Weavers’ has stuck, not all the rural bards were weavers.

Ivan Herbison has astutely characterised the literary importance and the wider cultural influence of Burns for the rural bards thus: ‘The importance of Burns for the Ulster poets lay in what he had achieved: the establishment of a regional literature and a distinctive Scottish poetic.  They shared with Burns a similar rural environment and social background; a common cultural heritage, a Scottish vernacular language, and a rich inheritance of verse-forms and poetic genres.  It was his achievement that they sought to imitate.’[41]

Personal contacts with Burns

Now, the presence of a poet of such renown living just across the North Channel led inevitably to considerable interest and excitement.  Linde Lunney has remarked that ‘contemporary sources are full of enthusiastic references to his poems and there are so many ascriptions of visits to Burns by Ulster men that it seems he must have done little after 1787 but drink the health of his visiting Ulster fans’.[42]  

Among the visitors to Burns was Luke Mullan who, as we have seen, defended Burns in the columns of the Northern Star.  Mullan’s sister, Rose, had married Jemmy Hope, the United Irishman.  The antiquarian F.J. Bigger owned Rose Mullan’s copy of the Magee edition of 1787; and Bigger noted that on the fly leaf of the book her son had recorded the following:

This copy of Burns belonged to my mother.  Her brother, Luke Mullan, had something of a poetic taste, and had the pleasure of being introduced to the bard, I think, in Edinburgh.  I remember seeing a letter of his which was in the possession of John Williamson, which gave a description of the interview with Burns and the enthusiasm with which he spoke of him and his genius.  He was greatly delighted with Burns’ company during the few hours spent with him.  I remember my mother frequently repeating some of Burns’ best lines.[43]


Bigger imagined what the effect of this meeting must have been on Mullan’s companions in the Four Towns Book Club. ‘From henceforth’, he wrote, ‘their friend Luke was the richest man they knew, because he had shaken hands with the Scotch bard.’[44]

Other visitors included the poet Samuel Thomson, the Bard of Carngranny, who corresponded with Burns in the early 1790s and who had received a present of books from the bard.  Thomson (also a member of the Four Towns Book Club), in the company of his close friend John Williamson, visited Burns early in the year 1794, taking two days to walk from Portpatrick to Dumfries, and celebrated the visit in a poem which ends triumphantly:

O yes, Hibernians, I beheld the Bard,
Old Scotia’s jewel, and the muses’ darling,
Whose matchless lays, despite of wasting time,
Shall to the last of earthly generations,
Remain old Nature’s boast and Scotia’s pride.[45]


Almost inevitably, Burns enthusiasts were anxious to locate Burns on Ulster soil.  Rumours of visits to Ulster by Burns, some in connection with his collection of folk tunes, were rife even if they were highly unlikely.  The Rev. George Hill sought to put an end to such speculation when he stated bluntly that ‘Burns was never in Ireland’ though further correspondents continued to hope that it might be so.[46]  To date, no record of such a visit has been found.

However, for some their admiration of Burns was to turn sour.  In 1795, some of the radicals, Samuel Thomson among them, were disappointed by Burns’ failure to identify with radical politics in Ireland.  They felt that he had failed them politically and, rightly or wrongly, Burns’ poem ‘The Dumfries Volunteers’ which appeared in both the Belfast News-Letter and the more radical Northern Star seemed to them a sign that Burns had sold out.  Thomson’s ‘The Ayrshire Rose’ was one of the poems to express their disappointment and James Orr also hints at disillusion.[47] 

A meeting with Burns in Dumfries

In 1794 Henry Joy  ̶  formerly the proprietor of the Belfast News-Letter, an early member of the Linen Hall Library and the man whose erstwhile paper was the first to publish Burns in Ireland  ̶  with his friend Rev. William Bruce  ̶  the minister of the First Presbyterian Church in Rosemary Street and principal of what would become Belfast Royal Academy  ̶  set out on a tour of the lakes and mountains of Cumberland and Westmoreland.  Joy kept a daily record of their trip in his commonplace book and he read this journal as a paper to the Belfast Literary Society. On the return leg of their journey the two men were heading back through Cumbria to the Solway Firth.  On 6 July 1794 Henry Joy made the following entry:

Left Wigtown [i.e. Wigton] so as to reach Bowness & Cross the strands at low water for Annan in Scotland.  We reached Dumfries in time for Dinner, desirous to devote the rest of the day to Robert Burns, the Ayrshire Ploughman & Poet.  He came dashing into the room like a “Ranting Roving Billy”, as he describes himself in one of his poems.  His person was of the middle size, robust and athletic.  The dark Scotch eye roll’d under a heavy Eyebrow.  His voice was coarse and strong.  His [politics tinctured [?]] with democratic Ideas, prefering a Republic for a new Country, but admitting that our own constitution, improved, is preferable for us.  The reason he gave for approving of the Republican form was that it gives dignity and importance to every individual in Society and tends to the cultivation of talents often lost in an inequality of Ranks.  When I asked him which of his own poems he preferred, he replied “The Cotter’s Saturday Night”, and the particular portion of it which he thought he was happiest in was “the devotional”.  He gave extravagant praise to his countrymen Ramsey & Thompson as great poets, and seemed displeased when I was for placing the latter as in the 5th rank of our poets.  Admired Cowper extremely.  Alleged that nothing deserves the name of poetry which loses its beauty on being converted into prose. – Having asked him when and how he first discovered his vein of Poetry, he answered “By the merest chance. – I was shearing at the same rig with a lass, when very young.  A lad older than myself had at the Girls request made some Stanzas to answer a favourite Tune; and on my endeavouring to follow his example, I found the numbers flowing upon me with such ease that I was led, perhaps by that Circumstance, to cultivate the Muse ever since.”  He took occasion to make this remark – “I have often heard” says he “that it has been alleged I got a classical Education; but I did not.  All I know was taught me by a reverend man, my Father, who grounded me so thoroughly in the principles of Grammar, that I should blush at committing a Grammatical Error, as if I had been guilty of an immoral action.” – He alleged that the province of poetry was so fully occupied and everything anticipate, that a man with such slender or mediocre abilities should probably have never attempted it.  I mentioned that there were many passages in his own Poems so completely Original, as to overset his position & proved that there was still ample room for the exercise of Poetical Talent.  The simile of the Lark in his Mountain Daisy was an example.  He answered that he “ploughed down with his ain hand the little flower that gave him the idea of that poem.”  His muse was most propitious he said at night, when his family were at rest.  At that time he usually sat down with his Box of Lundy Foots Irish BlackGuard – and a tumbler of Spirits and Water; and as often as he found himself “gumm’d” in a passage, he started to his feet, and was sure to find relief in a hearty pinch of “Lundy.”[48] 


The conversation between the two men is interesting.  First of all it is Joy’s record of the conversation; and, furthermore, it may also be that Burns is tailoring his responses to the image which he wants to create, that of the simple heaven-taught ploughman, or which he thinks Joy expects. 

The death of Robert Burns

News of the death of Robert Burns in 1796 was carried in the Belfast press within days.  Surprisingly, perhaps, the reports in both the Belfast News-Letter and the Northern Star are totally derivative and share a common source.  The obituaries were headed ‘Death of Mr. Robert Burns, the celebrated poet’ and that in the Belfast News-Letter read:

On the 21st ultimo, died at Dumfries, after a lingering illness, the celebrated Robert Burns.  His poetical compositions, distinguished equally by the force of native humour, by the warmth and the tenderness of passion and by the glowing touches of a descriptive pencil, will remain a lasting monument of the vigour and versatility of a mind, guided only by the light of nature and the inspiration of genius.  The public, to whose amusement he has so largely contributed, will learn, with regret, that his extraordinary endowments were accompanied with frailties which rendered them useless to himself and his family.  The last months of his short life were spent in sickness and indigence; and his widow, with five infant children, and in the hourly expectation of a sixth, is now left without any resource but what she may hope from the regard due to the memory of her husband.[49]


The Belfast News-Letter followed its report with an account of Burns’s funeral and ended, since, as it said, ‘it may not be deemed improper’, with Burns’ own poem, ‘A Prayer in the Prospect of Death’.  The Northern Star, having printed only the brief obituary — but with the delicacy to omit the reference to Burns’ frailties[50] — included a much longer piece of biography and appreciation in its issue a fortnight later.  This piece, however, apparently from the same pen which had written the obituary, was frank about both the genius and failings of the poet:

His early days were occupied in procuring bread by the labour of his own hands, in the honourable task of cultivating the earth, but his nights were devoted to books and the muse, except when they were wasted in those haunts of village festivity, and in the indulgences of a social bowl, to which the poet was but too immoderately attached in every period of his life.  He wrote; not with a view to encounter the public eye, nor in the hope to procure fame by his productions, but to give vent to the feelings of his own genius — to indulge the impulse of an ardent and poetical mind.[51]


However, the bard’s death did give the local press the opportunity to reprint some of Burns’s better known poems and to allow local rhymesters to indulge in the writing of elegies.  In one issue, the Belfast News-Letter reprinted extracts from ‘The Vision’ and ‘Tam A Shanter’ [sic], prefacing the stanzas with the following remarks:

The poetical world having lost one of its brightest luminaries in the death of ROBERT BURNS, some of our readers will admit that the following Quotations from his Works, would of themselves stamp his genius of an elevated class.  It will remain to another age to fix his place among the British Poets. That he equalled Ramsay in narrative, and excelled him in many other works, is generally admitted. Certainly in the following lines there appears a considerable portion of what Burns himself has called ‘Light from Heaven;’ of that subtle flame with which the true Poet always abounds, and the mere versifier, however high his polish, aims at in vain.  The accumulated similies [sic] in the extract from TAM A SHANTER, may compare with some of the finest in our language, if we except those of Milton and Shakespeare.[52]


Burns, it would appear, had secured a place among the great.

Visting the Burns country

After Burns’ death the countryside in which the poet had lived, worked and socialized drew his admirers.

One section of the Ulster community familiar with the Burns country was the body of Ulster students who crossed from Donaghadee and trudged the long road from Portpatrick to the University of Glasgow.  Late on a Tuesday afternoon in October 1813, one such student stopped at an alehouse in Alloway, near the town of Ayr.  Robert Magill, who was later to become minister in Antrim, had left his home in Broughshane in County Antrim some four days before and was on his way to take up his studies at the university in Glasgow.  At first sight, however, it seems curious that he should have broken his journey only two miles short of his destination for that evening, the town of Ayr. Yet, for Magill at any rate, this particular alehouse was no ordinary wayside inn.  The cottage which housed the inn had at one time been the boyhood home of Robert Burns and it was the inn’s very association with Burns that drew him in.  Magill had been familiar with the poems of Burns from his childhood, and from the age of eleven, he tells us, he had learnt many of them by heart, including ‘The Twa Dogs’, ‘Death and Dr Hornbook’, ‘Poor Mailie’s Elegy’, ‘Epistle to Davie’, and ‘Man was Made to Mourn’.  The purpose of Magill’s visit to the inn, then, was not merely to seek refreshment but to pay a personal tribute to the bard.  ‘I called to see his portrait,’ he says, ‘and to drink his memory – the landlady pointed out the place where his father slept and told me several particulars relative to his life – Kirkalloway is near the cottage – also here Burns’ father is buried – the Brig o Doon is within 100 perches from Kirkalloway’.[53]  Having paid his tribute to the bard, Magill left and continued to Ayr where he spent the night, reaching Glasgow the following day.

John Clarke, a future mayor of Belfast, also travelled to the Burns country in the 1820s as he later recalled in the presence of the poet’s son:

I remember some twenty years since, going to Scotland on a yachting expedition …  We sailed up the Solway, and landing at one of the ports there, proceeded to Dumfries.  I well remember visiting the magnificent tomb of the poet, not once, but often … but more particularly, I remember, in company with some friends, paying a visit to the widow of the poet; she received us in the same house in which her husband lived and died.  She spoke much of her husband, and, I remember, shewed us his picture.  These are facts to be remembered for a whole lifetime afterwards.[54]


The Ayr festival and the Burns family in Belfast

The local press continued to take an interest in Burns.  It reported, extensively, the Burns Festival in Ayr in 1844 when Burns’ three sons were all once more living in Great Britain: Robert, a civil servant, had been working in London for some time and William and James had returned home from military service in India and had retired to Cheltenham.  Tribute could now be paid to their father.  The weather for the festival was less than clement and those who had travelled some distance were soaked.  However, there were crowds, parades and spectacles.  The main speaker at the festival was Professor John Wilson (‘Christopher North’) the professor of moral philosophy and political economy at Edinburgh.  Locally, the festival was also the occasion for a spat between the Belfast News-Letter and the Banner of Ulster on just how Burns’ moral character and probity should be viewed, a topic which Professor Wilson had touched on. 

Following the festival, the local press covered, with some enthusiasm, the visit of Burns’ oldest son, Robert, to Belfast. Robert Burns fils had taken the opportunity to travel from Ayr to Belfast not to mark the town’s enthusiasm for his father’s poems and songs but because it was where his widowed daughter, Elizabeth Everett, was a long-term, and celebrated, resident. His presence in the town caused a flurry of excitement. 

At the end of August an evening’s entertainment was held for the bard’s son in the Burns Tavern in Long Lane: the name does not appear to be a coincidence.  Robert Burns fils made a ‘feeling and highly appropriate address’ in reply to the toast ‘The memory of Burns’.[55]  A further and more formal celebration was held on 4th September when Robert Burns was the guest of honour at a public breakfast, chaired by the Mayor of Belfast, John Clarke, in the Donegall Arms Hotel.  The report in the Belfast News-Letter began with the feature which struck its correspondent most forcefully:

There were between seventy and eighty gentlemen present, and the proceedings were, throughout, characterized by the utmost harmony and social delight.  One gratifying circumstance we cannot avoid noticing, and it is this, that the company included men of all religious and political classes — Protestants, R. Catholics, Presbyterians, Unitarians, and Quakers, while, as politicians, there were Repealers, Anti-repealers, Whigs, Tories and radicals, all associated together in the utmost cordiality for the purpose of doing united homage to the genius of Robert Burns.[56]


The main speaker was Robert Patterson, the naturalist and polymath who spoke of his own introduction to the works of Burns.  And John Clarke, in his words of welcome, recalled his visit to the bard’s widow in Dumfries and remarked that he spoke not ‘from any cold and uninteresting sense of discharging an official duty’ but as someone who had ‘always been an ardent admirer of the genius and poetry of Burns’.[57]

The centenary celebrations of 1859

The centenary of the birth of Robert Burns was marked in occasions and speeches all over Ireland.  In the event at Dublin the main speaker was the County-Antrim born poet and essayist, Sir Samuel Ferguson.  Ferguson had written articles on Robert Burns and, notably, on the Scottish character of his native county in the Dublin University Magazine.[58]

In Belfast the centenary was marked by not one but by several events.  The main event, a grand banquet held in the Music Hall, seated some two hundred and fifty gentlemen on the ground floor and some eighty ladies, including Elizabeth Everett and her daughter Martha Burns Thomas, in the gallery.  The guest list was impressive and the main speakers, both from Queen’s College, were George Lillie Craik, the well-known literary historian, and Charles MacDouall, Professor of Latin at the College.

The second major event was held in the Corn Exchange where some four hundred people gathered to mark the centenary.  It was made clear that this event was made up of the ‘respectable working orders’ and was a teetotal.  The main speaker was Rev. Dr James McCosh, a Scot, a Free-Kirk minister, and also an academic at Queen’s College where he was Professor of Logic and Metaphysics.  McCosh was later to leave Belfast in order to take up an appointment as the President of the College of New Jersey, now Princeton University.

McCosh’s address was significant.  He had turned down, he said, an invitation to attend the Music Hall event because he preferred to ‘mingle with the common people’.  He took as the subject of his speech both Robert Burns and another Scottish lad o pairts, Hugh Miller  ̶  stonemason, self-taught geologist, writer and editor  ̶  both of whom, McCosh stated, ‘sprang from the noblest class of the peasantry; both were comparatively uneducated … Burns was eminent in poetry, Hugh Miller was eminent in science and in prose’; and he further stated that if that if a new Burns were to emerge it would be from among the likes of those gathered in the Corn Exchange.

These sentiments arose not only from McCosh’s commitment to education but also to his conviction of the need to widen educational opportunity; all this stemmed from his Presbyterian egalitarianism, his belief in the worth of each individual, and his advocacy of the need to foster the development of potential and talent wherever they lay.[59]

Some thirty years later, on 15th September 1893, James Dewar, the secretary of the Belfast Branch of the Benevolent Society of Saint Andrew, wrote to Daniel Dixon, the Lord Mayor of Belfast. ‘My Lord Mayor,’ he began, ‘I have the honour to inform you that, by the kind permission of the library committee, I have this day placed in the art gallery of the Free Library a bronze statue of Robert Burns, which is presented to that institution by his countrymen and admirers in Belfast…’[60]

The statue was a copy of the model made by George Lawson for his full-size statue of Burns, unveiled in Ayr in 1891.  The statuette remained in Belfast Central Library when the art gallery migrated to the Stranmillis Road site; it later followed and stood in the foyer of the Ulster Museum; and it now stands in the Linen Hall Library.

A display of information panels accompanied the statue as did a catalogue and tribute compiled by Dewar.  The tribute contained a section on ‘Burns and Belfast’ and expressed the wish that the many editions of Burns published in Belfast, from the Magee edition on, should be collected and placed in the library.[61]

The Gibson Collection

Andrew Gibson was one of the eminent and well-known Scots living and working in Belfast in the latter part of the nineteenth century.  He made his living as shipping agent, and inter alia was President of Cliftonville Football Club and, for over thirty years, a Governor of the Linen Hall Library, a vice-President and President of the Belfast Burns Club (established, or re-established in 1872), as well as holding office in the Belfast Scottish Association and the Belfast Branch of the Benevolent Society of Saint Andrew.  However, his great interest, perhaps his obsession, lay in collecting books, notably of the poets Allan Ramsay, Robert Burns and Thomas Moore.

When it became known that Gibson was preparing to sell his collection of Burns and Burnsiana  ̶  the impetus for the sale seems to have been financial  ̶  a committee was formed to prevent the dispersal of the collection, to raise funds to purchase it, and to place it in trust for the citizens of the town of Belfast.  Thomas Hamilton, the then President of Queen’s College, addressed a meeting of interested citizens and potential subscribers in the Linen Hall Library on 5th December 1900.  Hamilton observed that the meeting was not the ‘occasion for saying much about the life of Robert Burns or the merits of his works.  All I shall observe is this  ̶  that, so long as grass grows or water runs, “Tam o’ Shanter” and “The Cottar’s Saturday Night,”, the lines to “A  Mouse” and the “wee, modest, crimson-tipped flower,” “Duncan Gray,” and “A Man’s a man for a’ that” will be read and sung the world over.’[62]  

Hamilton also recalled personal connections with Mrs Everett who was a member of his father’s congregation, of Christmases spent at her house and of her singing of ‘Duncan Gray’.

Hamilton then turned to the business in hand:

Now, our respected fellow-townsman, Mr Andrew Gibson, has spent about twenty years of his life in gathering together a collection of the works of Burns and of what are called Burnsiana.  I had the opportunity of going over that collection a few weeks ago, as carefully as one could in the space of an hour or two, under the guidance of its owner.  It would be impossible to convey to this or any other meeting, in any reasonable time, an adequate idea of its contents or its value; but this I think I may say, without fear of contradiction, that in no private or public library in these kingdoms, or in the world, is there a collection like it.[63]


Hamilton went on to note that Gibson’s collection lacked a copy of the Kilmarnock edition. But he expressed the hope that ‘perhaps, if we acquire his collection we may one day procure one.’ That aspiration remains, as yet, unfulfilled and is likely to remain so.

But Hamilton’s, and the committee’s, efforts were successful.  The money was raised, Gibson accepting less than the asking price, and the collection was deposited in the Linen Hall Library.  John Killen notes:

In 1901 the formal handing over of the Gibson collection of Burns and Burnsiana took place. This collection was given in trust to the society and library by the committee and subscribers who had purchased it from the noted collector, Andrew Gibson, and included a further gift of some seventy volumes from Gibson himself.[64]


Killen, in his bicentenary history of the Linen Hall Library, has, drawing on John Wilson’s analysis, described the collection thus:

The collection contains 782 distinct Scottish, English, Irish, American and continental editions of the works of the Ayrshire ploughman, representing more than one thousand volumes.  In addition, the collection contains Johnson’s Scots musical museum, Thomson’s Select Scottish airs, 130 biographies of the poet, 109 miscellaneous publications relating to Burns, 50 songbooks and chapbooks containing his poems, and some 38 paintings and engravings.[65]


In the latter part of the twentieth century the collection became slowly forgotten and its contents unrequested.  Following the resolution of this period of undeserved obscurity the collection has been restored to its proper place as one of the great collections held by the Linen Hall Library on behalf of the citizens of the city and beyond.

Burns in the home

Scattered through biographical and other writing in Ulster are references to the popularity of Burns’ poems and songs in the familiar environment of the home or the workplace.  John MacCloskey, for example, the writer of the statistical surveys for several parishes in County Londonderry in 1821, has this to say:

The greater part of the people speak the English language: but the dialect abounds in Scotticisms.  In Boveva, and the western part of Banagher, the Presbyterians retain the broad Scotch of their ancestors: they require no glossary to understand the language of Ramsay or Burns.  The writer cannot help stating here as a specimen of literary taste, that Burns is universally a favourite of these parishes; the ‘Gentle Shepherd’ is often seen, but Burns’ poems occur more frequently than any other work and his beautiful songs often cheer the country-girl at the interesting labour of her spinning wheel.[66]


Samuel Davidson, the biblical scholar, returning to his native Kellswater in 1884, bemoaned the economic decline in domestic industry much in the same way as the weaver poet David Herbison had done for Ballymena: ‘Where were the cheerful voices of the women at their spinning-wheels singing the songs of Burns?  Where were the weavers whose looms rattled with the sound of the shuttle?’[67]

In both family and community Burns’ poems were frequently passed on orally rather than through reading.  Cowan Harper (Rev. Prof. Samuel Angus) provides a personal example of this in his account of his childhood in late nineteenth-century County Antrim:

On occasions  ̶  sometimes trivial and sometimes critical  ̶  my father had a way of delivering the resolving word from either Burns or the Bible.  Indeed I learned Burns not from the book but from hearing him repeated with approbation and gusto by my father.  In spite of some superficial resemblance between Burns and the Psalmist my mother was not so certain of the inspirational qualities of Burns as she was of the Bible.  My father obviously took at least an equal delight in repeating long screeds from Burns as from the Inspired Word.[68]


Lynn Doyle discovered Burns through his friendship with Paddy Haggarty, a ploughman on his aunt’s farm.  Paddy introduced Lynn Doyle to Burns’ poems and the two of them inaugurated the ‘harness-room Burns club’.  They read and repeated many of Burns’ best-known poems:

Together we shuddered over ‘Death and Doctor Hornbook’ and the ‘Address to the Deil’; but I think I was more openly simply sympathetic than Paddy to the kindly relentings in the last stanza of the latter; for Paddy was already in his bedchamber, and I had the dark yard to cross.  But ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ was and has remained my favourite.  Not even endless repetition  ̶  and we repeated it endlessly  ̶  could abate one single thrill I enjoyed even while I trembled. … It was many a year before I could hear thunder after nightfall without a cautious glance round for His Majesty; and even now I am easier on a country walk by night when I have put a running stream between me and the powers of darkness.[69]


The Scots-born Ulster novelist, Sam Hanna Bell, also gives us an instance of the enduring place of Burns in the Ulster-Scots community.  Bell spent much of his boyhood in the home of Alexander Gaw in County Down.  Of Gaw’s reading Bell recalled:

In my childhood I was fortunate enough to live for several years in the household of a small farmer, Alexander Gaw …  Apart from the Bible, which he read regularly but temperately, I can remember only three other books in which Alexander Gaw showed any interest.  They were Emerson’s essays, A serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life by William Law, and Robert Burns’s Poems; and the only pages of the poet unthumbed were the glossary.  He had a picture of the poet hanging on the wall beside the fireplace.[70]


And Rev. John Morrow, brought up on a farm outside Belfast in the middle of the twentieth century recalled: ‘… the Ulster-Scots aspect … was probably strongest in my mother’s family …  My uncle Robert quoted the appropriate phrase from Rabbie Burns at every opportunity…  When I later spent time in Scotland both in study and work I felt no sense of alienation at all and at times a deep sense that I was recovering deep roots.’[71]

The bicentenary celebrations of 1959

The bicentenary of the poet’s birth was marked in January 1959 by several events including an ‘Immortal Memory’ sponsored by the Belfast Burns Association.  It was to be attended by three hundred guests including the Lord Mayor. An exhibition on Robert Burns was curated in the Linen Hall Library by the Librarian, Jimmy Vitty, ‘with the assistance of members of the University’s English Department,’ (probably the Scots, John Braidwood and Matthew McDiarmid).  In a local newspaper article in the days approaching the bicentenary, Matthew McDiarmid assessed Burns’ continuing personal and social impact, and his enduring appeal, at different levels, to critic, reader and listener alike.  Burns’ conviction that moral instinct should be our guiding principle   ̶   expressed in such lines as ‘A man’s a man for a’ that’ and ‘The heart’s aye the part aye / That maks us richt or wrang’  ̶  was endorsed by McDiarmid: ‘If we do not vigilantly uphold the faith of Burns in the value of the ordinary, individual judgement we may quite unconsciously lose the reality of freedom.’ ‘The attraction of Burn’s personality,’ he continued, ‘is rather its aggressive challenge to ordinariness, its almost fanatical determination not to react conventionally or passively to life as do the “douce folk” do who are content to “live by rule”.’

The exhibition in the Linen Hall Library enjoyed an extensive display of items from the Gibson collection and also made use of the Library’s rich newspaper archive.  Sixty years after they were first spoken, McDiarmid could endorse Thomas Hamilton’s remarks on the value of the Gibson collection when in his article he chose to describe it as ‘perhaps the finest private collection of its kind in Great Britain and Ireland.’  Furthermore, the newspaper resources on display drew attention once again to the matter of the transmission and the development of texts. Of particular interest to McDiarmid are texts provided by ‘A.K.’ [Alexander Kemp] such as ‘O Willie brew’d a peck o’ maut’ and ‘Address to the Tooth -Ach’ which, he suggests, ‘may be printed from or based on manuscripts provided by the poet’.

McDiarmid concludes his discussion of the exhibition thus:

A visitor to the exhibition realizes what he had perhaps only vaguely known before, that there are special reasons why Ulster should be interested in Burns. The speech of Down and Antrim in the eighteenth century particularly was almost identical with that of Ayrshire … and from the moment the Kilmarnock edition appeared in 1786 Burns found friends and admirers in Ulster.’[72]  


Robert Burns, a beastie and the road to translation

Seamus Heaney was almost certain that he had heard the poem ‘To a Mouse, On turning her up in her Nest, with the Plough, November 1785’ before he went to secondary school; but:

it wasn’t any previous acquaintance with the poem that gave me a special relationship to it when I met it again in The Ambleside Book of Verse.  In those days, when it came to poetry, we all braced ourselves linguistically… we expected that the language on the written page would take us out of our unofficial speaking selves and transport us to a land of formal words where we would have to be constantly on our best verbal behaviour.  ‘Hail to thee, blithe spirit’ fulfilled these expectations perfectly, as did the elevation of ‘Tyger, tyger, burning bright’.  But next comes this:

          Wee, sleeket, cowran’, tim’rous beastie

And this was different.  In a single monosyllable, even before a metre or a melody could be suggested, a totally reliable aural foundation had been laid in place.  The word ‘wee’ put its stressed foot down and in one pre-emptive vocative strike took over the emotional and cultural ground, dispossessing the rights of written standard English and offering asylum to all vernacular comers.  ‘Wee’ came on strong.  It was just suddenly and solidly there in front of you … and there it remains to this day. 


And ‘sleeket,’ with its double meaning; and ‘cowran’, a participle without its final g; and ‘beastie,’ not simply beast.  And the whole thing, he knew, ‘had to be spoken in a more or less County Antrim accent, an accent I happened to be familiar with from my trips to the fair hill in Ballymena where the farmers said ‘yin’ and ‘twa’ for ‘one’ or ‘two’ and in general spoke a tongue that was as close to Ayrshire as to County Derry.’ 

Burns, in other words, ‘collapsed the distance’ which Heaney expected to feel between himself and ‘schoolbook poetry’.  Burns’ poem, he says, ‘got under my official classroom guard and into the kitchen life, as it were, of my affections by reason of its truth to the life of the language that I spoke while growing up in mid-Ulster, a language where trace elements of Elizabethan English and Lowland Scots are still to be heard and reckoned with…’[73]

And it may be too that Heaney felt a connection between Burns and his own father, since both of them ploughed with horses.

At Queen’s, both Matthew McDiarmid and John Braidwood sought to broaden the traditional university English curriculum by recognizing and endorsing a regional and a wider dimension to standard ‘English’ language and literature.  As a student at Queen’s, Heaney was taught Anglo-Saxon and introduced to Old English literature by John Braidwood.  Braidwood, an authority on Ulster dialects, impressed upon his students the validity of their local language and culture.[74]  And Matthew McDiarmid, the future first president of the Robert Henryson Society, included in his teaching writers and texts beyond the traditional core of the English curriculum.  He introduced his students, Heaney among them, to Henryson, the Scottish makar.[75]

In his student days, then, it is possible to trace some of the roots of the translations of Beowulf and Henryson.  Heaney said he felt comfortable with Henryson when he turned to translate him: ‘Henryson’s language led me back into what might be called “the hidden Scotland” at the back of my own ear.  The speech I grew up with in mid-Ulster carried more than a trace of Scottish vocabulary and as a youngster I was familiar with Ulster Scots idioms and pronunciations across the River Bann in County Antrim.’[76]


In 1952, Brendan Adams concluded an important article on Ulster dialects with the following remarks:

The north-eastern [Ulster Scots] dialect too has been the medium of much folk poetry, and nowhere outside their own country were writers such as Allan Ramsay, Robert Fergusson and Robert Burns more appreciated than in Antrim and Down, where throughout the 18th and 19th centuries many a handloom weaver or farmer could be found who would turn his hand to writing verse as easily as to guiding the shuttle or the plough.[77]


Indeed, Lynn Doyle tried to tempt Paddy Haggarty to read other poets by showing him some verses by Robert Fergusson whom Burns himself so much admired.  Haggarty almost relented but finally declined to abandon his commitment to Burns.

“No, Master Lynn,” he would say, “Rabbie’ll do for me.  Rich or poor, drunk or sober, there’s always somethin’ in him to suit a body.  He’ll last me my time.”[78]


As noted above, Matthew McDiarmid, writing in the local press about the bicentenary exhibition in the Linen Hall Library, ended with the following observation: ‘The visitor to the exhibition realizes what he had perhaps only vaguely known before’, he wrote, ‘that there are special reasons why Ulster should be interested in Burns.’[79]  Some sixty years later, a new generation of scholars is again investigating not only Burns and his links to Belfast and to Ulster but also the work of those local writers who admired Burns, who were inspired by his achievement and who shared his tradition.  As a result we are now beginning to realize once more that there are indeed special reasons for a local interest in Burns and, furthermore, that what we vaguely knew before, about Burns and about the local literary environment of the day, is more complex, more profound and infinitely more interesting than we might previously have imagined.

From the start, Burns’ birl and rhythm,
That tongue the Ulster Scots brought wi’ them
And stick to still in County Antrim
     Was in my ear.
From east of Bann it westered in
     On the Derry air…

For Rabbie’s free and Rabbie’s big,
His stanza may be tight and trig
But once he sets the sail and rig
     Away he goes
Like Tam -O-Shanter o’er the brig
     Where no one follows.

And though his first tongue’s going, gone,
And word lists now now get added on
And even words like stroan and thrawn
     Have to be glossed,
In Burns’s rhymes they travel on
     And won’t be lost.

from Seamus Heaney, ‘A Birl for Burns’


[1] Belfast News-Letter, 31 Oct. – 3 Nov. 1786.
[2] Belfast Evening Post, 13 Nov. 1786.
[3] A selection of articles exploring the reception of Robert Burns and the writing of verse and prose within the Scots tradition in Ulster will be found in Frank Ferguson and Andrew R. Holmes (eds.) Revising Robert Burns and Ulster: literature, religion and politics, c.1770-1920.  Dublin: Four Courts, 2009.
[4] John Hewitt, ‘The course of writing in Ulster’ in Tom Clyde (ed.) Ancestral voices: the selected prose of John Hewitt (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1987) p. 66.  First published in 1953.
[5] J. R. R. Adams, The printed word and the common man: popular culture in Ulster, 1700-1900 (Belfast: Institute of Irish Syudies, Queen’s University of Belfast) pp. 69-70.
[6] Adams, Printed word, p. 73
[7] Belfast News-Letter, 26-29 Dec. 1786.
[8] Belfast News-Letter, 29 Dec. 1786 – 2 Jan. 1787.
[9] Belfast News-Letter, 13-16 Mar.; 16-20 Mar.; 20-23 Mar.; 27-30 Mar.;13-26 Apr.; 24-27 Apr. 1787.
[10] Belfast News-Letter, 13-16 Mar. 1787.
[11] Belfast Evening Post, 16 Aug. 1787.
[12] Belfast News-Letter, 28 Jan. 1891; I am grateful to Kyle Hughes for drawing this to my attention.
[13] Belfast News-Letter, 21-25 Sept. 1787.
[14] J. W. Egerer, A bibliography of Robert Burns (Edinburgh: Oliver & Boyd, 1964) places the Belfast edition before those of Dublin and London.
[15] For this analysis and a discussion of the Magee edition see Patrick Scott and Craig Lamont, ‘The first Irish edition of Robert Burns: a reexamination’, Scottish Literary Review, vol. 8, no. 2, Autumn/Winter 2016, pp. 133-140.
[16] Craig Lamont, A bibliography of Robert Burns for the 21st century: 1786-1802.  Glasgow: University of Glasgow Centre for Robert Burns Studies, 2017.
[17] Published as part of the ‘Unearthing Hidden Treasures’ project.
[18] Belfast News-Letter, 27-31 July 1787.
[19] Belfast News-Letter, 1 Sept. 1789; Northern Star, 1 Sept 1789.
[20] Belfast News-Letter, 5 Apr. 1793; the poems published by the paper came after the issue of the Kilmarnock edition but pre-dated the Edinburgh and Belfast editions.
[21] Belfast News-Letter, 11 Dec. 1792.
[22] Belfast News-Letter, 8-11 May 1792.
[23] Belfast News-Letter, 14 Mar. 1794.
[24] Belfast News-Letter, 11 Sept. 1797.
[25] Matthew P. McDiarmid, ‘Robert Burns: his the voice of freedom that spoke “language of the heart”’, unsourced newspaper cutting, [1959].
[26] Belfast News-Letter, 7 Aug. 1797.
[27] Northern Star, 19-22 Oct. 1795.
[28] Belfast News-Letter, 6-10 June 1796.
[29] Belfast News-Letter, 27-30 Mar. 1792.
[30] Belfast News-Letter, 17-20 Apr. 1792.
[31] Northern Star, 14-18 Apr. 1792.
[32] Northern Star, 18-21 Apr. 1792.
[33] Belfast News-Letter, 5-8 June 1792.
[34] Carol Baraniuk, James Orr, poet and Irish radical.  London: Pickering & Chatto, 2014.
[35] Jennifer Orr (ed.), The correspondence of Samuel Thomson (1766-1816): fostering an Irish writers’ circle. Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2012;  Jennifer Orr, Literary networks and Dissenting print culture in Romantic Ireland.  Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.
[36] J. N. Browne, ‘Poetry in Ulster’ in Sam Hanna Bell, Nesca A. Robb and John Hewitt (eds), The Arts in Ulster: a symposium (London: Harrap, 1951) p. 132.
[37] John Hewitt, ‘The Bitter Gourd: some problems of the Ulster writer’ in Tom Clyde (ed.) Ancestral voices: the selected prose of John Hewitt (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1987) p. 112.  First published in 1945.
[38] John Hewitt, ‘The course of writing in Ulster’ in Tom Clyde (ed.) Ancestral voices: the selected prose of John Hewitt (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1987) p. 66.  First published in 1953.
[39] John Hewitt, ‘Ulster poets, 1800-1850: a paper read to the Belfast Literary Society, 2nd January, 1950’.  Privately printed. pp. 16-17.
[40] John Hewitt, Rhyming weavers and other country poets of Antrim and Down, Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1974.
[41] Ivan Herbison, Presbyterianism, politics and poetry in nineteenth-century Ulster: aspects of an Ulster-Scots literary tradition (Belfast: Institute of Irish Studies, Queen’s University Belfast, 2000) p. 18.
[42] Linde Lunney, ‘Ulster attitudes to Scottishness’ in Ian S. Wood (ed.) Scotland and Ulster (Edinburgh: Mercat, 1994), p. 61.
[43] F. J. Bigger, ‘Association books’, Irish Book Lover, vol. 14, no. 4, April 1924, p. 78.
[44] F. J. Bigger, ‘Rural libraries in Antrim’, Irish Book Lover, vol. 13, no. 4, Nov. 1921, p. 49.
[45] Thomson, ‘A Jonsonian fragment, occasioned by a visit to Mr. Burns in Spring 1794’ in Ernest A. Scott and Philip Robinson (eds) The country rhymes of Samuel Thomson, the Bard of Carngranny, 1766-1816 (Bangor: Pretani, 1992) p. 46.
[46] George Hill, ‘Robert Burns’, Ulster Journal of Archaeology, 2nd ser., vol. 1, 1894-95, pp. 149-150.
[47] Liam McIlvanney discusses this apparent rift further in ‘Robert Burns and the Ulster-Scots literary revival of the 1790s,’ Bullán, vol. 4, no. 2, Winter 1999/Spring 2000, pp. 125-143.  See also his ‘“On Irish ground|”: Burns and the Ulster-Scots radical poets’ in Liam McIlvanney, Burns the radical: poetry and politics in late eighteenth-century Scotland (East Linton: Tuckwell Press, 2002) pp. 220-240.
[48] Joy Manuscripts, Linen Hall Library, Belfast.  I am grateful to the Board of Governors for permission to quote from these papers.  Lundy Foot was a Dublin tobacconist and ‘Irish Blackguard’ a snuff which he manufactured.
[49] Belfast News-Letter, 1 Aug. 1796.
[50] Northern Star, 29 Jul.-1 Aug. 1796.
[51] Northern Star, 15-19 Aug. 1796
[52] Belfast News-Letter, 22 Aug. 1796.
[53] This account of Magill’s journey is taken from W. D. Bailie, ‘Two tired feet’, Presbyterian Herald, no. 373 (Nov. 1975), p. 4, which is based on Magill’s own unpublished manuscript.
[54] Belfast News-Letter, 6 Sept. 1844.
[55] Belfast News-Letter, 27 Aug. 1844.
[56] Belfast News-Letter, 6 Sept. 1844.
[57] Belfast News-Letter, 6 Sept. 1844.
[58] For example, [Samuel Ferguson], ‘Attractions of Ireland; no. 3: society’, Dublin University Magazine, vol. 8, no. 48, December 1836, p. 662-663.
[59] For further details of these events see Frank Ferguson, John Erskine & Roger Dixon, ‘Commemorating and collecting Burns in the north of Ireland, 1844-1902’ in Ferguson and Holmes (eds.) Revising Robert Burns and Ulster, pp. 127-147.
[60] Belfast News-Letter, 20 Dec. 1893.
[61] James Dewar, A tribute to the memory of Burns, from his countrymen and admirers in Belfast. Belfast: Marcus Ward, 1893.
[62] Thomas Hamilton, ‘Speech delivered by the President of Queen’s College, Belfast, at a meeting held in the Linen Hall Library, Belfast on 5th December 1900, with reference to the purchase of Mr. Andrew Gibson’s Collection of Burns and Burnsiana.’  Leaflet.
[63] Hamilton, ‘Speech delivered … 5th December 1900 …’
[64] John Killen, A history of the Linen Hall Library, 1788-1988 (Belfast: Linen Hall Library, 1990) p. 79
[65] Killen, A history of the Linen Hall Library, 1788-1988, pp. 167-169.
[66] David O’Kane (ed.) John McCloskey’s statistical reports of the parishes of Ballinascreen, Kilcronaghan, Desertmartin, Banagher, Dungiven and Boveva in the County of Londonderry (1821) (Draperstown: Moyola Books; Ballymena: Braid Books, 1986) p.83.
[67] Anne Jane Davidson (ed.) The autobiography and diary of Samuel Davidson D.D., LL.D. … (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1899) p. 146.
[68] Cowan Harper, The Auld Sinner (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1938) p. 93.
[69] Lynn Doyle, An Ulster childhood (London: Duckworth, 1926) p. 23.
[70] Sam Hanna Bell, ‘To crack by the hearth’, in his Erin’s Orange Lily; and Summer Loanen; and other stories (Belfast: Blackstaff Press, 1996) pp. 128-129.  (Erin’s Orange Lily first pub.: London: Dobson, 1956.)
[71] John Morrow, On the road of reconciliation: a brief memoir (Blackrock: Columba Press, 2003) p. 13.
[72] Matthew P. McDiarmid, ‘Robert Burns: his the voice of freedom that spoke “language of the heart”’, unsourced newspaper cutting, [1959].
[73] Seamus Heaney, ‘Burns’ art speech’ in Robert Crawford (ed.) Robert Burns and cultural authority (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1996) pp. 217-219.
[74]  Heaney Manuscripts MS 20 (accessed July 2023).
[75]  Matthew McDiarmid (accessed July 2023).
[76] Robert Henryson, The testament of Cresseid & seven fables, translated by Seamus Heaney (London: Faber, 2009) p. xiii.
[77] Belfast in its regional setting: a scientific survey (Belfast: Local Executive Committee for the British Association for the Advancement of Science, 1952) p. 200.
[78] Lynn Doyle, An Ulster childhood (London: Duckworth, 1926) p. 28.
[79] Matthew P. McDiarmid, ‘Robert Burns: his the voice of freedom that spoke “language of the heart”’, unsourced newspaper cutting, [1959].

Picture of John Erskine

John Erskine

Long time member and former Governor of the Linen Hall, John Erskine is a renowned local authority on Scots and Ulster-Scots language and literature, having researched and written extensively in the field. John’s continuing interest and meticulous research into Robert Burns in print and in relation to his influence in Ulster add to our understanding of the enduring legacy of the Scots Bard.