At the National Library of Scotland we are fortunate to look after some of the best collections of manuscripts in the country. As well as the large groups of estate papers and personal papers we also bring together many individual items, such as letters and poems, into a single volume. Over the last few months I’ve been working on bringing such a collection together for literary and historical figures of eighteenth-century Scotland.
As a major collecting institution, the Library actively acquires new materials, sometimes through purchases from sales and auctions, and sometimes from generous donations from the public. Upon arriving at the Library they are entered into our Accessions register before they are fully catalogued and assigned an MS. number.
This particular collection is made up of the correspondence of some of the most influential thinkers of the Scottish Enlightenment, such as the philosophers David Hume, Adam Smith, and Dugald Stewart, the historian William Robertson, the playwright John Home, and Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns.
In order to gather materials I trawled through our Accessions registers looking for suitable candidates to form part of the collection. The earliest manuscript that we had yet to be catalogued for this collection, arrived in the Library in February 1973 (long before I was born) and was a letter from John Pinkerton, a Scottish historian, to David Erskine, the Earl of Buchan, with whom he shared an interest in antiquarianism.
One of the highlights of the collection is a letter which Robert Burns (1759-1796) sent to his frequent correspondent Mrs Frances Dunlop. This passage discusses literature in Scotland in the aftermath of the Union with England, where Burns notes his national prejudice for Scottish materials. The Lounger which Burns has just been reading was edited by Henry Mackenzie, who also has a number of letters which form part of this collection.
There are seven letters of Robert Burns which have been added to this collection. They range from his engagement with the printing and publishing world for editions of poetry, to his life as an excise officer who still needed to provide for his ever-growing family.
Quite often, small engravings or little sketches are included in the manuscripts such as the one that you can see here of the Scottish playwright John Home (1722-1808). Home’s play Douglas was one of the most popular works of the eighteenth century. Supposedly one patriotic playgoer proclaimed on the play’s opening night: ‘Where’s yur Wullie Shakespeare noo?!’
As we rapidly approach the elections for the Scottish parliament one manuscript has particular resonance. The letter on the right is by the Scottish political reformer Thomas Muir (1765-1799). Muir was an early martyr of the Scottish reform movement who was sentenced to fourteen years transportation to the colonies for sedition.
This letter was the first that Muir sent back to Scotland following his deportation. It was sent from Rio de Janiero when the ship that was transporting him to Australia arrived in the port.
Muir was already aware of his status as a continuing symbol for the reform movement and provides hints in this letter about his future reputation.
As you can see, the letter has endured much over the years and was in need of conservation when it came to the Library. Along with the rest of the rest of the letters in this collection it is available to consult in our Special Collections Reading Rooms under their new designation: MS.23638