250-year-old Robert Burns songbook up for sale in Scotland after languishing in US bookshop

A rare 250-year-old first edition of a collection of Scots songs written mainly by Robert Burns has gone up for sale in Scotland after languishing in the stock of a defunct bookstore in the US.
The Scots Musical Museum.The Scots Musical Museum.
The Scots Musical Museum.

The Scots Musical Museum was a collection of songs compiled by Edinburgh music publisher James Johnson, who commissioned Burns to collect and arrange Scotland’s “ancient national airs” and create new songs.

Now art collector Kevin Brown has put it up for sale for £5,200 after buying it from a comic book seller in Spokane, Washington State. Merlyn’s Comics and Games inherited the rare find in stock from a bookshop 
that closed more than two years ago.

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The bound collection, consisting of the first four volumes, is believed to be one of only a handful of original sets in the world. Published in the 1790s, it is thought to have been used by “genteel folk” to take along to musical evenings where they would sing around the piano.

Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759 - 1796).   (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759 - 1796).   (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759 - 1796). (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Brown, from Glasgow, became interested in the book after picking up a worn copy in a second-hand bookshop in Edinburgh.

“It was a mess, but I had it rebound and became fascinated with it,” he said. “I googled it and saw this other edition up for sale in its original binding. It was a rare find so I bought it. I would like to find a home for this Burns rarity in Scotland, at an institution where it will be properly conserved and widely appreciated.”

Professor Murray Pittock, of the Centre for Robert Burns Studies at the University of Glasgow, said: “This book is absolutely central to the Scots song tradition. James Johnson had published the first volume, then met Burns, who contributed a couple of songs to the second, then went on to collaborate with him on volumes two to five.”

Pittock said a complete copy of the book was rare, due to contemporary readers taking it apart during use. Burns and Johnson created the books to be used as “pocket books”, practical books of music to be carried from place to place.

He said: “There are very few surviving intact copies. People would tear out the songs to put on the piano.”

Burns’ encounter with Johnson, which came in 1787, less than ten years before his death, shifted his focus from poems to songs. The poet became, in effect, the chief editor of the work as well as the major contributor.

Chris Waddell, learning manager at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Ayr, said: “It gives us an insight into how important Burns thought this was – and how much he believed in preserving Scots culture.”

The book is for sale on eBay.