A ‘cargo of Songs’: Robert Burns, the Hastie manuscript and The Scots Musical Museum

Dr Robert Irvine examines the Hastie manuscript, a collection of manuscript songs by Robert Burns, and The Scots Musical Museum, where they were ultimately published.
The British Library’s Hastie MS (Add 22307) contains, among some other holograph material, 123 of the 193 lyrics which Burns wrote or revised for songs in volumes II–V of The Scots Musical Museum (see above), plus 37 which he supplied but which have not been attributed to him. They include some of Burns’s best known songs, such as ‘The Banks o’ Doon’ and ‘A red red Rose’. The collection also includes some letters to the editor of the Museum, James Johnson, and the manuscript songs are the texts Burns sent to Johnson for use in the collection. The Hastie texts are in very many cases the only copies of these songs that survive in Burns’s hand. The MS is known by the name of Archibald Hastie, MP, who bequeathed it to the (then) British Museum in 1858.

‘A Red, Red Rose’ by Robert Burns

Letters and songs of Robert Burns [folio: 114r]

The Hastie Manuscript contains some of Burns’s most well-known lyrics, such as ‘A red, red rose’.

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The Scots Musical Museum, a collection of songs

'A red, red rose’ as it appears in Johnson’s The Scots Musical Museum (1787-1803).

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Reworking texts and finding tunes 

Burns’s letters to Johnson give us important insights into the nature of his creative practice in writing song-lyrics. In the summer of 1788, after Burns moved to his new farm at Ellisland in Dumfriesshire, and after the second volume of the Museum had already been published, a letter to Johnson (also in the British Library) includes the following comments:

I send you here another cargo of Songs.—I long to know whether you are begun yet, & how you come on. […] I have a number of Dr B[lacklock]’s Songs among my hands, but they take sad hacking and hewing.—I sent you some weeks ago, another parcel of Songs, but I have not heard if you have received them.—I am in hopes that I shall pick some fine tunes from among the Collection of Highland airs which I got from you at Edinr—I have had an able Fiddler two days already on it, & expect him every day for another review of it.—I have got one most beautiful air out of it, that sings to the measure of Lochaber.—I shall try to give it my very best words.

On the one hand, Burns speaks here not of creating new lyrics from scratch, but rather of radically reworking (‘hacking and hewing’) existing texts. Burns mentions a published author in this case, the Edinburgh poet Dr Thomas Blacklock, but in most cases his starting point was an anonymous song circulating either by oral transmission, or in print, or both. On the other hand, Burns’s inspiration in producing his version of a lyric is, first and foremost, the tune to which it is set: he has already selected ‘one most beautiful air’ from a newly-acquired collection (Burns assembled a library of these), for which he will try to find the ‘very best words’. That is, Burns is not writing poems which will then be set to some tune or other: the tune comes first, and the success of the lyric determined by its fit with the music. In the vast majority of cases, Burns was able to direct Johnson to already published scores from which to set the music: for example, the Hastie MS text for ‘My heart’s in the Highlands’ gives the tune as ‘Failte na miosg’ (Gaelic, ‘The musket salute’) followed by the word ‘Oswald’, and Johnson (or his collaborator Stephen Clarke, who transcribed the scores from which Johnson made his engravings) would have found this on p. 22 of James Oswald’s Caledonian Pocket Companion volume I (1743).

Manuscript songs collected by Robert Burns

‘My heart’s in the Highlands’ as it appears in the Hastie Manuscript.

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The extent to which Burns’s words for these songs are all his own varies greatly from song to song. As noted above, the Hastie MS includes some lyrics simply transcribed by Burns from another source: ‘Miss Weir’ is an example of this. At the other extreme, some lyrics are entirely original compositions, such as ‘Highland Lassie O’. Most of Burns’s songs sit between these two extremes, borrowing an image, a phrase, a line or a chorus from existing materials (and one song by Burns may contain elements borrowed from different sources), but adding his own words and shaping the combination into an original whole. A precedent can be found in earlier popular song for almost every line of ‘A red red Rose’: their combination and setting to the tune ‘Major Graham’ to make this unforgettable song is Burns’s work.

But although Burns’s songwriting is inspired by and builds on existing tunes and lyrics, we must be careful not to assimilate his work for The Scots Musical Museum to the antiquarian practice of song-collection begun by Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765), and continued in Scotland by Walter Scott’s Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802–03). In the letters to Johnson, and the much fuller correspondence with the other publisher of his songs, George Thomson, nowhere does Burns refer to ‘oral tradition’ or ‘ancient tradition’; or to the ‘folk’, or ‘folksong’. Burns is generally incurious about the origins of his tunes, some of which come from England or Ireland, as long as they are ‘in the Scottish taste’; and as keen to write for an air published yesterday by the great fiddler Niel Gow as for one of acknowledged antiquity taken down from the mouth of a country singer. Johnson’s title should not mislead us: ‘museum’ is used here in its old sense of ‘home of the muses’, not a collection of artefacts recovered from a disappearing past. Nor are these songs seen as the possession of one class of people, the rural poor, and compromised by their transmission to singers from other ranks. In a letter to Thomson in the summer of 1793 Burns notes that Stephen Clarke, who transcribed the music for the Museum, having taken down a song from ‘Mrs Burns’s wood-note wild’ in Dumfries, has ‘given it celebrity, by teaching it to some young ladies of the first fashion’ in Edinburgh. Burns certainly understands the Museum as a compendium of Scotland’s ‘National Music’. He writes to Johnson in November 1788

Perhaps you may not find your account, lucratively, in this business; but you are a Patriot for the Music of your Country; and I am certain, Posterity will look on themselves as highly indebted to your Publick spirit.

Manuscript songs collected by Robert Burns

Though ‘Tam Lin’ was at least 250 years old when Burns wrote it down, he saw it not as an antiquity but as a vibrant living song.

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The Scots Musical Museum, a collection of songs

‘Tam Lin’ as it appears in Johnson’s  The Scots Musical Museum (1787-1803).

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Crossing the social barriers that otherwise divide the nation

But this music is ‘national’ for Burns and Johnson not because it is an inheritance from a distant and more purely ‘Scottish’ past, perhaps from before the Union of 1707, and represents a tradition on the point of disappearing in the face of modernity, Anglicisation, and print; which is what the ballads of the Minstrelsy certainly represent for Scott. Rather, these songs are national because they circulate in the present across the social barriers that otherwise divide the nation, sung by farm labourers at their fireside, women at their work, tradesmen in their tavern, gentlemen at their bottle and ladies and their maids at their embroidery. ‘Tam Lin’, one of the songs in the Hastie MS, is a case in point. This is certainly a very old ballad, first mentioned in the mid-sixteenth century; the fifth volume of the Museum is its first appearance in print. When Scott includes this in the second volume of the Minstrelsy as ‘The Young Tamlane’, it is preceded by a dissertation occupying six times as many pages as the ballad itself, on ancient precedents for its story and Scottish traditions of faeries; the lyric that follows has to compete for space with footnotes, and there is no accompanying score. For Burns, in contrast, this is just another song, valuable for the pleasure it can give in a social gathering, not an antique curiosity; a ‘Scottish’ song, not as the relic of a vanishing national past, but because sung and enjoyed by Scots of all classes in the present.

As, indeed, these songs continue to be sung today, not only in Scotland but all over the world. Burns was right in his predictions. Johnson made no money from the Museum and died in poverty. But he was right, too, that their collaboration would leave us, their Posterity, immeasurably in their debt.

  • Robert Irvine
  • Robert Irvine is a Senior Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Edinburgh, where he teaches and writes on 18th- and 19th-century literature, with a particular focus on Scottish writing. He has edited Robert Burns, Selected Poems and Songs for Oxford World’s Classics; Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice for the Broadview Press; and Prince Otto for the New Edinburgh Edition of the Works of Robert Louis Stevenson. He hopes to write a monograph on Burns in the coming years.

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