Letter from John Keats to his brother during his walking tour of Scotland


John Keats was a brilliant letter-writer as well as poet. This manuscript combines both genres with engraved portraits of both writer and recipient by Keats’s friend Joseph Severn.

Who was the recipient? 

Keats was very close to his siblings, Tom, George and Fanny. Tom, to whom this letter is addressed, was suffering from tuberculosis, and would die in December 1818. Keats had been using his medical training to nurse him, but from June to August took a break for a walking tour in Scotland – a fashionable move for writers of the period; Wordsworth had made his in 1803. 

When was it written and what does it contain? 

The letter was written between 10 and 14 July, and includes the poem ‘Ah! ken ye what I met the day’, written in a mixture of genuine and pseudo-Scots dialect. The letter describes various stages of the trip; on the first day Keats composed the sonnet ‘To Ailsa Rock’, which he includes. The next year, Blackwood’s Magazine satirically but usefully summed up the sonnet as ‘Mr. John Keats standing on the sea-shore at Dunbar, without a neckcloth […] and cross-questioning the Crag of Ailsa’. The letter also describes a visit to the poet Robert Burns’s birthplace, where Keats also wrote a sonnet, but thought it too bad to send.

What other consequences did the trip have?

Though Keats was exhausted – he had climbed Ben Nevis and walked across the Isle of Mull – and feverish from a throat ulcerated by tonsillitis, he returned full of imagery and ambition for his poetry.


31 S [left margin]

Ah! Ken ye what I met the day
         Out oure the Mountains
A coming down by craggis grey
         An mossie fountains
A goud hair’d Marie yeve I pray
         Ane minute’s guessing -
For that I met upon the way
         Is past expressing.
As I stood where a rocky brig
         A torrent crosses
I spied upon a misty rig
         A troup o’ Horses -
And as they trotted down the glen
         I sped to meet them
To see if I might know the Men
         To stop and greet them.
First Willie on his sleek mare came
         At canting gallop
His long hair rustled like a flame
         On board a shallop -
Then came his brother Rab and then
         Young Peggy’s Mither
And Peggy too - adown the glen
         They went togither -
I saw her wrappit in her hood
         Fra wind and raining -
There wa a blush upon her
Her cheek was flush wi’ timid blood
         Twixt growth and waning -
She turn’d her dazed head full oft
         For there her Brithers
Came riding with her Bridegroom soft
         An mony ithers.
Yo[u]ng Tam came up an eyed me quick
         With reddened cheek
Braw Tam was daffed like a chick
         He coud na speak -
Ah Marie they are all’gane hame
         Through blustring weather
An every heart is light on ^ full an flame
         An light as feather
Ah! Marie they are all gone hame
         Fra happy wedding,
Whilst I - Ah is it not a shame?
         Sad tears am shedding.
                   - - - - -

                                                            - - -

                                                        Balantine July 10. [original damaged]
My dear Tom,

The reason for my writing these lines was that Brown
wanted to impose a Galloway song upon Dilke, but
it won’t do. The subject I got from meeting a wed-
ding just as we came down into this place -
Where I am affraid we shall be imprison[e]d awhile
by the weather - Yesterday we came 27 Miles from
Stranraer – enter[e]d Ayrshire a little beyond
Cairn, and had our path through a delightful
Country. I shall endeavour that you may follow
our steps in this walk - it would be uninteresting
in a Book of Travels - it can not be interest[ing]
but by my having gone through it. When we left
Cairn our Road lay half way up the sides of
a green mountainous shore, full of Clefts
of verdure and eternally varying – sometime[es]
up sometimes down, and over little Bridge[s]
going across green chasms of moss rock
and trees - winding about every where
After two or three Miles of this we turned
suddenly into a magnificent glen finely
wooded in Parts - seven Miles long
with a Mountain Stream winding down
the Midst - full of cottages in the most
happy situations - the sides of the Hills
cover[e]d with sheep - the effect of cattle lowing
I never had so finely - At the end we
had a gradual ascent and got among
the top of the Mountains whence In a
little time I descried in the Sea Ailsa
Rock 940 feet hight - it was 15 Miles
distant and seemed close upon us -
The effect of aisla [sic] with the peculiar
perspective of the Sea in connection
with the ground we stood on, and the
misty rain then falling gave me a
complete Idea of a deluge - Ailsa struck
me very suddenly - really I was a little
alarmed - Thus far had I written before
we set out this morning - Now we are
at Girvan 13 Miles north of Belantree. Our
Walk has been along a more grand shore
today than yesterday - Ailsa beside us all
the way - From the heights we could see
quite at home Cantire and the large
Mountains of Arran Annan one of the
Hebrides - We are in comfortable Quarte[r]s.
The Rain we feared held up bravely
and [it] has been fu’ fine this day
// [By] tomorrow we sh[all be] at Ayr - [original damaged]

To Ailsa Rock.

Hearken, thou craggy ocean pyramid,
           Give answer by thy voice the sea fowls screams!
           When were thy shoulders mantled in huge streams?
When from the Sun was thy broad forehead hid?
How long ist since the mighty Power bid
           Thee heave to airy sleep from fathom dreams -
           Sleep in the Lap of Thunder or Sunbeams,
Or when grey clouds are thy cold Coverlid -
Thou answerst not for thou are dead asleep -
           Thy Life has been wild as ^ is but two dead eternities
The last in Air, the former in the deep -
           First, with the Whales, last with the e[a]glle skies -
Drown’d wast thou till an Earth quake made thee steep -
           Another cannot wake thy giant Size!
_ _ _ _

This is the only sonnet of
any worth I have of late
written - I hope you will
like it. ‘Tis now the 11th of
July and we have come
8 Miles to Breakfast to
to [sic] Kirkoswald. I hope
the next Kirk will be Kirk-
Alloway. I have nothing
of consequence to say now
concerning our Journey-
so I will speak as far
as I can judge on the
irish and Scotch. I know
nothing of the higher Classes
yet I have a persuasion
that there the Irish are
victorious. As to the
‘profanum vulgus’ I must incline to the scotch. They never laugh - but they are
always comparatively neat and clean. Their constitutions are not so remote
and puzzling as the irish. The Scotchman will never give a decision
on any point - he will never commit himself in a sentence which may
be refered to as a meridian in his notion of things - so that you do
not Know him - and yet you may come in nigher neighbourhood
to him than to the irishman who commits himself in so many
places that it dazes your head. A Scotchman’s motive is more ea-
sily discovered than an irishman’s. A Scotchman will go wisely
about to deceive you, an irishman cunningly. An Irishman would
bluster out of any discovery to his disadvantage - An Irishman ^ Scotchman would
retire perhaps without much desire of revenge. An Irishman likes
to be thought a gallous fellow - A scotchman is contented with himself -
It seems to me they are both sensible of the Character they hold in En-
gland and act accordingly to Englishmen. Thus the Scotchman will
become over grave and over decent and the Irishman over-impetu-
ous. I like a Scotchman best because he is less of a bore - I like
the Irishman best because he ought to be more comfortable.
The Scotchman has made up his Mind within himself in a sort
of snail shell wisdom - The Irishman is full of strong headed in-
stinct. The Scotchman is farther in Humanity than the Irishman -
there his will stick perhaps when the Irishman shall be refined
beyond him - for the former thinks he cannot be improved
the latter would grasp at it for ever, place but the good plain
before him. Maybole - Since breakfast we have come only
four Miles to dinner, not merely, for we have examined in the
[way] t[wo] Ruins, one of them very fine called Crossraguel Abbey [original damaged]

there is a winding Staircase, to the top of a little Watch Tower. July 13
Kings wells - I have been writing to Reynolds - therefore any particulars
since Kirkoswald have escaped me - from said Kirk we went to
Maybole to dinner - then we set forward to Burness town Ayr -
the Approach to it is extremely fine - quite outwent my expectation
richly meadowed, wooded, heathed and rivuleted - with a grand
Sea view terminated by the black Mountains of the isle of Arran.
As soon as I saw them so nearly I said to myself ‘How is it they did
not beckon Burns to some grand attempt at Epic’ - The bonny Doo[n]
is the sweetest river I ever saw overhung with fine trees as far
as we could see - we stood some time on the Brig across it, ove[r]
which Tam o’Shanter fled - we took a pinch of snuff on the Key
stone - Then we proceeded to ‘auld Kirk Alloway’ - As we were looki[ng]
at it, a Farmer pointed out the spots where Mungo’s Mither hang’d
hersel’ and ‘drunken Charlie brake’s neck’s bane’ - Then we proceede[d]
to the Cottage he was born in - there was a board to that effect
by the door side – it had the same effect as the same sort
of memorial at Stradford on Avon - We drank some [original damaged]
Toddy to Burns’s Memory with an old Man who knew [original damaged]
Burns - damn him and damn his Anecdotes - he was a great
bore - it was impossible for a Southern to understand above 5
words in a hundred - There was something good in his descrip-
tion of Burns’s melancholy the last time he saw him. I was de-
termined to write a sonnet in the Cottage - I did - but it is so
bad I cannot venture it here - Next we walked into Ayr Tow[n]
and before we went to Tea, saw the new Brig and the Auld B[rig]
and Wallace tower - Yesterday we dinned with a Traveller -
We were talking about Kean - He said he had seen him at
Glasgow ‘in Othello in the Jew, I mean er, er, er, the Jew in
Shylock’ He got bother’d completely in vague ideas of the Jew
in Othello, Shylock in the Jew, Shylock in Othello, Othello in
Shylock, the Jew in Othello &c &c &c he left himself in a me[ss]
at last - Still satisfied with himself he went to the Window and
gave an abortive whistle of some tune or other - it might have
been Handel. There is no end to these Mistakes - he’ll go and tell
people how he has seen ‘Malvolio in the Countess’, ‘Twelith night’
in ‘Midsummer nights dream[‘] - Bottom in much ado about
Nothing - Viola in Barrymore - Antony in Cleopatra - Falstaff
in the mose^use Trap. - July 14 We enter’d Glasgow last Eve[ning]
under the most oppressive Stare a body could feel - When we had
cro[ss]ed the Bridge Brown look’d back and said its [w]hole people[e]

I want very much to Know the name of the Ship George is [____] [original damaged]
in - also what port he will land in - I know K nothing about
it - I hope you are leading a quiet Life and gradually im-
proving - Make a long lounge of the whole summer - by the
time the Leaves fall I shall be near you with plenty of con-
fab - there are a thousand things I cannot write - Take care
of yourself - I mean in not being vexed or bothered at any
thing - God bless you!

                                                                                John -

                                                              - - -

                                                   Mr Tho[mas] Keats
                                                          Well Walk

                                                                                              [postmark] GLASGOW
                                                                                                     14 JULY [1818]


                                                                                                           17 [JAN]
                                                   Rec[eived]     July        17th
                                                   Ans[wered] - D[itto] - D[itto]

                                                                    - - -
had turned to wonder at us - we came on till a drunken Man came
up to me - I put him off with my Arm - he returned all up in Arms
saying aloud that, ‘he had seen all foreigners bu wat he neve[r]
saw the like o’ me[‘] - I was obliged to mention the word Officer and
Police before he would desist - The City of Glasgow I take to be
a very fine one - I was astonished to hear it was twice the
size of Edinburgh - It is built of Stone and has a much more
solid appearance than London - We shall see the Cathedra[l]
this morning - they have devilled it into High Kirk.

Full title:
Letter from John Keats to his brother, Thomas
10-18 July 1818, Ballantrae, Ayrshire, Scotland
Manuscript / Letter / Ephemera
John Keats
Usage terms
Public Domain
Held by
British Library
Add MS 45510

Full catalogue details

Related articles

John Keats and ‘negative capability’

Article by:
Stephen Hebron

Stephen Hebron explores Keats’s understanding of negative capability, a concept which prizes intuition and uncertainty above reason and knowledge.

John Keats, poet-physician

Article by:
Sharon Ruston
Romanticism, Technology and science

Keats trained as an apothecary and a surgeon before deciding to dedicate himself to poetry. Professor Sharon Ruston considers how his medical background influenced his writing.

An introduction to 'Ode to a Nightingale'

Article by:
Stephen Hebron

The nightingale has longstanding literary associations, but Keats’s famous ode was inspired by a real-life nightingale as much as by previous poetry. Stephen Hebron considers how Keats uses the bird to position poetic imagination between the mortal and the immortal.

Related collection items

Related people

Related works

'To a Louse'

Created by: Robert Burns

The full title of this vernacular poem by Robert Burns (1759-1796) is ‘To a Louse: On Seeing One On A ...

'To a Mouse'

Created by: Robert Burns

‘To a Mouse, on Turning Her Up in Her Nest with the Plough’ was written by Robert Burns (1759-1796) in ...

'To Autumn'

Created by: John Keats

John Keats (1795-1821) composed his sensuous ode ‘To Autumn’ in September 1819. He was inspired by his ...

'A Red, Red Rose'

Created by: Robert Burns

A poem by Robert Burns (1759-1796). Towards the end of his short life, Burns contributed many songs to James ...