Robert Burns came to the public eye with the publication of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1786), published in Kilmarnock, Ayrshire, often known as ‘the Kilmarnock edition’. Shown here are 'To a Mouse' and 'To a Louse', two of Burns's best-know poems.
This was one of the most innovative volumes of verse published in Britain in the 18th century. In ‘Epistle to J. Lapraik, an old Scotch Bard’ Burns casts himself as a ‘heaven-taught ploughman’ rather than a writer working from the culture of a classical education, though in fact he had benefited from a private tutor who had schooled him in Shakespeare and Milton. But the prevailing literary culture in Scotland which placed a high value on poetry of the emotions and nature provided the ideal environment for Burns’s verse, and he was able to graft onto this a clear homage to earlier Scottish poets Allan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson.
A second edition of the book, published in Edinburgh the following year, led to Burns being hailed as the ‘national Bard’ of Scotland.