$45,000 Burns manuscript joins the Homecoming

The National Library of Scotland (NLS) has acquired at auction a unique manuscript poem by Robert Burns. 'The Battle of Sherra-moor' or, to give its full title, 'On the Battle of Sheriff-Muir, Between the Duke of Argyle and the Earl of Mar', is an account of a 1715 battle between Hanoverian troops (Argyle) and the Jacobites (Mar). The manuscript will be on display from tomorrow at a major Burns symposium in Washington's Library of Congress, where First Minister Alex Salmond is giving a keynote address, before completing its homecoming.

The Battle of Sheriff-muir was so closely fought that it was difficult to establish who, if anyone, had actually won, and so Robert Burns writes from the point of view of two shepherds who, despite having watched the same series of events, each form a wildly different interpretation of what they have seen. One of Burns's speakers believes that 'The red-coat lads wi' black cockauds' routed the rebels, painting a fearful picture of how they 'hough'd the Clans like nine-pin kyles'. The other is just as convinced that the Jacobites 'did pursue / The horse-men back to Forth, man' with the eventual result that '... mony a huntit, poor Red-coat / For fear amaist did swarf, man'. A contemporary parallel might be the varying accounts of two opposing football fans on a game they have both just watched.

The song was adapted by Robert Burns from a broadside by John Barclay entitled 'Dialogue between Will Lick-Ladle and Tom Clean-Cogue'. Burns wrote it around 1790, during or after his tour of the Highlands which inspired his interest in Jacobite history. The manuscript acquired by NLS dates from after the poem's initial publication in Volume III of the 'Scots Musical Museum' in 1790 and shows changes which were made for the 1800 edition of the 'Works of Robert Burns' by his editor, James Currie.

The song was adapted by the Corries in the 1970s as 'The Sherramuir Fight' and a reading of the 1790 version of 'The Battle of Sherramuir' by Scottish actor Robert Carlyle is available on the BBC Burns website.

The manuscript has been in private hands for many years in Switzerland and the United States, and NLS Director of Collections and Research Cate Newton said: 'We are delighted to acquire the only known manuscript of 'The Battle of Sherra-moor'. The poem itself is of interest because of its unusual form and the historical subject matter, and this manuscript includes textual variants from the published versions of the poem. It also throws light on Burns's views on the Jacobites, an aspect of his life which remains the subject of considerable debate and interest. We believe the price is fair for a manuscript of a Burns poem of this significance and quality, and it is very appropriate that it returns to Scotland in this Homecoming year.'

The First Minister, Alex Salmond, who will be seeing the original manuscript at the Burns symposium in Washington, said: 'I'm delighted that this unique piece of Burns history will be coming home to Scotland in this, the 250th anniversary year of our national Bard. We have made 2009 Scotland's Year of Homecoming, a celebration of Scotland's friendships around the world, to mark this milestone in Burns's legacy.

'The Battle of Sherra-moor' is a perfect example of the contribution made by Robert Burns - it perfectly demonstrates his ability to assume and understand the point of view of others. It is from this capacity for empathy that his humanitarian views grew. They have been and remain, to this day, an inspiration for people around the globe — from Abraham Lincoln to Kofi Annan. The addition of this manuscript to the National Library of Scotland's collection will give Scots and homecomers alike a chance to trace, from the root, the extension of this aspect of Scottish identity into the modern world and help keep these values alive.'

The acquisition comes in the year of the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns. Fans of the Bard will have the chance to see some of the treasures from the National Burns Collection during 2009 as the exhibition 'Zig-Zag: the paths of Robert Burns' tours Scotland as part of the Year of Homecoming celebration. The exhibition is currently at Aberdeen Gallery until April, and later in the year it will go on to Dumfries and Glasgow. The exhibition includes iconic items such as manuscripts of 'Auld Lang Syne' and 'Tam o' Shanter' as well as a first edition of Burns's first published work and Alexander Nasmyth's famous portrait of the poet. The National Library of Scotland will be displaying facsimiles of some of these treasures alongside the original of the 'Battle of Sherra-muir' at the symposium in Washington. The musical theme continues next month at NLS with the opening of the spring exhibition, 'Scots Music Abroad'.


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23 February 2009

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