Unique Robert Burns treasure goes on public display
The story of how the world's single largest collection of handwritten poems and letters by Robert Burns was gifted to the people of Scotland is told in a new display at the National Library of Scotland.
Burns wrote the two volumes for his friend and near neighbour Captain Robert Riddell of Glenriddell between 1791 and 1793. They passed through a number of hands, eventually ending up in the United States before being returned to safe keeping in Scotland exactly 100 years ago.
The display celebrates the centenary of the return of what have become known as the Glenriddell Manuscripts. They are recognised as being one of the main treasures in the National Library of Scotland's vast collections.
The display which opens today (January 23) offers visitors a chance to see poems written in Burns's own hand such as 'Holy Willie's prayer', regarded as one of the greatest satires in European literature. Other items chart the amazing journey of this gift to a friend which became the subject of a heated row over their sale to the United States.
That occurred in 1913 when the Liverpool Athenaeum, which had taken possession of the manuscripts 60 years earlier, decided to put them up for sale through Sotheby's for £5000 (equivalent to £333,000 today). Burns societies and leading individuals such as the Earl of Rosebery opposed the sale and challenged the right of the Athenaeum to sell this treasure.
The sale was described as an outrage and an insult to Scotland but it went ahead regardless. The manuscripts were bought by a bookseller J W Hornstein for an American client. At that point they were thought to have been lost to Scotland but there was to be another twist in the tale.
The manuscripts were then offered for sale to a Burns enthusiast in Philadelphia, John Gribbel who had made a fortune from supplying gas and electricity to America's fast growing cities and industries. Gribbel already owned some of Burns's papers but he was well aware of the importance of the Glenriddell manuscripts to Scotland.
He announced at the St Andrews Society dinner in Philadelphia in December 1913 that he had bought the manuscripts and was returning them to Scotland. A contemporary account from the New York Times quotes Gribbel as saying that Burns is the only writer in British literature who can be ranked alongside Shakespeare.
'These precious writings go to Scotland,' he is quoted as telling the society 'to stay therein forever protected by a deed of trust, as a gift to the people who gave the world Robert Burns.'
Gribbel had a special box made to house the manuscripts and it is one of the items included in the display, along with the deed of trust that was drawn up which led to them being housed permanently at NLS.
Robert Betteridge, the NLS curator who has organised the display said: 'This is the single largest collection of Burns's manuscripts in existence and one of the library's greatest treasures. Their journey from Dumfriesshire where Burns wrote out the poems and letters, to Liverpool and then the United States is a fascinating one.
'We are only able today to make them available for people to see because of the intervention and generosity of John Gribbel. It is fitting that we mark the centenary of their gift to the people of Scotland in this way.'
The Robert Burns's Glenriddell Manuscripts display is on at NLS on George IV Bridge, Edinburgh until March 30. Entry is free.
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