The Kilmarnock Edition. British Library

The Kilmarnock Edition. British Library

“The heaven-taught ploughman” first published his Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect in July 1786. It cost 3 shillings and 600 copies were printed by its publisher John Wilson of Kilmarnock. Its success lead to a  second expanded edition, the First Edinburgh Edition, which was printed by William Smellie and published by William Creech, by subscription at 5 shillings and at 6 shillings for others, all “for the sole benefit of the author”, on 21 April 1787. Although Burns remained financially responsible for this second edition he had the support of a new-found patron, the Earl of Glencairn, who was a Masonic connection. The book was quickly reprinted and in all 3,000 copies were issued.

On 23 April 1787 Burns sold his interest in his poems to Creech for 100 guineas. Creech brought out the Second Edinburgh Edition in February 1793, in two volumes “greatly enlarged with New Poems”.

Gie me ae spark o’ Nature’s fire,
That’s a’ the learning I desire;
Then tho’ I drudge thro’ dub an’ mire
                At pleugh or cart,
My Muse, tho’ hamely in attire,
                May touch the heart.

The notion that Burns (1759–1796) was a “heaven-taught ploughman” may have been given support by these lines, but in fact he had a good bit of book learning imparted by a private tutor hired by his father, a struggling tenant farmer, and as a lad o’ pairts he obviously caught on fast. The verse form of this extract, the Standard Habbie*, so associated with Burns, was in fact garnered from Allan Ramsay’s work.

After the first printing of the First Edinburgh Edition had sold, the type had to be re-set in order to reprint. An error was made in the “Address to a Haggis”, where by “Auld Scotland wants nae skinking ware”, became “Auld Scotland wants nae stinking ware”. (Skinking meaning “wersh”, “watery”.) The second form of the 1787 edition has thus become known as the ‘Stinking Burns’. Burns probably cleared just over £50 from the Kilmarnock volume and about £855 from the First Edinburgh Edition together with the sale the sale of the copyright. He only received a few complimentary copies from Creech for the Second Edinburgh Edition. After the sale of his copyright to Creech Burns wasn’t inclined to make any money off his poems. He’d circulate them among friends as in the early days before the Kilmarnock Edition, publish some in local papers, and allow Creech to include them in later printings. That he valued and needed his government job as Exciseman may have prompted this de-emphasis. His radical views, shown for instance in “A man’s a man for a’ that” have always guaranteed him a place at the socialist board, but wouldn’t have endeared him to his employers:

For a’ that, and a’ that,
It’s coming yet for a’ that;
That man to man, the world o’er,
Shall brothers be, for a’ that.


His interest had moved to song and he would devote the rest of his life to preserving Scotland’s musical heritage. He was a major contributor to The Scots Musical Museum and to A Select Collection of Scottish Airs, for the Voice. This work collecting and editing (and writing words for) Scottish songs is as important a part of Burns’ opus as his poems. His songs are of course the best remembered of his works — on this, Burns’ Night, just think of Hogmanay.

Happy the publisher who has a poem addressed to him by his bestselling author (again in Standard Habbie):

To William Creech 

                            Selkirk 13th May 1787
Auld chuckie Reekie’s sair distrest,
Down droops her ance weel-burnish’d crest,
Nae joy her bonie buskit nest
                         Can yield ava;
Her darling bird that she loes best,
                         Willie’s awa. —
O Willie was a witty wight,
And had o’ things an unco slight;
Auld Reekie ay he keepit tight,
                         And trig and braw:
But now they’ll busk her like a fright,
                         Willie’s awa. —
The stiffest o’ them a’ he bow’d,
The bauldest o’ them a’ he cow’d,
They durst nae mair than he allow’d,
                          That was a law:
We’ve lost a birkie weel worth gowd,
                          Willie’s awa. —
Now gawkies, tawpies, gowks and fools,
Frae colleges and boarding-schools,
May sprout like simmer puddock-stools
                          In glen or shaw;
He wha could brush them down to mools
                          Willie’s awa. —
The brethren o’ the commerce-chaumer
May mourn their loss wi’ doolfu’ clamour;
He was a dictionar and grammar
                           Amang them a’;
I fear they’ll now mak mony a stammer,
                           Willie’s awa. —
Nae mair we see his levee door
Philosophers and Poets pour,
And toothy Critics by the score
                           In bloody raw;
The Adjutant of a’ the core
                           Willie’s awa. —
Now worthy Greg’ry’s latin face,
Tytler’s and Greenfield’s modest grace,
Mckenzie, Stuart, such a brace
                           As Rome ne’er saw;
They a’ maun meet some ither place,
                           Willie’s awa. —
Poor Burns—even Scotch Drink canna quicken,
He cheeps like some bewilder’d chicken,
Scar’d frae its minnie and the cleckin
                          By hoodie-craw;
Grief’s gien his heart an an unco kickin,
                          Willie’s awa. —
Now ev’ry sour-mou’d, girnin blellum,
And Calvin’s folk are fit to fell him;
Ilk self-conceited, critic skellum
                          His quill may draw;
He wha could brawlie ward their bellum
                          Willie’s awa, —
Up wimpling, stately Tweed I’ve sped,
And Eden scenes on chrystal Jed,
And Ettrick banks now roaring red
                          While tempests blaw;
But ev’ry joy and pleasure’s fled,
                         Willie’s awa. —
May I be Slander’s common speech;
A text for Infamy to preach;
And lastly, streekit out to bleach
                          In winter snaw
When I forget thee, Willie Creech,
                          Tho’ far awa! —
May never wicked Fortune touzle him,
May never wicked men bamboozle him,
Until a pow as auld’s Methusalem
                          He canty claw;
Then to the blessed, new Jerusalem
                          Fleet-wing awa. —



* The standard Habbie, or six-line stave, was named after the piper Habbie Simpson (1550–1620) who was elegized by Robert Sempill of Beltrees in this meter. Each stanza has 6 lines, rhyming aaabab, the a lines being four feet, the bs two. Burns used it a lot, but so had predecessors Allan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson.

Much of this information is gleaned from Robert Burns Country, and The British Library’s piece by Robert Irvine.