Scotland

Light cast on Robert Burns's last days

Robert Burns letter
Image caption The letter describes how Burns's sense of humour remained despite his illness

A letter which describes how Scottish poet Robert Burns was "reduced and shattered" in his final days has been unveiled.

The letter, which was written in 1796 by Burns's boss at the Excise, where he worked, has only recently been discovered.

It describes how the poet made a journey to Dumfries to collect his salary exactly a week before his death.

Despite his ill health, Burns's "wit and humour remained", the letter said.

The letter, which was written to the Commissioner of Excise, was found by David Brown, the head of collections development at the National Archives of Scotland.

Burns worked for the Excise at Dumfries prior to his death at the age of just 37 on 21 July 1796.

The letter, dated 14 July, described him as "reduced and shattered ... in the extreme".

Burns is also quoted as saying to Mitchell: "I'm only 36, 10 of which only I have been in the world and, in that time, all I shall say, My good sir, I have not been idle."

The poet was in fact 37-years-old, and he was referring to the 10 years since his 'Poems' were first published in Kilmarnock.

Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop, who visited the archives to see the letter, said it was a tremendous discovery.

'Fragile state'

"This is a once in a lifetime find, uncovering details about the final days of one of Scotland's most famous sons and our national bard, Robert Burns," she said.

"Undertaking this journey in what must have been a fragile state tells us something of the spirit of the man.

"I am sure there will be great interest in this find, from Burns enthusiasts and from those whose interest has been sparked by last year's celebration of the 250th anniversary of the great man's birth."

George MacKenzie, Keeper of the Records of Scotland, said it was the sort of find archivists always hoped was "just around the corner".

"The letter is of huge significance to our understanding of the life of Robert Burns," he said.

"We anticipate much interest when the document goes on display next week as the centrepiece of our exhibition 'I have not been idle - Robert Burns' farewell'."

The public exhibition will be held at West Register House, Charlotte Square, Edinburgh, from 9 August until 3 September.

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