A LOST letter written by Robert Burns to the 'Blind Poet' Thomas Blacklock has been rediscovered and will be put on public display for the first time at the University of St Andrews this month.

The correspondence, written in 1788, includes two original Burns poems and gives a rare insight into his strong bond with close friend Blacklock, who had a reputation for visually vivid poetry despite losing his sight as an infant when he contracted smallpox.

The letter is part of a previously unseen collection of historical documents associated with key figures in British and French political and literary history which will be revealed at an event in St Andrews on October 24.

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The letters were collected in the 19th century by Marseille Middleton Holloway, one of the leading London book dealers, until his death in 1897. They include writings by Burns, Walter Scott, James VI, Elizabeth I, Voltaire, Horatio Nelson, Benjamin Franklin, Lord Byron, and prison reformer Elizabeth Fry.

Burns’ rediscovered letter laments Blacklock’s failure to respond to a previous letter and sets out his fears for the Blind Poet’s health. Giving an insight into the esteem in which he held Blacklock, Burns stated: “Can I be indifferent to the fate of a man to whom I owe so much? a man whom I not only esteem but venerate?”.

Respected Burns biographer Robert Crawford, who is Professor of Modern Scottish Literature at the University of St Andrews, said: “This rediscovery brings back into the public domain manuscripts which are listed as location unknown in the standard modern edition of Burns’ Letters. Written from Mauchline in November 1788 to the remarkable blind poet, musician, and Scots song enthusiast, the Reverend Dr Thomas Blacklock, the letter pays warm tribute to Blacklock as one of Burns’ most important Edinburgh supporters.”

The letter includes the poems A Mother’s Lament for the Death of her Son and The Lazy Mist which are described by Burns in the letter as “two melancholy things, which I tremble lest they should too well suit the tone of your present feelings”.

The letters are contained in two bound albums, one with 37 letters written by historical figures and one with 37 letters written by literary names.

In a 1796 letter written by Scots novelist, playwright and poet Sir Walter Scott to his friend George Chalmers he refers to the The Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, Scott’s collection of ballads, later published in three volumes in 1802 and 1803.

One letter in the collection is from English writer Lord Byron to his old friend Canon Hodgson, his former tutor at Eton, with a previously redacted line, unknown for 187 years: “Drury I hope you left well, he is sadly spoiled by marriage, but what will it not spoil?”

The letters will go on display at an event on October 24 at the University of St Andrews Martyrs Kirk Research Library.

Robert Burns’ letter to Rev Dr Thomas Blacklock, the “Blind Poet”

Mauchline 15th Nov. 1788

To Dr Blacklock

Revd & dear Sir,

As I hear nothing of your motions but that you are, or were, out of town, I do not know where this may find you, or whether it will find you at all. – I wrote you a long letter, dated from the land of matrimony, in June; but either it had not found you at all; or what I dread more, it found you or Mrs Blacklock in too precarious a state of health & spirits, to take notice of an idle Packet.

I have done many little things for Johnson, since I had the pleasure of seeing you; & I have finished one Piece, in the way of Pope’s moral epistles; but from your silence, I have every thing to fear, so I have only sent you two melancholy things, which I tremble lest they should too well suit the tone of your present feelings.

In a fortnight, I move, bag & baggage to Nithsdale. Till then, my direction is, at this place; after that period, it will be, at Ellisland near Dumfries. It would extremely oblige me, were it but half a line, to let me know how you are, & where you are. Can I be indifferent to the fate of a Man, to whom I owe so much? a Man whom I not only esteem but venerate?

My warmest good wishes & most respectful Compliments to Mrs Blacklock, & Miss Johnston if she is with you.

I cannot conclude without telling you that I am more & more pleased with the step I took respect-

ting my Jean. Two things, from ^my^ happy experience, I set down as Apothegms in life: - A wife’s

head is immaterial, compared with her heart & Virtue’s (for Wisdom, what Poet pretends to it) “ways are ways of pleasantness, & all her paths are peace.”


Robert Burns