In the back of a strange little shop on Thompson Street in New York’s Greenwich Village, the Library’s Nancy Groce found an item of antiquity and intrigue. Nestled amidst hopelessly dated $5 earrings and mysterious, dark oil paintings priced in the thousands of dollars sat a cheap, retro frame holding what appeared to be a handwritten letter.
“When I first picked it up, I immediately noted it was dated 1804, that it came from Dumfries, and that it was signed ‘Jean Burns,’” said Groce, a folklorist in the American Folklife Center.
Having recently produced a symposium on Robert Burns at the Library and having previously curated a major exhibition and festival on Scotland at the Smithsonian in 2003, Groce felt the letter warranted further inspection.
Robert Burns is considered Scotland’s national poet. Few poets have moved as easily between the worlds of rural folk poetry and urban literary circles. A talented poet in both Scots and English, Burns also was a dedicated collector of folk songs and tunes, an able musician, and a gifted lyricist. He and Jean had nine children together, three of whom survived into adulthood.
Groce ultimately walked away with the letter for $75. When she got home and took it out of its plastic frame, she found a receipt enclosed. Dated 1970, it came from New york document dealer John Fleming and was addressed to a retired Washington-based American diplomat named Norman Armour, indicating that the letter had been purchased on his behalf at a March 26 auction hosted by Parke Bernet for $71.50. On the back of the letter, she discovered that the “Madam” in the letter’s salutation was “Mrs. Riddell,” believed to be Maria Riddell (1772–1808), a member of a local landed family, friends of Robert Burns. There was no address or stamp, which would be consistent with the year and the fact that the note was probably delivered by hand.
Further research led Groce to references to the letter in two obscure 19th-century works on Robert Burns and to track down previous owners. She also consulted several document experts, ultimately coming to the conclusion that the letter was indeed genuine.
Wanting to give the letter an appropriate home, Groce donated it to the National Library of Scotland, where it will go on display.
Searching for “Robert Burns” in the Library’s Prints and Photographs Online Catalog turns up several images of and relating to the Scottish poet.
In addition, the Performing Arts Encyclopedia has a selection of sheet music featuring Burns’ poems.