Robert Burns Collection

Robert Burns Collection at Dunedin Public Library

The Reed and Special Collections, housed on the City Library’s third floor, include a collection of works by and about Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns (1759-1796).

The Dunedin Burns Club presented the Dunedin Public Library with the majority of the Burns material, which today numbers more than 300 items.

The Burns Collection contains early editions, including the 1787 second edition (alternatively known as the ‘first Edinburgh edition’) of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. This edition was published by subscription in a run of 3,000 copies, after the first (Kilmarnock, 1786) edition of 612 copies sold within a month.

One set of books of note is a multi-volume anthology A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs, inscribed and presented by the publisher to Gilbert Burns (1760-1827), younger brother of the poet and father of the Reverend Thomas Burns (1796-1871), one of Dunedin’s earliest settlers and religious leaders. As Thomas disembarked the ‘Philip Laing’ in 1848, these volumes were among his possessions. This set formed part of Burns’ library in Dunedin and was bequeathed to his daughter Clementina (Mrs Elles); it then passed to her daughter Clementina Grant Elles, before being donated to the Library in 1931.

The collection also includes a first edition of A Manual of Religious Belief, first published in 1875. It is a short catechism specifically written by the poet’s father William Burnes (1721-1784) to further the Christian education of his children. The staunchly devout William composed the Manual around 1768 in the form of a dialogue between father and son on what is morally right and wrong. It was written down by the family tutor John Murdoch, and subsequently passed on to Gilbert.

Other highlights include a first edition of Songs from Robert Burns printed by the Golden Cockerel Press in 1925, and a substantial run of the Burns Federation’s periodical Burns Chronicle from the first issue of 1892 to 1999.

The collection also includes Robert Burns’ four-line manuscript poem ‘To Mrs Kemble’. This poem memorialises his admiration for a 1794 performance by actress Elizabeth Kemble in the comic opera Inkle and Yariko. It is the only manuscript in the poet’s hand held in the Library.