Left: James Currie. Right: a portrait of Burns by Archibald Skirving, published in The Works of Robert Burns, by Blackie and Son, Glasgow, 1854.
Date : 08-01-1801
Correspondent : Sir Walter ScottCorrespondent Location : Edinburgh
Recipient : James Currie Recipient Location : Liverpool
Subject : Walter Scott discusses the Scottish Ballads. He describes Burns's successes, and attributes authorship to 'The Song of Evan Banks'.
Sir,
I received the most sensible pleasure from your attention to my request regarding the Mss of Mr. Burns & cannot enough apologize for the trouble which my application has occasioned you _ My friend Mr. Heber who I believe is not unknown to you taught me to expect from D↑r↓. Currie that urbanity which is one of the most amiable features of literary Eminence. Upon reviewing my little collection I find I have tolerably accurate copies of the Lass [o[f [?Lochroyan] [MS torn] “Lady Maisery” “The Laird of [L]am[ington][MS torn]- As also of Tamlane which is the same[MS torn] your fair Janet & is a beautiful tale. Carterhaugh the scene of the faery Revels is a plain at the Junction of the Yarrow & Ettrick about a mile above Selkirk. I believe I have also seen & am possessed of copies of all the other Ballads which you are so kind as to enumerate, (Excepting only Rob Roys address to his Mistress. If this appears to possess any merit will you permit me to claim your obliging promise of having a copy made out & transmitted to me –
I am very proud that Glenfinlas met with your approbation. I gave it with some trifling, tales of the same kind to M↑r↓. Lewis at a time when I had no immediate intentions of compiling any Ballad publication myself. I shall however take the liberty of inscribing them in my own [co]llectio[n] tho’ they have already appeared in the Tales of Wonder which I suppose you may have seen. The success of Burns Works while it does honor to the taste of the public must afford the highest satisfaction to all who reflect on the benevolent purpose to which the profits have been dedicated. You invite me to [MS torn]most difficult Task in desiring me to[MS torn] the publication which you [MS torn] [?] circumstances however [MS torn] were it only to shew that I have perused my favourite author with some attention – Vol: 4↑th↓ page 329. The song of Evan Banks.Querie. Is this written by Burns?_ My reason for doubting is that is appears interspersed with some other pieces of poetry by no means despicable, in a modern novel published about four of five years ago. The name of the Book I have unluckily forgot but the fact I am certain of because I copied out the verses which struck me as beautiful. If they were not the composition of the author or authoress of the novel, the insertion of them was an impudent piece of imposture – if they really were so, I presume Burns may have copied them out & thus they may have been found among [MS torn] & inserted in his works. This matter may easily [b]e [a]s[c]ertaind before the 2↑d↓. Edit. If you think it [MS torn] find out the novel- Page 84. “I wish I were where Helen lies” I intend to publish an ancient & beautiful copy of this old Ballad which I think would have pleased the Bard had it fallen in his way. – “Allan Stream” p. 95. I have the old words which recount the death of a lover in attempting to cross not the Allan but the Annan water – the last two verses are good

O wae betide the frush saugh wand
O wae betide the bush of briar
It brak into my True loves hand
When his strength [did fail and his limbs did tire]
And wae betide ye Annan wa[ter]
This nig[ht] that ye’re a dru[mlie] river
Now [over thee I’ll] build a bridge
T[hat ye never more true love may sever]

Some where or other but I cannot[MS torn] there is a note stating the Flowers of the Forest [MS torn] the composition of the Aunt of Lord Minto. Now if this rests upon M?r?. Ramsay of Ochertyres authority I fear that it was owing to some information which I gave him and which I have now reason to think was not entirely accurate. If there is any further evidence of the fact I should be very glad to know it as [MS torn] there is still m[uch] doubt about the origin of that beautiful Elegy. I should add one or two more trifling & minute observations of this nature But their unimportance just serves to point out that I keep in my eye the old proverb ne Sutor - & that the work is so fully illustrated as to leave no room for such critics as me._

Believe me Sir your obliged & faithful Serv↑t↓

Walter Scott


Notes :

Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832): Poet, novelist, and Sheriff-depute in Selkirkshire, 1799-1832. His explorations of Borders legend and balladry from 1791 onwards led to the publication in 2 vols. on 24 Feb. 1802 of Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (a third volume following in 1803). On 30 July 1801 he told Currie, ‘I have made it an invariable rule to attempt no improvements upon the genuine ballads which I have been able to recover’ (Scott, Letters, I, 120).

Richard Heber (1773-1833): English antiquarian who helped Scott in his pursuit of material for the Minstrelsy. Scott’s compliment reflects the regard in which Currie was held in his own day for his editorial and biographical work.

Tales of Wonder: Scott contributed 5 items, original or in translation, to Tales of Wonder (1801) edited by Matthew Gregory Lewis (1775-1818).

Evan Banks: The song is by Helen Maria Williams (1761 or 1762-1827), writer and secretary to Dr. John Moore and a correspondent of Burns. It is found in her novel Julia (1790). Currie omitted it from his second edition.

I wish I were where Helen lies: To George Thomson, Burns termed the piece ‘silly, to contemptibility’ (Burns, Letters, II. 220). Scott’s version is published as “Fair Helen of Kirkconnell” in the Minstrelsy.

Annan Water: Scott’s assertion about the Annan is interesting in the light of the claim by T.F. Henderson, the twentieth-century editor of the Minstrelsy, that Scott changes the location in the title ‘for no assigned reason’.

origin of that beautiful Elegy: The song is substantially of Jean Elliot of Minto’s shaping, though hers was one of several versions current in the eighteenth century and its precise origins are obscure; Elliot (1727-1805), also known as Jane, at one point attempted to disown authorship. Scott may have related his information to John Ramsay of Ochtertyre when he visited his home while on a walking-tour in 1793.

Ne sutor ultra crepidam judicaret (let not the shoemaker judge [anything] beyond a sandal): allegedly the words of the painter Apelles (4th century B.C., son of Pythias and friend of Alexander the Great) to a shoemaker who criticised the detail of a shoe in one of Apelles’ paintings and then extended his criticism to the legs.

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