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 : 21-12-1799
Correspondent : James CurrieCorrespondent Location : Liverpool
Recipient : Cadell & Davies Recipient Location : London
Subject : Currie discusses the problematic custodianship of Burns’s manuscripts, and is particularly scathing of James Johnson.

Dear Sirs
      I enclose to you by my friend Dr Robertson, two letters I have lately recd. respecting the affairs of Burns: the first from Mr Wm Thomson of Dumfries, appointed by the Court of Session agent for the family under the Trustees; the other from Mr George Thomson of Edinr., Editor & proprietor of the Collection of original Scottish airs, whose correspondence with the Bard forms a considerable part of our fourth volume.
      You will see that Mr Wm Thomson, thinks it necessary that the agreement between you and the family should be completed – I have replied that I would acquaint me with his wish; I have suggested to him that you will probably think it necessary to have a clause inserted giving you a full right, not only to whatever is printed in the present edition but to whatever may be at any time printed of the mss of Burns, so as to enable you to check all piracies not merely of published works but of his mss which the improvident poet scattered very widely — Tho’ there is little of any value left out of our present Edition, yet there are some things, especially of a personal & political nature left out, which might at a future time be interesting, and which would at least serve to enable you to give your future editions such a degree of novelty & as would give them a decided preference in the Market.
      I wish you also to possess & to exercise unlimited power to check the scandalous piracies that are at present going on at Glasgow & Edinr. of the Bards mss &ca, of which you will see some account in the letter of Mr G. Thomson herewith inclosed, and to which I refer you — The songs advertised by Urbani & Liston make a part of our fourth volume, and Johnson is a low & miserable scoundrel, who after having recd. the songs of poor Burns, which are the vital principle of his five volumes, gratis, refused to contribute any thing to the support of the family, and now attempts ^ or seems to attempt to sell these very songs, , to another publication — He certainly deserves no mercy. I have looke[d: ms blotted] out among the letters for that one of the Bard to which Mr. G Thomson refers, and it is enclosed also — I leave the steps you may think it necessary to take to your superior judgement –
      I am truely sorry that a most inferior state of health, and many pressing avocations will delay the publication a little longer — No exertion on my part shall be wanting to get it forward —
      I am much concerned to say that Mr Jones’ conduct has been very different from what I expected – He has given the Committee much trouble, especially Dr. [?Rutter], with complaints altogether improper & absurd – His temper is so excessively irritable, that I doubt whether he will not effect the loss of all his best friends —
      At present I advise you agt. any communication with him should he write to you – It is agt. the Committee that he now complains —
      I may perhaps have occasion to trouble you again on this subject – All the other Booksellers here have deserted him – I am in many respects sorry for the man, for I fear he is under some difficulties – but his temper & his conduct are so irritable & absurd that it is impossible to serve him —
      I am in haste Dear Sirs
            Yr. faithful Sert
                J Currie

[NLS MS 1654, f.78; Postcript to above letter written on back of envelope:]

P.S. I have been thinking of the propriety of putting Jones’name in the title page of the Works in his present humour – I will write to you again on this – I would willingly serve him if I could notwithstanding his foolish conduct —

Church St
21 Dec. 99.

Notes :

Dr Robertson: James Robertson, surgeon to the naval hospital at Barbadoes and a professional colleague of Currie’s; Robertson was in the United Kingdom, 1799-1800.

William Thomson: lawyer at Dumfries.

George Thomson: (1757-1851) Son of a Dunfermline schoolmaster; trained as lawyer’s clerk and in 1780, recommended by John Home, appointed junior clerk to the Board of Trustees in Edinburgh, later becoming chief clerk. In 1792 proposed A Select Collection of Scottish Airs. Burns, to whom he had been introduced by Alexander Cunningham, began contributing songs, September 1792. The first volume appeared, May 1793, containing 7 new songs by Burns. To Burns he emphasised the need to avoid indelicacy and recommended the use of English words. Claiming sole copyright to Burns’s contributions, he regarded his submission of them for inclusion by Currie as a generous gesture. His unsigned obituary for Burns in the London Chronicle, July 1796, acknowledged the poet’s ‘ardent and poetical mind’ but added ‘his talents were often obscured and finally impaired by excess’, a judgement which may have influenced Currie and subsequent commentators. The conclusion of the obituary anticipated the fund-raising appeal with this comment: ‘He has left behind a wife, with five infant children, and in the hourly expectation of a sixth, without any resource but what she may hope from the public sympathy, and the regard due to the memory of her husband. Need we say anything more to awaken the feelings of Benevolence?’.

Urbani & Liston: Pietro Urbani (1749-1816) Italian singer who was a friend of Robert Burns for a period during the mid-1790s. He set up as a music publisher with his partner Liston in Edinburgh in 1795.

Johnson: James Johnson (c. 1750-1811), engraver and song collector whose first volume of the Scots Musical Museum was almost ready when he Burns in spring 1787.

Five Volumes: the first five volumes of Johnson’s The Scots Musical Museum.

Jones: John Jones, Liverpool bookbinder.

Dr Rutter: John Rutter, Liverpool physician, friend and colleague of Currie’s and likewise a graduate of the University of Edinburgh.

back to search