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 : 08-09-1799
Correspondent : George ThomsonCorrespondent Location : Edinburgh
Recipient : James Currie Recipient Location : Liverpool
Subject : George Thomson writes with an account of Burns's friend, Ainslie. He discusses Clarinda, 'Holy Willie's Prayer' and describes songs.
Dear Sir

          I returned to town only last night after an absence of three weeks in the west of Scotland and as I was almost continually in motion, my Letters were not sent to me - I hasten to answer your queries, though from the unavoidable delay that has occurr’d, it will now perhaps serve no purpose-
          Mr Ainslie as far as I have had opportunities of observing, or of being informed, appears to be a good natured, rattling, honest fellow, not deficient in abilities, nor without some taste for polite literature, rather uncouth & vulgar in his manners; and upon the whole much under the character which Heron has given of him.- His intimacy with Clarinda may be accounted for without any imputation on her virtue She has a son an apprentice to him The poet it is said knew all her charms; the secret however must have been well kept, for I understand the Lady visits in families where no woman of frail character would be admitted.
          The happy Trio (the name I give to the Song) was written to commemorate a meeting at Nicol’s house house in Dumfries shire; the dramatis personae were the Poet, the Landlord, & Allan Masterton writing master in Edinburgh, a worthy modest creature, who composed the tune, and who has produced several other tunes of very considerable merit in the Scotish style, which will appear in my Collection. He died about two months ago - the last of the three merry boys, who hoped for so many happy nights.
          Tomorrow I shall inquire for the publication you mention and if it be in town you may depend on its being sent by the Mail Coach immediately.- I am much concerned to find the Glasgow booksellers anticipating the publication of Burns’s Poems - I got five two penny worth of these, which I shall send you in franks or with the book you want It is possible there may be some among them which you have not seen If so, I hope they will reach you in time for be included in the Works ‘twould be a great pity were they omitted. Holy Willie’s prayer is one of the pieces, which is so universally admired for the keenness of its satire against those canting hypocrites & bigotted blockheads, the John Knoxes of the present day, that you must surely give it a place. I believe I formerly took the liberty of mentioning this to you, & suggested the omission of some lines if you thought them too free for publication I then spoke without a correct remembrance of the Poem which I now see could not be mutilated in a single leg! I am told they sell 50 copies of Holy Willy per diem, and nearly as many of the Jolly beggars. Should not you or Cadell & Davis threaten a prosecution if they do not instantly stop? Please add to your List of Subscribers Mr John Moir Printer Edinburgh Alexander Gordon Esq mercht. Glasgo. Mr James Brown Do. if you do not find them already in the List.- I inclose Holy Willy, that you may see the manner in which Stewart & Meikle are going on.

Yours with great regard & respect

G Thomson

P.S. I troubled you with a request that a Letter of mine to Mr Syme, dated 14 Augt 1797 might be put in the fire - Be so good as let me know that you have done this.

Geo Thomson
Sept 8 – 99

Notes :

Robert Ainslie (1766-1838):
Son of the steward of Lord Douglas’s Berwickshire estates; studying law in Edinburgh when Burns met him early in 1787. enjoyed his He accompanied the poet on the first part of his border tour, May 1787. Burns valued his friendship, witness: ‘You will think it romantic when I tell you that I find the idea of your friendship almost necessary to my existence. – You assume a proper length of face in my bitter hours of blue-devilism, and you laugh fully up to my highest wishes at my good things’ (Letters, ed. Roy, I, 176); and ‘I have set you down as the staff of my old age, when the whole list of my friends will, after a decent share of pity, have forgot me’ (Letters, ed. Roy, I, 130). After an exuberant early manhood, Ainslie seems to have become a pillar of the kirk, writing A Father’s Gift to His Children and Reasons for the Hope that is in us. He visited Burns at Ellisland, 15 October 1790, and was for the poet a useful source of information on Clarinda (Mrs McLehose). In a letter to her, 25 June 1794, he noted that a letter from Ainslie was ‘so dry, so distant so like a card to one of his Clients, that I could scarce bear to read it, & have not yet answered it’ (Letters II, 299).

James Brown:
Glasgow insurance broker, with office behind the Exchange.

Clarinda [Mrs Agnes McLehose] (1759-1841):
Daughter of Andrew Carig, a Glasgow surgeon, and married at 17 to James McLehose, Glasgow solicitor, from whom she was soon estranged. She met Burns on 4 Dec. 1787, but an injured knee prevented his meeting her again for over a month, during which they conducted an intense ‘affair’ by letter. While Burns poses as the man of feeling in love, the relationship produced one of his most moving love songs, ‘Ae Fond Kiss’, written some weeks after their final parting on 6 Dec 1791.

Alexander Gordon:
Glasgow merchant, member of the company, Stirling, Gordon & Co. He was a noted patron of the arts and collector.

Robert Heron (1764-1807):
In Observations made in a Journey through the Western Counties of Scotland (Perth, 1793) II, 349-50, heron singled out ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night,. ‘Hallowe’en’, and ‘Alloway Kirk’ [‘Tam o’ Shanter’] for praise. His Memoir of the Life of the Late Robert Burns (Edinburgh, 1797) had first appeared, signed ‘H’, in the Monthly Magazine (June 1797), iii, 213-16 and 552-62; it was reprinted in the Edinburgh Magazine (1797) and the Philadelphia Monthly Magazine (1798). Following Thomson’s obituary, Heron adopted a lofty, moralising stance, emphasising what he regarded as evidence of the poet’s decadence.

Allan Masterton (d.1799):
writing-master and musician, and one of Burns’s best friends in Edinburgh. Burns described him as ‘one of the worthiest men in the world, and a man of real genius’ (Letters, ed. Roy, I, 444); and to Thomson he wrote, ‘”Strathallan’s lament” is mine: the music is by our right trusty and deservedly well-beloved Allan Masterton’ (Letters II, 316).

John Moir:
printer at Paterson’s Court, Edinburgh, 1793-1801.

[The happy trio]:
In Oct. 1789 William Nicol and Allan Masterton spent a convivial evening with Burns at Willie’s Mill near Craigieburn, outside Moffat. Burns immortalised the meeting in ‘Willie Brew’d a Peck o’ Maut’.

‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’:
Like ‘Love and Liberty’, the poem was suppressed during Burns’s lifetime. Though Cadell & Davies held the copyright to Burns’s works from 1800, Thomas Stewart published Poems Ascribed to Robert Burns (Glasgow, 1801), with the poems, including ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’, reset from his earlier pamphlet series.

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