Apollo Magazine

The true worth of Robert Burns’s manuscripts

New research methods will help distinguish Robert Burns’ texts from forgeries – but will it change how we read him?

Robert Burns (detail; 1787), Alexander Nasmyth. Image: Wikimedia Commons

It is one of the great paradoxes of modern culture. The poems and songs of Robert Burns have been carried in the minds and mortal memories of innumerable individuals all over the world, recited, sung, performed with energy, insight and enthusiasm and given pleasure to thousands, perhaps millions of people. Meanwhile, a relatively small number of first editions of his published works and an unknown number of manuscripts are purchased and exchanged for quite extraordinary sums of money as if they were intrinsically works of art in their own right, and valued as such.

But of course, that is exactly what they are. The books, especially the Kilmarnock edition, of which 612 copies were first published in 1786, or even the Edinburgh edition, 3,000 copies of which were published in 1787, are revered and treasured. They were not mass-manufactured and are worth studying as artefacts as well as for what they carry and contain. Holding one and turning its pages must be like examining the multifaceted jewels in a royal crown. The liabilities of pomp, circumstance and the protection of private property attach to the former as much, it sometimes seems, as to the latter. More so: books often have an aura that jewellery does not.

The authenticity of the artefact – ink put on paper by Burns’s own hand – is the only key fact that such authorised value rests upon. At the University of Glasgow, the Polyomics research facility has been developing new scientific methods of analysis and verification to establish such authenticity. The research team has recently announced its ‘Support Vector Machine classifier’, which can distinguish Burns’s handwriting from that of known forgers and which has been developed in part through the extraction and analysis of the stale beer and carbonised ivory that Burns used to create his inks. These efforts tie in with the immense work of editorial scholarship committed to the new Oxford Burns edition in process in the Scottish literature department, involving a number of academics of international reputation. As much as is humanly possible in the current world, the hard data of Burns’s experience, practice and production is being verified and contextualised by science.

Questions remain, however. Can all the scientific tests in the world tell us any more about ‘authenticity’ than what the forensic sense of that word really means? Is there something intrinsically human, that only human beings can judge, about what ‘authenticity’ is? And also, of course, wonderful, revelatory and at the advanced edge of the contemporary as these developments are, might not one still have a cautious curiosity about Alexander ‘Antique’ Smith, the Edinburgh forger jailed in the 1890s for selling what he claimed were written works by Burns, Scott and Mary Queen of Scots?

In the 1880s, Smith would buy old books from antiquarian bookshops in Edinburgh, immersing the blank pages in weak tea to ‘age’ them and creating poems, autographs and letters allegedly by historical characters. When challenged by police, Smith said he had been working as a clerk for a lawyer and discovered some old documents in the cellar. He was sentenced to twelve months in prison but retains a reputation for charm and inefficiency as an amateur criminal. He was one among many forgers at the time, some much more daring, who produced imitations of works not only by Kipling or George Eliot but by Alexander the Great, Caesar and Attila the Hun. There is a good (original) novel waiting to be written about this industry.

And while Burns’s original books and manuscripts, edited and legitimised, will remain a lasting resource in the great libraries of the world, might not one still take more immediate pleasure in singing, reciting, reading silently, and learning more about what being human is, from poems and songs whose circulation depends only upon the engagement and exchange of living voices, minds and words that touch others, from Burns’s era to us today, across centuries?

Alan Riach is professor of Scottish Literature at the University of Glasgow.