Pauline Mackay

Bawdry and Burns’s Correspondence 

In a journal entry dated 13th December 1813, Byron famously referred to ‘a quantity of Burns’s unpublished and never-to-be-published Letters […] full of oaths and obscene songs.’ It’s generally believed that this reference is to Burns’s correspondence with Robert Cleghorn (d.1798). Cleghorn was a friend and fellow member of Edinburgh-based club the Crochallan Fencibles, for whose enjoyment Burns composed a quantity of bawdy verse later printed (privately) in The Merry Muses of Caledonia (1799). Cleghorn, however, was far from the only recipient of Burns’s bawdy writing. Attention to Burns’s correspondence shows that he frequently made presents of bawdy song to friends, patrons and editors in the spirit of trust and camaraderie, and as a form of ingratiation. This paper will chart Burns’s circulation of bawdry in his correspondence (at least, that which remains extant) and demonstrate the ways in which this particular body of writing illuminates the interests and motivations of one of the networks that will feature in an online output from the AHRC-funded ‘Editing Robert Burns’s Correspondence and Poetry’ project: ‘The Robert Burns Letter-Writing Trail’.

Dr Pauline Mackay, University of Glasgow, Scotland