Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Burns and the Northern Star

The first edition of the poems of Robert Burns, known as the Kilmarnock edition, was published in July 1786 and extracts from it appeared in the Belfast News-Letter just three months later on 31 October. The News-Letter was the first newspaper in Ireland and, so far as can be ascertained, the first in the British Isles to quote from that first edition. Thereafter Burns’ poetry appeared frequently in the pages of that newspaper. Indeed, it published many pieces by the ‘Ayrshire Ploughman’ before they appeared in any collected edition of his works.

So great was the impact of Burns in Ulster that the first edition of his poetry which was printed outside Scotland was printed in Belfast. The Edinburgh edition appeared in 1787 and James Magee of Bridge Street, Belfast, reprinted and republished it in the same year. He printed two hundred copies but these were sold within ten days and so Magee re-set the press and continued printing. However Magee was a rather unscrupulous man and Burns received nothing in royalties from him.

There are two copies of that first Belfast edition in the Linen Hall Library and the library has recently produced a limited edition facsimile of the Belfast edition.  This was launched tonight and I spoke at the launch.

However there is an interesting sequel to that original Belfast edition.  A few years later, in 1792, James Magee's son William Magee helped to finance the radical Belfast newspaper, the Northern Star, which was the newspaper of the Society of United Irishmen.  Indeed it is surely not unreasonable to suggest that the money which Magee's father accrued from the sale of the Belfast edition of Burns may have helped to finance the Northern Star.

The Northern Star was notable for publishing from time to time some of the poems of Robert Burns as well as poems written by some of the Ulster-Scots weaver poets.  However this was not the only connection between the United Irishmen and the Ulster-Scots poets.

Samuel Thomson (1766-1816), the bard of Carngranny as well as a schoolteacher, was one of the Ulster folk poets who was influenced by Burns. He wrote several poems about Burns including an Epistle to Mr R[ober]t B[urn]s, which was published in 1792. Thomson sent a copy of the poem to Burns who expressed his appreciation and sent a present of books to the Ulster poet. He dedicated a volume of his poetry published in 1793 to ‘Mr Robert Burns, the Ayrshire poet’ and in 1794 he travelled to Dumfries to meet Burns and exchange poems. Thereafter he corresponded with him until the death of Burns in 1796.

In 1793 Samuel Thomson published Poems on Different Subjects, partly in the Scottish Dialect. This was the earliest volume of collected poems published by any of the Ulster folk poets and it had a list of subscribers that included quite a number of prominent Belfast gentlemen. Among them were Samuel Neilson and Henry Joy McCracken, who were members of the Society of United Irishmen.

Indeed can it not be argued that the United Irishmen in Ulster did more for the Ulster-Scots language than they did for the Irish language?

The great enthusiasm at the end of the 18th century for the poetry of Burns and the Ulster folk poets is not in any way surprising.  When the French aristocrat Le Chevalier de la Tochnaye visited Belfast in 1797 he found that, 'Belfast has almost entirely the look of a Scotch town, and the character of the inhabitants has considerable resemblance to that of the people of Glasgow.'  Moreover when Amyas Griffith came to Belfast in 1780 as Surveyor of Excise he noted that ‘the common people speak broad Scotch, and the better sort differ vastly from us, both in accent and language.’

Belfast was still a very small town but it was an Ulster-Scots town and Ulster-Scots was the language of the hearth and home in the town just as it was the language of the hearth and home in many rural areas. It was the language of the ordinary people and was passed on from generation to generation.


  1. The 1780 Surveyor observed that the people of Belfast spoke broad Scotch. Was that the same language as the Ulster-Scots language of the hearth and home?

  2. Yes it was. The language was generally known as Scotch or braid Scotch. The Ordnance Survey Memoirs of the 1830s also used the term Scotch.

  3. Is the language that was generally known as Scotch or braid Scotch the same braid Scotch that was spoken in Scotland? Is it still spoken? What is it known as now?

  4. The language that was known as Scotch in Scotland was brought to Ulster at the start of the 17th century by the Scottish settlers. Here in Ulster it was also known as 'Scotch' or 'braid Scotch'. It became a variant of the 'Scotch' spoken in Scotland and today it is generally known as Ulster-Scots.

  5. Robert Burns was a Republican and a Radical Republican at that.

    Scots Wha Hae !

  6. Daithi - Robert Burns was certainly a radical and a child of the Scottish Enlightenement. However your understanding of Burns must be rather superficial. I have posted before about Burns and politics and rather than deal with it on this thread I will start a separate post.

    BTW I deleted some of your other comments because I could not make head or tail of them - they were simply incoherent.

  7. Excellent post Minister!

    It is great to see Samuel Thomson mentioned here, particularly as I have spent the last six years researching him. If I might suggest that he is no more a 'folk poet' than Robert Burns since he published 75% of his poetry in standard English of a high quality and his later work, particularly, examines the same intellectual themes as many of his established contemporary writers throughout Britain at the time.

    On the topic of Robert Burns's radicalism, may I direct readers to the following publication which has a number of interesting articles on the subject: 'Fickle Man: Robert Burns in the 21at Century' (Sandstone 2009). While there is no doubt that Burns displays radical sentiments in his poetry from religious to political radicalism (not to mention his own radical use of Scots), there is no firm evidence that he sought to overthrow the Government nor did he supply or take up arms as has been rumoured in 19th C biographies.

  8. The Jens - Thank you for your post. I am delighted to hear that you have spent the last six years researching Samuel Thomson. I would be interested to know more about the research and if you have published or intend to publish anything. What was it that led you to this particular interest? There is a need for more research on the Ulster poets of the time and I am glad to hear of your work.

    As regards the term 'folk poet' the term is used in a loose sense but you are absolutely right in saying that much of his work was in standard English and only part of his work in Ulster-Scots.

    I welcome your reference regarding the radicalism of Robert Burns. It is important to correct the erroneous view of Burns that is sometimes peddled. He was a child of the Scottish Enlightenment as indeed were many of the Ulster poets too.