BURNS (ROBERT) Autograph manuscript of his song 'Ye Banks and Braes O'Bonnie Doon', [c. 1792]

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Lot 81
Autograph manuscript of his song 'Ye Banks and Braes O'Bonnie Doon', [c. 1792]

Sold for £ 35,000 (US$ 45,032) inc. premium
Autograph manuscript of his song 'Ye Banks and Braes O'Bonnie Doon':

Ye banks & braes o' bonie Doon,
How can ye bloom sae fresh & fair;
How can ye chant, ye little birds,
And I sae weary, fu' o' care, –

Thou'lt break my heart, thou warbling bird,
That wantons thro' the flowering thorn:
Thou mindst me o' departed joys –
Departed, never to return. –

Aft hae I rov'd by bonie Doon,
To see the rose & woodbine twine;
And ilka bird sang o' its love,
And fondly sae did I o' mine. –

Wi' lightsome heart I pu'd a rose,
Fu' sweet upon its thorny tree;
And may fause lover staw my rose,
But Ah, he left the thorn wi' me!

1 page, watermark of a hunting horn above the royal GR cypher, the top edge trimmed with slight irregularity, the stem of one descender and trace of another letter from the excised section present, guard on reverse of left-hand edge, a few very minor stains and creases, but overall in strikingly fine, fresh and attractive condition, irregular 4to, [c.1792]


  • 'THOU'LT BREAK MY HEART, THOU WARBLING BIRD' – AUTOGRAPH MANUSCRIPT OF BURNS'S CELEBRATED SONG, 'YE BANKS AND BRAES O'BONNIE DOON'. This poem (Low 162, Kinsley 328B) is described in The Burns Encyclopedia as 'posssibly the most popular of all Burns's songs'; indeed, it has been said of it that 'Not one of all the songs that received the magic touch of the master's hand, with the single exception, perhaps, of "Auld Lang Syne", is better known and oftener sung than the popular version of this, the most tenderly beautiful of all the lyrics of disappointed love' (Maurice Lindsay, The Burns Encyclopedia, 1970, p. 105; Robert Ford, Song Histories, 1900, p. 150). Burns himself singled it out for its 'pathos' (see below). The Doon of course is the Ayrshire river that flows past Burns's birthplace (now the Birthplace Museum with the Burns Memorial nearby).

    The poem was first published in James Johnson's Scots Musical Museum, IV, for 13 August 1792; and reprinted in George Thomson's Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs, 1793-99. Many of of the songs collected by Burns and published by Johnson and Thomson were not original compositions but rather traditional verses which he had taken up and adapted, this being true – although to what extent remains uncertain – of other songs as famous as ours, such as 'Auld Lang Syne' and 'A Red, Red Rose'. Ours by contrast is an original composition by Burns although also an adaptation; not, in our case, not from a tradition source but from an earlier composition by Burns himself.

    Burns described the first version in a letter to Alexander Cunningham of 11 March 1791: 'I have this evening sketched out a Song, which I had a good mind to send you... intended to sing to a Strathspey reel of which I am very fond... It takes three Stanzas of four lines each, to go through the whole tune' (Letter 441, Letters, ii, p. 81). It comprises six stanzas, the first of which starts: 'Ye flowery banks o' bonie Doon', with repeats of the second and fifth stanzas (an earlier manuscript has a variant first stanza, beginning: 'Sweet are the banks – the banks o' Doon'). It was to be published posthumously in 1808.

    The editor of the standard edition of Burns's songs, Donald A. Low, places 'Ye Banks and Braes' in the context of Burns's literary output as a whole: 'Burns continued in his later years to write original songs. Song now mattered to him at least as much as the writing of poems, but for different reasons. Scots song, in his view, belonged to the people of Scotland – it was something to be shared and treasured. Tunes which he thought too good to lose were his starting-point. What mattered was that they should be given words to complete the musical expression. He took pride in his work, but probably attached less importance to the distinction between his own original verses and those of his predecessors in song than most people do today... the best of Burns's original songs were written with particular tunes in mind. He liked to begin by testing out what he called the "feature notes" of a melody... If inspiration were to catch fire, Burns had usually to find something special in a tune, including feature notes which could receive words without strain. This clearly happened with an air entitled The Caledonian Hunt's delight, to which he set a revised version of "The Banks of Doon"... Burns took great pleasure in the melody in this instance' (The Songs of Robert Burns, 1993, pp. 25, 32-3).

    Burns has left his own self-deprecating account in a letter to Thomson of November 1794 of how the haunting melody that so inspired him came into being: 'There is another air, "The Caledonian hunt's delight," to which I wrote a song that you will find in Johnson – "Ye banks & braes o'bonie Doon' – ; this air, I think, might find a place among your hundred – as Lear says of his Knights. – To make room for it, you may take out (to my taste) either, "Young Jockey was the blythest lad," or "There's nae luck about the house," or, "The collier's bonie lassie," or "The tither morn," or, "The sow's tail" – & put into your additional list – Not but that these songs have great merit; but still they have not the pathos of "The banks o'Doon" – Do you know the history of the air? It is curious enough. – A good many years ago, a Mr Jas Miller, Writer [of the Signet] in your good town, a gentleman whom possibly you know – was in company with our friend, Clarke [the Episcopalian Chapel organist in the Cowgate who was employed by Johnson to harmonise the melodies]; & talking of Scots music, Miller expressed an ardent ambition to be able to compose a Scots air. – Mr Clarke, partly by way of a joke, told him, to keep to the black keys of the harpsichord, & preserve some kind of rhythm; & he would infallibly compose a Scots air. – Certain it is, that in a few days, Mr Miller produced the rudiments of an air, which Mr Clarke, with some touches & corrections, fashioned into the tune in question... Now, to shew you how difficult it is to trace the origins of our airs, I have heard it repeatedly asserted that it was an Irish air; nay I met with an Irish gentleman who affirmed he had heard it in Ireland among the old women; while, on the other hand, a Lady of fashion, no less than a Countess, informed me, that the first person who introduced the air into this country was a Baronet's Lady of her acquaintance, who took down the notes from an itinerant Piper in the Isle of Man' (The Letters of Robert Burns, edited by J. de Lancey Ferguson and G. Ross Roy, second edition, 1985). As Lindsay remarks, 'Thus, using the pentatonic scale, one of the world's loveliest airs was fashioned!' (Encyclopedia, p. 105); Low adding that 'The ironies of the situation were not lost on the poet. Did the tune which gave him such pleasure originate in Scotland, on the Isle of Man, or in Ireland?' (Songs, p. 34).

    The earlier version of the song, which is set to the tune 'Cambdelmore', is simpler in mood. Most strikingly, in the first version the lines at the start of the second stanza, 'Thou'll break my heart, thou bonie bird,/ That sings upon the bough!' become in ours 'Thou'lt break my heart, thou warbling bird,/ That wantons thro' the flowering thorn': the thorn-within-the-rose as representative of the pains of love has often been commented on, but the verb 'wantons' here gives an added sexual charge, giving the complaint a bitter-sweet quality, as favoured by those Elizabethan song-writers like John Marston who so relished the fact that the nightingale's preferred habitat is a prickly bush of thorns: 'I love to sleep ʻgainst prickle/ So doth the nightingale' ('Song' in The Dutch Courtesan, see the CUP Selected Plays of John Marston, edited by Macdonald P. Jackson and Michael Neill, 1986, p, 310).

    Only one other manuscript of our song is known, in the Hastie MS of material submitted to Johnson for the Scots Musical Museum, British Library, Add. MS 22307, f. 97; listed by Margaret M. Smith, Index of English Literary Manuscripts, iii, pt. 1, 1986, BuR 70, p. 105 (where two versions of the earlier version are noted, the first now at the Burns Cottage Museum, the second, illustrated in the great Morrison sale catalogue of 1919, now untraced, BuR 71 and 71). The Hastie MS has the indication of the tune, 'Caledonian Hunt's delight', deleted; which might possibly give some clue as to why ours has been trimmed at the top.

    This manuscript shares one feature with the letter by Burns's compatriot and older contemporary Adam Smith in the present sale. Both are written on paper bearing the royal Hanoverian watermark of a hunting horn over the GR cypher; evidence that both men worked for the same employer, HM Customs & Excise, Smith as Commissioner and Burns as Exciseman.
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