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Robert Burns & 18th Century Scotland

A rapid reference guide to online and selected other sources about Robert Burns

The Serge Hovey Archive

The American composer Serge Hovey (1920-1989) devoted over thirty years to researching and arranging the original airs to which Burns wrote his words. Hovey's extensive archives were donated by his son to the library in 2011.

The Early Publication of Burns's Scottish Songs

Burns collaborated in the production of two major editions of Scottish songs, with music, but many of songs he wrote to traditional airs also circulated in chapbook form, without music, because the airs were well known.

1. James Johnson, The Scots Musical Museum, 6 vols. (Edinburgh: Johnson, 1787-1803):  Rare M 1746.A2 J66;

--ed. Stenhouse with extensive notes, 6 vols (Edinburgh: Blackwood, 1839), 6 vols in 2 (1853); 1853 ed. repr. with intro. by Donald Low (Portland: Amadeus, 1991): M1746 .A2 J66 1991;

--new edition, ed. Murray Pittock, The Scots Musical Museum: The Oxford Edition of the Works of Robert Burns, vols 2 & 3 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).

2. George Thomson, A Select Collection of Original Scotish Airs, 5 vols. (London: Preston, 1793-1818); among the composers who provided settings for songs in Thomson's collection were Haydn and Beethoven;  Rare  M1746 .S45 1793 etc.

--new edition, ed. Kirsteen McCue, Robert Burns's Songs for George Thomson: The Oxford Edition of the Works of Robert Burns, vol. 4 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2021).

Scottish Song Books from the Nationa Library of Scotland

Songs: History, Words & Airs

In connection with recent research for the new Oxford Edition, researchers at Glasgow have developed short on-line accounts of the history of selected Burns songs and the variant airs with which they have been linked and sung:

Some Modern Editions of Burns's Songs

The airs for the songs, but not the original arrangements, are also given in Kinsley's Poems and Songs (1969).

James C. Dick, ed., The Songs of Robert Burns (orig. 1903; repr. Hatfield PA: Folklore Assoc., 1962):  M1746.B94 S7  (This work offers the fullest annotation on the music, and the reprint includes Burns's own notes on Scots songs and Davidson Cook's important later corrections to Dick.)

Robert D. Thornton, The Tuneful Flame (Lawrence, KS: Univ. of Kansas Press, 1957); M 1619.5 .B9 T5   (This book only prints tunes to a selection of songs, but includes Thornton's interesting introduction.)

Donald A. Low, ed., The Songs of Robert Burns (London: Routledge, 1993): PR4324 .L69 1993  (Low's edition contains useful brief notes on each of the songs; the airs were edited and arranged by David Johnson.)

Serge Hovey, The Robert Burns Song Book , ed. Esther and Daniel Hovey, vols. 1-2 (Pacfific, MO: Mel Bay, 1997-2001):  M1619.5.B9 R63 1997 (2 vols. from the four that Hovey had planned and researched: Serge Hovey's archive, including research notes and settings for all the songs, is in the Roy Collection).

Some Books about the Songs

A Burns Music Manuscript

A fragment of music that Burns sent to James Johnson for use in the Scots Musical Museum (Roy Collection).

Some Recordings of Burns's Songs

The links below start with a full listing of Burns recordings, and then give some versions chosen to illustrate the variety of ways in which Burns songs have been sung. 

Some Versions of Flow Gently Sweet Afton

The original setting is in Johnson's Scots Musical Museum, part 4 (1792), song 386; the later setting, with slightly different versions by Jonathan Spilman (1837) and Alexander Hume (1850), is more commonly heard in the U.S.