This Rare Robert Burns Book Was Discovered in a Barber Shop, Where It Was Used to Clean Razors

The rarely seen copy of the Scottish writer’s debut poetry collection is now on display

Portrait of Robert Burns
Robert Burns, the renowned Scottish poet most famous for writing “Auld Lang Syne”  Culture Club via Getty Images

In the late 19th century, a rare first-edition copy of the Robert Burns’ debut poetry collection, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, was found in an English barber shop. It was missing its first 50 pages, as the owner had torn them out and used them to clean razors. 

Fortunately, John Murison, a seed merchant and Burns enthusiast, spotted the rare book in the shop and purchased it from the owner. Experts don’t know the exact date of the transaction, though they estimate that it took place in the 1880s or 1890s.

Now, the book is on view at the Dunfermline Carnegie Library and Galleries in Fife, Scotland. The display is special, says Sara Kelly, who works with the charity OnFife that oversees the library. 

“It doesn’t go on show very often because of its condition and rarity,” she tells the Guardian’s Sarah Shaffi.

Experts don’t know how the book ended up in the barber shop, which was located in Shrewsbury, a town in Shropshire, England. 

“[T]here’s more research to be done if we are to chart the book’s journey to Shrewsbury,” adds Kelly. “It’s wonderful that John Murison had the presence of mind to step in and save the book, given that so few of them still exist.

Burns issued Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect—commonly known as the Kilmarnock Edition, for the town it was first published in—in 1786. Only 612 copies were printed. Today, experts think that only 84 have survived.

The barber shop copy is kept in a special conservation box due to its fragile condition, per the Guardian. It is being displayed alongside other materials from the Murison Burns Collection, which include pottery, portraits, books and other artifacts.

The display, which was unveiled today, will overlap with Burns Night, a Scottish tradition celebrated on January 25, the poet’s birthday.

Born in Alloway, Scotland, in 1759, Burns is best known for writing “Auld Lang Syne,” which was later set to music. One of the most renowned Scottish poets, he has “done more than any other poet to export the 18th-century Scots language around the world,” as the Guardian’s Caroline Davies put it.

Last year, researchers discovered letters in which John Moore, a Scottish physician and regular correspondent of Burns’, advised the poet not to write in Scots, fearing that he would isolate readers based in London. Burns ignored the advice, and he has since become one of Scotland’s most celebrated figures.

The first-edition copy is on view at the Dunfermline Carnegie Library and Galleries in Fife, Scotland, through February 5, 2023.