University of Glasgow scholar discovers a cancelled manuscript by Robert Burns

Published: 24 January 2024

The cancelled working manuscript of the song - Ye Jacobites by Name - was written by Burns in 1791 in the inflammatory early period of the French Revolution, against which reformers in the British Isles increasingly agitated for political change.

Robert Burns wrote about revolutionary themes that if published might have placed him under suspicion with the authorities.

The discovery of a cancelled manuscript by Burns, an early version of one of his most famous songs, is the most explicit instance of several where he ostensibly writes about history but actually has his eye on 18th century current affairs following the French Revolution.

The finding by a leading Burns expert based at the University of Glasgow is of another version of Burns’ song, ‘Ye Jacobites by Name’.

The cancelled working manuscript of the song was written by Burns in 1791 in the inflammatory early period of the French Revolution, against which reformers in the British Isles increasingly agitated for political change.

While today Burns is a world-renowned poet and songwriter, he lived a life in which he had no political vote, even as a highly skilled Exciseman working for the very government that denied him that right.

The cancelled draft, ‘Ye Black-nebs by name’, sees writing with implicit sympathy for the radical reformers who were challenging the 1700s British status quo of highly limited democracy, which entailed the rights essentially of a small propertied class. Burns risked putting paid to his advancement in, even being sacked from, Crown service. 

Page 1 of the cancelled manuscript of Ye Jacobites by Name in the handwriting of Robert Burns was discovered in the collection of Burns materials held at Barnbougle Castle, near Edinburgh. Photo by Dr Pauline Mackay (by permission Dalmeny Estate Collections)

Professor Gerard Carruthers of the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Robert Burns Studies, says the discovery in the collection of Burns materials held at Barnbougle Castle, near Edinburgh, gives a fascinating insight into Burns creative genius.

Professor Carruthers adds that during Burns’ life he more than once used a simple formula to hide his political thinking in plain sight, seeming to write about the past but signalling the present. ‘Black-nebs’, a term for reformers in the 1790s, disappears altogether in the cancelled manuscript as this is supplanted by the final version of ‘Ye Jacobites by Name’. We only know that by Jacobites he was perhaps actually thinking of contemporary reformers once we are aware of the existence of the cancelled document, now rediscovered.

Professor Carruthers, Francis Hutcheson Chair of Scottish Literature at the University of Glasgow, said: “The cancelled ‘Ye Black-nebs’ chimes with other songs, most famously ‘Scots Wha Hae’ and A Man’s a Man for a’ That’ where revolutionary ideas are smuggled in under the guise of writing about the Scottish Wars of Independence or universal brotherhood. In the end, ‘Ye Black-nebs’ was more explicit than these texts and is completely overwritten by ‘Jacobite’. Burns’s original version, however, raises the strong possibility that the finished version is code for more recent 1790s revolutionaries.

Professor Carruthers added: “The variant ‘Black-nebs’ [revolutionaries] instead of ‘Jacobites’ in the Barnbougle manuscripts references someone of democratic principles following the French Revolution and raises the intriguing proposition that Burns thought first of composing a lyric in the voice of a disillusioned radical of 1790s before moving from a Jacobin-themed to a Jacobite’ one.”

An image of Professor Gerard Carruthers taken in January 2024. Credit Martin Shields

The Burns scholar said: “If Burns had lived longer, I believe he would have been in favour of political reforms emerging at that time particularly after the Napoleonic wars of the early 1800s. He wouldn’t have continued to use cunning to cover his allegiances I don’t think. But at the time as a Crown employee and at this point in his life, he hadn’t got there just yet. But I believe he would have increasingly been on the side of democratic reform had he lived into the early 19th century.

“However, when this was written Ellisland, his farm, was not as productive as he would have liked, and things were uncertain financially for him and his growing family. He was therefore dependent on his Excise employment and couldn’t speak as freely as he might have liked. It was a very dangerous time for people who backed political reform in the wake of the American and French revolutions. For example, Thomas Muir, a famous Scottish political reformer, fewer than two years later in 1793 [when ‘Ye Jacobites by Name’ was first published] was transported to Botany Bay with a sentence of fourteen years after having been found guilty of sedition due to the speeches he had given on the ideals of democracy.” 

The Centre for Robert Burns Studies

The Centre for Robert Burns Studies (CRBS) is the world’s leading centre for the study of Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns (1759-96), his contexts and associated literatures. Establishing itself as a cross-disciplinary area of research excellence which has attracted major financial and intellectual investment, CRBS has brought together the largest concentration of Burns experts in the world and their work has impact on a global scale. The scholarship undertaken by CRBS academics was recently honoured with a Queen’s Anniversary Prize – the highest national Honour awarded in UK further and higher education.

Jacobins & Jacobites

The Jacobins were a political club formed in the wake of the French Revolution. They saw themselves as constitutionalists who were dedicated to the “Rights of Man”. The term Jacobin was used in both Britain and America to refer to people associated with similarly radical/democratic political views. Jacobites were the individuals who remained loyal to James II and his descendants (the Stuart succession) after James II was overthrown in 1688. They attempted several uprisings to restore the Stuart monarchs, the most important were in 1715 and 1745.

Ye Jacobites by Name

A popular Scottish song which traces its origins to the times of Jacobite uprisings in Scotland in the 17th and 18th centuries. The version we know today was re-written by Robert Burns who turned it into an anti-war song in the voice of disillusioned Jacobite who is exhausted by war.

This popular Scottish song traces its origins to the times of the Jacobite uprisings in Scotland (1688–1746). This version was re-written by Robert Burns and published in 1793 in volume 4 of James Johnson's The Scots Musical Museum.

The 18th century landmark publication is credited with saving Scotland’s folk song tradition. Burns was the main contributor to The Scots Musical Museum - collecting, reworking, and writing new lyrics for folk tunes. He is also credited with single-handedly inspiring the movement that preserved these folk songs for future generations. In 2018, a new edition of The Scots Musical Museum was published by a team at the University of Glasgow Centre for Robert Burns Studies led by Professor Murray Pittock.

Rosebery Family

The cancelled Burns manuscript is part of the library at Barnbougle Castle, near Edinburgh. It is the library of the former 19th Century Prime Minister, Archibald Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery, 1st Earl of Midlothian, who during his lifetime amassed an excellent library which he kept mainly at Barnbougle. Lord Dalmeny and Lady Jane Kaplan, the children of the the 7th Earl of Rosebery and great-grandchildren of Archibald Primrose the 5th Earl, have been instrumental in supporting the Centre for Robert Burns Studies research into their family’s collection.

First published: 24 January 2024