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A Letter from Robert Burns to Sir John Sinclair (by L.J. Myatt)

20th January 2014

This item was published in the 2005 Bulletin of Caithness Field Club

In compiling his First Statistical Account of Scotland in the 1790s, Sir John Sinclair wrote to every parish minister in Scotland with a list of 166 queries. His aim was to assess the state of the country at the time and to help provide a means of making improvements in the future. The standard of returns which he received was generally good, although there was considerable variation depending upon the interest of ministers and whether they were able to find the time to comply with Sir Johns request for information.

At about this time Robert Burns had, at the instigation of Robert Riddel, set up a small library in the parish of Dunscore which had been found to be particularly useful to the younger people. He acted as librarian, treasurer and chooser of the books. Burns noted that the local minister, in submitting his account to Sir John, had not made any mention of this library. It was generally believed that the reason for this was that the minister could not approve of some of the books held in the library.

Burns, who was a prolific letter writer, felt that some mention of the library was warranted and was moved to write the following letter to Sir John.

The following circumstance has I believe been omitted in the statistical account, transmitted to you, of the parish of Dunscore, in Nithsdale. I beg leave to send it to you, because it is new, and may be useful. How far it is deserving of place in your patriotic publication, you are the best judge.

To store the minds of the lower classes with useful knowledge, is certainly of very great importance, both to them as individuals, and to society at large. Giving them a turn for reading and reflection, is giving them a source of innocent and laudable amusement; and besides, raises them to a more dignified degree in the scale of rationality. Impressed with this idea, a gentleman in this parish, Robert Riddel, Esq. Of Glenriddel, set on foot a species of circulating library, on a plan so simple as to be practicable in any corner of the country; and so useful, as to deserve the notice of every country gentleman, who thinks the improvement of that part of his own species whom chance has thrown into the humble walks of the peasant and the artizan, a matter worthy of his attention.

Mr Riddel got a number of his own tenants, and farming neighbours, to form themselves into a society for the purpose of having a library among themselves. They entered into a legal engagement to abide by it for three years; with a saving clause or two, in case of removal to a distance, or death. Each member, at his entry, paid five shillings; and at each of their meetings, which were held every fourth Saturday, sixpence more. With their entry money, and the credit which they took on the faith of their future funds, they laid a tolerable stock of books at the commencement. What authors they were to purchase, was always decided by the majority. At every meeting, all the books, under certain fines and forfeitures, by way of penalty, were to be produced; and the members had the choice of the volumes in rotation. He whose name stood for that night, first on the list, had his choice of what volume he pleased in the whole collection; the second had his choice after the first; the third after the second, and so on to the last. At next meeting he who had been first on the list at the preceding meeting, was the last at this; he who had been second was first; and so on through the whole three years. At the expiration of the engagement, the books were sold by auction, but only among the members themselves; and each man had his share of the common stock, in money or books, as he chose to be a purchaser or not.

At the breaking up of this little society which was formed under Mr Riddels patronage, what with benefactions of books from him, and what with their own purchases, they had collected together upwards of one hundred and fifty volumes. It will be easily guessed, that a good deal of trash would be bought. Among the books, however, of this little library, were Blairs Sermons, Robertsons History of Scotland, Humes History of the Stuarts, The Spectator, Idler, Adventurer, Mirror, Lounger, Observer, Man of Feeling, Man of the World, Chrysal, Don Quixote, Joseph Andrews, &c. A peasant who can read, and enjoy such books, is certainly a much superior being to his neighbour, who perhaps stalks beside his team, very little removed, except in shape, from the brutes he drives.

Wishing your patriotic exertions their so much merited success,

I am, Sir, your humble servant,


The letter was forwarded to Sir John by Mr Riddel, mentioned in the letter, and was published in volume three of the first edition of the Statistical Account.