Junk shop letter now a Scottish national treasure

Mon Jan 25, 2010 1:38pm EST
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By Ian MacKenzie

EDINBURGH (Reuters Life!) - American folklorist Nancy Groce couldn't believe her eyes when she spotted what appeared to be a letter by Jean Armor, widow of Scotland's national bard Robert Burns, in a New York junk shop.

But the letter from Jean to family friend Maria Riddell dated 1804 was not a reproduction and Groce, who is on the staff of the Library of Congress in Washington, donated it to the National Library of Scotland on the anniversary of Burns's birth on Monday.

Robert (1759-1796) and Jean (1765-1834), were married around 1788, and she bore him nine children, both in and out of wedlock.

The January 25th anniversary of his birth is marked every year by an outpouring of affection for the poet probably unique in world literature, with whisky glasses raised to toast the "Immortal Memory" of Burns on five continents around the world.

Groce told Reuters that through her work she had gained some knowledge of Scottish history and literature. She spotted the letter last July by pure luck, while going through a junk shop in New York's Greenwich Village.

"My immediate reaction was 'Oh, it can't be', then my second reaction was it must be a facsimile of a letter, you know the sort a tourist would pick up," she said.

She said she talked to the shop owner and noticed the letter was in a very cheap frame between bits of crockery and old oil paintings. The owner wanted about $200 for the letter, but Groce told him she thought that that was quite a lot for a facsimile.

Then she went away, researched the letter and decided to go back for a closer look. That's when she noticed that the letter showed signs of pretty substantive wear and had bits of wax on it, which would be consistent with it being a manuscript.   Continued...