January 25, 2010 / 6:41 PM / 8 years ago

Junk shop letter now a Scottish national treasure

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.

"By that point the seller said he wanted one hundred dollars, not a couple of hundred, and I offered something less, so I bought it for 75 dollars," Groce said. "It was just luck that I had enough knowledge of Burns to think that it might be real and it sort of threw itself in my path."

In the letter, the poet's wife begins by thanking "Madam" for her "kind inquiry after my family and that you wished to know what was become of Mr Burns children." Jean then goes on to tell the recipient about the fortunes of her children.

A spokesman for the National Gallery said experts had authenticated the letter. The library had a facsimile of it dated from 1947 but the original had disappeared. It is not known how it ended up in a New York junk shop.

Groce said the letter gives the lie to suggestions that Jean Burns was illiterate.

"I felt the truth is very much different, that she was a very capable, sensible woman who really looked after and nurtured both his children and his legacy after he was gone."

Editing by Paul Casciato

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