August 3, 2010 / 4:41 PM / 9 years ago

Letter reveals Scottish poet Burns at death's door

EDINBURGH (Reuters Life!) - A hitherto unknown letter describing the “reduced and shattered” appearance of Scotland’s national bard Robert Burns just a week before his death was released on Tuesday by the country’s national archives.

Burns turned up at the Excise office in Dumfries for his salary as an exciseman on July 14, 1796, despite being desperately ill with what is believed to have been rheumatic heart disease, joking with his colleagues with “wit and humor.”

He died just seven days later in the town in southwest Scotland.

Details of his visit are contained in the letter written by his superior officer in the Excise in Dumfries, John Mitchell, to Robert Graham of Fintry, a Commissioner of Excise in Edinburgh and a friend and admirer of the poet.

George MacKenzie, keeper of the records of Scotland at the National Archives, said on showing the letter publicly for the first time that the document “gives us a remarkable insight into Burns in these last few days (of his life).”

The letter was discovered while the Graham of Fintry collection purchased from the family last year was being catalogued.

MacKenzie said the most interesting thing Burns was quoted as saying amounted to “a wonderful epitaph” for Scotland’s national poet: “I’m only 36, 10 of which only I have been (well known) in the world, and, in that time, all I shall say, My Good Sir, I have not been idle.”

Burns was actually 37 at the time of his death.

Mitchell said that because of his illness Burns had been urged not to come to the Excise office for his pay, “but he would, saying, once more he hoped to be able to go and draw from me at the proper place”

“I shall not soon forget his appearance and manner, reduced and shattered as he was, in the extreme, his Wit and Humour remained.”

Burns had been given a post in the Excise to help eke out his slender means.

Mitchell wrote his letter on 24 July, 1796, to tell Graham of his friend’s death:

“Upon my return today, having been in the Country all last Week, attending Revenue Courts, (I) found poor Burns was no more, (he) died on Thursday.”

The letter goes on display on Monday for a month at the National Archives.

Editing by Paul Casciato

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