I picked up a pristine copy of the Selected Letters of Robert Burns (OUP’s World Classics edition, published in 1953) last week in the superb Shelter Bookshop in Stockbridge, Edinburgh, for the princely sum of £2.
Burns, as we all know, wrote many of his poems in Scots. Surprisingly, however, there is only one known example remaining of a letter written by him in the language of his countrymen. The letter is to William Nicol, Classics Master at the High Schools of Edinburgh, who was Burns’ companion when he travelled around Scotland collecting songs. Sent from Carlisle, the letter describes an encounter with two pretty women:
I met wi’ twa dink quines.…ane o’ them a sonsie, fine fodgel lass, baith braw and bonie; the tither was a clean-shankit, straught, tight, weel-far’d winch, as blythe’s a lintwhite on a flowerie thorn, and as sweet and modest’s a new blawn plumrose in a hazle straw. They were baith bred to the mainers by the beuk, and onie ane o’ them has as muckle smeddum and rumblegumtion as the half o’ some Presbytries that you and baith ken. They play’s me sik a deevil o’ a shavie that I daur say if my harigals were turn’d out, ye wad see twa nicks i’ the heart o’ me like the mark o’ a kail-whittle in a castock.
As for a translation into English, this is my own attempt — I’ve no doubt many could offer a better one:
I met with two fine young women, one of them a curvaceous, fine and buxom lass, both pretty and charming; the other was a long-legged, slim, straight-talking, well-favoured a girl, as cheery as a linnet on a flowering thorn, and as sweet and modest as a newly-blossomed primrose in a hazel wood. They were both well-bred and good-mannered, and both of them as spirited and level-headed as half of the parish councils that you and I both know. They both played me such a devil of a trick that I dare say if my innards were turned out, you would see two nicks in my heart like the mark of a knife on a cabbage stalk.