Scots poems on show ahead of Burns Night

An exhibition of artefacts relating to the Scottish poet Robert Burns at the Linen Hall Library in Belfast.
An exhibition of artefacts relating to the Scottish poet Robert Burns at the Linen Hall Library in Belfast.

With heritage-conscious Ulster-Scots set to celebrate Burns Night in the coming days, a hoard of treasured artefacts linked to the poet are available to view in Belfast.

The Linen Hall Library has a string of objects on display ahead of a Burns supper due to take place tonight – complete with a costumed actor reading to a haggis.

Robert Burns

Robert Burns

The library is said to have the largest collection of Robert Burns’ books outside of Scotland and for the last five-or-so years has hosted an exhibition.

Among the pieces in its collection are centuries-old copies of this venerable newspaper itself, in which a number of Burns’ works were published.

One edition of the News Letter, sitting out among the pieces on display, is from June 1796 and carries on its back page a column of the poet’s lines under the simple title of “Song by R Burns”.

Librarian John Killen said: “The News Letter in those days had world news, local news, and ‘empire news’, I suppose – but it also put in poetic effusions by British poets.

“By 1796, the interest in Burns was growing in Belfast. It struck a chord here. It was part of the Scottish influence.”

Like other works, the piece was written in the poet’s traditional Scots dialect, and Mr Killen added: “I think it was pretty understandable. A lot of Scots words still exits in our speech. In the 1790s, it may not have been as challenging as we suppose.”

Elsewhere, available to view only on request, is what is thought to be the first known copy of a Burns poem published in Ulster.

“Fragments of Scotch Poetry” appears in an edition of the News Letter marked October 31–November 3, 1786.

It begins with the line: “My memory’s no worth a preen...”, and though the piece has no name by it, it has been authenticated as belonging to the Scots-language bard.

Mr Killen said that, in an era before serious copyright enforcement, “pirate” editions of his work would also have begun circulating in Belfast in the latter part of the 1700s.

The library’s glass cases also show old copies of his published works, and a collection of political and religious pamphlets from his own library, as well as non-literary curios such as a 19th century Burns-themed punch jug.

Asked about the enduring popularity of the poet, he said: “There’s been good interest.

“We’re pleased with the footfall in the library to look at this, and with the number of people coming to the supper. That’s voting with your feet...

“Each year we can vary the exhibition. The focus of it is to encourage people to actually come and engage with the works.”

The exhibition, which is free, will be held at the library until the end of the month.