The Bonie Moorhen, 1788

In the F. Ambrose Clark Rare Book Room, I came across a rare gem, tucked away in the John H. Daniels Manuscripts Collection. It’s a poem called “The Bonie Moorhen: A Hunting Song.” The manuscript is an autograph manuscript by Robert Burns (1759-1796), the foremost national poet of Scotland. Burns wrote poetry and composed songs, and he also collected Scottish folk songs for publication. Many Americans haven’t heard of Robert Burns, but still sing his song “Auld Lang Syne” at the end of each year.

Its not every day you can crack open an autograph manuscript from the king of Scottish poetry!
Its not every day you can crack open an autograph manuscript from *the* Scottish poet!

At face value, the poem is a hunting song about the difficulty of capturing a grouse in the wild. A local manages to win away with the grouse where all others failed.

The transcribed hunting song. A "moor-hen" is more widely known to us as a grouse, whose excellent camouflage and sudden flight makes it a difficult target.
The transcribed hunting song. A “moor-hen” is more widely known to us as a grouse, whose excellent camouflage and sudden flight makes it a difficult target.

However, there’s intrigue and romance afoot in this poem: The poem serves as an allegory for Burns’ relationship with Nancy McLehose, who exchanged letters with Burns in the 1780s. Nancy was estranged from her husband, and urged Burns to refrain from publishing the transparent song.

Apparently, the poem is a not-so-loosely veiled allegory about Burns and his correspondent friend, Clarinda, who married a Glasgow gentleman named Maclehose.
Apparently, the poem is a not-so-loosely veiled allegory about Burns and his correspondent friend, Clarinda, who married a Glasgow gentleman named McLehose.
Burns did not publish the poem in his lifetime, submitting to Clarinda's request not to publish. The poem was published after Burns' death.
Burns did not publish the poem in his lifetime, submitting to Clarinda’s request not to publish. The poem was published after Burns’ death.

Do you want to learn more about Robert Burns? If you’re in the region, you should check out the upcoming event, Hylton in the Highlands at the Hylton Performing Arts Center on GMU’s Prince William Campus. This year’s festival is next Saturday, January 24 from 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. The day-long festival celebrates Scottish culture with music, interactive presentations, exhibits, and food tastings.

Further, the Hylton Center also hosts a Burns Supper to commemorate the life and works of Robert Burns. The event is complete with a special performance by the musical duo Alan Reid and Rob van Sante, a poetry reading, Scotch whisky tasting and the presentation of Scotland’s “National Dish,” haggis.

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