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The Burns Encyclopedia
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Currie, Dr James (1756 — 1805)

Burns's first editor and major biographer was born on 31st May 1756 at Kirkpatrick Fleming, Dumfriesshire, where his father was minister. Schooled at Dumfries, he emigrated to Virginia in 1771, settling as a merchant on the James River. He suffered from endemic fever and many setbacks, and in 1776 sailed for Greenock, intending to study medicine at Edinburgh and return to practise it in America. But sailing was seized by the Revolutionaries and he was captured and made to serve in the Colonial Army. He bought his freedom, set sail again, and was captured a second time. To gain his freedom on this occasion he had to sail 150 miles in an open boat. Illness and other misfortunes continued to try him but he at last reached Deptford, England on 2nd May 1777. Whilst in his first year at Edinburgh University, he bathed imprudently at the end of a 32 mile walk, and took rheumatic fever, a disease which eventually helped to kill him. He graduated in 1780 and settled in Liverpool. In 1792, he was able to buy himself a small estate in Dumfriesshire. He met Burns once, briefly, in Dumfries. The following year, under the pseudonym 'John Wilson', Currie published a letter to Pitt urging him not to go to war with France. His main contribution to medicine was his Medical Reports on the Effects of Water, Cold and Warm, as a Remedy in Fever and Febrile Diseases, whether applied to the Surface of the Body, or used as a Drink, with observations on the Nature of Fever and on the Effects of Opium, Alcohol and Inanition, published in 1797, which ran through four editions. He died of heart failure on 31st August 1805, at Sidmouth, where he is buried.

After Burns's death, Currie, as an admirer of Burns's poetry, was chosen to edit the poet's work, the others considered being Maria Riddell, Maxwell, Syme and Dugal Stewart, none of whom was able to undertake it. Currie himself was ill equipped for the task. As a young man Currie was intemperate in both drink and speech. The respectability he unexpectedly gained in middle life had to be lived up to. He thus felt he could not publicly condone what seemed to him the drunken routs of the a poetic rake, even if there was a good and painful reason. Consequently, although never a strict teetotaller himself, except while suffering from his consumptive bouts, he deplored Burns's fondness for drink, and started what was to become the accepted legend for more than a century, that Burns was a confirmed alcoholic. Currie openly stated his intention of avoiding controversial topics, and took fantastic liberties with Burns's documents, and with other facts, to achieve his aim.

In his defence, however, it should be said that no one else appeared able or willing to undertake the task at the time; that he had no training in editorial scholarship, even according to the lax standards of the day; and that his primary aim was to help to raise money in aid of the poet's family. His four volume edition appeared in 1800, and cost one pound eleven and sixpence the set. Two thousand copies were printed. A second edition, revised, was published in 801, a third in 1802, and a fourth in 1803. An eighth edition in 1820 published by Cadell and Davies in London, had added 'Some further Particulars of the Author's Life' by Gilbert Burns. But Gilbert was warned by the Publishers not to impugn Currie's accuracy, and so allowed the chance to vindicate his brother's reputation to go for nothing.

An interesting and very full study of Currie and his times, James Currie, the Entire Stranger and Robert Burns by R D Thornton appeared in 1963.

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Complete Burns Songs

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