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The Burns Encyclopedia
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Dunbar, William (d. 1807)

The third son of Alexander Dunbar of Boath, Nairnshire, who claimed descent from the tenth Earl of Dunbar, through Lady Agnes Randolph, his wife. William Dunbar was a Writer to the Signet in Edinburgh, and 'Colonel' of the Crochallan Fencibles, a convivial club which he helped to found, each of whose members assumed a military title. He was Depute-Master of the Canongate Kilwinning Lodge at the time Burns visited in Dunbar presented the poet with an edition of Spenser's works, which Burns much appreciated. Writing from his lodgings in the Lawnmarket, Edinburgh, on 30th April 1787, Burns told Dunbar: 'The time is approaching when i shal return to my shades; and I am afraid my numerous Edinburgh friendships are of so tender a construction that they will not bear carriage with me, Yours is one of the few that i could wish of a more robust constitution.'

Burns celebrated Dunbar's rumbustious good humour by adapting the Border Ballad 'Rattling, Rovin' Willie';

"As I cam by Crochallan
I cannilie keekit ben,
Rattlin', roarin' Willie
Was sittin' at yon boord-en';
And amang gude companie;
Rattlin', roarin' Willie,
You're welcome hame to me."

Several letters passed between Burns and Dunbar, from which it may be inferred that the lawyer wrote less frequently than Burns hoped he might. But Burns sent him drafts of new poems from time to time, inviting Dunbar's return:

'Before an Author gets his Piece finished he has viewed and reviewed it so often — he has brought it so near the mental eye, that it is within the sphere of vision, and he is no longer a judge of its merits. A judicious candid friend is then all he has to trust to.....'

This piece of wisdom, which might be called 'what every poet knows', accompanied a draft of both versions of 'Written in Friar's Carse Hermitage' and dates from February 1789.

From Ellisland on 14th January 11790, after another hint that Dunbar was a tardy correspondent, Burns explained why he had decided to go into the Excise. This letter remained unfinished until 2and February, when Burns began a long postscript: 'I have not for sheer hurry of business been able to spare five minutes to finish my letter.

'Besides my farm business, I ride on my Excise matters at least 200 miles every week...

Latterly the correspondence seems to have languished, though Burns periodically exhorted friends like Peter Hill, the bookseller, to give his good wishes to his 'old friend' Dunbar.

Dunbar finally became Inspector-General of Stamp Duties for Scotland. He never married.

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Complete Burns Songs

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