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The Burns Encyclopedia
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Penn, Matthew

The Dumfries solicitor who sent Burns, while he was at Brow, a letter about a bill for seven pounds and four shillings which the poet owed to D. Williamson, a Dumfries draper, for his volunteer uniform. This bill, along with other overdue bills, had been put by Williamson into Penn's hands for collection. Although there was no threat of legal proceedings in Penn's letter, the dying poet interpreted the letter as a threat. Perhaps troubled by dark memories of his father's struggle against debt Burns thereupon wrote two desperate letters for help. To his cousin, James Burness, at Montrose, on 12th July 1796, he wrote: 'A rascal of a Haberdasher to whom I owe a considerable bill taking it into his head that I am dying, has commenced a process against me, & will infallibly put my emaciated body into jail. Will you be so good as to accomodate me, & that by return of post, with ten pound. O James! did you know the pride of my heart, you would feel doubly for me! Alas! I am not used to beg! The worst of it is, my health was coming about finely; you know & my Physician assures me that melancholy & low spirits are half my disease, guess then my horrors since this business began. If I had it settled, I would be I think quite well in a manner. How shall I use the language to you, O do not disappoint me! but strong Necessity's curst command.
'I have been thinking over & over my brother's affairs & I fear I must cut him up; but on this I will correspond at another time, particularly as I shall [need] your advice.
'Forgive me for once more mention[ing] by return of Post. Save me from the horrors of a jail!
'My Compliments to my friend James, & to all the rest. I do not know what I have written. The subject is so horrible, I dare not look it over again.'

And on the same day, another desperate appeal went to George Thomson:

'After all my boasted independance, curst necessity compels me to implore you for five pounds. A cruel scoundrel of a Haberdasher to whom I owe an account, taking it into his head that I am dying, has commenced a process, & will infallibly put me into jail. Do, for God's sake, send me that sum, & that by return of post. Forgive me this earnestness, but the horrors of a jail have made me half distracted. I do not ask all this gratuitously; for upon returning health, I hereby promise and engage to furnish you with five pounds' worth of the neatest song-genius you have seen. I tryed my hand on Rothiemurchie this morning. The measure is so difficult, that it is impossible to infuse much genius into the lines - they are on the other side. Forgive me!'

With Thomson's note was Burns's last song 'Fairest maid on Devon banks' to the tune 'Rothiemurchie', which first appeared as a song in Thomson's Scottish Airs, 1801.

Both men sent the money asked of them. But Thomson wrote on his note: 'This idea is exaggerated — he could not have been in any such danger at Dumfries nor could be in such necessity to implore aid from Edinr.'

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