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The Burns Encyclopedia
Home | Introduction | A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z

Thomson, George (1757-1851)

Son of the schoolmaster at Limekilns, Dunfermline, he was given some legal training. In 1780, John Home, the author of Douglas, recommended Thomson for a clerical appointment with the Board of Trustees for the Encouragement of Art and Manufacture in Scotland, a body set up under the terms of the Treaty of Union, to promote Scottish trade with money given by Parliament in compensation for losses in the Darien scheme, and for assuming a share of England's national debt. He remained with the Board throughout his long and uneventful career, eventually becoming Chief Clerk.

Thomson's absorbing passion was music. He played in the orchestra of the St Cecilia Concerts, and enjoyed the Italianate renderings of Scots songs, which castrati, like Tenducci, indulged in when they visited Scotland. Thomson's general musical taste seems to have led him to prefer the less inventive music of Haydn's pupil Pleyel to that of Haydn himself, or the music of Beethoven.

It was the singing of Pietro Urbani which gave Thomson the idea of marrying Scots songs to accompaniments to the leading masters of the day. During the summer of 1792, Thomson interested Andrew Erskine, younger brother of the composing Earl of Kellie, in bringing out a collection along these lines, and with words strictly respectable. Erskine, however, was by then becoming heavily involved in gambling debts, and although he took some hand in the project at the beginning, going over some of the songs composed for inclusion, he ended his life in the autumn of the following year by jumping into the Forth. So Thomson went on alone. In September 1792, he asked Alexander Cunningham for a letter of introduction to the poet, which he sent to Burns in mid-September, accompanied by an explanation of his requirements and ideals:

'For some years past, I have, with a friend or two. employed many leisure hours in collating and collecting the most favourite of our national melodies, for publication. We have engaged Pleyel the most agreeable composer living, to put accompaniments to these, and also to compose an instrumental prelude and conclusion to each air.... To render this work perfect, we are desirous to have the poetry improved wherever it seems unworthy of the music.... Some charming melodies are united to mere nonsense and doggerel, while others are accommodated with rhymes so loose and indelicate as cannot be sung in decent company. To remove this reproach would be an easy task to the author of "The Cotter's Saturday Night".'

It was as the author of one of his weakest poems that Thomson, like the Edinburgh patricians, thought of Burns. Having set forth the general scheme, he then came down to practical terms:

'We shall esteem your poetical assistance a particular favour, besides paying any reasonable price you shall please to demand for it... tell me frankly, then, whether you will devote your leisure to writing twenty or twenty-five songs, suitable to the particular melodies which I am prepared to send you. A few Songs exceptionable only in some of their verses, I will likewise submit to your consideration; leaving it to you either to mend these or make new songs in their stead.'

Burns told him frankly, replying by return. He would cheerfully do the work, so long as he was not to be hurried.

'As to any remuneration, you may think my songs either above, or below, price; for they shall absolutely be the one or the other. In the honest enthusiasm with which I embark in your undertaking, to talk of money, wages, fee, hire, and etc. could be downright Sodomy of Soul! A proof of each of the Songs that I compose or amend, 1 shall receive as a favor.'

When Thomson sent Currie that letter after Burns's death, Currie revealed a nice sense of moral distinction by substituting the word 'Prostitution' for 'Sodomy'.

The idea of contributing to a better-printed and more lavishly produced publication than the Museum, probably appealed to Burns, who at that time could have had little idea of the dangers into which Thomson was running with Pleyel and the other foreign composers whom he was to employ to provide the accompaniments.

From the start, Burns made it plain to Thomson, as he had done earlier to Johnson, that he intended to abide by the editorial decision — an unfortunate admission as things turned out, for Thomson had neither Johnson's sturdy literary sense nor his humility. By the end of the year, Burns had sent Thomson half a dozen songs, including 'The Lea Rig', 'My Wife's a Winsom Wee Thing' and 'Duncan Gray'.

In June 1793, Thomson brought out the first part of his Select Scottish Airs. It contained the twenty-five songs originally prornised by Burns. The editor sent the poet a copy, enclosing a five-pound note, accompanied by the explanation:

'I cannot express to you how much I am obliged to you for the exquisite new songs you are sending me; but thanks, my friend, are a poor return for what you have done. As I shall benefit by the publication, you must suffer me to enclose a small mark of my gratitude, and to repeat it —afterwards when I find it convenient. Do not return it, for, by Heaven! if you do, our correspondence is at an end.'

By then, Burns was already beginning to feel the first privations of the French war, caused, so far as he was concerned, by the cutting down of imports and consequent loss of his duty perquisites — indeed, only a few weeks before he had been lamenting the fact that a friend of his had 'fallen a sacrifice to these accursed times'! In spite of this, Thomson's payment roused him to indignation.

'I assure you, my dear Sir, that you truly hurt me with your pecuniary parcel. It degrades me in my own eyes. However, to return it would savour of bombast affectation; But, as to any more traffic of

that Dr and Cr kind, I swear, by that HONOUR which crowns the upright Statue of ROBt BURNS'S INTEGRITY! On the least notion of it, I will indignantly spurn the by-past transaction, and from that moment commence entire Stranger to you! BURN'S character for Generosity of Sentiment, and Independence of Mind will, I trust, long outlive any of his wants which the cold, unfeeling, dirty Ore can supply: at least, 1 shall take care that such a Character he shall deserve.'

Thomson never tried to repeat his gesture, until a few days before the end when, in an agony of desperation, the dying poet begged him for a further five pounds.

It has been argued that had Thomson known better how to cope with Burns's pride, or had someone like Henry Mackenzie drawn tip a proper settlement as in the affair with Creech, the difficulty of song-payment need never have arisen. Possibly so. But at that rime the value of literary property was considerably less than it is now, and Burns reaped so much vexation from the Creech transaction that it might not have been easy to bring him to the point of signing another contract.

In any case, his position reasserted, he then went on to congratulate Thomson on the elegant appearance of his book. It was, indeed, the only volume of Thomson's which came out during the poet's lifetime. But the Editor, taking the measure of Burns's enthusiasm, soon decided to widen the scheme so that he could make still more use of his willing collaborator by including 'every Scottish air and song worth singing'.

Burns therefore went on supplying Thomson with songs until a few days before his death. Because Thomson freely put forward counter-suggestions, Burns had, perforce, to carry on a fairly extensive correspondence with him. Often, the poet found it necessary to justify his reasons for what he had done to an old song, or for setting a new song to a particular tune. Because of this, Burns's correspondence with Thomson gives us a fuller insight into his attitude to Scots song than even the notes in the interleaved Museum. Once Burns had stated his wishes — or rebutted Thomson's — the wily Editor rarely argued back. That would have risked an interruption in the correspondence, for there were obvious limits to Burns's patience. So Thomson altered, where it suited him, without consulting the poet, who, in any case, was dead by the time the results appeared. Many of the songs sent to Thomson, Burns asked to be returned to him if unsuitable, so that Johnson might have them. So jealous was Thomson of the engraver, however, that he made a practice of retaining even what he had no intention of using, merely so that Johnson would be deprived!

Writing to Thomson in April 1793, Burns cleared up the question of the ownership of the songs:

'Though I give Johnson one edition of my songs, that does not give away the copy-right; so you may take 'Thou lingering star, with lessening ray', to the tune of Hughie Graham, or other songs, of mine...'

The point is of particular interest, because Thomson later tried (unsuccessfully) to secure the copyright of the songs Burns provided for Select Scottish Airs.

In August 1793, when 'Peter Pindar' (the pen-name of the English minor poet John Wolcott) withdrew his dilatory services from Thomson's project, the editor asked Burns if, in addition to the Scots verses he was already providing, he would also provide some of the alternative English words, which Thomson had undertaken to publish with each air. Forgetting that he had originally told Thomson he would have nothing to do with English words, Burns replied:

'You may readily trust, my dear Sir, that any exertion in my power, is heartily at your service. But one thing I must hint to you, the very name of Peter Pindar is of great Service to your Publication; so, get a verse from him now and then, though I have no objection, as well as I can, to bear the burden of the business.'

Thus Burns committed himself with Thomson still further, though, as he had truly remarked the previous April:

'I have not that command of the language that I have of my native tongue. In fact, I think my ideas are more barren in English than in Scottish.'

A few months later, he added:

'You must not, my dear Sir, expect all your English songs to have superlative merit. 'Tis enough if they are passable.'

The correspondence went on, Thomson suggesting niggling 'improvements', most of which Burns very properly rejected, sometimes almost bluntly:

'I cannot alter the disputed lines in the "Mill Mill 0". What you think a defect, I esteem as a positive beauty: so you see how Doctors differ.'

Thomson's gravest error of judgment occurred over one of Burns's most stirring songs. The shameful trial of the Friends of the People took place during August 1793. The fact that the frightened Government chose to make its examples in Scotland perhaps with the 1715 and 1745 risings still in mind — rather than in England, where Reform supporters were numerically greater, may have helped to turn Burns's mind towards the historical parallel through which he chose to declare his unshaken belief in 'Liberty and Independance'. [sic] Thomson came upon the song after an epistolary introduction in which the poet explained the limitations of his musical taste:

'You know that my pretensions to musical taste, are merely a few of Nature's instincts, untaught and untutored by Art. For this reason, many musical compositions, particularly where much of the merit lies in Counterpoint, however they may transport and ravish the cars of you connoisseurs. affect my simple lug no otherwise than merely as melodious Din. On the other hand, by way of amends, I am delighted with many little melodies, which the learned Musician despises as silly and insipid. I do not know whether the old air "Hey, tutti, tatie", may rank among this number; but well I know that, with Fraser's Hautboy, it has often filled my eyes with tears. There is a tradition, which I have met with in many places of Scotland, that it was Robert Bruce's March at the battle of Bannock-burn. This thought, in my yesternight's evening walk, warmed me to a pitch of enthusiasm on the theme of Liberty and Independance, which I threw into a kind of Scots Ode, fitted to the Air, that one might suppose to be the gallant ROYAL SCOT'S address to his heroic followers on that eventful morning.

Then followed 'Scots, wha hae wi' Wallace bled'. The first four verses clearly refer to the English menace which Robert the Bruce encountered and broke. The last two verses, and the accompanying comment, could also be held to refer to contemporary events:

"By Oppression's woes and pains!
By your Sons in servile chains!
We will drain our dearest veins,
But they shall be free!
Lay the proud Usurpers low!
Tyrants fall in every foe!
LIBERTY'S in ev'ry blow!
Let us DO - or DIE!!"

'So may God defend the cause of Trust and Liberty, as he did that day! - Amen.'

The postscript, too, is revealing:

'P.S. I shewed the air to Urbani, who was highly pleased with it, and begged me to make soft verses for it; but 1 had no idea of giving myself any trouble on the subject, till the accidental recollection of that glorious struggle for Freedom, associated with the glowing idea of some other struggles, of the same nature, not quite so ancient, roused my rhyming Mania....

Thomson liked the words, but not the tune. He suggested to Burns that the poem ought to go to the tune 'Lewie Gordon'. This necessitated a weakening addition to every fourth line: i.e. 'But they shall be, shall be free'. Thomson's Edinburgh 'advisers' took a similar view. Reluctantly, Burns agreed, though he came nearer to losing his temper with Thomson over this than over any other matter. Dr Currie, however, printed the original words in his life and edition of Burns's works, and told the story of the controversy. Thomson thereupon tacitly admitted his error of judgment by reprinting in his volume of 1802 the correct words to 'Hey, tuttie tatti', the sixteenth-century tune for the old popular song 'Hey, now the day dawes'.

However tiresome Thomson may have been, and however wrong-headed over the matter of his accompaniments, he undoubtedly stimulated Burns's muse at a time when some such stimulation was probably essential to keep him going at all.

In a letter dated September 1793, wherein the poet reviews a long list of songs that Thomson had sent him, Burns explained his method of song composition:

'Laddie, lie near me-must lie by me, for some time. I do not know the air; and until I am compleat master of a tune, in my own singing, (such as it is) I never can compose for it. My way is: I consider the poetic Sentiment, correspondent to my idea of the musical expression; then chuse my theme; begin one Stanza; when that is composed, which is generally the most difficult part of the business, I walk out, sit down now and then, look out for objects in Nature around me that are in unison or harmony with the cogitations of my fancy and workings of my bosom; humming every now and then the air with the verses I have framed. when I feel my Muse beginning to jade, 1 retire to the solitary fireside of my study, and there commit my effusions to paper; swinging, at intervals, on the hind-legs of my elbow chair, by way of calling forth my own critical strictures, as my, pen goes.

'Seriously, this, at home, is almost invariably my way''

That song-writing was essential to him, he had revealed in a letter sent to Thomson the previous April:

'You cannot imagine how much this business of composing for your publication had added to my enjoyments. What with my early attachments to ballads, Johnson's Museum, with your book, and etc. Balladmaking is now as compleatly my hobbyhorse, as ever Fortifications was Uncle Toby's ; so I'll e'en canter it away till I come to the limit of my race (God grant that I may take the right side of the winning post!) and then chearfully looking back on the honest folks with whom I have been happy, I shall say, or sing, ' Sac merry as we a' hae been'.'

Burns did, indeed, 'canter' his 'hobbyhorse' till he came to the limit of his race. As late as February 1796, when the last fatal decline in his health had already set in, he was promising Thomson verses for twenty-five Irish airs which the editor now wanted to include in his collection.

At the end of April, Burns wrote:

'Alas! my dear Thomson, I fear it will he some time ere I tune my lyre again! 'By Babel streams' and etc. Almost ever since I wrote you last, I have only known Existence by the pressure of the heavy hand of Sickness; and have counted time by the repercussions of PAIN! Rheumatism, Cold, and Fever have formed, to me, a terrible Trinity in Unity, which makes me close my eyes in misery, and open them without hope.'

In May, he was a little more hopeful, writing to thank Thomson for the present of a new seal made on a 'Highland Pebble'. And incorporating his own unregistered Arms design:

'On a field, azure, a holly-bush, seeded, proper, in base; a Shepherd's pipe and crook, Saltier-wise, also proper, in chief. On a wreath of the colors a woodlark perching on a sprig of bay-tree, proper. For Crest. Two mottoes: Round the top of the Crest 'Wood-notes wild'. At the bottom of the shield, in the usual place. 'Better a wee bush than nae bield'.'

This design, which he had worked out with Maria Riddell, shows something of his knowledge of the science of Heraldry. 'Beautiful seal though it was, he was not to have much opportunity of using it. At the same time, he wisely refused to assign the whole copyright of his songs to the editor, altering the agreement drawn up by Thomson's lawyer in favour of a more limited agreement of his own, which Thomson never publicly produced, and is now lost. On 18th May 1796 Burns made his own intentions regarding his songs clear:

'When your Publication is finished, I intend publishing a Collection on a cheap plan, of all the songs I have written for you, the Museum, and etc. - at least of all the songs of which I wish to be called the Author. I do not propose this so much in the way of emolument, as to do justice to my muse, lest I should be blamed for trash I never saw, or be defrauded by other claimants of what is justly my own.'

To the last, pathetic letter of 12th July, begging twelve pounds by return, Thomson responded promptly.

According to Stationers' Hall, Thomson's six Scottish volumes appeared in 1793, 1798 (vol. 1), 1799 (Vol. 2), 1802 (vol. 3), 1818-26 (vol. 5), and 1841 (vol. 6). The Welsh volumes appeared between 1809 and 1814, the Irish between 1814 and 1816. In 1822, he published a six-volume selected edition, drawn from them all. This, and the first part of the first Scottish volume, published separately in 1793, sold reasonably well. The rest were more or less complete failures financially. Haydn, Beethoven, Weber and Hummel replaced Pleyel on the musical side: Scott, Moore, Byron, Campbell and Sir Alexander Boswell replaced Burns as the provider, of the words. Haydn's accompaniments are, on the whole, the best of the set. (Curiously enough, he set some value on them!) None of the other poems is of much account, since none of the poets other than Burns found it easy to fit words to existing tunes.

For Thomson's volumes, Burns provided about a hundred and fourteen songs; for Johnson about a hundred and sixty. In neither case can any exact figure be given, because in many instances songs by other people which Burns merely claimed to have polished, he so subtly and surely transformed that he clearly deserves the main share of the credit for their immortality.

Although, after Burns's death Thomson did his share of falsifying and suppressing in the true Currie tradition, he fiercely resented any suggestion that he had not treated Burns justly. When Professor John Wilson ('Christopher North') published a scathing attack on Thomson in his Land of Burns in 1838, which Thomson did not see for some years, he vigorously rebutted Wilson's charges. Writing from hearsay, in a letter to the publisher Blackie, dated 30th June 1843, he said:

'Perhaps the professor thinks I was to blame in not sending more than the sum asked. if this has provoked his ire I would merely say that I was not then burdened with money, and had to borrow of a friend the £5 1 sent. And on consulting two of the poet's most intimate friends whether I should enlarge the sum, they both were of opinion that if I sent more than the poet asked there would be a greater risk of offending than of pleasing him in the excited and nervous state in which the altered character of his handwriting showed him to be. What the professor may have chosen to say of me I know not, but this I say, that if my conduct in regard to Burns, from beginning to end, be investigated fairly and candidly, with the utmost strictness, I have not the slightest fear of the result.'

In 1845, Thomson came upon a copy of Wilson's book lying on a table in the house of one of Burns's sons. Thomson then sent a letter rebutting the charges to Tait's Magazine:

'I felt anxious to show him my sense of his great liberality, by sending him a few presents such as I thought he could not well refuse. Accordingly I got the ingenious artist David Allan to paint for him con amore the interesting scene of family Worship from The Cotter's Saturday Night, which he thankfully received. I also sent him a Scoto-Indian shawl for Mrs Burns, and a gold seal with his coat of arms engraved on it from his own curious heraldic design. These cost me but five and twenty guineas, and I freely confess were more suited to my means than to the poet's deserts. But if the prosperous critic himself' — this of course refers to Wilson — 'had stood in my situation with a small income and a large family, who knows whether his own largesses would have exceeded mine? Well did my friends know how gladly I would have tried a race of generosity even with him, if the power had been brother to the will. But Wilson knew me not, as in these evil times an ultra Tory held little communion with a Whig, and he and I were and are strangers to each other.'

Thomson was a member of the committee formed to deal with the question of a Burns memorial in Edinburgh, so played a considerable part in raising money for the erection of the Calton Hill Memorial. He remained jealous of all rival collections of Scots songs to his own; of Urbani's and of Johnson's during Burns's lifetime, and of several later editors thereafter.

Thomson retired from his official duties in 1839, and soon afterwards went to London, in order to be near his two sons and their families. His wife, Katherine Miller of Kelso, whom he had married in 1781, died in London in 1841, while visiting her daughter, Mrs Hogarth. Thomson had two sons and six daughters, one of whom married George Hogarth, an Edinburgh W.S., historian and music critic. A daughter of the Hogarths became the wife of Charles Dickens in 1836. In his lonely old age, Thomson returned to Edinburgh for a public dinner which was held in Gibb's Royal Hotel on 3rd March 1847, one clay before Thomson completed his ninetieth year. Lord Cockburn was in the chair, and presented Thomson with an inscribed vase. He finally settled at 1 Vanbrugh Place, Leith, where he died on 1 8th February 1851. He was buried beside his wife in Kensal Green Cemetery. The inscription on his tombstone was written by Dickens. Raeburn painted his portrait.

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