Auctions | May 19, 2014

Robert Burns Handwritten Lyrics to “Ye Banks and Braes O’Bonnie Doon” at Bonhams

The words to one of Robert Burns’ best loved songs—Ye Banks and Braes O’Bonnie Doon—written in his own hand are to be sold at Bonhams Books, Atlases, Manuscripts and Photographs sale in London on June 18. The poem is estimated at £30,000-40,000. Bonhams, the third largest international fine art auction house, holds book sales in London, Oxford, New York and California.

The song was written in 1792 and first published in Johnson’s Scots Musical Museum of that year. Many of the songs collected by Burns were traditional verses which he adapted, the best known of which are Auld Lang Syne and A Red, Red Rose. Ye Banks and Braes O’Bonnie Doon, however, is entirely original although there is an earlier version by the poet set to a different tune.

Burns was a prolific writer of songs who usually took his inspiration from existing tunes. This was the case with Ye Banks and Braes O’Bonnie Doon, as he explained in a letter of 1794 to George Thomson who was looking for more material to include in the reprint of his Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs which had first appeared the previous year: “There is another air, "The Caledonian hunt's delight," to which I wrote a song that you will find in Johnson—Ye banks & Braes O'Bonnie Doon—; this air, I think, might find a place among your hundred—as Lear says of his Knights.” Thomson did include the work in subsequent editions although, as Burns pointed out, it was never clear to him that the tune had actually originated in Scotland—Ireland and the Isle of Man being other candidates.

The manuscript is written on paper bearing the royal Hanoverian watermark of a hunting horn over the GR cipher—a reminder of Burns’ occupation as an Exciseman for the Crown. Only one other manuscript of the song exists. It is the copy submitted for inclusion in Scots Musical Museum and is housed in the British Library.

Bonhams Head of Books, Matthew Haley said: ”Burns took song-writing very seriously and Ye Banks and Braes O’Bonnie Doon surely stands out as one of the loveliest among his many beautiful and memorable lyrics.”