MS: Letter from Robert Burns to Mrs Agnes McLehose, dated 28 December 1787

Robert Burns, Author 
Object Number:


Robert met one of the greatest loves of his life, Mrs Agnes McLehose, during his extended trip to Edinburgh. Although they were both involved with other people, the two began an epistolatory affair which has been immortalized through their surviving correspondence. Addressing each other as ‘Sylvander’ and ‘Clarinda’ to protect their identities in case of exposure, Robert and Agnes continued to write to each other for years, even after Robert married Jean Armour and moved to Ellisland near Dumfries.

Burns composed this letter at the beginning of their relationship. He had hoped to privately visit Agnes for the first time several days before, but he fell from a carriage and injured his knee. Unable to leave his bed, Burns began writing to his new love interest on a regular basis as his impatience grew.

In this letter, Robert and Agnes begin to use their romantic, literary names of ‘Sylvander’ and ‘Clarinda’. This was done partly to display their love of poetry, but more importantly out of secrecy as Agnes was afraid of the amorous letters going astray and thus ruining her reputation, as she was still a married woman despite separating from her husband.

Burns fills this letter with passionate compliments to his fellow poetess. He writes the he presented some of her poems to a friend, Professor Gregory, under the pretence that they were his own. As Gregory began to offer criticisms, Burns said they were actually written by a society lady, much to Gregory's astonishment. He soon follows this with flowery sentiments aimed at Agnes' heart:
'I believe there is no holding converse or carrying on correspondence, with an amiable woman, much less a gloriously amiable, fine woman, without some mixture of that delicious Passion, whose most devoted Slave I have more than once had the honor of being...'

Burns follows this by sharing his dismay that such an innocent woman would be forced to suffer such cruelties and sorrow. At this point in Agnes' life, she was separated from her abusive husband, who was living on plantation in Jamaica. He had also taken custody of their three children while her wellbeing was left to the charity of her own family in Edinburgh. He finishes the note by asking her to write to him when she returns to town, as he is counting the hours until he hears from her.

Enclosed with this letter was few lines 'composed on a late melancholy occasion’ - most likely a copy of On the Death of Lord President Dundas.

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