The Murison Burns Collection

Statue of Robert Burns in Dunfermline Carnegie Library

Statue of Robert Burns in Dunfermline Carnegie Library

John Murison was born in Glasgow in 1852.  Early in life he settled in London where he became the representative of a firm of horticultural seedsmen.  His business responsibilities involved a great deal of travel between England and Scotland and, his two great passions being for plants and books, these trips enable him to maintain contact with fellow enthusiasts.


Collecting Burns

It was his friendship with Craibe Angus, the most notable Burns collector of his time, which inspired Murison to create a private library devoted to books by and about Robert Burns.  Collecting Burns books and memorabilia became Murison’s obsession for the next 40 years.


Towards the end of his life he began to consider the library’s future.  Murison was keen to avoid the dispersal of a collection which had taken so long to build.  While he was reluctantly preparing to put his books up for sale, a decision was taken to find a home for the collection in Dunfermline.


A Gift to Dunfermline

Easton Gibb and Son Ltd were the principal contractors involved in constructing the naval dockyard at Rosyth. In 1921, Sir Alexander Gibb, owner of the firm, heard of the availability of Murison’s collection.  Gibb had formed many friendships among the people of Dunfermline during his time at Rosyth, and he was determined to make some kind of commemorative gift to the town.  His offer to purchase the collection for Dunfermline was swiftly accepted and, within a matter of weeks, the books were safely delivered to the Central Library.


This outcome was very satisfactory to all concerned.  Murison’s life-work remained intact, Dunfermline’s recently-extended public library received a very prestigious addition to its holdings, and Burns enthusiasts were able to see the collection properly housed, available to the public at large and within Scotland too.


Wood-notes Wild

The books are kept today in the Special Collections room of Dunfermline Carnegie Library.  Originally they were housed separately in the room which became the Children’s Library in 1935. The poet’s crest with mottoes, “Wood-notes wild” and “Better a wee bush than nae bield” can still be seen above the door.


The major part of the collection consists of the fifteen hundred or son books which Murison gathered during his lifetime. They range from the modestly produced first edition of Burns poems, published in Kilmarnock in 1786, to the lavish editions issued in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.


Unfortunately, Murison’s copy of the Kilmarnock edition is in far too mutilated a condition to be of much interest or value but the collection does contain  number of other early editions, including many so-called “pirate” editions which were produced in Scottish, English and Irish towns during the poet’s lifetime.  Among these is the first edition printed in Fife, which was issued by J Crerar of Kirkcaldy in 1802.


As well as Burns’ poems, the collection also contains many critical works, essays and translations. Burns’ poetry has been translated into a wide range of languages and the collection included editions in French, German, Flemish, Gaelic, Latin, Italian and many others.



Prints, pottery and other relics also feature in the collection.  John Murison’s obsession drove him to collect any kind of object which had some connection with Burns’ life and work.  Naturally this included the various engraved portraits of the poet but also extended to the countless commemorative tokens, medals, brooches, and earthenware which began appearing after Burns’ death and continued throughout the nineteenth century. Worth mentioning are the set of Tam o’ Shanter jugs, issued by Ridgway in 1834, and two Wedgewood busts of the poet in white and black basalt.


The Mursion Burns Collection, when it was presented to Dunfermline in 1921, was one of the finest of its kind in existence.  Since that time, modest additions, including translations into Japanese and Russian, have been made by gift or purchase.  


In 1953 a printed catalogue of the books in the collection was issued under the sponsorship of the Dunfermline Public House Society.  The collection continues to be of interest and benefit to the people of Dunfermline and to the worldwide community of Burns enthusiast and scholars.

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