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THE EDINBURGH FORGERIES.
HE startling revelations made by the Edinburgh Evening
Dispatch in connection with the nefarious traffic in
bogus literary MSS. and other historical documents, which has been going on for the last five or six years, compel us to refer to the subject, although only a short month ago we had considered it scarcely ripe enough to be brought before the general public. For some years past there has been considerable uneasiness and suspicion in the manuscript market, at first induced by the extraordinary number of original documents offered for sale, and subsequently confirmed by the suggestive attitude assumed towards them by experienced collectors, and the most reliable of the cognoscenti in such matters. Still, there was great disinclination displayed to speak out plainly, and all that was available upon which to form a judgment was a succession of hazy rumours and nebulous reports, which there was no means of verifying. The result is that many have been victimised, to whom a seasonable hint would have been specially valuable. This reticence, however, may be excusable in some measure as the outcome of that circumspect caution which is one of our national characteristics. The selfconstituted champion of truth in such a case must necessarily take upon himself a personal responsibility from which the bravest may well shrink; but, while we say this, we can find no excuse for those who have held back when they were only asked to follow where the bolder spirits had cleared the way. It were a national disgrace that such villainy should be practised without challenge and exposure; and the thanks of the whole country are due to the proprietors of the Evening Dispatch for their spirited and disinterested action in the matter. The first article calling public attention to the forgeries appeared on 22nd November, and in column after column, from that date to this, the plot has been allowed to unravel itself in most interesting and satisfactory fashion. It is not our province to enter into the details of the modern "curiosities of literature,” which graced the pages of the Dispatch while the investigation was proceeding. Suffice it to say that recently a man was arrested on a Magistrate's warrant, and remitted to prison
on a charge of “uttering, as genuine, forged documents,” to be afterwards specified. The alleged forgeries include Burns MSS., Scott MSS., Stuart MSS. relating to the Jacobite period, letters by Oliver Cromwell, Thackeray, and other illustrious personages, whose writings are in demand by collectors. A little has also been done, it seems, in the way of supplying the art market with genuine specimens of Sam Bough and other eminent artists, at surprisingly low quotations. It is with the Burns forgeries that we are chiefly concerned. Though it is nearly two years since we became acquainted with the fact that a number of spurious Burns documents had been put upon the market, it was only in the spring of this year that we had any personal cognisance of it. In the month of March or April, at an informal meeting of the Burns Federation in Kilmarnock, Mr. Sneddon, the Secretary, read a communication he had received from Mr. James Mackenzie, Forrest Road, Edinburgh, offering certain Burns manuscripts for sale, and suggesting a personal call for examination of his collection, which he averred was as extensive as that in the Kilmarnock Museum.* Various reasons operated for disregarding this application, and we heard no more of it till the month of September or October, when Mr. Sneddon submitted some further communications from the same gentleman, from which it appeared that, apart from their mercantile side, he was desirous of obtaining a Kilmarnock opinion on the authenticity of certain of the documents in his possession. Mr. Sneddon therefore requested him to forward a specimen, but this Mr. Mackenzie refused to do, on the ground that the request had come too late. The venue was thereafter transferred to the columns of the Cumnock Express by Mr. Mackenzie himself, who communicated to that journal what purported to be a letter from the Poet addressed to a “Mr. John Hill, weaver, Cumnock," of whom and whose connections, the editor, after enquiry, could find no trace. This production was immediately challenged by Mr. Craibe Angus, of Glasgow, who had long been on the alert, and to whose indomitable courage and unwearied vigilance, the credit of setting the machinery of the law in motion is mainly due. In the same paper Mr. Mackenzie afterwards published two poems of seven stanzas each, described as genuine productions of Burns, the one entitled "To the Rosebud," and the other, “The Poor Man's Prayer." In the same issue also appeared two specimen stanzas of an alleged poem by Burns “written after hearing a sermon preached in Tarbolton Free Church,»* as a printed description puts it. Without reference to the condemnatory internal evidence these poems present, they have been conclusively proved, in the columns of the Dispatch, to be nought else than impudent transcripts from old magazines and forgotten volumes of verse. Our space forbids further detail. The curious may refer to the Evening Dispatch of 22nd and 23rd November for a reproduction of the correspondence evoked by Mr. Mackenzie's fruitful communications to the Cumnock Express, but whether the accused has any connection with these productions, or with those to which we may subsequently refer, is a question to be settled by the Court on the evidence submitted at the trial.
* This correspondence was published in the Dispatch of December 16th.
Up to this point we had no opportunity of personally examining any of the suspected documents. Being aware that Mr. Mackenzie had presented a Burns MSS. to the Committee of the Carnegie Library of Ayr, we proceeded there accompanied by another member of the Federation Executive, Treasurer Mackay of Kilmarnock. On our arrival we discovered that Mr. Craibe Angus, without any preconcerted arrangement on either side, had come from Glasgow on the self-same errand as we ourselves. We found the Ayr men, as was only to be expected, rather disinclined to look their gift-horse in the mouth, but eventually every facility was afforded us for a thorough scrutiny of the document, which turned out to be a copy of “The bonnie Banks of Ayr.” After careful examination and comparison of the manuscript with the genuine specimens in the “Cottage,” we unanimously and unhesitatingly gave it as our opinion that the document as a relic of Burns was perfectly worthlessopinion since confirmed by the authorities of the British Museum, and Advocate's Library, Edinburgh. A week or two subsequent to this incident the Dispatch took up the matter with the well-known ability and public spirit which characterise that journal, and speedily brought it to the issue we have already indicated. To its columns we must again refer our readers for full particulars of the astounding discoveries and revelations that were made from day to day as the unsavoury narrative
* The generally accepted date of the Disruption is 1843.
proceeded. For the sake of connection, however, we submit the following summary of Mr. Craibe Angus's first contribution to the columns of the Dispatch, which is headed, "Remarkable Story of a Mysterious Cabinet.”
GLASGOW, NOVEMBER 26TH, 1892. SIR, -As secretary, pro. tem., for the forthcoming Burns Exhibition in Glasgow, I have come to know not a few of the inner circle which may be said to constitute the Burns cult. As the Exhibition will consist mainly of relics of the Poet, my correspondence has necessarily been with the holders of them. Such, in not a few families, are heirlooms, held as national possessions to be freely lent, so that the Exhibition may be an event of historic importance. From these, the one question has been, “How will our property, when on exhibition, be protected from injury?” And so with those also who, in the long ago, had purchased Burnsiana items. All, so far, has been smooth sailing. But, unfor. tunately there is another class, those who, . from the very best of motives, have recently purchased what they believed to be Burns MSS., or books containing his autograph, and from whom come questions of a very different kind. In this way I have come to know of the existence of spurious documents, all recent, and all emanating from the same persons. Several years ago I saw in certain bookshops spurious Burns MSS. before I had even heard of their existence. I instinctively pronounced them false at first sight, when, after a lively ten minutes, I invariably had to beat a hasty retreat. Since then I have seen spurious MSS. of Burns in Newcastle, Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester, Liverpool, and London ; and so I was not altogether unprepared for the revelations you have made. It is a great relief to the promoters of the Burns Exhibition that you have simplified their work by the firm, welltimed, and thorough efforts you are making to discover the forger and his accomplices. My relation to the controversy in the Cumnock Express came about in this way. Happening to be in Cumnock, and having formerly received important information relating to Burns from Mr. Tod, the editor, I took occasion to call upon him. In the course of our conversation he told me that Mr. Mackenzie, an Edinburgh collector, had sent him an unpublished letter of Burns, and that he was making inquiries of the oldest inhabitants regarding it. Mr Mackenzie's name having been so frequently mentioned in connection with bogus MSS., I suggested to Mr. Tod that if he published the letter in the
I Express, he might get the desired information. I added that I strongly doubted the existence of any important MSS. of Burns that had not been published ; and that in Edinburgh there was a manufactory of spurious MSS., and that this letter was probably one of them. Mr. Tod replied that he would ask permission to publish the letter, and if permission was granted, his paper would be open for any comments I might have to make on the letter. I agreed to write as a correspondent, but I had no wish or thought of concealing my identity, and Mr. Tod, very properly, informed Mr. Mackenzie that I was the writer.
I put Mr. Mackenzie in a dilemma. He was fighting with the odds of the truth against him; and where, may I ask Mr. Tod, is he now, when Mr. Stronach has shown that the “Poor Man's Prayer" could not by any possibility have been written by Burns ! I do complain of Mr. Tod for giving colour to Mr. Mackenzie's insinuation that the British Museum, or the Antiquarian Museum in Edinburgh, would for a moment be unjustly swayed, one way or another, in any judgment they might give on a matter of the kind, though I was not much concerned at his taking the side of Mr. Mackenzie in the correspondence.* A word, by the way, as to Mr Mackenzie. Along with two gentlemen, Mr. Colvill Scott, of London, and Mr. Andrew Gibson, of Belfast—two gentlemen who know their Burns down to the roots—I called upon Mr. Mackenzie. We told him that we had called to see the Burns MSS. which, in his letters to the Cumnock Express, he had invited the public to see ;
we told him who we were; and on his complaining of my having condemned a letter I had not seen, I replied that I had not said anything about the penmanship of the letter, and that my strictures were confined to the matter of the letter, which I could not accept as being the outcome of the brain of the Poet. I promised that if he would show me that any of my statements were exaggerated or unfair I should withdraw them over my own name in the first issue of the Express. On referring to the letters, he took exception to my having called him the “ dupe” of the forger. I replied that I had no other alternative. I knew he was not the forger, and I would not believe that he was his willing accomplice. He refused to show the MSS. on the ground that I was a
dealer.” I told him that I was a collector of books relating to Burns, but that dealing in Burns MSS. could not be said to be a department of my firm. Not having been favourably impressed with the answers and conversation of Mr. Mackenzie, I said I should bid him good-bye, and write to the Express to say that he had refused to show me the MSS. he had invited the public to see. After much hesitation and haggling he said the MSS. were at his house, and that he could not show them that day. We asked him to fix a day when we could see them, and he named the following Tuesday. I asked him no questions myself, but my friends did. He refused to tell where he got the MSS., or in whose possession they had been previous to their coming into his hands, further than to say that he was a collector, and that an old cabinet, the style of which he did not like, had been brought to him, and that thinking there might be some hidden treasure in some secret drawer, he purchased it. And he told us how, on touching a spring, a bundle of MSS., as if by magic, were ejected from their long hiding. On the question being raised whether, under the circumstances, the MSS. were his property, or that of the late owner of the cabinet, and why he had not communicated the knowledge of his 'find' to some learned Society or the Scotsman, he beat about the bush and would not come to the point. On his repeating his statement in one of his letters
* Mr. Tod has since admitted that he was in error.