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Collector saved rare Robert Burns book after barber used it to clean razors

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A 19th century collector of Robert Burns memorabilia stopped a barber from tearing out the pages of one of the poet’s rarest works to clean his razors, it emerged on Monday. 

John Murison, a Glaswegian seed merchant, saved the valuable first edition of Poems Chiefly In The Scottish Dialect after spotting it lying in a decrepit state while walking past the shop in Shrewsbury.

The unnamed barber had ripped out approximately 50 pages to wipe down his instruments, before Murison stepped in to buy the work, according to archivists.

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Only 612 copies of Burns’s debut collection, commonly known as the Kilmarnock Edition, were printed in 1786 and it is thought that only 84 now survive worldwide.

The exact date when Mr Murison saved the book is not known but it is believed to have been around the 1880s.

The incomplete book will be displayed on Burns Night (January 25) at Dunfermline Carnegie Library & Galleries in Fife, next to the Abbey Church which Burns visited in 1787.

Sara Kelly, a local studies officer with OnFife, the cultural charity which runs the library, said it is a mystery how the book found its way to Shropshire.

She said: “The only noted owner is an Alexander Dick in 1790, so there’s more research to be done if we are to chart the book’s journey to Shrewsbury.

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“It’s wonderful that John Murison had the presence of mind to step in and save the book, given that so few of them still exist.

“It doesn’t go on show very often because of its condition and rarity.”

Mr Murison has 1,700 artefacts in treasure trove

The book will be displayed with other Burns-related material collected over the years by Murison and will be on show in the reading room from January 3 to February 5.

Mr Murison’s treasure trove of 1,700 artefacts – considered one of the world’s finest collections of Burns-related material – was bought by construction mogul Sir Alexander Gibb, who gifted it to Dunfermline Carnegie Library in 1921.

The Murison Kilmarnock Edition last went on display prior to the first lockdown in 2020, as part of the Tae A Bard exhibition at the library and galleries.

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Because of its fragile condition, the book is housed in a conservation box paid for by the Dunfermline United Burns Club.

Poems Chiefly In The Scottish Dialect was printed by John Wilson of Kilmarnock and the entire print-run sold out within a month.

The truncated edition is part of the John Murison Collection that is cared for by OnFife.

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