We head back to the law courts this week for a nineteenth century court case with some surprisingly modern themes about privacy and the public interest.

On Valentine’s Day this year, Professor Hector MacQueen of the University of Edinburgh joined us at General Register House to share his observations about a court case arising from the affair between a couple who had written romantic letters to each other using the pen names “Sylvander and Clarinda”.  The pair are better known as Scotland’s most famous poet Robert Burns and Agnes Maclehose, to whom Burns later dedicated his famous song, Ae Fond Kiss.

In 1804, their relationship was the subject of a legal action aimed at preventing publication of their private correspondence, which had been written while their mutual passion was at its height.

Burns was long dead by the time the court case began and although Agnes was very much alive, she wasn’t party to the litigation. However, one of the judges deciding on the matter just happened to be Agnes’s uncle, lending an edge to proceedings…

Hector investigates what our legal records can tell us not only about the conduct and outcome of this case but about public attitudes in Scotland during the early 1800s, and ultimately about Robert Burns and Agnes Maclehose themselves.

You can find images of selected items from Hector’s talk below, and our previous podcasts – including one on Robert Burns’ professional and artistic life as an exciseman – are available to download here.

 

Ae Fond Kiss
‘Ae fond kiss’, the parting song which Robert Burns sent to Mrs Maclehose after their final meeting in December 1791. This manuscript is part of the Watson Autograph Collection at the National Library of Scotland. Photograph courtesy of the National Library of Scotland and the National Galleries of Scotland.
Clarinda grave
The final resting place of “Clarinda” and Lord Craig – overlooked by the Burns Monument on Calton Hill, Edinburgh. Image courtesy of Professor Hector MacQueen.

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