James Currie (1756-1805) was the first editor and first major biographer of Robert Burns. He is believed to be responsible for the widely disseminated but probably inaccurate account of Burns as a feckless alcoholic.
James Currie was born on the 31 May 1756, the only son of James Currie, Minister of the church Kirkpatrick, Fleming in Dunfriesshire, Scotland and Jane Boyd. He attended the local parish school before being sent to Dumfries Grammar School. In 1771, he went to Glasgow intending to study medicine, but hearing stories of the Americas, decided to emigrate instead. At the age of fifteen he landed at Virginia on 21 September 1771, where he worked in a mercantile store on the James River. However, he suffered from endemic fever shortly after arriving, and soon realised that his prospects of getting rich were not quite as rosy as he had hoped. When his father died in 1774, Currie wrote home relinquishing his estate in favour of his sisters. He moved to Richmond, Virginia where he lived with a relative, a physician of the same name, and now decided to become a doctor. In 1776 he sailed for Greenock, intending to study medicine at Edinburgh, but he was captured by the Revolutionaries and made to serve in the Colonial Army. He bought his freedom and set sail again, but was captured a second time. This time, to gain his freedom he had to sail 150 miles in an open boat to Antigua. Eventually he arrived at Deptford, on May 2nd 1777, and enrolled at Edinburgh University. He graduated in 1780 and settled in Liverpool.
He intended to emigrate again, this time to the West Indies, but was delayed, and in October 1780 was elected Physician to the Dispensary in Liverpool. Along with several other notable people of the time, (including William Roscoe,) he was one of the founders of the literary society, and later became its President. He also began the 'Institute for the Recovery of Drowned People', and in 1790 he helped found the Liverpool Lunatic Asylum. He campaigned for and succeeded in getting a doctor/surgeon appointed to every ship. In 1783, he married Lucy Wallace' the daughter of William Wallace, a wealthy merchant. Soon after he fell ill again; his pleurisy had returned, and he retired to Bristol to recuperate before returning to Liverpool.
In 1792 he was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society. His main contribution to medicine was his Medical Reports on the Effects of Water, Cold and Warm, as a Remedy in Fever and Febrile Diseases, whether applied to the Surface of the Body, or used as a Drink, with observations on the Nature of Fever and on the Effects of Opium, Alcohol and Inanition, published in 1797, which ran through four editions. He died of heart failure on 31st August 1805, at Sidmouth, where he is buried.
Currie, on several occasions, expressed himself on political topics, often taking the unpopular side of the question. He was a staunch supporter of the abolition of the slave trade. While in America, in the lead up to the American war of independence, he wrote an article in the “Pinckney Gazette” defending the mother country against the colonies. Back in England he joined the "no popery" campaigns with a remarkable piece of ill timing. In 1793, under the pseudonym Jasper Wilson he wrote a "Letter, commercial and political, addressed to the Right Hon. William Pitt" to try and persuade him not to declare war on France; when his identity was revealed this raised him a host of enemies, and his business suffered. However, in 1924 the French uncovered a memorial tablet in St Johns Gardens (The former site of the French Prisoner-of-war camp) in gratitude to Currie for rescuing the French prisoners of war from starvation.
Biographer and editor of Burns
Currie had met Burns once, briefly, in Dumfries, and was known as an admirer of Burns's poetry. After Burns' death, Currie as invited to write a biography to help Burn's wife and children who the bard had left penniless. That biography set the image of Burns as a feckless drunken rake that was to last for more than a century:
"At last, crippled, emaciated, having the very power of animation wasted by disease, quite broken-hearted by the sense of his errors, and of the hopeless miseries in which he saw himself and his family depressed; with his soul still tremblingly alive to the sense of shame, and to the love of virtue; yet even in the last feebleness, and amid the last agonies of expiring life, yielding readily to any temptation that offered the semblance of intemperate enjoyment; he died at Dumfries, in the summer of the year 1796."
This description however is based largely on Currie's imagination; he only met Burns once and then only briefly. It is generally thought that Currie distorted the story of Burns's life to deliver a warning against the evils of drink. As a young man Currie had been somewhat intemperate in drink himself, and in the respectability of his middle age it seems that he could not publicly condone the drunken episodes in Burns' life and poetry.
Burns had lived for just 37 years; he had worked full-time as a farmer for 19 of these, and as an Excise man or Tax Collector for another nine (involving traveling up to 40 miles a day, 5 days a week on horseback). Burns had at least four major relationships, including with his wife, Jean Armour; he fathered 13 children, and financially supported all of them, including those born outside his marriage; he was an active Mason for the last 15 years; a Volunteer in the Dumfries Militia for the last five years; he founded a public lending library in Dumfries; and he collected songs for two major Scottish anthologies. He also wrote over 250 poems, over 350 songs and hundreds of letters, 715 of which are still extant. It is difficult to see exactly where he had time to become an alcoholic.
In 1828, Burns' brother Gilbert, tried to correct the record, in a new edition of the poems to which he included personal accounts of life with the Poet and testified about Burns' sobriety, supported of several of Burns' contemporaries. But a popular textbook called Hogg's Instructor, published in 1847, still told of how, in Burns' last days, he "...was desperately at bay, vomiting forth obscenity, blasphemy, fierce ribaldry, and invective. Alas! The mouth which once chanted ‘The Cotter's Saturday Night’ on the Sabbath day...was now an open sepulchre, full of uncleanness and death...a hideous compost of filth and fire."
However, Currie's main aim was to raise money for the poet's family, and in this he was undoubtedly successful, as the story of the romantic rake proved popular. His four volume edition The Works of Robert Burns, with an account of his life, and criticisms on his writings; to which are prefixed, some observations on the character and condition of the Scottish peasantry." appeared in 1800, and sold for one pound eleven and sixpence the set. Two thousand copies were printed, and further editions followed in 1801, 1802, and 1803. An eighth edition in 1820 published by Cadell and Davies in London, had added 'Some further Particulars of the Author's Life' by Gilbert Burns.
- A Database of the Correspondence of James Currie (1756-1805)
- Significant Scots James CurrieElectricScotland.com
- McGuirk, Carol. "James Currie and the Making of the Burns Myth," in Selected Essays on Scottish Language and Literature: A Festschrift in Honor of Allan H. MacLaine (1992).