Month: April 2018

Forging the Bard

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From the moment of Burns’s death in 1796, a hunger to obtain original versions of his works, letters and personal items began. Naturally, this led to a number of unscrupulous individuals creating forgeries, or passing off unconnected objects as having belonged to the Bard. Few were as prolific or notorious however as one Alexander Howland Smith, known as ‘Antique Smith’, a Scottish document forger of the late C19th whose efforts are now collection items in their own right.

Born in 1859, Smith was forging documents in Edinburgh by the 1880s, and began selling his forgeries in 1886. He frequented second hand bookshops, purchasing volumes of old books with blank fly leaves, which he then insisted upon carrying home himself rather than asking for them to be delivered – despite their weight (a practise many bookshop owners found strange!). From these blank fly leaves, Smith forged poems, autographs and historical letters purportedly written by a number of historical figures including Mary Queen of Scots, Walter Scott and Burns himself. He gave his documents an antique appearance by dipping them in weak tea!

A forgery of a letter from Robert Burns to Reverend John McMath
A forgery of a letter from Robert Burns to Reverend John McMath

Things started to go wrong for Smith when manuscript collector James MacKenzie put some of the letters in his ‘Rillbank Collection’ up for auction in 1891, and the auctioneer himself cast doubt on their authenticity by refusing to verify their provenance. A little while later MacKenzie published a letter, supposedly written by Burns, in the Cumnock Express. After a bit of research, one reader discovered that the recipient of this supposed letter, John Hill, had never actually existed, throwing doubt on the entire Rillbank Collection. MacKenzie later published two ‘Burns’ poems in the same paper, only to discover that one of them had been written when Burns was only 7 by an entirely different poet! Other forgeries were discovered in the collection of an American, who had purchased letters from Edinburgh manuscript collector James Stillie.

By now, word was spreading about the forgeries. In 1892, The Edinburgh Evening Dispatch published an article on the issue, and a reader recognised the handwriting on the facsimiles included as that of Smith, at that time working as chief clerk for a lawyer, Thomas Henry Ferrie. Smith was duly arrested and his trial began on June 26th 1893.

Newspaper cuttings of the Antique Smith trial in 1892
Newspaper cuttings of the Antique Smith trial

Smith was charged with selling forgeries under false pretences. He was found guilty, but the jury recommended leniency and he was sentenced to 12 months. Experts later said that some of his forgeries were not of particularly high quality – often they were dated after the death of their supposed writer, or created using modern paper or writing tools. It is more than possible that many of those who sold his forgeries on would have been fully aware that they were not genuine. It is unknown exactly how many of ‘Antique’ Smith’s forgeries are still around, but we do know that we have some of them in our collection!

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International Poetry Day 2018

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It was International Poetry Day on Wednesday 21st March 2018. We asked on social media if anyone was willing to showcase their poems to the world. Constanza Baeza sent these two poems in:

Time zone difference

English is not our mother language,

but we try to do our best.

You drop some Spanish words,

how do you say “hello” in Bulgarian?

A naughty Cyrillic letter appears

instead of the rigid Latin one.

My eyes look at the word with delight.

I admire you because you never get totally confused

with two scripts living in your world.

 

Midnight is reaching Sofia,

the autumn sunset is like a painting on my window.

Six stripes of time keep us apart,

but hours are just numbers with no meaning

when you have a friend on the other side of the world.

Are you sleepy? You must be tired.

Please, send me a message tomorrow

and tell me how to say “friend” in Bulgarian.

 

A little Wimbledon poem

You came here in pursuit of glory

and all you found was rain.

The dark clouds were the prelude

to this quiet uncertainty.

The match will be suspended

and we have to wait for the sun.

The schedule means nothing

and clocks won’t stop for us.

 

This story has been told before.

The umpire, that little tennis god,

has the future in his hands.

Who are we to question his decision?

Mondays were not made for tennis finals

but we all need a bit of drama.

The English weather always has something to say

when you are chasing your childhood dreams.

 

If you want to follow in Robert Burns’s footsteps to become a great poet then pick up your quill now. If you would like to send us your poems too then please do so! Thank you Constanza Baeza for sending us your poems.

Robert Burns writing set including sharpening knives and quills
Robert Burns’s writing set