The First Publication of 'Holy Willie's Prayer'

Document Type


Subject Area(s)

Scottish literature


Burns’s ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’ was not published in book form till after the poet’s death, in Thomas Stewart’s Poems Ascribed to Robert Burns (Glasgow, 1801). Burns scholars have differed in the attention they have paid to its earlier separate appearances in chapbook form. This article reexamines the poem’s first chapbook publication, in 1789, of which only one copy is known; briefly describes its later chapbook appearances in 1799; presents bibliographical evidence that the poem was first printed in Kilmarnock itself, in John Wilson’s print-shop where Burns’s first book was produced; discusses the elaborate paratext by which the poem was framed in this first printed presentation; and, based on detailed collation, reassesses the origin and status of the 1789 chapbook text in relation to other textual authorities and competing editorial traditions, concluding that the 1789 chapbook takes us closest to the poem as Burns’s Ayrshire contemporaries first heard it.