On 2 September 1892 the Provost of Ayr, Robert Shankland, chaired a meeting of the town’s Carnegie Public Library committee. Construction of the library building funded by a £10,000 gift from Andrew Carnegie was well under way, and Carnegie himself was due to visit the town on 5 October. He was to be given the freedom of the Royal Burgh of Ayr, and Mrs Carnegie was to perform the honours at the laying of a commemorative stone at the library. (Although the library was intended for the benefit of working people, there would be no organised representation from the town’s tradesmen at the ceremony – the Trades Council of Glasgow had called upon them to boycott it due to the bitter and violent industrial dispute then raging at Carnegie’s steel works in Pittsburgh.)
Carnegie’s enthusiasm for the works of Robert Burns was well known – in his first letter of the correspondence which led to his financing of the library, he had written that Ayr had a special place in the hearts of Scotsmen, because it was so intimately associated with the most beloved Scotsman of all. The library committee at their 2 September meeting must therefore have been especially pleased to note among the latest donations a signed Burns manuscript addressed to a Mr James Watson of Ayr. It was a version of the song beginning ‘The gloomy night is gath’ring fast’ which Burns composed in 1786 while intending to emigrate to Jamaica. The Edinburgh manuscript collector and dealer James Mackenzie had sent it via an Ayr customer, solicitor Robert Goudie, to be presented to the library.
Concerns were soon being voiced, however, regarding the donated manuscript’s authenticity – during the previous year it had been proved that several similar items from Mackenzie’s collection were definitely not the work of the Bard. His donation to Ayr was sent to the National Museum of Antiquities in Edinburgh and to the British Library for examination, and both replies expressed grave reservations as to its alleged attribution to Burns. Over the past few years a large number of manuscripts purporting to have been written by a wide range of famous literary and historical figures had been appearing for sale in Edinburgh. Their claims to authenticity seldom survived expert scrutiny, and this was beginning to attract the attention of the press. Letters accompanying some of the items in question were reproduced, and the handwriting was recognised as that of a certain Alexander Howland Smith. Smith was arrested in December 1892, and the full story began to emerge.
While working as a clerk in an Edinburgh lawyer’s office, Smith had been instructed to dispose of a quantity of old documents. Many turned out to be of historical interest, and he made a tidy sum selling them to dealers. When he ran out of originals, he set about faking more on a large scale, buying up old books and removing their blank end papers for writing material. The completed forgeries were ‘aged’ by staining them with tea. ‘Antique’ Smith, as he became known, was found guilty of obtaining money by deceit, and sentenced to twelve months’ imprisonment. Dealers like Mackenzie, who had sold the documents on, claimed to have been acting in good faith and escaped prosecution.
The local collection of South Ayrshire Libraries, housed in Ayr Carnegie Library, still has its example (with accompanying correspondence) of the work of one of the 19th Century’s most prolific forgers of historical manuscripts.