Alexander Cunningham 1763-1814
Writer to the Signet & Jeweller
Alexander Cunningham was a writer to the Signet, but on the death of his brother, a jewller, he took over the business. When Burns arrived in Edinburgh, Cunningham was practising law. It is not known exactly when or where they met, but it may well have been at a meeting of the Crochallan Fencibles. Cunningham's chambers were in St James's Square, where the poet lodged for a time with William Cruikshank, so the neighbourly proximity may equally possibly have given rise to the friendship. Burns and Cunningham corresponded on numerous occasions throughout the poet's life, and Burns thought highly of him. It was to Cunningham that Burns sent the earliest proof of 'Tam o' Shanter'.
It was Cunningham to whom 'The Red, Red Rose' was sent in the autumn of 1794. And from 'Brow-Sea-bathing quarters' on 7th July 1796, Burns wrote to him:
'Alas! My friend, I fear the voice of the Bard will soon be heard among you no more! For these eight or ten months I have been ailing, sometimes bed-fast & sometimes not; but these last three months I have been tortured with an excruciating rheumatism which has reduced me to nearly the last stage. You actually would not know me if you saw me. Pale, emaciated, & so feeble as occasionally to need help from my chair — my spirits fled! Fled! — but I can no more on the subject — only the medical folks tell me that my last & only chance is bathing & country quarters & riding. The deuce of the matter is this: when an Excise man is off duty, his salary is reduced to £35 instead of £50. What way, in the name of thrift, shall I maintain myself & keep a horse in Country quarters with a wife & five children at home on £35? I mention this, because I had intended to beg your utmost interest & all friends you can muster to move our Commiss of Excise to grant me the full salary. I dare say you know them all personally. If they do not grant it me, I must lay my account with an exit truly en poete, if I die not of disease I must perish with hunger...'
As late as 12th July, Burns sent Cunningham a song 'Here's a Health to Ane I lo'e dear', with a mention of his plan to get Excise promotion, Burns died nine days after this letter to Cunningham was written!