The project started with James Johnson, a struggling music engraver / music seller, with a love of old Scots songs and a determination to preserve them. In the winter of 1786 he met Robert Burns who was visiting Edinburgh for the first time, and found that Burns shared this interest and would become an enthusiastic contributor. The first volume was published in 1787 and included three songs by Burns. He contributed 40 songs to volume 2, and would end up responsible for about a third of the 600 songs in the whole collection as well as making a considerable editorial contribution. The final volume was published in 1803.
As well as collecting old songs, Burns wrote new words to old tunes, and many of the songs now attributed to Burns have older roots. Other songs in the collection include Auld Lang Syne, Lord Ronald, my Son (better known as Lord Randal) and My love is like a Red, Red Rose. Burns' songs include The Battle of Sherramuir, Scots Wha Hae, Green Grow the Rashes, Flow Gently Sweet Afton, Ye Banks and Braes of Bonnie Doon, Ae Fond Kiss, The Winter it is Past, Comin' Thro the Rye, There Grows a Bonnie Brier Bush, and John Anderson, My Jo.
The collection became popular internationally, and songs and tunes were arranged by composers such as Joseph Haydn and Ludwig van Beethoven. Burns collaborated with George Thomson in A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs, published from 1793 to 1818, which adapted Scottish folk-songs with "classical" arrangements. While this brought songs to new audiences, many of the songs and tunes continued in the folk tradition, both in Scotland and America.