For all music lovers especially those with a fascination for stringed instruments, Robert Burns’ guittar on display here at Robert Burns Birthplace Museum is well worth a look. This beautiful artefact is the earliest known English guittar in any Scottish collection, dating from 1757.
The English guittar was popular during the 18th century and up until the beginning of the 19th century. The instrument resembles a pear, in shape, and its’ head at the end of the neck is bent backwards slightly. It would usually have 12 strings although sometimes only 10 or 8 and those would be attached to little ivory knobs at the lower end of the instrument and stretched over a bridge. Fingerboards on guittars were often covered in ivory and would be complete with bass frets. Unfortunately there aren’t any strings remaining on Robert’s guittar today.
The English guittar is more closely related to the cittern (in fact it could be described as a revival of the cittern) than the modern-day guitar. In France the early form was known as the cistre or guittare allemande and in Italy it was known as the cetre. There is a theory that Italian musicians introduced the cittern to England where it became very fashionable and gradually became known as the guittar in the 18th century.
Although Robert spoke modestly of his musical ability, he clearly considered himself to be a musician. In a letter to Charles Sharpe, a talented amateur musician, Robert stated: “I am a Fiddler and a Poet […] Whenever I feel inclined to rest myself on my way, I take my seat under a hedge, laying my poetic wallet on my one side, and my fiddle case on the other.” It is not illogical then to imagine that he was an enthusiastic and perhaps accomplished fiddler, so I wonder if he would have played his guittar well too?
In 1758 in Edinburgh, Robert Bremner who published the first tutor for the 18th century Scottish guittar stated that; “…Time will…discover more Beauties, in the Instrument than there are yet known…” For anyone interested in listening to an 18th century guittar played today, there is the musician Rob MacKillop who plays Scottish traditional music written for guittar, lute, mandour and cittern. You can listen here to his rendition of I Love my Love in Secret, a melody which comes from a manuscript in Berwick, now housed in the National Library of Scotland.