During Robert Burns’s life he would spend money, like everyone else, but in his early days he would not have very much to spend. He would probably not handle banknotes until about the time that his Edinburgh Edition of poems was published in 1787.
At the time of Burns the denominations of the coins used were quite different to those we use today. Twelve pennies were equal to one shilling and twenty shillings were equal to one pound. There were eight halfcrowns in a pound and twenty one shillings were known as a guinea.
The Union between Scotland and England had taken place in 1707 and before this date Scotland had its own coinage with the names for smaller denominations being “bawbees” which were sixpennies, “placks” which were fourpennies and “bodles” which were two pennies.
These denominations were Scots and the rate of exchange between Scotland and England required twelve pounds Scots to equal one pound English. The bawbee or sixpence Scots, at the time of Union was only equivalent to one halfpenny Sterling.
Although Robert Burns would never use these Scottish coins the names of the denominations continued to be used by the public and Burns used them to describe money in many of his poems.
In “O`er The Water To Charlie” he says “I’ll gie John Ross anither bawbee” as “bawbee” was by Burns time the name that was given to a halfpenny Sterling.
A farthing or quarter of a penny had become known as a “plack” and in many of his poems, epistles, songs and stories he mentions placks such as in “Scotch Drink” and in “Epistle to J. Lapraik”.
Another name given to the farthing was a “bodle” from the old Scots twopenny and he mentions a “bodle” in “Tam O’ Shanter” but he spells it with two “ds” instead of the old Scots of one “d”.
Robert Burns referred to many other coins such as the “groat” which was the Sterling fourpence and the “merk” which he spelt as “mark”. A merk was two thirds of a pound (or a 13/4d piece). In “To Collector Mitchell” he states “That one-pound-one, I sairly want it”. He was, of course, referring to a guinea which was one pound, one shilling or twenty one shillings.
I have written mainly of the small denomination coins that were used and quoted by Burns.
In 1786 we know that he was given ten guineas from a friend, Patrick Miller, and we are quite sure that they were Bank of Scotland one guinea notes.
1786 was the time when Robert Burns was thinking of emigrating to Jamaica to escape the problems in farming and, of course the father of Jean Armour, who Rabbie had made pregnant.
At this time he had written on the back of a Bank of Scotland one guinea note a verse :-
“Wae worth thy power, Thou cursed leaf!
Fell Source o’ a’ my woe and grief
For lack o’ thee I’ve lost my lass
For lack o’ thee I scrimp my glass
For lack o’ thee I leave this much-loved shore
Never, perhaps, to greet old Scotland more”.
That guinea note may still be seen at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway.
In recent times the Clydesdale Bank issued a £5 note in 1971 depicting a portrait of Robert Burns. It was based on the famous painting of him by Alexander Nasmyth and in 1996 on the anniversary of his death four different varieties of the note were issued with words from four of his poems.
In 2009 the Royal Mint struck £2 coins to commemorate the 250th Anniversary of the birth of the bard and in the same year the Clydesdale Bank promoted Rabbie to the £10 note and two years before the Bank of Scotland introduced the picture on the reverse of their £5 notes of the statue of Burns and the Brig O’Doon.
It will be interesting to see what the future will bring in relation to the commemoration of Robert Burns on money.
This post was written by one of RBBM’s Volunteers Ronnie Breingan, who gave a Highlight Talk on the subject earlier this year.