A small and unassuming exhibit in our museum which people may miss on the way round is this English silver penny.
Minted in Canterbury in the 13th century and only discovered in 2009, this “long cross” coin is from the reign of Edward I which dates it between 1239 and 1300. A “long cross” coin has the design stamped all the way across the face, designed to act as an anti-counterfeit measure. Many coins were clipped – an illegal practice performed by unscrupulous individuals, who would melt down the resulting slivers of metal and profit by selling the silver.
One of Burns’ favourite books was “The History of Sir William Wallace” by Hamilton of Gilbertfield, which he described as follows:
“The two first books I ever read in private, and which gave me more pleasure than any two books I ever read again, were the life of Hannibal and the history of Sir William Wallace… The story of Wallace poured a Scottish prejudice in my veins which will boil along there till the flood-gates of life shut in eternal rest”.
When the Burns family were living at Lochlie farm, Robert would go walking in Leglen wood, a favourite hiding place of Wallace. “I chose a fine summer Sunday, the only day of the week in my power, and walked half a dozen of miles to pay my respects to the “Leglen Wood”, with as much devout enthusiasm as ever pilgrim did to Loreto; and as I explored every den and dell where I could suppose my heroic Countryman to have sheltered, I recollect (for even then I was a Rhymer) that my heart glowed with a wish to be able to make a Song on him, equal to his merits.” That song turned out to be “Scots Wha Hae” and Wallace is mentioned in a footnote to “The Vision” as well, in case the reader misunderstands who Burns means by “His country’s saviour”!
Edward I was known as “The Hammer of the Scots” and Wallace spent his life fighting against Edward’s forces. One of Wallace’s most famous rebellious acts occurred in Ayr in 1297. In revenge for the slaughter by the English of Wallace’s uncle, Wallace and his followers burned the Barns of Ayr, the quarters for the English soldiers. Maybe our coin was dropped by a fleeing soldier, where it lay for 700 years until a worker unearthed it while digging the foundations for the new museum building. I wonder what else is under there…