Month: April 2014

Seaward ho!

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So Easter is over for another year and the chocolate eggs have all been eaten. Burns Cottage has been relinquished by the pirates, for now!

This year our annual Cadbury Easter Egg Hunt trail was based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. It wasn’t only a great excuse for museum staff to dress as pirates (some with unanticipated gusto), we also had huge numbers of visitors through the doors to get stuck in!


For those of you that couldn’t attend, the museum was hijacked to become the Hispanola for the weekend, decked out with sails, rigging and a massive stash of pirate booty (or in land-lubber terms – a huge pile of delicious Cadbury’s chocolate eggs).


The pirate trail proved very popular, taking families on a mad dash around the site, guided only by a ragged island map to discover who had hidden all the treasure.  One of our visitors has made a fantastic video that shows them in action.

Up at the cottage there was mutiny afoot, with a mini trail of pirates who had been given the black spot to discover in each room.


I’m sure none of the museum staff or volunteers expected that hoisting a main sail, paper mache-ing a treasure cave  or sword-fighting with visitors would be part of their job description, but once again their hard work was the key ingredient for the event’s success. Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum…


Is a picture worth a thousand words?

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Banks of the River Doon was painted by Patrick C Auld 43 years after the poet’s death, when his status as Scotland’s shining bard was already celebrated in full force.  His life is commemorated by the monument still found in Alloway today and the painting reminds us of Burns’ well kent poem Tam o’ Shanter, with the brig given centre stage. For someone with no background in art history, it is tempting to think that this is just another pretty landscape painting whose deeper meanings no doubt soar straight over my head. But I’d like to think that this isn’t necessarily the case! Do you ever find yourself intrigued by what a painting is hiding or what else there is to see on second glance?  Here’s what I came up with doing exactly that…

Oil painting of the Brig o Doon and Burns Monument

This painting is of an idyllic, almost pastoral scene; a visual representation of the same warm fuzzy feeling in which Burns wraps his audience with the Cotter’s Saturday Night.  Picturesque? Yes. Realistic? No.

The perspective of the picture is distorted, and rather than cast aspersions on the skill of the painter, I rather think that he is hinting at the Brig’s otherworldly connections, its shadowed underside hiding dark secrets.  Not always quite so serene, there is the suggestion of Tam’s frenzied ride over the Brig pursued by the howling witches.  From this slightly more sinister perspective, we as viewers are part of the dark foreground of the picture, looking in.  Are we the witches, waiting on the sidelines to be let loose on the chocolate-box landscape?

Flights of fancy aside, the impressive monument dominating the horizon and right in the viewers’ eye line was designed by Thomas Hamilton and opened 1823 to much acclaim.  There is an interesting juxtaposition between the offset monument and surrounding landscape.  It almost shines as a beacon apart, reminiscent of Burns mythology that renders him as the ‘heav’n taught’ genius in an otherwise dark and dismal rural 18th century Scotland.  Here we see the wild and rugged in contrast with the civilised achievements of man so disparagingly compared in Burns’ poem ‘Tae a Moose’:

I’m truly sorry man’s dominion

Has broken nature’s social union

The Corinthian columns burst through the Scottish countryside as a conquering edifice, symbolising the achievements of man but running in counter to Burns’ perception of man’s dominance over the natural world as a sadly destructive force.  And yet, not all has been conquered, not all is lost to the order of Enlightenment.  The wild darkness is on the edges, just waiting to get in.

So how would you read this painting?

This one of the objects acquired by the museum with the help of the National Fund for Acquisitions, which celebrated its 60th birthday in December 2013.

Fourteen good measur’d verses make a sonnet

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This blog post was originally posted on the National Fund for Acquisitions Blog.

Handling a museum object is a magical thing. To feel the smooth surface of an 18th century horn cup and imagine all the clasped hands that have done the same before you or to feel the coarse fibres of a horse-hair whisk. These are the sensory experiences that can bring history to life. Cherished, abused, appreciated or ignored; the object you handle is part of the human story that we find endlessly fascinating.

I was lucky enough to hold an original manuscript of Robert Burns’ A Sonnet Upon Sonnetsvery recently and I will not soon forget the experience. Acquired with help from the National Fund for Acquisitions, it has been in the care of the museum since 1981. Looking at that carefully preserved manuscript, I felt myself drawn down a multitude of avenues of imagination beyond the ‘fourteen good measur’d verses’. Where was Burns when he wrote this? Head bent over his writing desk? Perhaps ensconced in a cosy inn after a hard day’s Excise duties? Did his hand slip and make that tiny smudge? I found myself wondering what inspired this outpouring of poetic playfulness.

Burns, Sonnet upon Sonnets ms

‘A Sonnet Upon Sonnets’ by Robert Burns

Written in 1788 – the year Burns married Jean Armour, two years after the Kilmarnock Edition had been published and the year in which he leased Ellisland Farm in Dumfries – the poem is an interesting departure from Burns’ usual style. His poems are not normally restricted in their length but he embraced the poetic convention of the sonnet wholeheartedly, playing with the genre seemingly for his own amusement. This was his first attempt at writing a sonnet and the result is a pleasing offering. Despite his fragmentary formal education, his passion for knowledge meant Burns had the capacity to play with poetry as he wished; a skill which only increased throughout his life.

Sonnet upon Sonnets ms detail 1

A detail of the manuscript

Two hundred and twenty six years ago Robert Burns held this page and his quill scratched its way across its surface, each flourishing ‘f’ placed with care as inspiration flowed. It is remarkable that there is nothing crossed out and there are few, if any, mistakes.  It is so tempting to try to read into the loops and bold strokes of his recognisable handwriting in an attempt to discover what made him tick. There is a confidence in the flamboyant strokes that seems to fit with Burns’ reputation as never one to shy away from speaking his mind and there is a precise assertiveness throughout.

There are certain things about museums that make them special places and keep people coming back for more. To get up close and personal with an original Burns poem is surely one of them.

Burns and WW1

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War was an issue Robert Burns felt strongly about. He wrote many poems and songs on the subject, as well as spending the latter part of his life with the Royal Dumfries Volunteers. Since his death, his works and actions have been interpreted very differently at various points in history, and by a range of governments and societies. This capacity to re-interpret his works was very apparent during the Great War.

Throughout World War One, Burns continued to be celebrated. Although activities at Burns clubs dwindled during the war years, their actual numbers increased from 227 in 1915, to 254 in 1918. Events such as the garlanding of his statue in Glasgow and the placing of the floral tribute in Dumfries continued, and Burns concerts and celebrations were held throughout the war, now often in aid of troop entertainment and charitable fundraising. Burns suppers also continued, and were even held at the front.

During the war the militaristic aspects of the Bard’s work were emphasised, as well as his desire to stand up to tyranny and oppression. Scots Wha Hae was included in several martial anthologies, including Oxford University Press’s ‘Poems of War and Battle’, published in 1914. His time spent as a volunteer was also very useful for those claiming he was an ardent militarist, and he appeared on recruitment posters such as this one, which encouraged men to join up.

Recruitment poster for WW1 featuring the bust of Robert Burns and a quote from one of his poems, trying to encourage people to enlist.

At a Burns Supper in London in 1918, John Buchan made this declaration in his Immortal Memory: ‘If you wish for a statement of the Allies’ War Aims you will find it through the poetry of Burns. Freedom, tolerance, sympathy in the State; devotion, courage, sacrifice in the citizen – it is all there’.

However, it should be noted that this idealised view of Burns’s poetry was not shared by all. An American ambassador who heard Buchan’s speech remained sceptical, saying: ‘it is not quite clear to my mind how a man can work in a speech about the Allies on a Robert Burns background’.

Other groups sought to distance themselves from the official view of Burns, emphasising the radical, rather than military, elements of poems like Scots Wha Hae, and also pointing out how Burns often wrote about the negative aspects of war and the hardship it brings. Willie Steward, organiser of the Scottish Independent Labour party, believed that Burns was being misrepresented by the government, and declared: ‘I cannot help but think if [statesmen] had ranted of Burns less and imbibed his spirit more, it had been better for us all to-day’.

As is often the case with our Bard, his views are difficult to pin down. He wrote many poems emphasising the negative aspects of war, but also supported the American and French revolutions. His time spent with the Royal Dumfries Volunteers may have been for pragmatic rather than ideological reasons, as he was probably attempting to make amends for earlier ill-advised comments supporting the French Revolution. However, as can be seen above, whatever his views during his lifetime, his legacy after his death continued in ways beyond his control.