Month: May 2015

Robert Burns Goes to School

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This month is the 250th anniversary of John Murdoch’s schooling of Robert Burns, and his brother Gilbert. This anniversary is important because it celebrates the beginning of Robert Burns’s schooling, without which he could never have become the great poet we know and admire. John Murdoch’s educational work continues, with Burns Cottage continuing as a place of learning for people of all ages.

250 years ago Robert's lessons started in Burns Cottage
250 years ago Robert’s lessons started in Burns Cottage

Burns started his schooling at Alloway Mill, however, when the teacher left to be Master of Ayr’s Workhouse, William Burnes approached John Murdoch, an elder student at Ayr Grammar School, to teach several families in Alloway. William Burnes, despite being of no high social rank, had received a good education and was able to review John Murdoch’s handwriting and abilities during an interview for the position. Certainly, Murdoch was impressed by William’s manner and was convinced that William’s focus on education was the reason why he found Robert and Gilbert to be the best of his Alloway students. Of their lessons with Murdoch, Gilbert was to say to a biographer of Burns that:

‘With him we learnt to read English tolerably well, and to write a little. He taught us, too, the English grammar. I was too young to profit much from his lessons in grammar, but Robert made some proficiency in it, a circumstance of considerable weight in the unfolding of his genius and character, as he soon became remarkable for the fluency and correctness of his expression, and read the few books that came his way with much pleasure and improvement.’

William Burnes was as engaged in his son’s learning as Murdoch, as the tutor later recalled that Robert and Gilbert’s academic success was probably ‘partly owing to the method pursued by their father and me in instructing them.’ These methods involved learning by rote, which is perhaps how Robert Burns was so able to quote at will later on in life.

An enthusiasm for books was another gift that John Murdoch gave Robert. Lending him The Life of Hannibal, Robert so loved the book that he en-acted excerpts of it. At this time, he is known to have begun experimenting in rhyme, calling his first attempts ‘crambo-jingle’ – a Scots words for simple rhymes. However, Robert’s talents weren’t necessarily clear from the start as his report card said ‘Robert’s ear is remarkably dull, and his voice untunable. Cannot get him to distinguish one tune from another’!

Hannibal's Wars by Sue Blackwell celebrates Robert Burns's favourite book
Hannibal’s Wars by Sue Blackwell celebrates Robert Burns’s favourite book

Nonetheless, Murdoch clearly had a close bond with the Burnes family and visited them before he moved to Dumfries in 1768. During this visit he read a book called Titus Andronicus’but with rather disastrous results as the family found the violent book a little too much and began to cry! Instead, Murdoch decided to gift them a lighter book, a comedy, called, The School of Love.

The Spence, or parlour, was where John Murdoch gave his lessons to Robert and Gilbert

While Robert’s schooling with John Murdoch ended in 1768, this period of formal schooling was to have its lasting influence through Burns’s poetry, song, letter writing, and his debating activities with the Tarbolton Bachelors club. Like John Murdoch 250 years ago, the Learning Team feels passionately about education. We all in the Learning Team would like to take this chance to celebrate this important anniversary and the work carried out here at the Cottage then and now! If you’d like to find out more about what we do in the Learning Team please visit our website.

Mission Complete – Burns Heid Inn May 2015!

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Here at RBBM the ‘Bard’s Babes’ (a.k.a the Learning Team) have just finished the cleanup operation following the Burns Heid Inn, on Saturday 16th May. The event, which celebrated the cottage’s history as a Victorian pub, was in association with Festival of Museums and Museums at Night and was a lot of fun!

Tables decorated for the night!
Tables decorated for the night!

There was lots for us to do before hand though. First, the Learning Interns organised for local story tellers, performers and a local band to come along and perform during the event. They also had the difficult task of organising the pub quiz! This included creating five rounds covering everything from Burns to sport and pop culture for a mixed audience. It can be a difficult balance to strike.

A beautiful evening for our event!
A beautiful evening for our event!

We like to source local products for our events, and where else would be better than the Aryshire Brewing Co! We ordered the beautiful Scaur O’Doon Summer Ale, and the Jolly Beggars – both went down a treat on the night!

Mousie was very excited about the beer
Mousie was very excited about the beer

Once the beer was taken care of we needed to think about the food. Thankfully, RBBM’s wonderful chef Rebecca made us some amazing Haggis and Veggie Haggis pies. Of course we also had the very popular Killie Pies too – none of these lasted long out of the oven.

The pies were super popular
The pies were super popular

On the day we arrived in sunshine to set up the cottage and Education Pavilion. We spent a few happy hours turning our classrooms into a beer hall. One of our Learning Interns bemused some tourists by wearing a tiara she had found – it didn’t help she was also carrying a giant plastic rat (there was a reason for the latter!).

All part of a day's work!
All part of a day’s work!

A key part of the evening involves the Learning Team dressing up in historic costume! It really gets the team into the spirit of the event.

Role playing the landlady Flora Hastings
Role playing the landlady Flora Hastings
Getting dressed up is one of the best parts!
Getting dressed up is one of the best parts! Photograph by Robert Neil

The evening got off to a great start with beautiful live music from the Twa Dugs in our barn. As visitors worked their way through the cottage they also met Rosie, from Rosie’s Stories, who enthralled visiors with superstitious folk tales in the Byre. From there the Mad Poets, Robert and Alex, had the people in the Spence in raucous laughter with their song: ‘The Ghost Chickens in the Sky.’ Finally we had Mhairi, our Learning and Social Media Intern, taking on the role of Flora Hastings: the Burns Heid Inn landlady.

The Twa Dugs performing in the barn
The Twa Dugs performing in the barn
The Mad Poet's entertained in the spence
The Mad Poet’s entertained in the spence

The sunny evening was relaxed and people could mill over to the pavilion for more beer and those wonderful pies! With very few spillages and lots of fun the evening was a success! But don’t worry the Burns Heid Inn will reopen its doors again in the future. Museums at Night and Festival of Museum will be running across the UK again on Friday 30 – Saturday 31 October 2015 check out their website for more details.

Rosie Mapplebeck enthralled visitors with tales of faeries!
Rosie Mapplebeck enthralled visitors with tales of faeries.  Photograph by Robert Neil
The bar staff made sure they had a good time!
The bar staff made sure they had a good time!

The Bachelors Club, Tarbolton

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Once I started working at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum I realised that this is only one small part of the wider Burns landscape. Part of this landscape, which I had not visited until working here at the museum, was the Bachelors Club in Tarbolton. The Bachelors Club has a different feel from Burns cottage – you have more of a sense of Robert Burns as an animated, creative and sometimes mischievous young man.

The building itself is a 17th century house in Tarbolton, Ayrshire and is just a short drive from the cottage in Alloway. In its restored state it shows an 18th century domestic interior from when John Richard and his family lived in the lower floor. The upstairs was used for functions; such as the country dancing lessons which Robert Burns enjoyed much to the distain of his father!

The Bachelors Club, Tarbolton
The Bachelors Club, Tarbolton

When you visit the Bachelors Club you start the tour on the ground floor in the 18th century interior and as you sit in the room it feels like you have stepped back in time. With little traffic noise all you can hear is the creak of people sitting on the chairs, the upstairs floor boards, and the ticking of the clock. As it was pointed out to us by Alistair, our guide, the building has a long history which both pre and superseded Burns. But it is Burns’s connection to the property which has ultimately saved it.

Interior of lower floor at the Bachelors Club
Interior of lower floor at the Bachelors Club

To gain access to the upper floor you head back out and up the external stair way, the Bachelors Club itself was in the first floor room which is the same footprint as the two rooms downstairs. The upstairs space was reopened as one room when the National Trust for Scotland took on the property; prior to this the area had been divided into two rooms with a partition wall.

The space is full of Burns memorabilia, relics and nicknacks, after a few minutes of exploring I found my favourite objects – some clay pipes! While these might not seem exciting, I am a fan of them, and I loved the way they were all hanging higgity on the wall next to one of the two fireplaces. The fire places are really interesting too – Alistair explained to us that it was thought that the circles on the floor around the fire place are to help protect the inhabitants from evil spirits. This is because the fire place is always ‘open’ compared to the windows and doors which can be shut. This little bit of superstition is kept going by the staff at the property for ‘auld’ times sake.

Selection of Clay Pipes on display upstairs
Selection of Clay Pipes on display upstairs

This space is where the Club was formed by Robert, his brother Gilbert, and some friends from the parish. Other than the images of Burns and his poems on the wall you could really be sitting in the room waiting on the Bachelors Club arriving for their meeting. The Club itself is very interesting, what I found most interesting was the questions proposed for debating by the members.

The first question is one which maybe reflects the young male membership – as a poor farmer with no money, if you have a choice between a rich woman with no personality and a poor woman you love who would you choose? (Robert reportedly debated for the girl with no money!) Topics they also discussed were issues around politics, education and philosophy.

Some of the objects that can be found around the Bachelors Club !
Some of the objects that can be found around the Bachelors Club !

While in the cottage you experience Burns’s life as a child, the Bachelors Club introduces you to the Burns who we think we know. I felt like Burns could just saunter into the Club and start debating.

This gem in the Burns landscape is one which should not be missed, the amazing atmosphere and the knowledgeable staff brings this little building to life.

Opening times Friday to Tuesday 1pm to 5pm. This property has seasonal openings, and this year (2015) is open through to the 30th September. For more information, please click!

Behind the Scenes

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In this blogpost we go behind the scenes of our temporary exhibition, The Real Face of Burns, to speak with exhibition’s curator, Sheilagh Tennant of Artruist ( For the last three years, at RBBM, Sheilagh has been managing and curating the first rolling programme of contemporary art exhibitions to be introduced at an NTS property. But what is it like to run art exhibitions? Read below and find out!

An artwork by David Mach on display in The Real Face of Burns exhibition
An artwork by David Mach on display in The Real Face of Burns exhibition

How did you come up with the concept for this exhibition?

Well I was aware that Burns’s appearance seemed to be a source of fascination for both artists and the wider public and so decided to explore this. I was amazed to discover there were so few portraits of him painted while he was still alive – only five – and thought it would be interesting to invite contemporary artists to come up with new interpretations.

How long does it take to organise an exhibition like this?

People would be surprised by how long it takes to organise exhibitions – in national galleries and museums it can take several years. However for the Real Face of Burns, while I initially came up with the idea a few years ago, if we take the initial artist approaches as a starting point, the process began just over a year before the launch date.

How do you find and select the artists for the exhibition?

By visiting as many art fairs and exhibitions, going to as many degree shows as possible, as well as reading art publications – over time it’s possible to become familiar with a lot of artists’ work and to build up a good awareness of who is out there. In this way, when a theme is selected, artists whose practice would ‘fit’ with a particular theme will come to mind. I also aim to introduce new graduates whenever possible. A selection of different work in different media , all aiming to depict an aspect of the same theme, somehow always looks good together when all the artists are clearly very gifted – regardless of the age and stage of the artists. I do find it particularly rewarding to have the opportunity to nurture new talent.

What do you need to consider when arranging the display?

Well there are, of course, the practical considerations of what is physically possible within a space, safety etc. Beyond that you have to think about works which will complement each other and, while perfect symmetry isn’t going to be a realistic aim, it’s ideal to achieve a balance within the space.

What is your favourite thing about this exhibition?

For this exhibition the answer has to be the Reid miniature, loaned by the Scottish National Portrait Gallery – to me it is so precious because Burns himself believed this work to have offered the best likeness.

What is the most difficult thing about putting on this exhibition?

To be honest there haven’t been any significant difficulties with putting on this exhibition! However I would say the most difficult aspect of all the exhibitions I have curated in this programme, which has been running for three years now, has been getting the message out to people that these shows are on and worth a visit – especially when the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum has so much else to offer too!

Sheilagh Tennant has been managing and curating art exhibitions for nearly 20 years in London, Edinburgh, and Glasgow
Sheilagh Tennant has been managing and curating art exhibitions for nearly 20 years in London, Edinburgh, and Glasgow

Come and see the Real Face of Burns before it ends on June 14th!

A Lassie’s Love

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This May we are hosting a very special event: the premiere of a new musical composition inspired by the works of Robert Burns. The composition is a collaboration between composer Jennifer Margaret Barker and the musical trio, Vocali3e. To find out more about how this project came to be, we spoke to Vocali3e member, Emma Versteeg.

The member's of Vocali3e. Flautist: Louise Burnet, soprano: Emma Versteeg, and pianist Robin Vertseeg
The member’s of Vocali3e. Flautist: Louise Burnet, soprano: Emma Versteeg, and pianist Robin Vertseeg

How did this collaboration between Vocali3e and Jennifer Margaret Barker begin?

Vocali3e were part of the Made in Scotland showcase at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2013 performing a programme called “Atlantic Crossings” – celebrating creative collaborations between Scotland and America. One of the pieces performed was “Na Tri Peathraichean” (The Three Sisters) by Jennifer Margaret Barker – discovered by our pianist on an internet search for appropriate music! Ms. Barker was able to attend the concert and we kept in touch after that first meeting. Once the idea of a commission started to grow, we knew we wanted Jennifer to write it for us as we loved her music. She also has a connection to Scotland having been born and bought up here.

Why Robert Burns?

We have always loved the poetry of Robert Burns and have performed settings of his words by Haydn and Amy Beach. The poetry is so appealing and lends itself very well to music. Apart from Haydn and Burns there are not many classical settings of Burns in the original language. We found a set of 4 poems that worked well together and that was the decision made! We also liked the idea of continuing our Scottish/American links which began in the Made in Scotland Programme (Ms. Barker now lives and works in Delaware).

What are the key themes and ideas behind the piece?

The key theme is love. The 4 poems we have chosen (“I’m o’er young to marry yet”, “The Gallant Weaver”, “The seventh of November” and “What can a lassie do wi’ an auld man”) were not written at the same time, or originally linked, but the composer has drawn them together beautifully. We see different aspects of love through the song cycle, following a lassie’s journey – although not necessarily the same lass. It’s perhaps more like pictures at an exhibition – snapshots of different relationships at different moments in time. Ms. Barker has kept a folk-like feel to many of the melodies but also used some wonderful word-painting effects, drama and comedy. Jennifer can explain it better than I can! – “The more I worked with each song text, the more I discovered a myriad of emotions and feelings contained within. I therefore strove to address these elements through word-painting as well as musical colours and textures, while maintaining a singular and cohesive atmosphere or aesthetic for each song, and for the cycle as a whole”.

How long has it taken from initial concept to the completed composition?

We first had the idea to commission a piece back in 2013. We were successful in obtaining the funding at the end of last year, and Jennifer began writing in December 2014. The piece was completed at the beginning of March.

What did you find most challenging about the project?

As with many projects, one of the most challenging things was to secure funding. However we are delighted to have done so and are really grateful to Creative Scotland and the Jean Armour Burns Trust for supporting us.

What is the best thing about the project?

That is very difficult to say! I think I would say 2 things – the creation of a new work, and the chance to inspire young people. I think new work is always great because it gets such different reactions from people and is a great discussion point, so I hope that we inspire many people of all ages, but I think that working with young people on music, and inspiring them creatively is really special. None of Vocali3e would be here if we hadn’t had that at some point!


Come to the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum on May 24th to experience this awesome musical event! More information and tickets can be found here!

Ayrshire Gifts an’ a’ That !

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For this blog I thought I would look at the Ayrshire Gifts an’ a’ That shop that is run by some of the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum’s volunteers.

Ayr has recently been named one of the healthiest high streets in Britain, through a piece of research conducted by the Royal Society for Public Health. This is based on the proportion of businesses found in their main retail area that support the public’s health. While Ayrshire Gifts an’ a’ That does’t on the face of it support public health, having spoken to volunteers and spent time in the shop it is clear that their are regulars who enjoy coming in to buy beautiful crafted items and have a wee chat with the volunteers in the shop. The shop has become popular with local residents of Ayr coming to browse and buy unique things.

Ayrshire Gifts started as a pop up shop in 2014, it proved very popular for Christmas gifts and has now continued on into 2015. The shop is located in Ayr town centre, opposite the Arran Mall.

The shop stocks items made by local crafters, these range from handmade wooden ornaments, a wide range a beautiful jewellery, cards, artwork … I could go on!

Ayrshire Gifts an' a' That
Ayrshire Gifts an’ a’ That

The volunteers have over 60 crafters on the books! Some of the crafters provide demo’s of how to make items of jewellery. (The next one in Wednesday 6th May 2-3pm! By Helen Beck who makes stunning necklaces, bracelets, earrings!)

For this blog I thought I would pick out some of my (and a few of our volunteers) shop highlights.

Currently the central display in the shop is the Teddy Bears Tea Party, the teddy bears are fully jointed handmade bears. These are made by a company called Logi Bear, with other fully jointed cuddly animals by KooKies. It is hard to resist cuddling them as you walk through the door!

Teddy Bears Tea Party Display - teddies are enjoying some Burns poetry, and some nice jams!
Teddy Bears Tea Party Display – Logi Bear teddies are enjoying some Burns poetry, and some nice jams!
Snuffles is by KooKies
Snuffles the Dog is by KooKies

Another favourite is Handmade Ayrshire, with regular customers coming in to buy their candles which prove popular. They are beautifully packaged and make great gifts… or just nice to buy for yourself.

Ayrshire Handmade candles and soaps
Ayrshire Handmade candles and soaps

The jewellery, scarfs and headbands in the shop are handmade and unique, it makes nice additions to wedding outfits for adults and children! There is jewellery to suit every taste and style.

Some of the amazing jewellery at Ayrshire Gifts an' a' That
Some of the amazing jewellery at Ayrshire Gifts an’ a’ That
Colourful Headbands !
Colourful Headbands !

If you are in Ayr swing by the shop for a good browse! The volunteers are knowledgeable about the stock and are wonderful at helping you pick out just the right gift, especially if you cant pick from the wide range!

By Catriona, Learning and Volunteer Intern, RBBM.

For more information on the report by the Royal Society of Public Health see: