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.


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