Month: June 2015
Leather taws belonging to Agnes Burnes, circa 1750s. Includes handwritten label by Gilbert Burnes attributing them to his mother. 47.5mm. Leather.
This fearsome looking object is more commonly known as the ‘strap’ or ‘belt’ and was a tool frequently used to maintain discipline in the home or classroom in eighteenth century Scotland. This particular one belonged to Agnes Burnes but will be similar to those that were in use by the dominies (teachers) of the period, including John Murdoch, the man responsible for the early instruction of both Robert and Gilbert at the cottage. While Murdoch later remarked that he seldom saw Agnes Burnes use the taws, the same could not necessarily be said of him!! With its four thongs the object is symbolic of Presbyterian social control at the time and the Kirk’s harsh attitude to learning, with pupils punished not merely for misbehaving, but also for failing to learn with sufficient speed or demonstrate the required flair. Robert’s inability to sing in tune and his sin of chair swining could have perhaps earned him a few memorable meetings with the taws! The shadow of Kirk discipline always loomed large in Burns’s life, and as an adult the sting of the taws was replaced by a different kind of shame – that of the ‘cutty stool.’
This chair was made in 1858, just before the first centenary of Robert Burns’ birth. It is constructed from wood taken from the Kilmarnock printing press which produced the first edition of Burns’s Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect.
John Wilson, owner of the only printing press in the area, was a friend of Robert Burns and a statue of the two of them can be found in the location of the original printing press site. A copy of the printing press can be found in the Dick Institute, in Kilmarnock.
The carvings on the chair depict Luath and Caesar, from the poem The Twa Dogs.
In the centre of the high back you can find a carving of the Bard, after Naysmyth, with two of his most iconic characters, Tam O’Shanter and Souter Johnny on either side. In the centre there is a bas-relief carving showing Tam being chased by the with over the Brig O’Doon. Above this carving you can find a plaque with quotes from Burns’s poem, The Vision. On either side are spiral twist uprights which frame the carving. The chair is upholstered in a red velvet material which also covers the arm rests.
The history of the chair dates back from when the wood which is made of was part of the Kilmarnock Printing Press. Walter Graham had been John Wilson’s pressman for more than 40 years and he had worked on the first printing press brought into Ayrshire (thought to be that of Peter McArthur). The press which Graham had worked moved to Ayr and was used at the Wilson’s business until replaced by a more efficient machine.
It was in 1858 that Thomas M Gemmell, proprietor of the Ayr Advertiser (which had also been printed using the same press), decided to convert the press into an arm chair, wanting to create something ornamental and useful out of the fine oak.
Following Thomas M Gemmell’s death in 1889, the chair was presented to the Trustees of the Burns Monument. It was displayed in the Burns Cottage Museum and for a period of time was undergoing conservation treatment. It is now in museum stores, with the hope of displaying it later in the year.
In 1965 Burns Cottage welcomed a special guest. Muhammad Ali visited when he was in Scotland to fight Harvey ‘Cody’ Jones in Paisley. The World Heavyweight Champion fancied himself as a bit of a poet. He didn’t disappoint – as he sat in the cottage signing autographs and talking to the press he came up with this:
‘I’d heard of a man named Burns – supposed to be a poet;
But, if he was, how come I didn’t know it?
They told me his work was very, very neat,
So I replied: ‘But who did he ever beat?
Re-purposing and ‘up-cycling’ objects relating to Burns is an old tradition: here we have another chair, which is held in a private collection. Made in 1818 from the remains of the oak that composed the old roof of Alloway Kirk. Presented to Hugh, 12th Earl of Eglinton, it has references to the poet’s work.
The front seat rail features an inlaid plough and the inscription ‘In memory, Robt. Burns’. The brass panels are engraved with the poem Tam O’Shanter and signed Robb McWhinnie, Sculp, Ayr. (McWhinnie was an engraver and watchmaker in Ayr. Two cabinet makers – Jno. Underwood and Jas. Loumgair were responsible for its creation. The original home of this Burns chair was Eglinton Castle, Ayrshire, rebuilt in the Gothic ‘Castle Style’ by John Paterson 1798-1803.
Other upcycled objects include a glove box and jewel case, and a snuff box, made from the the original rafters of Burns Cottage and from an oak rafter from Alloway Kirk respectively.
Our most recent object which has been upcycled however can be found on Poet’s Path. The RBBM volunteers have worked hard to re-use some pallets to create a lovely bench which visitors can use when waiting on the buggy and read a selection of great books, stored in a handy section of the bench!
In the summer of 1801, nine gentlemen arranged to meet in an Ayrshire alehouse to remember a friend and a poet. They dined on sheep’s head and haggis, proposed a number of commemorative toasts, and heard an ode specially written for the occasion. The presence of the poet was suggested by a portrait presented to the group for the dinner, and the room they occupied was in fact the very spot where their friend was born, 42 years before. When they had finished they resolved to meet on the poet’s birthday the following year. What had taken place was the world’s first Burns Supper.
The format of the Burns Supper has remained essentially the same over 200 years but what other ways can we celebrate Burns in the 21st century? If Burns died today, how would we celebrate his life and work? And what can we learn from the commemoration of other writers or public figures?
In order to answer some of these questions, I think it is important to look at the original Burns Supper and where its inspiration lay. At the time, it was not unusual to remember a famous person or event by holding a dinner. The life of famous men like the politician, Charles James Fox (1749 – 1806), was remembered in ‘Fox dinners’, which took place annually from 1808 – 1907. The Battle of Trafalgar (1805) is still commemorated in ‘Trafalgar Suppers’, patriotic affairs which have a strong naval theme. Although the first Burns Supper took the same idea, it was moulded by the peculiarities of Burns’s life and work in a way unlike any other writer.
Firstly, there was an emphasis on conviviality. It was noted in a minute of the Supper that, ‘The party was such as Burns himself would have joined with heartfelt satisfaction’ with an interesting mix of local notables, including intimates of Burns to whom he had dedicated two of his earliest published works. Secondly, there was a strong creative element. The organizer, Reverend Hamilton Paul (1773-1854), is described (albeit in his own minute) as ‘Chaplain & Laureate’. Paul composed the ode that was recited at the first supper, and was subsequently called upon to write a ‘Birthday Ode’ the following year ‘in praise of the Bard of Coila’. Thirdly, the work of Burns and the meal itself became organically linked. Haggis was chosen as the main dish presumably because of Burns’s poem To a Haggis which was duly read. Sheep’s head has a less obvious Burns connection although this may have been a nod to his mock elegy, The death and dying words of Poor Mailie. The supper was washed down by a series of toasts each of which was ‘drank by three times three’ (perhaps of significance to freemasons; Burns was one). Whisky may have been the drink of choice – there are certainly many references to ‘barley-brie’ in the poems and songs of Burns – but is more likely that claret or a sweet wine such as ‘Malaga’, used to toast old times in Burns’s first version of Auld Lang Syne (December 1788), accompanied the dinner. Finally, the presence of Burns was conjured by the location for the supper – the birthroom of the poet which had since become part of the ‘Burns Head’ tavern – and a portrait of the poet ‘painted on wood [and] intended as a signpost to the cottage’. Therefore, conviviality, creativity, food and drink referencing the work of Burns, and the presence of the poet were all hallmarks of the original Burns Supper.
In rethinking how we celebrate Burns in the 21st century, these elements are all just as compelling as they were five years after the death of Burns but could they be interpreted in different ways?
In my opinion, the best Burns Suppers continue the warmth and friendship of the first ever supper by encouraging friends to get together and each take part in some element of organizing or performing at the supper. The intimacy and enjoyment which radiates from the minutes of the first Burns Supper is often absent today in large scale, formal suppers which formulaically trot out its component parts at the expense of fun and friendship. Liturgy has become lethargy. In modern times, ceilidhs have become more and more popular and, for me, some of the best Burns Suppers involve dancing. In this way, everyone becomes a performer which can help to make the supper less passive and less reverential. The distinction between the ‘top table’ of speakers and ‘body of the Kirk’ dissolves.
The idea of composing new poetry for a supper has largely been lost. This could be because, in Scotland at least, we are still dazzled by the brilliance of Burns. However, this seems like a lost opportunity. By making the Burns Supper a platform for new poetry, like the odes composed by Hamilton Paul, Burns Suppers could encourage new talent while honouring Burns (who often quoted other writers). Seamus Heaney’s Birl for Burns (2008) is a classic example of paying tribute to Burns with an authentic voice. The annual Walter Scott prize for historical fiction, or Developing Dylan 100 (encouraging young people to interpret the work of Dylan Thomas in new ways, such as rap, film, poetry and social media) is an excellent way of celebrating the work of old and the new. Could Burns Suppers complement a similar prize for poetry, the winning work being read across the world at all suppers?
Although the close links between Burns’s work and the format of the Burns Supper have played a large part in making the supper a ‘natural’ way of celebrating Burns, it could be argued that this has also narrowed our awareness of the breadth of all that Burns wrote. How they are performed has too. Restricting what is read at a supper to a handful of the usual poems – To a Haggis, Selkirk Grace, Tam o’ Shanter, and perhaps Holy Willie’s Prayer – does little justice to the richness and depth of the Burns canon. Equally, insisting that these are recited from memory can result that in a hastily read, meaningless parroting of Burns, particularly for those who have little knowledge of the Scots language. Although I appreciate the value of a poem remembered by the heart, why not read from a book? There appears to be a machismo in learning Burns by rote not found with other writers. This could explain why there are very few marathon reading sessions for Burns. Selecting works which mean something to the audience would be a good basis for selecting a poem or song. If you’re a doctor, why not read Death and Dr Hornbook, if it’s a junior Burns Supper then why not ventriloquise with a poem like The Twa Dogs, or The Brigs of Ayr, and if you are concerned about green issues, then why not choose The Humble Petition of Bruar Water, or To a Mouse? Widening the repertoire would do much to diversify and animate the Burns Supper.
On the matter of toasts, I think it would also be healthier to focus on the audience and contemporary issues than outdated nods to the political establishment. Too often, Burns Suppers are perceived to be bastions of cosy self-satisfaction, a reflection of ourselves rather than Burns.
Finally, the presence of Burns continues to be an important element of every Burns Supper, even today. This happens in a number of ways. Like the original Burns Supper, images of Burns abound at more traditional affairs – appearing on everything from napkins to menus to whisky glasses. Unlike the first Burns Supper, Burns is not known personally to those present so some other way of making the poet familiar is needed. The ‘immortal memory’, a eulogy on the life and work of Burns, is a core part of the Burns Supper and is a way of making Burns’s life and achievements known and appreciable. At its worst, this is a dry, dutiful hagiography of Burns; at its best, the immortal memory can make Burns one of the guests.
Celebrating the immortal memory of Burns has extended beyond the supper table with conferences, scholarships, humanitarian awards, sheltered housing, tv and radio documentaries, parades, and even hospital beds honouring Burns and his ideals. These initiatives make remembering Burns less flash-in-the-pan and better reflect modern tastes.
Looking to how other writers are celebrated, Ireland’s annual homage to James Joyce, Bloomsday re-enacts events in the novel Ulysees in a way which utilizes place, people, and performance. This involves dressing up, reenactment of the events in Ulysees, marathon readings of the novel, pub crawls, pilgrimages along the route described in the book, and the playing of music integral to the plot. Bloomsday has style: period costume is important in recapturing the atmosphere, as well as the sartorial style of the author (a literary take on dressing as Elvis). Shakespeare’s birthday is celebrated in his native Stratford-upon-Avon by a procession of local people carrying flowers from his birthplace to his grave, a route lined by flags of the world. The emphasis here is more on the local link with a real man, perhaps deliberate given the conspiracy theories surrounding authorship of plays published in the name of William Shakespeare.
In 2010, the work of Philip Larkin was remembered in Hull by a trail marked with giant fibreglass toads bearing the words of Larkin, each marking a place associated with Larkin in the city. The toads – a playful reference to Larkin’s eponymous poem – were partly designed by the community and auctioned afterwards for charity. Events which capture the public imagination, bring people together, and act in the spirit of the writer or their work are far more likely to interest those unaware of that writer and what they achieved.
At Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, our mission is to celebrate Burns 365 days a year. This is also the theme we have chosen for 2015. The centrepiece of the year is a new experience for visitors – an Express Burns Supper. Visitors are greeted by a costumed guide and bagpiper, and taken to Burns Cottage where they enjoy haggis, neeps, and tatties, and cranachan, and a few short works read around the table. They then toast the memory of Burns in the small room where he was born and where the world’s first Burns Supper took place. All in under an hour. This is a short burst of Burns for visitors to Scotland who may know nothing about him. Although we hope that the Supper will attract large numbers of visitors to the site, the real measure of success will be whether or not guests read Burns the next day. Ultimately, this would be, in the words of Hamilton Paul, the most fitting ‘tribute to the memory of departed genius’.
Although we aim to keep Burns Cottage looking the way it did when Robert Burns lived there, the Cottage has a long history of different owners, adjustments, and building works. Today we shall explore how Burns Cottage and its surrounding area has changed over the years.
This image is one of the earliest of the Cottage. Dated 1805, it featured in a Scots Magazine article about the birthplace of Robert Burns and mentions that the house had become a pub and a place of Burns Night celebrations. In this picture the Cottage seems almost isolated, being nestled amongst a wilderness of over grown trees. Although there seems to be an absence of other houses, the Cottage was still by a main road, hence why a traveller is featured.
In 1829 the scene looks very similar. The road is still rough, with the trees still visible at the back of the cottage. However, we can now see that the Cottage is larger, as an extension for the pub has been added on. During this time, animals were still housed in the byre, so some farm activity still happened at the cottage. From both images it is clear that Alloway is still not very built up, with only the odd one or two farm cots in the vicinity. Whether those cottages were present in 1805, we sadly cannot confirm. Also notice how, what is now a pavement, was a grass verge, that sloped down into the muddy road.
This engraving is a copy after this painting by Samuel Bough RSA, which was created as a study for this piece now in the Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery. This shows Alloway in the depths of an extreme winter. At the time the Cottage was inhabited by Crimean veteran Thomas Morley and his family. Some artistic licence may have been taken here in order to create the rustic vision of Burns’s beginnings as Alloway, by this time, might have been slightly more developed than what is portrayed. Additionally, in the 1870s, no animals were housed in the cottage as the byre had been turned into a bedroom. Thus it is also questionable how much farming took place on site at that time.
This depiction of the cottage dates from around 1890, by which point the Cottage was owned by the Monument Trustees, and was run as a heritage site. Still existent is the pub extension and hall that were added in the early and mid 1800s. However, these extensions came down in the 1900s, when the current Education Pavilion was built. The rustic environment seems to have disappeared with some form of smoothed road outside the house, while the accompanying lands of Burns Cottage have been fenced in and tamed. The view appears to be taken from the place where Alloway’s town hall is now.
These picture shows the cottage in the 20th century. North of the cottage is current Education Pavilion, which then served as a museum. The extensions built during its time as a pub have been demolished and the cottage looks more like it would have during the residence of William Burnes and his family. A section of farmland by the cottage has been turned into lawn space and gardens. Although the landscaping has changed, the visage looks familiar, and the Yew trees are now fully grown. On the street, houses, pavements and a tarmac road have appeared, as well as a tram, which was in service between 1901 and 1931.
It is amazing to see how places change over the years. Burns Cottage is interesting because, while there has been so much focus on keeping it and keeping it the same, there have been many changes. Extensions have gone up and have been knocked down, while houses were built up and taken down around it. The land has been tamed while roads, cars, and buses appeared. Now Alloway is not the almost wilderness it appears in 1805, but a thriving village.
Hi my name is Catriona and I am the Learning and Volunteer Intern at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum !
How long have you been volunteering for at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum?
6 months, I volunteer along side my job here in the Learning Team.
Why did you start volunteering at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum?
I volunteer with the Learning Team to gain invaluable experience in Heritage and Museum education. Also get to work alongside an excellent team of staff and volunteers and contunue learning about 18th century Scotland (one of my favorite things ), and I get to understand Robert Burns and his work abit better. I grew up in Ayrshire and Burns featured strongly in my school education, it is nice to learn the more gritty things about his life !
What kind of things do you get up to when you volunteer?
I do a variety of things, from maintaining school stats to delivering workshops to organising events to drinking lots of tea and eating biscuits!
What has been your most memorable experience volunteering here?
It is really hard to pick out one experience. I think the whole of January and most of February was memorable experiance – we were ran of our feet with schools, events and Burns ‘fans’ coming to the museum. I discovered that I love being part of museum education although it was the sheer enthusiasm of the school pupils and visitors which kept me going !
That whole month and a bit is a blur!
What is your favourite thing about RBBM?
School workshops, particularily when you get a class who are very disengaged at the start and by the end they dont want you to leave because they are loving what they are learning it makes the volunteering all worth while ! …… close second is the catering though…. the scones and cakes are pretty awesome.
5 years ago, I saw an ad in the Ayrshire Post . Volunteers needed for a new museum opening in Alloway, this was the New Robert Burns Birthplace Museum
I had just retired and was looking for something to fill my time, not just to do charity work but to keep the learning ethos on going , hence I started on the journey (I shall call it ), my knowledge of Robert Burns was very limited. As a school girl we were bused down from Paisley to visit the cottage, I was so bored I threw toffee papers at the film of Tam and Meg as they galloped over the fields.
Today it is a different story ,I am now a guide at RBBM .I am often to be found taking school groups around the site in all kind of weather, I was standing on the Brig O’Doon ,the snow swirling round me ,I was telling a class of 6yr olds about Robert Burns, one little schoolgirl tugged my coat and asked “are you Robert Burns sister” as I knew so much about him
Now another hat I wear is shop assistant in the “Burns an’ a’ that ” shop in the town, we sell NTS goods and local crafters work .
Its a great way of interacting with the public, I am often to be found at the Highlight Talks held in the Museum every Wednesday where one of the volunteers will give an in depth talk on one piece in particular ,it’s an excellent way of getting the knowledge to enhance the visitors experience.
So I would say to anyone thinking about volunteering with the NTS, jump on board ,the journey is amazing.
I am so glad I answered the advert in the Ayrshire Post!
I have been volunteering at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum as a Guide since it opened in November 2010.
Being an Ayrshire Lass I was fortunate to be brought up learning about Burns, his life and his poetry. I also took part in many Burns Schools Festivals and still perform at many Burns Suppers in Ayrshire and beyond.
As a Volunteer I carry out many varied duties – my main one is guiding visitors around the museum, the wider site which includes the Cottage, the Auld Kirk, the Brig O’Doon, the gardens, the Monument, the Poet’s Path etc., etc.
My Guiding role involves taking school parties, adult groups, overseas visitors, dressing up in costume as and when required for various events and activities – for example Evening Hallowe’en Tours, Mini Burns Suppers which are held in the Cottage and various Burns events centred around the museum and wider site in January.
My most memorable experience and honour was being asked to record “The Cottar’s Saturday Night” for one of the exhibits in the museum.
I carry out many varied duties but first and foremost I try to give all our visitors a memorable experience. This involves passing on knowledge about Burns – his life, family, poem, letters etc. I also inform visitors about the products and services provided e.g. brochures (for all National Trust for Scotland properties), guide books for the Museum and wider site, the resteraunt shop, Garden Shop, Education Tours, etc.
Providing information, advice and assistance to visitors is invaluable.
I always try to present a friendly and positive image to visitor to ensure that they are receiving excellent Customer Service and feel genuinely welcome. At the outset I want them to know they will be well looked after and receive the necessary information and an enjoyable and informative visit.
Asking children if they are learning about Burns or other Scottish poets at school is so special, particularly hearing them recite what they have learnt – after a little encouragement!
I inform/direct visitors to other NTS properties – remembering to mention membership of the NTS. This is so worthwhile especially for visitors who are just beginning their holiday and hope to visit other places of interest.
If visitors leave having learnt something they did not know before this is so satisfying and I feel I have done a good job. Also if visitors leave wanting to return that is a bonus.
It is so enjoyable meeting people from other parts of the world and passing on knowledge,
I have many favourite things about RBBM – the contents of the Museum, the Cottage, the Brig O’Doon, the beautifully kept gardens.
I am so fortunate to be working in such a warm friendly environment with such excellent, helpful colleges and staff.