Object Focus: Leather taws belonging to Agnes Burnes, circa 1750s.

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Taws formerly belonging to Burns' mother.
Taws formerly belonging to Burns’ mother.

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.’

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