Object Focus: Burns’s Brolly

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Burns' umbrella. Accession number 3.7503.
Burns’ umbrella.  3.7503.

Although unmistakably an umbrella, this item is very different from the modern light-weight models that we are accustomed to today. The key difference is in the type of materials used for its construction: the frame is of wood, the spoke-ends and handle of ivory, and the canopy of oiled-silk. This combination would have resulted in a heavy, unwieldy object and it’s hard to imagine anyone holding it for long periods without getting tired – although Robert’s years of tough farm work would have left him more than up to the task.

Burns' umbrella. Accession number 3.7503.

In eighteenth century Britain, the umbrella was still a fairly new invention, having first been popularized in Paris before making its way across the English Channel. In London, Jonas Hanway pioneered its use, and was ridiculed for many years as a result. By the 1780s, however, it appears to have been firmly established as a daily part of city life. In Scotland, it may have been less common, certainly outside of the major cities, and may well have been frowned on by some of the Old Lights in the Kirk, since they still considered rain to be “heaven-sent.” Although the use of an umbrella is perhaps at odds with our notions of Burns as a son of the soil, he was always keen to stand out from the crowd. He certainly would have done so using it in 1784 in Mauchline, which is where the date stitched into the silk would place him.

Burns' umbrella. Accession number 3.7503.

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