Month: December 2015

The Poet in the Pane

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Inspiration may strike a poet at any time and Burns was well prepared for this. On his highland tour in 1787 he left a trail of graffiti by etching lines of his poetry into window panes. He probably used a wooden stylus with a diamond point to cut the glass. The object below is believed to be the tool he used and is held in South Ayrshire Council’s Burns collection.

Diamon Cutter
Robert Burn’s Diamond Cutter, South Ayrshire Council, available at: http://www.burnsscotland.com/items/r/robert-burns-diamond-cutter.aspx [Accessed 17 December 15]

Many verses written on window panes were found in inns across Scotland and an example can be seen on display in the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum today. This example comes from the first night of his highland tour when he stayed at the Cross Key’s in Falkirk. In the short verse Burns asks for men who treat women well to be rewarded:

Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, Alloway.
pane of glass inscribed poem by Robert Burns, Taken from Cross Keys Inn, Falkirk.

‘Sound be his sleep and blythe his morn,
That never did a lassie wrang;
Who poverty ne’er held in scorn,
For misery ever tholed a pang.’

The museum’s collection also has three window panes that were originally from the Globe Inn in Dumfries. Burns is said to have written these during the 1790’s when he was having an affair with a barmaid at the Inn, Ann Park. True to his words in the poem Burns did, “make one more” as Burns and Park’s daughter Elizabeth was born in 1791. The engravings are spread across 3 panes and say:

‘I MURDER hate by field or flood,
Tho’ glory’s name may screen us;
In wars at home I’ll spend my blood,
Life-giving wars of Venus:/
The deities that I adore
Are social Peace and Plenty;
I’m better pleased to make one more,
Than be the death of twenty.’

Canny visitors may also notice another example of window poetry in the Burns Cottage itself. Burns’ etchings left such an impression that they inspired future Burns enthusiasts to emulate his example. On the window pane in the Spence a few lines have been written that are dated 1883 and are clearly a homage to Burns’ memory. Next time you are in the cottage, try to see if you can find it!

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A tribute to Robert Burn’s glass engravings at the Burns Cottage

The Jolly Beggar’s Badge

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“A fig for those by law protected!

Liberty’s a glorious feast!

Courts for cowards were erected,

Churches built to please the priest.”

In Burn’s day, provision for the poor was provided by individual parishes. Poor Laws required parishes to carry out an ‘inquisition’ into the circumstances of individual poverty to determine whether the poor were able to work or whether they had any other persons who might assist them. ‘Public nuisances’, such as begging or vagrancy, were outlawed. However, at a time when half of the population were living at subsistence or bare survival level, begging was some peoples only option.

The parishes’ solution? A ‘beggar’s badge’. People could apply for a badge and when issued with one would be allowed to beg within their parish on one day each week. Each badge was marked with a unique number and was to be worn pinned onto the shoulder. Begging without a badge was forbidden and those caught doing so were whipped and turned out of town.

 

Beggars badge
A beggar wearing a beggar’s badge

 

Here at the museum we have a beggar’s badge dated 1773. We don’t know who the badge belonged to as recipients were only given a number and no names were recorded.

Beggars badge object
Beggar’s badge 1773

 

Burn’s thoughts on the beggar’s badge we don’t know exactly but we have glimpses into his views on the treatment of transient folk. In March 1784, he wrote:

“I have often observed, in the course of my experience of life, that every man, even the worst, has something good about him… For this reason I have often courted the acquaintance of that part of mankind commonly known by the ordinary phrase of blackguards… Though disgraced by follies, nay, sometimes stained with guilt, I have yet found among them the noblest virtues… magnanimity, generosity, disinterested friendship and even modesty.”

And, of course, we have his raucous cantata ‘The Jolly Beggars’, written after a chance visit by the poet to the ‘doss house’ of Poosie Nancie. Here Burns introduces us to a host of characters revelling at this low dive in Mauchline; a ‘sodger and his drab’, a ‘Merry Andrew’, a ‘raucle carlin’, a ‘pigmy scraper’ and a tinker. Encapsulating his democratic spirit and sense of brotherhood, each story further emphasises Burns’ point that beggars are as good a subject for poetry as any other.

Jolly Beggars Scene
Scene from The Jolly Beggars

Although it is now considered one of his finest works, it clearly didn’t make such a big impression on Burns himself – it appears he forgot he wrote it until a friend reminded him many years later!