Month: November 2017

The ‘Heaven taught ploughman’?

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‘Though I am far from meaning to compare our rustic bard to Shakespeare, yet whoever will read his lighter and more humorous poems, … , will perceive with what uncommon penetration and sagacity this heaven taught ploughman, from his humble unlettered station, has looked upon men and manners. – Henry MacKenzie

At the age of 6, a young Robert Burns was sent to school at Alloway Mill to be taught by a William Campbell. The Bard’s father, William Burnes, was a great believer in his children’s education and wanted to ensure they received proper schooling. Unfortunately this was to prove tricky as Campbell the village left shortly afterwards. Not to be deterred, William Burnes approached Ayr Grammar School and requested a private tutor, John Murdoch, to teach his boys alongside 4 other families in the village, and to take turns to board in each of their houses.

Murdoch was a young man of eighteen himself, but struck up a firm friendship with William and enjoyed teaching the boys. Even after the family left Burns Cottage, they continued to attend Murdoch’s school in the village for two years. At this point, Murdoch left the area, but returned in 1772 and taught Robert Burns further, particularly French and English grammar. He also gifted him the works of Alexander Pope, whom Burns quotes frequently in subsequent letters and admired greatly.

Gilbert Burns wrote extensively on his former teacher, and credits him with inspiring Robert’s love of reading:

‘With him we learned to read English tolerably well; and to write a little. He taught us, too, the English 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 in his way with much pleasure and improvement; for even then he was a reader when he could get a book. Murdoch, whose library at that time had no great variety in it, lent him the Life of Hannibal, which was the first book he read (the school-books excepted), and almost the only one he had an opportunity of reading while he was at school.’ – Gilbert Burns

Murdoch himself wrote of his time teaching the Burns boys, in which he was less than complimentary about the Bard’s singing abilities, and confesses that he would have thought Gilbert more likely to develop into a famous poet:

‘Robert’s ear, in particular, was remarkably dull, and his voice untunable. It was long before I could get them to distinguish one tune from another. Robert’s countenance was generally grave and expressive of a serious, contemplative and thoughtful mind. Gilbert’s face said, “Mirth with thee I mean to live”; and certainly if any person who knew the two boys had been asked which of them was most likely to court the Muses, he would surely never have guessed that Robert had a propensity of that kind.’ – John Murdoch

In 1776, a complaint was made against John Murdoch that he had insulted the local church minister, William Dalrymple, and the former was forced to leave the village. He moved to London, where he actually assisted with the funeral arrangements of Burns’s younger brother William, who he had met with shortly before William’s death. Unfortunately for Murdoch, he died himself in 1824 in extreme poverty.

Thanks to the determination of his father and the dedication of John Murdoch, Robert Burns received a considerable formal education in his youth. This fostered his love of literature, and allowed him to develop the social and political knowledge necessary for writing some of his greatest works. Far from being a ‘heaven taught ploughman’ as MacKenzie suggests in his review of the Kilmarnock Edition in 1786 (see top of blog), Robert Burns received excellent schooling for the time, and was able to put this to full use during his adult life.

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Mother of the Bard

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There is no doubt that parents and guardians are instrumental in the formative years of a child’s life, and this was certainly the case for Robert Burns. One of his most famous poems, Tam o’ Shanter, was inspired by stories Burns’s relative Betty Davidson used to tell him in his childhood, and he credited Betty with ‘the largest collection in the country of tales and songs concerning devils, ghosts, fairies, brownies, witches, warlocks, spunkries, kelpies, elf-candles, dead-lights, wraiths, apparitions, cantraips, inchanted towers, giants, dragons and other trumpery’ which later inspired many of his folklore related poems. Burns’s father, William, was also hugely influential – Burns himself explained that the Cottar’s Saturday Night is loosely based on his experiences growing up on a farm, and William’s desire to ensure his children were educated meant that Robert received the schooling he needed to write his poetry.

However, the person who would no doubt have had the largest part to play in raising the young Bard was his mother, Agnes. Born Agnes Broun in 1732 in Kirkoswald, the eldest of six children, she received some formal schooling and was taught to read a little, but could never write. Her mother died when she was ten, and her father remarried and seemed to take little interest in her after that. She was sent to be looked after by her grandmother, Mrs Rennie, whose collection of songs and ballads would have probably inspired Agnes’s love of singing.

Young Agnes was initially engaged to a farmhand for seven years, but broke off the relationship after he was unfaithful. She married William in 1757 after meeting him at a fair in Maybole the year before, and the couple went on to have seven children – Robert, Gilbert, Agnes, Annabella, William, John and Isabella.

Agnes loved singing. She had a find collection of lullabies, ballads and even bawdry songs in Scots which she would sing to her children from a young age. This would no doubt have made a huge impression on the young Bard, who later went on to collect many old Scottish songs and ballads in The Scots Musical Museum. Once again, his upbringing against a background of traditional Scottish music and folklore was the perfect inspiration for future literary endeavours. Alongside her singing and domestic chores, she also played an important role in the development of the farm at Burns Cottage – she would have grown vegetables and made butter and cheese from the milk produced by the family’s cows.

William Burnes died in 1784 and was survived by Agnes for 36 years. She spent the majority of this time living with her son Gilbert and died in his home in East Lothian in 1820. Despite an inscription to her on William’s gravestone in Alloway Auld Kirk, she is actually buried in the Churchyard of Bolton. Isabella, Robert’s youngest sister, wrote this about her mother:

‘She was rather under the average height; inclined to plumpness, but neat, shapely, and full of energy; having a beautiful pink-and-white complexion, a fine square forehead, pale red hair but dark eyebrows and dark eyes often ablaze with a temper difficult of control. Her disposition was naturally cheerful; her manner, easy and collected; her address, simple and unpresuming; and her judgement uncommonly sound and good. She possessed a fine musical ear, and sang well.’

Many famous historical figures are men, however the majority of these men were raised by women. There is little doubt that Agnes Broun had a large formative influence on her son, and inspired his love of music and song, as well his appreciation in later life of women who had a musical ear. She not only physically gave birth to Robert Burns, but also brought him up to become Scotland’s National Bard.

A convenient convention

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Our latest blog post was written by Visitor Services Assistant, Jim Andrews.

Access to rare books and manuscripts is generally only given by special arrangement to well qualified academics, who are only allowed to handle the originals very carefully while wearing clean white gloves. Today, however, digitised versions of rare documents can be viewed by anyone with a computer and access to the Internet. For Burns enthusiasts there is a digitised copy of an original Kilmarnock edition available in the digital gallery of the National Library of Scotland. It can be accessed on https://digital.nls.uk under the heading Literature & writers.

Seeing a copy of the original version of 1786 as printed by John Wilson can be a bit of a surprise, if it is your first time. It does not look quite right, not at all like any of the editions of Burns’s works you might find today. The reason for the unfamiliar appearance is the rather odd-looking spelling of some words: words containing the letter s. At the time of printing there were two versions of that letter in common use: a long one and a short one. The short one is the only one in use today: the long one looks confusingly like the letter f with a bit missing (the bar across the middle). The line Wee, ſleekit, cowran, tim’rous beaſtie  shows how it was generally used. It appears at the beginning and in the middle of a word, but the short s is always used at the end of a word. That is a rough guide: there were some exceptions.

The disappearance of the long s in English was a gradual process that started during Burns’s lifetime towards the end of the 18th century. Between 1800 and 1820 it was well on its way out, and by the middle of the 19th century it had gone. According to an article about the long s in Wikipedia, you can use it to date early editions of Burns published in the 1780s and 1790s that may have lost their title page and year of publication. In these you will find the long s, but not in any of the 2,000 plus editions published after 1800.

In many countries spelling is controlled by government-sponsored organisations that determine what is correct and, from time to time, change their minds and alter or revise what is correct. English spelling has never endured any such official interference, but that is not to say it has not changed. Changes in English spelling have been brought about by the printing and publishing industry: a convenient convention that seems to work quite well. There is a story that the disappearance of the long s in English may have been set in motion in 1791 by the printer and publisher John Bell.  It may be fanciful, but they say he dropped the long s because he did not like how it looked in his edition of Shakespeare’s plays.