Have you ever had the urge to graffiti? To loudly declare to the world I was here? Well Robert Burns certainly did, and he chose a way with great style and panache too. His was no illegible scrawls or splashes of indescribable colour that we often see now. Instead he scratched his immortal thoughts onto panes of glass. Burns’s creativity was definitely not restricted to certain times of the day or even when he had a handy piece of parchment available. This is evident during his highland tour, when Robert decided to leave a distinctive trail of graffiti in the places he visited. He left behind a series of poems and lines inscribed on chimney pieces and on the window panes of several inns he stayed in.
On the first night of his tour, Burns and his companion William Nicol stayed overnight at the Cross Keys Inn in Falkirk in 1787. This was the beginning of his window pane graffiti trail. Robert had recently acquired a diamond tipped stylus, which he used to scratch four lines into the window pane. The lines entreat that all men who are good to women should be rewarded:
‘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.’
There are some who question Robert Burn’s relationships with women, and whether he deserved a reward for his ‘good’ treatment of women. Nevertheless, this was not the last of his unusual writings in August 1787. In the royal burgh of Stirling he visited a seat of the Scottish Kings, Stirling Castle. The castle at the time of his visit was in a ruinous state, and this roused Burns’s Jacobitism for the Stewart Kings of previously. In a letter to Robert Muir, Burns outlined his day in Stirling and his indignation at what had occurred to the castle and the fallen Stewarts. These were the ten lines he wrote on his room’s window at the Wingate’s Inn (now the Golden Lion Hotel):
“Here Stewarts once in triumph reigned,
And laws for Scotland’s weal ordained;
But now unroofed their palace stands,
Their sceptre’s swayed by other hands;
Fallen, indeed, and to the earth
Whence grovelling reptiles take their birth,
The injured Stewart line is gone.
A race outlandish fills their throne;
An idiot race, to honour lost;
Who knows them best despise them most.”
This poem is highly critical of the Hanoverian monarchy that had replaced the Stewart Kings. George III was on the throne in 1787 and he is still known today as the Mad King, a member of the ‘idiot race’ as Burns scathingly wrote. In addition to this, the Hanoverians were still seen as alien foreigners, ‘a race outlandish’ that dared to occupy the throne of ‘the injured Stewart line.’ These words, although poetical, are no less treasonous for their meaning. Burns saw the danger of this particular window graffiti and returned later to break the glass to avoid prosecution. Yet these lines almost ruined his chances to become an Excise man later, since he was interrogated ‘like a child about my matters, and blamed and schooled for my inscription on a Stirling window.’ Despite this attempt to erase his glass scribblings, the Stirling Lines have been remembered. The Golden Lion lost the broken fragments of the original Stirling Lines in a fire that occurred last century, but they have been re-engraved for a display dedicated to Robert Burns in the Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum.
Robert Burns had not lost his taste for window graffiti after Stirling, even though these particular lines could have seen him arrested for treason. In 1790, he once again lifted his diamond-tipped stylus and started engraving on several window panes in the Globe Inn in Dumfries. This time Burns decided to omit his opinions on the monarchy, and focused on the relative merits of sex and war instead.
‘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.’
Burns was a lover rather than a fighter, evident perhaps from his many offspring from several different women. He practiced what he wrote, and he had an affair with a barmaid called Anna Park in the same room he wrote these lines. Their relationship together produced a daughter; Elizabeth Park Burns, who was raised with Robert’s other children by Jean.
Robert Burns was a prolific writer across numerous genres, these window panes inscribed with his lines testifies to that. He believed women should be treated in a good manner, and that such men would be justly rewarded in return. He played with this idea of loving women by comparing war with love and sex. It gives life to the old adage of men being ‘lovers’ or ‘fighters.’ Robert Burns was indeed a romantic, but he was also more than that, he was a highly educated and politically opinionated man. This is obvious from his most famous window graffiti, The Stirling Lines, in which his love of Scotland and his nationalistic fervour is clear. All three examples of his window graffiti paint a picture of an unusual man, one who did not necessarily conform to society’s expectations or rules.
The window graffiti from Falkirk and Dumfries are displayed within the museum’s collection for you to see. If you also head into the cottage you will see generations of graffiti carved into the cottage doors, and one visitor even followed Robert Burns’s example and left a message on a window pane in 1881.
By Learning Trainee Kirstie Bingham