Object Number: 3.4521
On display: in the museum exhibition space
This remarkable chair is made of wood sourced from the Kilmarnock printing press which produced the first edition of Robert Burns’s work Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect known as ‘The Kilmarnock Edition’. It was published on the 31st July 1786 at the cost of three shillings per copy. 612 copies were printed and the edition was sold out in just over a month after publication. The printing press no longer exists but in its stead there are two statues: one of Burns and one of John Wilson (the owner of the press) to commemorate the publication of Burns’s first works.
This chair was constructed in 1858, just before the Burns Centenary Festival in Ayr in 1859. The one hundredth year anniversary of the bard’s birth was celebrated far and wide by many. One contemporary counted 676 local festivals in Scotland alone, thus, showing the widespread popularity of Burns.
The chair has plush red velvet on the cushion and is elaborately carved with symbolism and references to some of Burns’s most loved works. Each arm rest ends with a carving of a dog, Luath and Caesar, from the poem ‘The Twa Dogs’.
A carving of Robert Burns himself, after the artist Alexander Nasmyth’s famous portrait – whereby he is shown fashionably dressed in a waistcoat, tailcoat and stalk – is placed in the centre at the highest point of the back of the chair with the infamous characters Tam and Souter Johnnie from the narrative poem ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ on either side. Thistles, commonly regarded as the floral national emblem of Scotland, decorate the gaps between the figures.
The central carving is of the climactic scene of Tam crossing the Brig o’ Doon atop of his trusty cuddie (horse in Scots) Meg with Nannie the witch at their heels. The Brig o’ Doon is actually a real bridge and is located in Alloway where Burns was born and lived for seven years.
A small plaque above this quotes a verse from Burns’s poem ‘The Vision’ which was written in 1785 and published in Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. It takes the form of a poetic ‘dream vision’, a form used in medieval Scottish verse and revived by Allan Ramsay in his own poem ‘The Vision’, from which Burns takes his title and was influenced and inspired by immensely. In the long narrative poem, Burns as speaker returns from a hard day in the fields and, after resting by the fireside, falls into a dream state in which he is visited by Coila, a regional muse. Coila (whom the speaker is clearly attracted to) addresses Burns, describing how she watched his development from a young age – thereby offering an imaginative reworking of Burns’s emergence as a poetic talent. She ends with a confirmation of his poetic mission and crowns him as bard. The striking thing here is the self-consciousness Burns displays about his position even this early in his career.
The inclusion of these particular carvings could be symbolism of the themes in which Burns explored most through his works: nature with the dogs representing this; the supernatural via the Brig o’ Doon scene; comradery through Tam and Souter Johnnie the “drouthy cronie” and the nature of the self and humankind through the quote from ‘The Vision’ and Robert Burns himself.
Interestingly, during a visit to Burns Cottage in 1965, the boxing legend Muhammad Ali was pictured sitting in this chair. Following this visit he was made an honorary member of Alloway Burns Club. If you are intrigued by this then please read a previous blog by volunteer Alison Wilson about an extraordinary meeting to do with this celebrity visit to Alloway here: https://burnsmuseum.wordpress.com/2016/06/13/memories-of-muhammad-ali/.
By Parris Joyce, Learning Trainee.
In the cottage where Robert Burns was born on 25th January 1759, there lies a box-bed in the corner. Visitors from around the world look to this bed as the place where Scotland’s National Bard was born. In 2009 a new blanket was specially commissioned for this bed, and this work was undertaken by Christine McLeod and a team of volunteers at Kilbarchan Weavers Cottage. The National Trust for Scotland has endeavoured to preserve the character and authenticity of the eighteenth-century cottage, so careful thought and time was dedicated in making sure this modern creation was appropriate. Although the blanket is a twenty-first century creation, it was woven on an eighteenth century loom within the Weaver’s Cottage, so tradition was very much treasured and remembered in this blanket’s construction.
The weavers decided to create the blanket with 1759 threads, which symbolises the birth year of Robert Burns. Furthermore, the tartan’s pattern and colours were also carefully selected by Christine McLeod, since only colours common in the eighteenth century such as maddor (red) and ochre (brown) were used. Each colour also conveys a significant meaning that connects back to the poet’s family. Maddor represents Agnes Broun (Burns’s mother) who had red hair. Ochre is for William Burnes (Burns’s father), whose work as a gardener and farmer always connected him to the soil. These darker hues are offset by strands of gold, which refers to the poet’s genius and imagination. But Robert is not the only child of William and Agnes celebrated in the blanket’s structure. The intersecting lines represent the four children born in the cottage, times by the total number of children born to William and Agnes. Therefore this blanket helps to convey a personal sense of the family’s history and elements of their personality to the modern visitor.
Poetry, songs and women are widely known to have been Robert Burns’s great passions, but he also loved to step onto the dancefloor as well. In 1779, Burns as a young man decided to attend dancing lessons in Tarbolton. This decision allowed him to temporarily escape the financial difficulties that the family were enduring at Lochlea. Therefore Burns used to regularly walk to a humble thatched house after the farming work was done to enjoy some time with his friends. In the museum collection you will see a beautifully restored fiddle with a red, green and black floral design work. This fiddle was played by Burns’s dance teacher, William Gregg, while Robert learned and practiced his steps. According to Burns he took up dancing to ‘give my manners a brush.’ But improving his manners and exercise were not the only benefits that dancing would give, as it granted Burns an opportunity to get acquainted with the local girls as well. This early time of social and sexual exploration played an important part in shaping Burns into the man he would famously become. To our twenty-first century minds dancing seems like a harmless pastime; but to his father William Burnes, this was an act of rebellion. According to Gilbert their father was often irritated by Robert’s dancing, as it was a clear sign that Robert was no longer listening to William’s advice and counsel. As a consequence of this, Burns himself acknowledged that his decision to continue with his dancing lessons compromised his relationship with his father.
In Burns’s narrative poem Tam O’Shanter you can feel the excitement of the dance unfolding, yet all the while there is a dark truth to this particular social gathering:
Warlocks and witches in a dance:
Nae cotillion, brent new frae France,
But hornpipes, jigs, strathspeys, and reels,
Put life and mettle in their heels.’
This scene of enjoyment is not only watched by the protagonist Tam, but also by Auld Nick who played the music to make them dance. This negative perception of dance being sinful is more in keeping with William’s opinion rather than his son. Nevertheless this moral outlook is undermined by the poem’s greater sense of adventure and humour. These two opposing viewpoints mirror the different standpoints of William and Robert in 1779, one saw dance as wicked and the other saw only pleasure. Despite all of William’s disapproval Robert Burns continued to love music, dance and social gatherings throughout his life. Tam O’Shanter was published in Grose’s Antiquities of Scotland in 1791, which reveals that Burns never forgot his father’s outlook on dance.
If you are a lover of dance yourself, you can follow in the Bard’s footsteps and take part in Scottish country dances set to his songs. For instance Ae fond Kiss is a reel, or perhaps you would prefer a livelier jig to the poem Halloween. One of the most popular times to toast Burns and celebrate his life is at a Burns Supper, so perhaps in the future you will follow his example and take to the dancefloor.
‘The dancers quick and quicker flew,
They reel’d, they set, they cross’d, they cleekit.’
By Kirstie Bingham
‘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.
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.
The 18th century was a time of great change in Scotland – its major cities were full of learning and progress in areas such as architecture, philosophy, science, religion and – importantly – it marked the beginning of the change from medieval to modern medicine.
Modern medicine is, essentially, just folk medicine that worked. A huge proportion of modern western medicine is derived from plants that had been used for centuries. A well-known example being willow bark used to treat pain; a derivative from this was eventually used in Aspirin. Foxgloves, known to be poisonous (especially to children) were used to treat heart disease and heart attacks – chemicals from these flowers are used today for the same thing. One particularly unappealing cure was eating woodlice (or mixing them with wine) to treat stomach aches, heartburn and indigestion – and considering that their exoskeletons are predominately calcium carbonate (a main ingredient of Rennies) – it might have actually worked.
However, for every tincture, potion, ointment and salve that worked; many more had no more power to heal a wound or illness than the Primary School method of putting a wet paper towel on it. It was a belief that if there was an illness – God provided a cure. Unfortunately, unlike diseases like scurvy, which was cured by something as simple as Vitamin C from Kale or Citrus fruits, a large number of diseases had many treatments, but no cures. Smallpox remained the scourge of the 18th Century, responsible for as much as 10% of all deaths worldwide. Unfortunately, because of the lack of scientific understanding behind how the treatments worked and why, attempts to cure these more serious diseases were for the most part unsuccessful. Any survival was almost entirely down to luck and the patient’s overall health. The cure for Rabies (which still remains incurable today without immediate retroviral drugs) was a prayer for the patient’s soul and then a swift smothering. Our own Bard is testament to the fact that submerging yourself in the ice cold Solway Firth to cure heart problems was not one of these cures that were eventually incorporated into the NHS.
Throughout the 18th Century, the people of rural Scotland were dependant on their home remedies for treating illness; home remedies that were often medieval in their origins. The issue was that although trained Doctors did exist at this time; they were expensive to hire, rare and travel was difficult from city to isolated village. So communities made do with what they could.
Home remedies were often passed down from word of mouth, stories, songs, letters and kitchen cookbooks – meaning they changed very little over the years – much opposed to orthodox medicine, which underwent a huge shift in the 18th century. There were many books on home medicine – including Buchan’s Guide to Domestic Medicine, however, a large proportion of the rural population could not afford the books and illiteracy was still very high.
Most diagnoses and medicines were administered by a local healer, wise-woman (or man), apothecary or family members – as most housewives would have grown herbs for medicinal use or at least have known where to look for them; making potions and ointments to be stored away for later use. Local healers would often be members of a family known for practicing medicine, or even a landowner who owned some of the ‘do-it-yourself’ medicine books. Burns famously wrote of ‘Dr Hornbook’, a teacher who practiced as a healer, albeit not successfully if the Grim Reaper was to be believed.
A famous book of ‘do-it-yourself’ medicine was William Buchan’s succinctly titled ‘Domestic Medicine: or, a Treatise on the Prevention and Cure of Diseases by Regimen and Simple Medicines’. The list of local plants and herbs that could be used in treatments in the book is exhausting;
Wormwood was a cure for jaundice and, as its name suggest, worms. Peppermint was used to treat wind. Common Mugwort was thought to be a cure-all, for everything from consumption to weariness. Juniper was a disinfectant, Bettony healed infected wounds, Poppies were sedatives and Carline thistle was an antibiotic (it’s also worth noting Carline is a scots word for witch). Nettles were for skin conditions, Heather is an antiseptic, Bog myrtle is a midge repellent and fever remedy. Eventually, due to the increasing professionalisation of medicine over the 18th Century, the gulf between local healers and trained, professional Doctors widened – the latter saw the former as superstitious and looked down upon traditional forms of medicine quite vehemently. This led to many folk medicines being abandoned in favour of more modern, clinical and chemical cures. However, even today we still sometimes use folk medicine in its original from, for example: the Dock Leaf, which grows around nettle patches, crushed and is used to cure their stings, is an ancient cure passed down generation to generation.
In 1756 a farmer and landscape gardener called William Burnes took a perpetual lease on a 7 acre piece of land in Alloway. The next year, he started work on a small Cottage for himself and his wife, Agnes, and two years after that their first son Robert was born in its kitchen. 37 years later, Robert Burns died in Dumfries having cemented his place in history as Scotland’s National Bard.
William was an innovator. He had previously worked on the laying out of Edinburgh’s Hope Park (now the Meadows) and believed in agricultural and landscaping improvement. Although they only lived at Burns Cottage until young Robert was 7, it was always William’s dream to create a self-sufficient market garden, ‘New Gardens’ on the site. Unfortunately, his idea did not prosper and over time the land was given over more and more to cattle and poultry. It was with this in mind that the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum (RBBM) team decided to revisit William’s plans and restart ‘New Gardens’ as a working project.
The first steps were taken last year, with the planting of a 39 tree strong orchard which is already bearing fruit. Last week saw the beginning of the next stage of works, carried out by W L Straughan & Son Ltd, to install raised beds, public walkways, and a pond and wetland area. With this, we aim to improve biodiversity onsite, expand on the outdoor learning opportunities (for schools, families and community groups) RBBM currently offers, and to realise William’s ‘New Gardens’ vision and offer up an historic continuum on this plot of land between the time of Burns and the present.
In 1765, William Burnes leased land at Mount Oliphant farm about 2 miles away from Burns Cottage in Alloway, and the family moved there. Soil was poor and the family had to work hard to keep afloat. 12 years later, they moved to Lochlea Farm in Tarbolton, site of the Bachelors’ Club where Robert Burns learnt to dance, founded a debating society, and joined the Freemasons. Unfortunately, the family continued to find it difficult to make ends meet, and became involved in a legal dispute with their landlord. They eventually won the court case in 1784, but William was left physically drained and died just a few weeks afterwards.
233 years later, his New Gardens project is now underway at the Burns’s first family home in Alloway, and will allow RBBM to focus on another of William’s key passions – education – without which the boy born in 1759 in the kitchen of the auld clay biggin’ may never have gone on to become Scotland’s National Bard.