The following blog post was written by RBBM’s Learning Officer as a guest blog for Museums Galleries Scotland – http://nationallysignificantcollections.scot/
Few objects associated with Robert Burns are as well-known, or as instrumental to his fame, as the ‘Kilmarnock Edition’. Published on the 31st July 1786 by John Wilson of Kilmarnock, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect was the first volume of poetry and song to be written by the man who was to later become Scotland’s National Bard. Containing some of his best-loved works including Tae a Mouse, The Cotter’s Saturday Night and The Holy Fair, it is one of the items in the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum’s collection treasured most by both staff and visitors.
The Robert Burns Birthplace Museum (RBBM) is based in Alloway, South Ayrshire and is run by the National Trust for Scotland. The site consists of the Birthplace Cottage; Alloway Auld Kirk and the Brig o’ Doon (both of Tam o’ Shanter fame); Burns Monument and gardens; and of course the museum itself. The site is one of three in the ‘Burns Group’, also comprising of the Bachelors’ Club where the young Robert set up his own debating society, and Souter Johnnie’s Gallery, once the home of John Davidson (on whom Burns may have based the character Souter Johnnie in Tam o’ Shanter), and now an art gallery and craft shop showcasing local work.
The museum collection comprises of over 5,500 objects including 2 Kilmarnock editions. Only 612 copies of this first edition were printed, each containing 44 poems and songs written by the Bard. Although John Wilson was known for celebrating local talent, he was still reluctant to take a chance on an unknown poet from Ayrshire – in the end it was agreed that he would print the work only if Burns could raise enough advance subscriptions. The book cost 3 s each – 350 copies went directly to subscribers, and the rest quickly sold out within a month.
Reviews of the Kilmarnock edition were largely positive, although some made reference to Burns’s supposed lack of education (despite his home schooling by tutor John Murdoch and his familiarity with a range of literary and enlightenment figures including Alexander Pope, Adam Smith and Robert Fergusson). The Monthly Review in December 1786 also lamented Burns’s use of, ‘an unknown tongue, which must deprive most of our readers of the pleasure they would otherwise naturally create; being composed in the Scottish dialect, which contains words that are altogether unknown to an English reader…’. This seems a strange notion today, when Burns’s use of Scots is regarded by many as one of his best loved and most distinctive features.
Despite sentiments of this nature, the book began to circulate in Edinburgh, attracting positive attention from eminent society figures. Within 8 weeks, Burns was thinking of re-printing. The second edition of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (the First Edinburgh edition), was printed by William Smellie and published by William Creech in Edinburgh on 21st April 1787. The cost of this was 5 s to subscribers and 6 to other buyers. Over 3,000 copies were published, firmly establishing Burns’s reputation and paving the way for his future success as a poet and songwriter, both during and after his lifetime.
Today, RBBM displays a Kilmarnock edition alongside an interactive facsimile which allows visitors to browse the pages digitally, therefore preserving the original for future generations. But this is not the only item of interest we have relating to this first volume of Burns’s works.
Above we have the printing stocks used to decorate books published by John Wilson in Kilmarnock, and below is an elaborate seat fashioned from the printing press which was used to print the first edition of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. It was converted into a chair during the Victorian period in an early example of ‘upcycling’, and was also famously the chair Muhammed Ali sat in when he visited Burns Cottage in 1965.
The 5,500 objects in RBBM’s collection include original manuscripts of Burns’s works, letters to and from the Bard, artefacts belonging to Burns and his family/friends, artworks, books, Burnsiana (trinkets relating to Burns), and more. Together they make up the most extensive collection of Burns related objects in the world. But none would be important today without the book of 44 poems and songs, originally sold for 3 s each, representing an Ayrshire farmer’s first step towards becoming Scotland’s National Bard.
This blog was written by Iona Fisher, a work experience student from Carrick Academy.
In 1788 Burns trained to be an excise officer and was an excise man until he died in 1796, as well as farming in Ellisland. Excise men (also known as gaugers) covered large areas of Scotland’s countryside and their job was to inspect and record taxable materials, such as malted grain, soap, candles and paper, before and after they were manufactured. To do this Burns would use dipping rods to measure liquids and scales to weigh dried materials. Burns was aware that people did not necessarily like excise men, so he carried a pistol around with him to protect himself.
Also in RBBM’s collection are Robert Burns’s duelling pistols: http://www.burnsmuseum.org.uk/collections/object_detail/3.8557.a-c
With Robert Burns’ health condition getting worse, he moved back to Dumfries to live his last few days. On his deathbed he gave his physician – Dr William Maxwell, his pair of duelling pistols. He died in Dumfries on the 21st of July 1796 from a heart disease. Roberts’s wife, Jean, gave birth to her last child the day of Burns’s funeral and she named him Maxwell after Robert’s physician. The pistols were donated to the Burns Monument Trust by William Hugh Fleming in 1987 and they are now in the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum.
One of the smallest and most unassuming items in our collection is a small strip of black cloth mounted on card. This tiny fragment once belonged to Jean Armour’s wedding dress, and is now all that remains of it.
Whilst on one of his many visits to Glasgow, Robert bought 15 yards of a black ‘lutestring’ silk fabric (or ‘English Taffeta’) from a merchant; and it is assumed he then gave it to Jean as a gift. This fabric was then made into her wedding dress, worn in 1788. The two are considered to have been ‘irregularly married’ by writing their names in a Bible well before 1788, however this was the year their wedding was officially registered (and wedding gifts such as the Bannock Toaster are dated similarly).
The style of dress at the time of their marriage in 1788 would have been roughly something like this:
The colour of the wedding dress may be surprising – but it has a very simple reason as to why it is black. Wedding dresses that are now seen as traditional today- white, lacy and worn only on the wedding day; came about due to Queen Victoria, 61 years after Jean and Robert were married. Since most fashion came from the top echelons of society and then trickled down as other classes adopted it – the white wedding dress would take a long time to become popular amongst the working classes. Even then, to have a dress made of purely white fabric and only wear it once was a luxury affordable only to the wealthier bride.
There is also a very practical reason for Jean’s dress to be a dark or black material. Buying or making a dress for single use would not have been possible for anyone but the richest members of society. The wedding dress of an 18th century woman would most likely be her newest or ‘best’ dress. Indeed, many people today will remember getting married in their best suit or best dress as opposed to buying a new and expensive outfit, making it fairly common until very recently. Jean would re-use the dress again and again, and since working around the house would have been a bit of a dirty job in the C18th – a darker coloured dress would have hidden the dirt and any stains a lot better than a lighter coloured material. Of course it is also very practical due to the effort needed in order to keep pale fabrics clean and bright – the distinct lack of modern laundry detergent and bleach makes a white dress for everyday use in the 18th century very difficult to clean.
At the time they were married, cotton fabric was roughly half the price of the ‘lutestring’ silk fabric, which implies that even though the dress would eventually be used for more than just their wedding – Robert was willing to spend the extra money on the fabric to make it all the more special.
The final blog post in our series written by two placement students from Glasgow University is on the Beggar’s Badge in the museum.
It doesn’t matter who you are, where you live or what you do for a living: you will have come across beggars in some context. Whether that experience is witnessing people begging on the streets of a busy city, or being approached by someone asking for money on public transport, begging is one of the few features which appears to be current in most cultures. Tolerated in some countries, looked down on in others; the presence of begging appears to be both a problem for society and a means of survival for individuals. With the high population of beggars seen today in streets all over the world, it is easy to justify not financially helping individuals due to the overwhelming size of the community. However, perhaps it is time we stopped looking for change in our wallets and purses and instead look at the change we can spare from ourselves.
The beggar’s badge on display in the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum only emphasizes how constant this problem is in society, and the different attempts that have been made to ‘fix’, or at least control, it. It seems quite bewildering that we have managed to go for so many centuries, with no success of fixing this issue. But how can it be fixed?! Alongside the badge in the museum is an edition of The Big Issue, a modern-day scheme which provides a ‘hands-up’ approach to aid solving the problem, giving people in hopeless positions an opportunity to find hope through their own actions. With these items paired together in the museum, the timelessness of the problem of urban poverty and homelessness becomes even more prominent. Though the modern-day scheme of The Big Issue magazine, the people in these vulnerable life-states are empowered, there is still a separation in the wider community today. In all these attempts to tackle the ‘big issue’ are we really just avoiding the issue at the core of the problem? Perhaps the issue is not the presence of beggars on the street, but instead our attitudes towards them?
Today, attitudes toward beggars are not what most people would describe as positive. Often avoided and ignored, those sitting on the street asking for help are subject to both financial and social poverty, in the lack of acknowledgement they are given. Here in the UK street begging is illegal, making it not only socially frowned upon but lawfully as well.
With this in mind, it seems that Burns’s poem ‘The Jolly Beggars’ challenges this view today. It not only goes so far as to acknowledge this community of people, but also to romanticize their situation and their ‘freedom’ from responsibility. How different this view of the homeless is from the one displayed today. Though Burns is obviously not representing the views of his community through this poem, he is providing a new take on the begging community that has for so long been looked down on in so many different cultures. In a documentary by Power and People, Barnaby Phillips investigates the differences that begging has on the culture in Sweden and in the Philippines. At the end of this 30 minute film, Phillips states that despite the differences in how the issue is handled in both countries, the common denominator of both cultures is the ‘growing gap between the rich and poor’ in society. So, if the real issue is the class divide in our society, is this not something that we have the power to improve? Or are we all out of spare change?
By Kathryn Thompson
Visitors to the museum lately can hardly help but have noticed our latest temporary exhibition – ‘Witches’ Brouhaha Spooks and Spells’ by Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre. Sharmanka, which is the Russian word for ‘Barrel-Organ’, is a collaboration between sculptor-mechanic Eduard Bersudsky, theatre director Tatyana Jakovskaya, and light and sound designer Sergey Jakovsky. You can see more of their work at Trongate 103 in the centre of Glasgow.
The exhibition consists of five ‘Kinemats’, or motorised machine sculptures – carved figures and pieces of old scrap which perform an incredible choreography to haunting music and synchronized light. One is themed on Burns’s famous poem ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ and the other four are all themed on witches, giving the whole exhibition a Burnsian feel. Due to the nature of the exhibition, shows are timed throughout the day and are introduced by our hard-working volunteers, but the exhibition is open for viewing the sculptures between shows as well. It runs until February 28th and is free! Why not pop down and see it one day and bring the family? Shows last approximately ten minutes.
Alongside the exhibition itself, our new Scots Scriever (poet in residence) Rab Wilson has written a fantastic poem in Scots to compliment the show:
Professor Sharmanka’s Magick Sheddae Schaw
Wheesht! Whit’s gaun oan in the Burns Museum,
In the howe-dumb-deid o the wee sma hours,
Thair’s eldritch whigmaleeries cam alive,
Tae fleg the weans oan this All-Hallow’s Eve!
Professor Sharmanka’s traivellin schaw,
Trundles ower the Brig O’Doon’s auld keystane,
An frae his cairpet-bag cam’s crawlin oot,
A damned menagerie o infernal craiturs!
Whan nae-yin is abraid they tak their post,
Heizin scrap-yaird treasuirs intil place,
Bits o cast-iron Singer shewin machines,
A pair o auld pram wheels, a lavvie cistern.
The doors frae a bracken doll’s hoose kythe,
Blinkin de’ils Hieronymous Bosch wid ken,
Biggin their Heath Robinson contraptions,
Ilk beam an ratchet fixed, when naethin steers.
Uncanny bears an wolves an burly bulls,
Rax an jundy, streetch an rax an puhl,
Wi aa their micht an main, wi sweit an thew,
Til evri gear an wheel an pinion’s fixt.
Sharmanka taks his concert-maister’s place,
Syne shoogles his sauch wan an gies a tap,
Ilk craitur in their place taks tentie care,
An then a kist o whustles girns tae life!
Rid lichts lowe oot, glentin lik damnation,
The eerie music rises tae its pitch,
The strainin chains growe taut, the gear-wheels catch,
An syne the hale clanjamfrie jyne the dance!
Sharmanka’s airm flails lik a Tattie-Bogle,
Claucht in some back-end November storm,
Whiles oan their heich trapeze the ferlies birl,
The Tod an Yowe, a Bear wi bairn in airms,
Lood an looder screichs the Deevils score,
The hale queer unco’s gaun lik a fair!
The ragged Gaberlunzie’s Hurdy-gurdy,
Adds its timmer-tuned vyce tae the choir.
Chained in their wee bit hoosie, backs tae the licht,
The ‘Children o the Daurk’ jalouse frae sheddaes,
The warld they ken frae saicent-haund daylicht;
Cantrips dancin oan the wa afore thaim.
An aa the hoose around is sleepin soundly,
Anely a doverin Houlet blinks an ee,
Douce fowk o Ayr! Gin anely ye cuid see!
Sharmanka’s diabolical Kinetics!
When aa a suddent, chanticleer dis craw,
The dancin stoaps an lichts aa fade awa,
Sharmanka pynts his wan i the risin sun,
The Houlet shaks his feathers, aa’s gaen lown.
The Gallery door’s flang apen tae the public,
A mither wi her twa bit bairns gangs furth,
The auldest lassie rugs her mither’s sleevie,
‘Mammy, mammy! Thon bear winkt its ee!’
The third in our series of guest blog posts written by Glasgow University students examines Burns’s influence on the USSR.
The works of Robert Burns have been translated most frequently into Russian and Eastern European languages. In the era of the Soviet Union, Burns was promoted as the ‘people’s poet’ and was taught in USSR classrooms alongside their own national poets. Although the Soviet Regime was known to be slaughtering and silencing its own contemporary poets, Burns’s reputation endured. In fact, in 1965 the USSR was the first country in the world to honour Burns’s memory with a postage stamp, one of which is on display in the museum.
During 19th Century Imperial times when Russia was still ruled by the Tsar, intellectuals were so out-of-touch with the realities of peasant life that translations of Burns became representative of the common man. His empathy with the poor and oppressed, and his sympathies for revolutionary causes held mass appeal amongst middle-class circles, and his work also proved extremely popular amongst the ordinary Russian people.
To discover the reasons why, we must first look to Samuil Marshak’s translation of Burns which is housed in the museum. Marshak studied at the University of London but in 1914, just three years before the collapse of the Tsardom, he moved back to Russia and fully devoted himself to the art of translation. He began his translated version of the complete works of Robert Burns in the same year and published it by 1924. However, due to restrictions in the translation process in Imperial Russia, Burns’s poetic sensibilities have been vastly misinterpreted by the readers of Marshak’s translation, which not only sold 600,000 copies after its first publication, but was also a frequent bestseller throughout the 20th century. However, due to ideological restrictions within the arts during the tsarist regime, Marshak’s translations and adaptations do not bear much resemblance to Burns’s original poetry. An artist, or in Marshak’s case a translator, was not allowed to criticise the monarchy nor show any sympathy for revolutionary causes in their works. Marshak also tended to over-stress the ideas of religious resignation, duty, and dignity, and so due to the overwhelming popularity of his translations, aspects of Burns’s work alluding to any of the above themes have either been completely ignored or gravely misunderstood in Russia and beyond. That is not to say that Marshak’s translations do not hold any literary value, for in fact their quality is quite exceptional.
In the height of the Soviet Regime, Burns’s works were continually republished and new versions written – the USSR was very particular about which literature was appropriate. Soviet readers were living in a literary bubble, isolated from international readers. Translations of such poems as ‘A Man’s a Man for a’ That’ and ‘Love and Liberty’ were hailed as examples of Burns’s empathy with the poor, his democratic spirit and his connection with the worker, peasant, and beggar – the USSR was keen to elevate his desire for equality and democracy for the people.
Many aspects of Burns’s biography which are common knowledge amongst the former USSR are quite simply not true and, like his poetry, have been intercepted by ideology. For example, when the USSR started to reject churches as independent organisations, Burns was presented to the public as being anti-Christian. Biographers put uncommon and often untrue emphasis on his role as a victim of the upper classes, as a suffering alcoholic brought on by the observation of the unjust treatment of the poor, and as a wholesome, smiley family man who married once and adored his wife. His biography was both made up and emphasised in equal measure in order to bring his image closer to that of the common man.
And so we can observe how ideology has intercepted and interfered with the memorialisation of Burns in Russia and in ex-Soviet states. Although his work is still extremely popular, more efforts need to be made to separate his work and biography from pre-Soviet and Soviet ideologies.
By Kirsty Macqueen