Burns’s poem “Halloween” is a treat to read but a bit of a trick too…
Any reader from the twenty-first century would assume from the title that it is about the now widely celebrated commercial and secular annual event held on the 31st of October. Activities include trick-or-treating – or guising in the Scots language which Burns wrote in and promoted – attending costume parties, carving pumpkins into jack-o’-lanterns (or traditionally turnips in Scotland and Ireland – turnip is tumshie or neep in Scots), dooking for aipples, playing pranks, visiting haunted attractions, telling scary stories and watching horror films. However, the poem focuses on Scottish folk culture and details courting traditions which were performed on Halloween itself. Interestingly, it is widely believed that many Halloween traditions originated from ancient Celtic harvest festivals – particularly the Gaelic festival Samhain – and that Samhain itself was Christianized as Halloween by the early Church. Thus, there is obviously a deep-rooted connection between Scotland, its people and the celebration of All Hallows Eve.
The poem itself was written in 1785 and published in 1786 within Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect – or commonly known as the Kilmarnock Edition – because it was printed and issued by John Wilson of Kilmarnock on 31 July 1786. Although it focuses more on Scottish customs and folklore as opposed to superstition, Burns was interested in the supernatural. His masterful creation of “Tam o’ Shanter” is proof of that as well as his admittance in a letter written in 1787 to Dr. John Moore, a London-based Scottish physician and novelist, as he states:
‘In my infant and boyish days too, I owed much to an old Maid of my Mother’s, remarkable for her ignorance, credulity and superstition. She had, I suppose, the largest collection in the county of tales and songs concerning devils, ghosts, fairies, brownies, witches, warlocks, spunkies, kelpies, elf-candles, dead-lights, wraiths, apparitions, cantraips, giants, inchanted towers, dragons and other trumpery’.
Burns in the first footnote writes that Halloween was thought to be “a night when witches, devils, and other mischief-making beings are abroad on their baneful midnight errands; particularly those aerial people, the fairies, are said on that night to hold a grand anniversary.”
Unlike Burns’s other long narratives such as “Tam o’ Shanter,” “Love and Liberty,” and “The Cotter’s Saturday Night,” “Halloween” has never enjoyed widespread popularity. Critics have argued that is because the poem is one of the densest of Burns’s poems, with a lot of usage of the Scots language, making it harder to read; that its cast of twenty characters often confounds the reader; that the poem’s mysterious folk content alienates readers who do not know anything of the traditions mentioned. Indeed, Burns felt it necessary to provide explanations throughout the poem. Only fourteen of Burns’s works employ his own footnotes. Of the fourteen footnoted works, “Halloween” outnumbers all others with sixteen notes of considerable length. The poem also includes a prose preface, another infrequent device used by Burns in only three other poems. The introduction for the poem states:
The following poem, will, by many readers, be well enough understood; but for the sake of those who are unacquainted with the manners and traditions of the country where the scene is cast, notes are added to give some account of the principal charms and spells of that night, so big with prophecy to the peasantry in the west of Scotland.
Indeed, the footnotes are most illuminating at detailing the intricacies of the rituals and are a crucial part of the poem. Some of my personal favourites are as follows:
[Footnote 5: The first ceremony of Halloween is pulling each a “stock,” or
plant of kail. They must go out, hand in hand, with eyes shut, and pull the
first they meet with: it’s being big or little, straight or crooked, is
prophetic of the size and shape of the grand object of all their spells-the
husband or wife. If any “yird,” or earth, stick to the root, that is “tocher,”
or fortune; and the taste of the “custock,” that is, the heart of the stem, is
indicative of the natural temper and disposition. Lastly, the stems, or, to
give them their ordinary appellation, the “runts,” are placed somewhere above
the head of the door; and the Christian names of the people whom chance brings
into the house are, according to the priority of placing the “runts,” the
names in question.-R. B.]
[Footnote 8: Burning the nuts is a favorite charm. They name the lad and lass to each particular nut, as they lay them in the fire; and according as they burn quietly together, or start from beside one another, the course and issue of the courtship will be.-R.B.]
[Footnote 10: Take a candle and go alone to a looking-glass; eat an apple
before it, and some traditions say you should comb your hair all the time; the
face of your conjungal companion, to be, will be seen in the glass, as if
peeping over your shoulder.-R.B.]
[Footnote 15: Take three dishes, put clean water in one, foul water in another, and leave the third empty; blindfold a person and lead him to the hearth where the dishes are ranged; he (or she) dips the left hand; if by chance in the clean water, the future (husband or) wife will come to the bar of matrimony a maid; if in the foul, a widow; if in the empty dish, it foretells, with equal certainty, no marriage at all. It is repeated three
times, and every time the arrangement of the dishes is altered.-R.B.]
Arguably, the poem has been appreciated more as a kind of historical testimony rather than artistic work. However, it is still a fascinating piece of poetry and definitely should be celebrated for its documentation and preservation of divination traditions and folklore customs which were performed on now one of the most widely celebrated festive days in Western calendars.
By Parris Joyce (Learning Trainee)
Read the full poem here: http://www.robertburns.org/works/74.shtml
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.
Tam o’ Shanter is Robert Burns’s masterpiece. A long, narrative, epic poem written in 1790 by Burns whilst living at Ellisland Farm, Dumfriesshire and published in Captain Francis Grose’s Antiquities of Scotland in 1791. Burns apparently wrote this in only one night and it appeared in the book just as a footnote! Now Burns was known to have enjoyed superstitious, supernatural stories as a child. His Aunty- a Betty Davison – told him many and Burns said that“[she] had, I suppose, the largest collection in the country of tales and songs, concerning devils, ghosts, fairies, brownies, witches, warlocks, spunkies, kelpies, elf-candles, dead-lights, wraiths, apparitions, cantraips, giants, inchanted towers, dragons and other trumpery.” The poem is full of wild scenes, dramatic and exciting twists and turns, bloody and gothic content as well as witty machoism through the characters and their antics.
Many artists have been inspired by the poem and some of the artwork produced really brings the poem to life. Some of the most expansive and impressive works are that of Alexander Goudie. He was apparently totally obsessed by Tam o’ Shanter and his lifelong aim was to create 54 complete cycles of images inspired by the epic tale. He accomplished this and the results are spectacular. A select few will be shown and analysed below.
This painting refers to the first two lines of the poem:
When chapman billies leave the street,
And drouthy neibors, neibors meet;
This scene is full of vibrant colours, objects and action: Tam looks well, as does Meg, and they are surrounded by other animals and people greeting them warmly. It is arguably one of the best paintings in the cycle as it has been painted with such attention to detail. This could reflect that this is the part of the poem before Tam boozes at the nappy, thus, he is not intoxicated and he will have a clearer vision now compared to the rest of the poem. The reflection in the window is very life-like as is the woman pulling the curtain aside to have a good nosey at what is happening on the street. It is worth noting that this painting is number twelve – even though it refers to the first two lines of the poem – so Goudie has used his artistic licence and imagination to fill in the gaps of what happened before this point as well as not putting the images in order according to the lines of the poem i.e. No. 11 “As market days are wearing late” is the line after No. 12 “And drouthy neibors, neibors meet” but it comes before it in the cycle.
This of course refers to the beautiful and philosophical extract:
But pleasures are like poppies spread,
You seize the flow’r, its bloom is shed;
Or like the Borealis race,
That flit ere you can point their place;
Or like the Rainbow’s lovely form
Evanishing amid the storm.
This is typical Burns: returning to nature which is his greatest source of inspiration. In the painting Goudie has shown a scene that is a delicate paradise. A moment captured in time with two lovers lying in a field, with the man picking a poppy, and the rainbow overhead. This is very contradictory to the shock and horror that is to follow…
This is one of three images that are in black and white; although this one here has Tam’s clothes clearly visible, with the famous blue tam hat and yellow waistcoat drawing the eye, which isolates him even more so. The crack of lightning has inspired the use of black and white and Goudie has depicted a truly spooky scene with the trees looking ghostly bare and the town and bridge totally empty. It is preparing the viewer for what is about to come next…
This is one of the treasures of the collection. It depicts the chaotic and shocking scene Tam beholds once he has approached the kirk: as a viewer you do not know where to look as it is so full of action and faces. This refers to the below section of the poem which is full of vivid imagery:
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.
A winnock-bunker in the east,
There sat auld Nick in shape o’ beast;
A towzie tyke, black, grim, and large,
To gie them music was his charge:
He screw’d the pipes and gart them skirl,
Till roof and rafters a’ did dirl.
Coffins stood round, like open presses,
That shaw’d the Dead in their last dresses;
And ( by some devilish cantraip sleight)
Each in its cauld hand held a light.
You can clearly see the devil glowering in the back corner, with his bagpipes in hand and mouth, casting a huge shadow on the back wall; the witches and warlocks are in a dance spinning each other around; the numerous coffins encircling the dancers with their skeletons holding candles as light. There is nakedness; there is sorcery going on at the table; the full moon can be seen through the window and the party-goers are oblivious to Tam’s presence.
This is another gem of the collection which is similar in the colour and the grotesque but exciting scene depicted as No.31. Tam and Meg are at the mouth of hell itself about to be devoured by the bright flames and are surrounded by all sorts of characters and mythical creatures who are all armed with weapons. Interestingly, the priest and lawyer are present, this inclusion of was famously shocking of Burns back in the eighteenth century. This is a scene which Tam and Meg did not actually suffer but it is a prediction – an insight into the future – of what will happen if they do not escape the ghoulish mob.
This is the moment which Nannie latches onto Meg’s tail just before they get to the key-stone. It refers to this section of the poem:
Now do thy speedy utmost, Meg,
And win the key-stane o’ the brig:
There, at them thou thy tail may toss,
A running stream they dare na cross.
But ere the keystane she could make,
The feint a tale she had to shake!
For Nannie, far before the rest,
Hard upon noble Maggie prest.
And flew at Tam wi’ furious ettle;
But little wist she Maggie’s mettle!
Ae spring brought off her master hale,
But left behind her ain grey tail:
The carlin claught her by the rump,
And left poor Maggie scarce a stump.
What I like about this interpretation most is that Tam is positively terrified, not composed at all, and has come off his saddle and is hanging around poor Meg’s neck. Tam o’ Shanter has a bit of sexism in it with all the drinking, men will be men, flirting with the barmaid whilst the wife is at home worrying drama in it but here Goudie has depicted Tam as being utterly at the mercy of a powerful female character: more so than as how Burns depicted him as Goudie has him literally hanging on for dear life.
This final image is in reference to the conclusion of the poem:
Now, wha this tale o’ truth shall read,
Ilk man and mother’s son, take heed:
Whene’er to Drink you are inclin’d,
Or Cutty-sarks rin in your mind,
Think! ye may buy the joys o’er dear;
Remember Tam o’ Shanter’s mare.
Here Goudie has used his artistic licence again to create the scene he must have imagined when reading this ending. With only Tam and Meg in the painting: your sole focus is on them. Tam looks haggard, totally drained and panting heavily with his tongue sticking out. He looks like he has aged ten years form his traumatic experience. Meg – the hero of the poem – has also suffered this dramatic change same as Tam. Yes, her tail is gone with only the bloody stump left but she looks aged, thin – bony even – and is cowering by Tam with her head down in fear and she has soiled herself. Altogether, it is not a pretty sight, but a great visualisation of the moral warning in which the poem ends.
All of these paintings are now in the collection of Rozelle House Galleries (and some are on permanent display). This is situated in a historic mansion, surrounded by beautiful grounds and also boasts a tea room too. It is just a two minute drive away from the Burns Cottage and only six minutes from Ayr town centre. I would thoroughly recommend any art or Tam o’ Shanter lover to visit.
By Parris Joyce, Learning Trainee
 The Bard by Robert Crawford, p20
On the BBC’s website it is listed that there are 118 poems written by our beloved bard Robert Burns with the theme of nature, however, I would argue that there is so many more as nature – a subject which was very close to his heart – is inextricably intertwined in a number of his works.
The reason nature is a genre featured so heavily within Burns’s works can be traced back to his upbringing and lifestyle. Being born in the but-and-ben Burns Cottage in Alloway, he was introduced to the ways of farmlife from childhood. He worked with his family closely there and at multiple farms thereafter such as Mount Oliphant and Lochlea Farm. Burns and his brother Gilbert even farmed at Mossgiel Farm when his father died. He did not just have connections with the land in his younger years but as an adult as well as he worked as a farmer alongside his career as a poet and songwriter. His last farming endevaour was at Ellisland Farm in Dumfrieshire. His rural upbringing and argicultural employment earned him his nickname as “The Ploughman Poet” by the artistocratic society of Edinburgh. Burns lived in Edinburgh for only two years – the city which he described as “noise and nonsense” – to return to his rural roots.
Firstly, I would ask: what is nature? It is defined as the phenomena of the physical world collectively, including plants, animals and the landscape. Burns did not neglect any of these three aspects and used them frequently as the inspiration of his works. He did various works which refer to plants such as To a Mountain Daisy, My Luve is Like a Red Red Rose and The Rosebud. Some of my personal favourite works of Burns which talk about other environmental features include Sweet Afton (about a river) and My Heart’s in the Highlands (which of course is about one of the most rugged, scenic and breath-taking landscapes in the world).
However, what this blog will mainly focus on is that Burns was most notably an animal lover. This is conveyed in his works On Glenriddell’s Fox Breaking his Chain, The Wounded Hare, Address to a Woodlark, The Twa Dogs, To a Louse and the renowned and much adored To a Mouse. This last poem – which was written in 1786 and published in the Kilmarnock Edition – is a perfect example of Burns’s humanity as this poem reflects his concern for animal welfare, his consciousness of humankind’s effect on nature and has empathy for a small creature which is widely considered as “vermin”. This was very ahead of his time and is a concern that is currently proving to be a huge issue as more and more animals become extinct because of human’s destructive actions in the twenty-first century.
The Twa Dogs poem, written in 1796, is another great work of Burns’s which gives the two dogs human-like intellect and the ability to express themselves as it has an upper-class pedigree, Caesar, and an ordinary working collie, Luath, who chat about the differing lives of the social classes. The name “Luath” comes from Ossian’s epic poem Fingal. The Twa Dogs immortalizes Burns’s own dog Luath who came to a cruel end. On the morning of 13th February 1784 Robert and his sister Isabella were distressed to find the poisoned body of Robert’s dog Luath outside their door – the act of a vengeful neighbour. Arguably, Burns intended this poem as a memorial to his canine friend.
An example of one of Burn’s lesser-known poems is The Wounded Hare which was written in 1789. Below are the first three stanzas out of five that complete this poem:
Inhuman man! curse on thy barb’rous art,
And blasted be thy murder-aiming eye;
May never pity soothe thee with a sigh,
Nor ever pleasure glad thy cruel heart!
Go live, poor wand’rer of the wood and field!
The bitter little that of life remains:
No more the thickening brakes and verdant plains
To thee a home, or food, or pastime yield.
Seek, mangled wretch, some place of wonted rest,
No more of rest, but now thy dying bed!
The sheltering rushes whistling o’er thy head,
The cold earth with thy bloody bosom prest.
The word choice makes the moral message of this poem is clear: Burns is vehemently opposed to shooting. The passion and intensity of Burns’s thoughts on this is quite surprising as one would think that as a farmer he would be used to or even dependent on killing animals, however, meat consumption was not as prominent in the eighteenth century as farm animals were only killed for food in old age or special occasions. The family’s provision of milk, cheese, butter and wool came directly from their own animals, and the health and wellbeing of these creatures were paramount. Furthermore they would share the same roof over their heads with them, thus creating strong bonds with their farm animals, and apparently Burns lost his temper with a farm-worked once when the man did not cut the potatoes small enough and Burns was frantic that the beasts might choke on them.
Below is the third stanza of the powerful poem On Glenriddell’s Fox Breaking His Chain written in 1791:
Glenriddell! Whig without a stain,
A Whig in principle and grain,
Could’st thou enslave a free-born creature,
A native denizen of Nature?
How could’st thou, with a heart so good,
(A better ne’er was sluiced with blood!)
Nail a poor devil to a tree,
That ne’er did harm to thine or thee?
Again, you can clearly see that Burns is opposed to the cruel treatment of a “free-born creature” and is in disbelief of the actions of the good-hearted Glenriddell’s actions.
However, one could argue that nature was so deeply rooted in Burns’s psyche – and he quite literally was surrounded by it living on a farm – that he could not escape from being inspired to write about it. An example of this is in his masterpiece Tam o’ Shanter. It is an epic narrative poem written in 1790 which features folklore, superstition, witchcraft and gothic themes… but it also has one of his most poignant and beautiful quotes in which Burns really philosophically details the nature of nature:
But pleasures are like poppies spread,
You seize the flower, its bloom is shed;
Or like the snow falls in the river,
A moment white–then melts for ever;
Or like the borealis race,
That flit ere you can point their place;
Or like the rainbow’s lovely form
Evanishing amid the storm.–
Nae man can tether time or tide;
The hour approaches Tam maun ride;
Burns is saying that nature’s beauty is wistful, forever-changing and is out of the control of humankind as he insightfully states “nae man can tether time or tide”.
In terms of this poem, another point is worth mentioning: the hero of this tale is a horse. Again Burns’s admiration and respect for animals is encompassed in the heroism of Meg, Tam’s horse, who against all odds does get him home in one piece although the same cannot be said for her. Burns was a brilliant horse-rider and would have relied heavily on his four-legged companion as a mode of transportation to socialise, to plough fields and to work as an excise man.
All in all Burns would have been regarded nowadays as an advocate for animal welfare and his works which have animals or nature at their core reflect his love for nature and are some of his most passionate, most thought-provoking and most heart-rending.
By Parris Joyce (Learning Trainee)