Object Focus

Celebrating Scots Language

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As today is International Mother Language Day, our blog post explores the history of Scots language to celebrate and promote Scottish linguistic heritage.

Scots is descended from a form of Anglo-Saxon brought to the south-east of present day Scotland by the Angles (Germanic-speaking peoples) around AD 600. The video below, from The University of Edinburgh, illustrates the origins of Scots language.

Like many European countries, early Scots speakers primarily used Latin for official and literary purposes. The earliest surviving written poem in Scots, dated to 1300, is a short lyric on the death of King Alexander III (ruled 1249-1286) which appeared in Andrew Wyntoun’s work entitled The Original Chronicle:

“Qwhen Alexander our kynge was dede, That Scotland lede in lauch and le, Away was sons of alle and brede, Off wyne and wax, of gamyn and gle. Our golde was changit into lede. Crist, borne into virgynyte, Succoure Scotland and ramede, That is stade in perplexitie”.

Yet, the first Scots poem of any length called The Brus by John Barbour was recorded in 1375. Composed under the patronage of Robert II, this poem’s tale follows the actions of Robert the Bruce through the first war of independence.

The History of Scots from the 14th– 18th Century

Between the 14th and 16th century, writing in the vernacular thrived during the reigns of James III (ruled 1460-1488) and James IV (ruled 1488-1513): Scots language truly came into its own. This period’s Scots poets are known as medieval makars or master poets, after William Dunbar’s the Lament for the Makaris, for the great literacy culture that was produced in lowland Scotland. Dunbar was a virtuosic poet with an impressive range, varying from elaborate religious hymns to scurrilous bawdy verse.

Also a makar, King James VI (ruled 1567-1625) laid down a standard writers were expected to follow in his essay on literary theory entitled The Reulis and Cautellis. However, after James VI also became James I of England in 1603, Scots language and makars were no longer supported by the Royal Court. Pre-1603, James VI voiced the differences between English and Scots but now, as ruler of the British Empire, he attempted to Anglicise Scottish society for cultural, linguistic and political union of his kingdoms. Herein, the literary activity of 17th century Scots poets declined as many, like William Drummond of Hawthornden, decided to write in English instead. This change of language was encouraged by the Royal Court alongside the larger and more lucrative English publishing markets. In Scotland, all classes continued to write and speak in Scots but, for publications writers had their texts ‘Englished’.

The Great Scots Poets of the 18th Century

In the 18th century, under the 1707 Treaty of Union, Scotland joined England to form the new state of Great Britain and poets began to utilise an increasingly bilingual literary situation. Poets combined Augustan English poetry with Scots songs, tales and older poems to create a vernacular revival in Scots verse. The work of poets such as Allan Ramsay, Robert Fergusson and Robert Burns demonstrated the popularity and poetic nature of Scots as a literature. These poets, expressing a national identity, produced poems that were, and continue to be, widely read.

Portrait of Allan Ramsay (left) alongside a statue of the poet (right) located in West Princes Street Gardens

Allan Ramsay (1686-1758) was born in Lanarkshire and educated at Crawfordmoor Parish School. Following his mother’s death, Ramsay moved to Edinburgh to study wig-making and eventually opened a shop near Grassmarket. He was an eminent portrait painter and began writing poetry from the early 1700s. In 1721, Ramsay published his first volume as a blend of English language and Scots poems. He abandoned the wig-making trade to become a bookseller, opening a shop near Edinburgh’s Luckenbooths- this also became Britain’s first circulating library. Ramsay’s works, such as Tea-Table Miscellany (1724), The Ever Green (1724) and The Gentle Shepard (1725), laid the foundations for Scot writers like Robert Fergusson and Robert Burns.

Robert Fergusson’s 1772 portrait (right) and the young poet’s statue (left) outside Canongate Kirk on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile

Robert Fergusson (1750-1774) was born in Edinburgh’s Old Town to Aberdeenshire parents. He attended St. Andrews University and became infamous for his pranks- for which he came close to expulsion. In 1771, Fergusson anonymously published his first trio of pastorals entitled Morning, Noon and Night. He amassed an exquisite range of about 100 poems, developing existing literary forms and contributing to contemporary debate. Aged 24, Fergusson experienced a fatal blow to his head falling down a flight of stairs, he was deemed ‘insensible’ and transferred to Edinburgh’s Bedlam madhouse where he later died. In 1787, Robert Burns erected a monument at his grave, commemorating Fergusson as ‘Scotia’s Poet’.

A 1786 copy of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (Burns’ first book)

Robert Burns called Fergusson “my elder brother in misfortune, by far my elder brother in muse”. Clearly inspired by the poet, Burns adopted both Fergusson and Ramsay’s use of Scots words and verse to master his own poetry and advance Scots literature. In doing this, Burns became Scots language’s most recognised voice with poems and songs read and sung worldwide. The Robert Burns Birthplace Museum displays volumes and poems by Fergusson and Ramsay (below), highlighting the similarities to Burns’ work in terms of tone, format, subject matter and, of course, Scots language.

Works by Ramsay and Fergusson from The Robert Burns Birthplace Museum

The History of Scots Post-Burns to the Present

In the 19th century, building on the work of Scots poets, novelist began combining English and Scots in their writings. More often, English was used for the main narrative and Scots voiced Scots-speaking characters or short stories.

After this period, the 20th century saw a radical renaissance of Scots poetry, primarily through Hugh MacDiarmid (pen name of Christopher Murray Grieve). MacDiarmid’s work The Scottish Chapbook, reassessed early Scots verse by using words from across different regions. Later, Edinburgh poet Robert Garioch reopened links to the Scots verse MacDiarmid devalued. Garioch, to a greater extent than MacDiarmid, developed a form of Scots united to any particular locality and produced a model that future writers could follow. Other 20th century poets, included Edwin Morgan, and his translation of Vladmir Mayakovsky’s poetry into Scots, as well as Tom Leonard’s Six Glasgow Poems.

Today, Scots language continues to thrive. In communities across Scotland, people use Scots as a language to write and speak. As the 2011 Scottish Census reported, there are 1.5 million speakers of Scots within Scotland, which is around 30% of the population.

So, why not challenge yourself? And join them? To celebrate Scots language and International Mother Language Day, learn a new word or a new phrase or more!

Check out the links below for more ways to learn Scots:

  • On social media, we run a Scots word of the week campaign, encouraging our followers to guess and discuss what they mean. We often get international audiences commenting on the similarities between Scots and various European languages. Check it out on Facebook (@RobertBurnsBirthplaceMuseum) and Twitter (@RobertBurnsNTS).
  • Search our blog for Scots language posts: https://burnsmuseum.wordpress.com/tag/scots-language/
  • For Scots on Twitter, take a look at these pages: @lairnscots, @scotslanguage, @ScotsScriever, @tracyanneharvey @rabwilson1 and @TheScotsCafe.
  • Join the Open University’s FREE online Scots language and culture course: https://www.open.edu/openlearncreate/course/view.php?id=2705
  • Or, check out some of these websites:  https://www.scotslanguage.com/




Gang oan, gie it an ettle!

An Invitation to Burn’s Banquet and the Celebrations of 1859

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An Invitation to Burn’s Banquet and the Celebrations of 1859

Residing in the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, beside a table set for a banquet, lies an invitation to the 1859 Centenary Celebrations held at Edinburgh’s Music Hall. This invitation celebrates the poet, paying homage to the history and memory of Burns throughout not only Scotland but the World. His memory was something James Ballantine hoped to immortalise in his 1859 book entitled Chronicle of the Hundredth Birthday of Robert Burns.

Ballantine was a stained-glass artist and writer from Edinburgh, who also served as Secretary at Edinburgh Music Hall’s Centenary Celebrations. For his chronicle, Ballantine compiled descriptions from 872 celebrations taking place in city halls, corn exchanges, local meeting halls, hotels and private houses on the 25th January 1859. The book accounts the 872 recorded events by providing complete texts of proceedings and entertainment along with comprehensive guest lists of attendees. The latter, most likely, in strict pecking order!

While Ballantine acknowledges his work represented only a “condensation” of the actual number of celebrations that took place on the 25th January 1859, he nevertheless logged 676 events from Scotland, 76 from England, 10 from Ireland, 61 from the United States and 1 from Copenhagen. These written accounts owed thanks to an impressive network of sources, sending information and newspaper clippings from local papers. This network was indeed truly impressive as Ballantine published his work in Edinburgh and London, a mere four months after the January Celebrations.

Left sits James Ballantine alongside Dr George Bell (middle), a commissioner for the Poor Law of 1845. They are joined by the calotype photographer Davis Octavius Hill (right)

Edinburgh Music Hall’s 1859 Centenary Celebrations: A Banquet for Burns

“The Celebration of the hundredth birthday of Robert Burns, on the 25th day of January, in the year 1859, presented a spectacle unprecedented in the history of the world”. – James Ballantine

Throughout Scotland, the Centenary Celebrations of the 25th January 1859 were widely regarded as a holiday. In Edinburgh: shopkeepers closed early afternoon around 2 o’clock; the poet’s Calton Hill Monument was florally decorated with many visiting the memorial to pay homage to Burns; crowds formed across the city; and people proceeded to various centenary festivals. The invitation from the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum (image above), showing a bust of Burns surrounded by banners alongside names of his poems, invited guests to Edinburgh Music Hall’s Banquet.

The Music Hall held as Ballantine claims “a great banquet”. Spectators gathered at every door, or promenaded along George Street, to observe the long lines of cabs and carriages arriving for the evening’s celebrations. Inside the Hall, tables were laid for seven hundred people, while the orchestra and galleries were filled by five hundred ladies, who Ballantine notes “took their places at an early hour, and remained till nearly the conclusion of proceedings”. The evening began as the banquet’s Chairman Lord Ardmillan, an Ayrshire man, presided and was accompanied to the platform by several other gentlemen, including James Ballantine.

An extensive list of councillors, lords and other ‘notable’ people attended the event such as Sir W. Dunbar (member of parliament), Bishop Gillis (served Eastern District of Scotland), Mr Hepburn (representative of the Caledonian Society of London), Sir John Richardson of Lancrigg (Arctic navigator, and in his youth a frequent visitor at Burns’ house in Dumfries) and Mr Gray of Preston (as a playmate of his children, knew the poet) among many others. Also attending the event was Miss Burns, granddaughter of the poet. She was accompanied by three daughters of Burns’ friend the late Mr. George Thomson.

The evening’s entertainment involved numerous speeches, toasts alongside various performances of songs and poems. Lord Ardmillan’s opening and lengthy speech attempted to connect the Music Hall Banquet to celebrations occurring across the Country, Nation and World that evening. He claimed, “…But Burns belongs not to Ayrshire alone, but to Scotland; and, in a sense not to Scotland alone but to humanity…”.

Ballantine also partook in the celebrations, reading verses he had composed especially for the occasion. The best-received recitation of the evening came from a Mr Walter Glover, performing Tam O’Shanter. Ballantine’s Chronicle claims this poem as “by far the most popular recitation in the 1859 celebrations”. At 101 years old, Glover, who used to carry packages for Burns between Dumfries and Edinburgh, “ascended the platform to loud cheers”. To the audience’s amazement, Glover recited Tam O’Shanter from end to end in, as Ballantine claimed, “a strong voice and with due emphasis and discretion”.  

Celebrations at The Music Hall continued late until the whole company, standing, hand-in-hand, sang Auld Lang Syne and departed in the early hours into their carriages and cabs. This time without the crowds watching!

Remembering the Centenary Celebrations

Procession in the high street at Dumfries’ Burns Centenary Festival

Across Scotland celebrations occurred from Alloway to Aberdeen, Greenock to Glasgow and Dumfries to Dundee. Up and down the country celebrations took place for our National poet, as we toasted, ate and sang to mark the centenary and memory of Robert Burns. Below is an image of the citizen’s banquet, held at the Corn Exchange at Edinburgh’s Dunedin Hall. Outside Scotland, celebrations were held across the World in the likes of London, Liverpool, Copenhagen, Canada and the United States. The Illustrated London News, of the 29th January 1859, indicted the global quality of celebrations noting “all who speak the English language… united on this remarkable occasion to recognise and to glorify a poet”.

An illustration of the Citizens Banquet at the Corn Exchange in Edinburgh’s Dunedin Hall

Across the celebrations, those attended by relatives and friends of Burns offered a link to the poet. For example: William Nichol Burns attended celebrations in Dumfries; Colonel James Glencairn Burns (fourth son of the poet) and Mr Robert Burns Begg (nephew) were invited to Glasgow’s City Hall; and in Ulster, Eliza Burns (daughter of Burns’ eldest son) was presented with an oil painting of her grandfather.

Burns’ belongings also helped form radical connections. For instance: the New York celebration included “[a] piece of bark, elegantly framed, cut from a tree on Burn’s farm… [a] lock of Burns’ hair and an impression of his seal”;  while the Boston celebration presented a haggis specially cooked for the occasion in the cottage Burns was born in, here in Alloway; and London’s Crystal Palace festivities contained locks of Burns’ and Jean Armour’s hair, alongside the poet’s writing table and pages from his account book.

Nevertheless, with or without Burns belongings and relatives, different and countless events took place on the night of the 25th January 1859, to mark a hundred years since the birth of Robert Burns. These Centenary events sought to celebrate and immortalise Burns across not only Scotland but the World. Now, 161 years later the celebrations continue. So, in this month of January, enjoy your Burns’ Suppers and have a thocht aboot the celebrations by that mak-kit our Burns Night traditions.

Takeover Day 2019 – Poetry from P6CM

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Maybe you already heard, but in the last week of June 2019 RBBM was Taken Over by Primary 6 pupils (now Primary 7) from Alloway Primary! Takeover Day is a nation-wide initiative established by Kids in Museums, which encourages young people to take over jobs normally done by adults in the museum sector.

By Laila and Rebecca

Before they became Learning Assistants, Visitor Services Assistants and Social Media Managers; Primary 6 accompanied our Learning Team on a tour of the Museum space and familiarised themselves with the collection. Then they wrote stories and poems inspired by what they saw and learned on their visit. They also made posters advertising the Takeover!

Alloway Primary are masters of Acrostic Poems! Read some of the poetic musings of P6CM below. And stay tuned for further instalments – next up: Poetry from P6W!


  1. Book – Zayne Mailk
  2. Brilliant Burns – Ben
  3. Burns Acrostic Poem – David Matemba
  4. Burns – Ross McMorland
  5. Rabbie B – Evan Smillie
  6. Robert Burns – Josh Fraser
  7. Burns – Harrison Rooke
  8. Robert – Robyn Cowe
  9. Tammie – Cara Wilmer
  10. The Birthplace of Burns – Jamie Hislop
  11. The Story of Burns – Cameron Cowan
  12. Burns – Madeline McMorland
  13. Witches and their Fiddle – Laila Buchanan
by Zayne

Book – by Zayne Mailk

B– Bible sitting in a cupboard

O– Original bible store

O– Objects big and small

K– Konsoles were not a thing or phones

By Ben

Brilliant Burns – by Ben

B– Bannock toasted from his wife Jean,

U– Used his skull to see what he was good at,

R- Robert Burns would dance to a fiddle,

N– Never without a girlfriend,

S– Small book went around the world.

Burns Acrostic Poem – by David Matemba

R– Robert had guns to protect him,

O– Oven hot toaster to see,

B– Brides too many to count,

E– Every poem he wrote got more famous each year,

R– Red roses cover a green field,

T– Tube socks to cover his big legs.

By Ross

Burns – by Ross McMorland

B– Bibles were used in his family.

U– Using pistols to protect himself.

R– Red, red, roses on the field.

N– Nancy was Agnes’ nickname.

S– Skull buried away in his grave since 1796.

Rabbie B – by Evan Smillie

R– Roaring bullets shot out his pistols.

A– At the nappy with Tam o Shanter.

B– Bibles were used in his family.

B– Behind his poems he loved to dance.

I– In 1796 he died.

E– Excise man was his other job.

B– Burns was his second name.

Robert Burns – by Josh Fraser

By Josh and Stewart

R– Robert Burns,

O– On Wee Johnie,

B– Bonnie Laddie, Highland Laddie

E– Esteem for Chloris,

R– Rattlin’ Roarin’ Willie,

T– Tam O’Shanter,

B– Bonie Jean,

U– Up and warn a’ Willie,

R– Robin shure in Hairst,

N– Nature’s Law,

S– Scots Wha Hae.

By Harrison

Burns – by Harrison Rooke

B– Better famous for poetry,

U– Underground resting in pieces.

R– Rhymes and other styles of wrote he wrote –

N– Now he is world famous.

S– Sometimes he wouldn’t just write poetry and he would do other things.

Robert – by Robyn Cowe

R– Robert Burns learned to dance with a dance instructor with a fiddle.

O– Out of the cottage and in to the street,

B– Boozing at the nappie, Tam must ride, witches and warlocks, Maggie’s mettle.

E– Eating the haggis and drinking the beer,

R– Robert Burns got wine glasses to give to Agnes for a present.

T– They used to believe the bump on your head meant something…

Tammie – by Cara Wilmer

T– Tam is a drunk man on a horse.

A– And he dances with all the lassies.

M– Maggie flies and soars through the gorse.

O– Oh my gosh the witches pulled masses.

S– Sorry poor Maggie lost her tail.

H– Her body is mingin and manky.

A– All the time auld Tammie had to fail.

N– Nasty witches make the tail into a hanky.

T– Terrified Tam shouts in the air

E– Everyone is watching.

R– Rain and thunder starts as Tam is scared.

The Birthplace of Burns – by Jamie Hislop

B– Born in 1759 and died in 1796.

U– Used pistols to protect himself because he was a tax/excise man.

R– Robert Burns had a wife called Jean.

N– Nicolas J.M. Patrick brought a tiny book of Burns to space.

S– Size 8 feet and blue and white socks with his initials on them.

The Story of Burns – by Cameron Cowan

B– Bannock toaster for his wife Jean.

U– Used his skull to make a fake one.

R– Run run said Tam to Meg.

N– Never did he shoot a person with his gun only animals.

S– Small book went round the world hundreds of times.

Burns – by Madeline McMorland

B– Burns Museum, where we go to learn about Robert.

U– Up the road we came this morning.

Laila and Madeline

R– Rabbie! ←Who we learned about and now I’m here writing a poem.

N– Niches and artefacts are a pleasure.

S– Surprise we got to see the skull.

Witches and their Fiddle – Laila Buchanan

F– Foggy night at the Brig O’ Doon.

I– In the dark Robbie sees the witches.

D– Dancing and

D– Drinking round the fire.

L– Logs burning and a glazing sight.

E– End of Meg’s tail’s life.

Takeover Day 2019 – Romantic Musings

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Maybe you already heard, but in the last week of June 2019 RBBM was Taken Over by Primary 6 pupils (now Primary 7) from Alloway Primary! Takeover Day is a nation-wide initiative established by Kids in Museums, which encourages young people to take over jobs normally done by adults in the museum sector.

Before they became Learning Assistants, Visitor Services Assistants and Social Media Managers; Primary 6 accompanied our Learning Team on a tour of the Museum space and familiarised themselves with the collection. Then they wrote stories and poems inspired by what they saw and learned on their visit. They also made posters advertising the Takeover!

These stories and poems are all the tales they came up with within the romance genre. Stay tuned for further instalments – next up: more Poetry!


  1. When Robert Went Out With Too Many Lassies!! – Ellie K
  2. Robert Burns and the Hair – Lucy
  3. Robert’s Lassies – Astrid
  4. The Girls – Amelia
An engraving of Jean Armour, Robert Burns’ widow. Dating from 1826. Part of the Museum collection.

When Robert Went Out With Too Many Lassies!! – by Ellie K (P6W)

When Robert Burns was young he went out with a lot of lassies, when this was happening Robert was cheating on his wife. When a girl asked Robert Burns out he would always say yes. He would say yes because he liked all the girls and thought that they were pretty. One of his girlfriends called Highland Mary gave Robert a piece of her hair and put it in the family bible.

Robert Burns and the Hair – by Lucy (P6W)

H- Hair was given to Robert as a present from Highland Mary to remember her.

A- A strange present to give your boyfriend.

I- It was highland Mary’s hair that she cut of and gave to Robert Burns.

R- Remembering her by the gift.

The Holy Bible belonging to ‘Highland’ Mary Campbell. Contains a lock of her hair. On display in the Museum.
‘The Betrothal of Burns and Highland Mary’ by W. H. Midwood, 1860. On display in the Museum.

Robert’s Lassies – by Astrid (P6W)

L- Loved by many ladies.

A- All around the globe.

S- So many lovely poems.

S- Some written for his many lovers.

I- International acclaim followed by his death.

E- Enjoyable poems he wrote.

S- Sadly died very young.

The Girls – by Amelia (P6W)

Robert Burns had a very romantic love life with so many girls he was with. He never said no to a girl in total he had 9 girlfriends and had 12 children by four women. What a life he had!

Monuments to Mice and Men

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Screenshot (3)
Ayrshire Police Division Burns Night Facebook Post, 25 January 2016.

How well do you know one of Alloway’s most famous residents? If you’re local you may pass it regularly, maybe you’ve seen it posing for selfies, or with school groups. It’s even been on the run from Ayrshire Police!

Clearly then, Monument to a Mouse has become part of the community consciousness in Alloway – I’m yet to meet anyone without a fondness for the beastie. Why? Well, it’s BIG!  Monumentally big in fact. Not only does this monumentality draw us to Monument to a Mouse, but it is also of central concern to the artist – Kenny Hunter.

Installation of Monument to a Mouse in 2010.  Image ©️ National Trust for Scotland.

kenny hunter
Kenny Hunter with Monument to a Mouse, during its installation. Image ©️ National Trust for Scotland.

Hunter is a Scottish sculptor whose work often explores established ideas about monuments: ideas about what monuments are; who they’re for; and what they look like. He does this by alluding to sculptural traditions of the past. We as viewers are familiar with these past traditions – because we see them in the sculptures of our town and city centres.

Take the statue of Robert Burns in Ayr’s Burns Statue Square as an example. Unveiled in 1891, this monument to Burns follows many of the tropes typical of 19th Century figurative sculpture. The Ayr Burns is roughly life-size (maybe slightly larger); realistic (not abstract or overly stylised), cast in bronze; and standing atop a pedestal. These four stylistic conventions are all characteristic of traditional monuments, and are all of interest when discussing Monument to a Mouse.

Left: G.A Lawson, Robert Burns, 1891. Burns Statue Square, Ayr. Right: Kenny Hunter, Monument to a Mouse, 2010. Poet’s Path, Alloway. Both photos by the author.

On first glance, these two sculptures look very different. But as contemporary sculpture, Monument to a Mouse references many of these same conventions seen in the Ayr Burns, while also deviating from them in a number of meaningful ways. Similar to the Ayr Burns, Monument to a Mouse is largely naturalistic in the depiction of its subject – the mouse. Hunter reportedly had some help with depicting a realistic looking mouse, after his pet cat brought in a dead one as a present.[1]  

Furthermore, both are cast in bronze – a material which is traditionally associated with monumental sculpture. Bronze has been used for some of the most recognisable monuments in Scotland, including the Duke of Wellington in Glasgow; Robert the Bruce at Bannockburn; Greyfriars Bobby and David Hume in Edinburgh; and many, many more.  You can see that the conventions observed in the Burns Square Statue are also adhered to in these examples. By rendering a realistic subject in bronze, Hunter aligns the mouse with the great men and women we are used to seeing in this sort of sculpture: the heroic individuals, exceptional thinkers or distinguished dignitaries who are immortalised in this way. 

bronze statues
L to R: 1) Carlo Marochetti, Equestion Statue of the Duke of Wellington, Royal Exchange Square, Glasgow, 1844. 2) Pilkington Jackson, Robert the Bruce, Bannockburn, 1964. 3) William Brodie, Greyfriars Bobby, George IV Bridge, Edinburgh, 1873. 4) Alexander Stoddart, David Hume, Royal Mile, Edinburgh, 1995.

Comparable in size to a grown adult, but not a wee moosie.

Although both Monument to a Mouse and the Ayr Burns are similarly sized, the scale of their subject matter differs greatly. While the Burns statue depicts its subject roughly life-sized, Hunter renders Monument to a Mouse much larger than the a wee tim’rous beasties we’re used to seeing. Comparable to a grown adult in size, the scale of the sculpture encourages us to reflect on Burns’ comparison between mouse and man. Hunter wants the viewer to stand “nose to nose” with the work, saying “Burns’ poem To a Mouse measures a man to a mouse and this artwork is a direct and physical manifestation of that comparison“. [2]

This sentiment is also reinforced by the absence of pedestal –  another significant deviation from conventional monumental sculpture. In Burns Statue Square, Burns is situated on a stone plinth above the viewing public, looking down. Monument to a Mouse sits humbly on a small paved circle on the Poet’s Path – directly within our own viewing space. In this way, the mouse is celebrated without elevation or deification – we’re physically on the same level. Hunter grounds the meaning of Monument to a Mouse within our experience: the experience of the many people who pass it (and photograph it) everyday.

Even in name, Monument to a Mouse pays reverence to its source material; To a Mouse is certainly one of the most well known Burns works, especially with children. In the poem, Burns describes the mouse as an “earth-born companion, An’ fellow-mortal!”. Upon reflection then, through its reference to – and manipulation of – monumental tradition, Monument to a Mouse couldn’t embody this sentiment more.

Lizzie Gow, Learning Trainee


[1] Poet’s Corner: Meet Some of the People behind the New £21m Robert Burns Birthplace Museum. The Scotsman. November 29, 2010. Accessed July 25, 2019. https://www.scotsman.com/lifestyle/poet-s-corner-meet-some-of-the-people-behind-the-new-163-21m-robert-burns-birthplace-museum-1-836204

[2] Ibid.

An Awfie Symbolic Seat

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Date: 1858

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.

Statues in Kilmarnock.

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.

This photograph shows Annie Burns (Robert Burns’s granddaughter) and Martha Burns Everitt (his great granddaughter) outside the Burns Cottage which is the bards birthplace in Alloway. It is florally decorated for the centenary of Burns’s death.

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’.

The Twa Dogs – a poem written by Robert Burns in 1786 – about Luath and Caesar.

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.

Thistle – Scotland’s floral emblem.

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.

Brig o’ Doon, Alloway, South Ayrshire, Scotland.


Brig o’ Doon scene from Burns’s narrative poem Tam o’ Shanter.

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/.


Muhammed Ali



By Parris Joyce, Learning Trainee.

The Early Courtship of Robert and Jean

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The romance and marriage of Robert Burns and Jean Armour is well known and discussed; but how much do we really know about their early courtship? There are certain moments in the couple’s story that are set in stone, such as the year they met; the year of their wedding; their children’s births and deaths. These dates however only tell us the bare bones of their lives together; they do not give us an insight into their feelings, their thoughts, and their bond as a married couple. Catherine Czerkawska has written a novel around the couple’s lives, starting with their early courtship, through the heightened emotions of their separation and finishing with their married lives together. We all know how the relationship ended, but how did it begin in the first place? When and how did Robert Burns fall in love with his Jewel, Jean Armour?

Jean Armour’s parents were far from impressed with the new inhabitant near Mauchline, Robert Burns, otherwise known as Rab Mossgiel at the time. His reputation as a womaniser had preceded him, and James Armour deemed him an unsuitable match for his respectable young daughter, Jean. The news of Elizabeth Paton’s pregnancy only proved the rumours of his behaviour to be true. The rumours had been given life; there was no way of assuaging parents with young daughters of his virtues now. He accepted paternity of the child without complaint and endured three penitential sessions in the Kirk for his fornication. So how did respectable Jean Armour fall for his charms? In public Jean and Robert could only admire each other from a distance; her parents after all would never allow their daughter to become associated with such a man. Somehow admiration from a distance does not scream of a passionate and enduring romance, a love that could endure whatever comes. So how did this young couple’s love begin?

An open courtship was out of the question, the young couple needed a helping hand. Catherine Czerkawska in her novel mentions a woman called Catherine Govan, an elderly lady living in Mauchline who could perform the role of a ‘black-fit’. A black-fit was in essence a matchmaker; a person who could be a go-between for the young couple. This person was usually an older woman who wished them well and would keep their secret. Robert wanted to know Jean better, so he organised the services of a black-fit to assist them. The plan was for Jean to spend several afternoons with Catherine Govan, since she could teach Jean fine embroidery and needlework. In truth Jean only spent a short while at her lessons before sneaking off to meet her Robert somewhere more private. When the time came to return home to her parents, she would collect her needlework that Catherine had further embellished before heading home to her unsuspecting parents. In addition to this, Robert and Jean both asked a friend to act as a chaperone; therefore their public meetings in the Whitefoord Arms Inn were simply among friends, nothing noteworthy for gossip.

In the book Jean admires Robert’s love of reading, he was always in possession of a book and no moment was spent in idleness. In truth, Robert was like no other man she had met before, and despite all of her parents’ misgivings she could not resist him. Jean is portrayed as a spirited, lively and attractive young woman, not the passive woman she is often depicted as. Jean’s position in the relationship was far more dangerous, as a dependent upon her father, her relationship with Robert Burns could and ultimately did cost her dearly. She willingly chose to defy social and religious conventions placed upon a woman, as well as the possible risk of pregnancy, so she could be with him. For Robert Burns, Jean’s beautiful singing voice was the sweetest ‘wood-notes wild,’ and even when they were married it was something he still remarked upon. In his eyes, she was the epitome of a proper young lady; she was his Jewel before all others. The other ladies of Mauchline had their desirable qualities too, but none could rival Jean for his affections:

Miss Millar is fine, Miss Markland’s divine,

Miss Smith she has wit, and Miss Betty is braw,

There’s beauty and fortune to get wi’ Miss Morton,

But Armour’s the jewel for me o’ them a’.

Unfortunately the couple’s secret relationship had to come to an end when Jean fell pregnant. Robert was seemingly delighted with the prospect; he wrote a document outlining the marriage between Jean and himself. The young couple both agreed and signed the document, as far as they were concerned they were married with their first child on the way. Jean could not hide her growing condition forever though, and she had to tell her parents of her relationship and marriage to Robert Mossgiel. James Armour would not condone any of it; surely another man would still be willing to marry her, despite her condition. James sent Jean away from the prying eyes and gossip of Mauchline to stay with relatives in Paisley.

The Kirk Session Book
On this page Robert Burns acknowledges himself the father of Jean Armour’s children.

The marriage between Jean and Robert had not been officiated by the Kirk, so in James’ eyes the whole marriage was a falsehood. He destroyed the document by cutting out the couple’s names; the proof of the marriage was gone. James informed Robert that Jean had shunned him and had allowed her father to destroy their marriage document. Robert felt slighted and wronged; his Jean had proven to be fickle and undeserving. Jean was eventually allowed to return home after several months away, by which point Robert’s attention had wandered to Margaret Campbell, otherwise known as Highland Mary. The once promising early courtship and relationship had ended disastrously; it took two more years before they were fully reconciled and married.

The Session Book attesting Robert Burns and Jean Armour’s wedding in 1788. The only document where both of their signatures can be seen together.

The early courtship of Jean and her Robert was far from desirable; yet despite everything, they fell in love with each other. The secrecy, the pregnancy, the separation were only some of the trials they went through before they were officially married. The couple’s hardships had not torn them apart forever, their love had endured. Robert Burns had first met his Jean in 1785 and they were officially married three years later. By this time Jean had already given birth to four of the couple’s nine children. In September 1788 Burns wrote a letter to Margaret Chalmers about his Jean, he proudly declared ‘…I have got the handsomest figure, the sweetest temper, the soundest constitution, and the kindest heart in the county.’ The marriage was far from perfect; his infidelity is legendary after all, yet no one can doubt that they loved each other. The life and story of Robert Burns would seem somewhat lacking without his Jean; she was his friend, his lover and his wife. Thankfully the couple’s early courtship invoked true and deep feelings of love in them both; perhaps an impossible feat if it hadn’t been for the helping hand of a black fit as described by Catherine Czerkawska.

By Learning Trainee Kirstie Bingham