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.
In November 2009, a small book containing 14 Burns poems and songs was presented to astronaut Nick Patrick by ten young Scots taking part in the Scottish Space School. This book was to make a 5.7 million mile journey the following February, completing 217 orbits of the Earth on a two week long mission to the International Space Station.
The Scottish Space School is an initiative delivered by the University of Strathclyde, designed to encourage young people to consider careers in science and engineering. These particular students were taking part in a trip to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas, where they were able to hand the book over to Nick Patrick. Originally, the book was given to the Space School by Alan Archibald, a distant relative of Jean Armour, Burns’s wife. It made its out of this world trip to celebrate the Year of Homecoming in 2010 aboard NASA’s STS 130 Endeavour spacecraft.
The book is now part of our museum collection, alongside a photograph of Nick who said:
‘It was a real honour to have met such an enthusiastic group of young people, not only to continue the inspirational work undertaken by the Scottish Space School, but to also help spread the timeless poetry of Robert Burns.’
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.
Encased within RBBM’s ‘Love’ display is a small fragment of a hawthorn bush which was located at Mill Mannoch near Coylton, South Ayrshire. This small tree had been recognised as a familiar landmark and popular trysting (meeting) spot for lovers in Ayrshire years before Robert Burns’s time, and Burns was well aware of its tradition. He referred to the hawthorn in his song When wild War’s deadly Blast was blawn; lines of which feature on one surface of the cross section displayed at RBBM:
“At length I reached the bonnie glen,
Where early life I sported;
I passed the mill and trysting-thorn
Where Nancy aft I courted.”
The tree died in 1916 and it was cut down two years later by James Pearson Wilson, the miller at the time. Sections were sent by Wilson as collectibles to Burns museums and societies all over the world; whilst a seed from the hawthorn was replanted at the original site at Coylton. It has also been recreated in a 3D metal form for RBBM’s display, with visitors encouraged to hang notes of love to others in reference to the markings left by lovers on trysting trees.
Despite it being 300 years old and engraved with thousands of initials, a trysting tree still standing in Scotland is the Kissing Beech in the grounds of Kilravock Castle, Inverness-shire. Trysting spots further afar include the courtyard beneath ‘Romeo and Juliet’s balcony’ in Verona where thousands of visitors have decorated a wall with their chewing gum and paper love notes; the Daijingu Shrine in Tokyo where romantics queue to buy and leave love charms blessed by local priests; and the Trimurti Lovers’ Shrine in Bangkok where visitors make a floral offering in hope of one day meeting a loved one. Perhaps more famously are the Pont de l’Archevêché and Pont des Arts bridges in Paris which lovers have embellished over the years with over 700,000 padlocks. However, due to both health and safety and degradation concerns, Paris officials began to remove 45 tonnes of locks in 2015. Similar issues with aesthetics and preservation of heritage have also resulted in a fine of €500 for anyone caught sticking chewing gum and notes to the courtyard in Verona. Despite the recent restrictions, lovers have continued to follow these traditions in both cities. The site in Coylton also remains a popular spot for couples and romantics.
As well as being one of the most valuable (and unique) items in the RBBM’s collection, our copy of The Scots Musical Museum featuring Burns’ annotations is also one of the most fascinating. The book itself belonged to Burns and subject of the annotation is the famous song ‘Auld Lang Syne’, which Burns rewrote from an old folk song he had collected whilst travelling Scotland. Alongside poetry, the songs and music of his homeland were the other great loves of his life – and he spent a large portion of his last years compiling and re-writing folksongs and melodies.
The Scots Musical Museum was a major publication; at 6 volumes with 100 songs each it was a hugely positive force in bringing Scottish folk songs and music to the classical repertoire. Other songs and tunes in the collection were contributions and arrangements from composers such as Ludwig van Beethoven and Joseph Hayden (yes, that Beethoven and that Hayden). It is interesting to note that Burn’s songs were found to be more popular than the works of other composers in the Musical Museum, (such as Beethoven specifically) as his work was found to be easier and more accessible for the audience to sing and perform. This was not just a collection of old songs however, as Burns would write new words to the tunes, or entirely different songs to the ancient melodies. Auld Lang Syne, Scots Wha Hae and Green Grow the Rashes, O are known to have much older roots.
In 1786, Robert Burns met James Johnson in Edinburgh and discovered the music engraver shared his passion for old Scots songs and his desire to preserve them. Whilst Burns only contributed 3 songs to the first volume published in 1787, he would eventually contribute about 1/3 of the whole collection as well as have involvement in editing. The final volume was published in 1803.
The most fascinating aspect of the book is the blank page full of Burns’ annotations. This was actually a feature of The Scots Musical Museum, as Burns requested that every other page be left blank in order for him to add notes and changes. This in itself, without even reading the alterations or commentary tells us a great deal about the Bard; that he was conscious of the potential of the song or tune to still be improved, a desire to discuss the theory and purpose behind the lyrics and those he had decided against, and even shines a light into his own passion concerning the music and folk traditions of his country.