Object Focus

Excise Pistols

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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.

Fragment of Jean’s wedding gown

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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.

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Jean Amour’s wedding dress fragment, 1788

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).

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Bannock Toaster, 1788

The style of dress at the time of their marriage in 1788 would have been roughly something like this:

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Example of a Scottish woman’s dress, 1780s

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.

Burns’s Trysting Thorn

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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.”

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Wood cuts from Robert Burns’s trysting thorn (RBBM/NTS)

 

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.

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RBBM’s trysting tree (Watt)

 

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.

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The Kissing Beech, Kilravock Castle, Inverness-shire (BBC and Woodland Trust)

 

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Romeo and Juliet’s Balcony, Verona (Getty and The Telegraph)

 

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Pont des Arts, Paris (Tripshooter)

 

The Scots Musical Museum – Annotations and Auld Lang Syne

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The Scots Musical Museum - opened to Auld Lang Syne and annotated by Robert Burns.
The Scots Musical Museum – Opened to Auld Lang Syne. Each copy was annotated by Burns himself.

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.

 

The Beggar’s Badge – any spare change?

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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.

jolly-beggars

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

Burns in the USSR

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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.

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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.

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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

Writing on the glass

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The second of our guest blog posts from students at the University of Glasgow focusses on Burns’s habit of engraving poetry into glass windows… and the potential parallels with how we use social media today!

We all have things we want to say, whether they be in public or private. Robert Burns, a poet known for his way with words, was not without this urgency to express what he felt was important to him. Often saying them in a manner that was not altogether lawful, one of Burns’s tendencies was to engrave windows with his own words, both in public and private places, as a means of expressing himself. Though it is not as common for people to carve their thoughts into nearby windows today, we still have the same urge to express our views. However, for our generation the ‘windows’ are the windows of the internet, through which a large portion of society can easily express their views from a distance. Through these expressions , projected on a significantly more public level, it is questionable what, in both Burns’s case and ours, gives our words their worth.

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Robert Burns’s diamond cutter, which he used to carve poems into glass.

Three window panes featuring Burns poems were found in the Globe Inn in Dumfries, which became one of Burns’s favourite places to drink. The verses, found in one of the upstairs lodging rooms, include him expressing his views on the worth of sex and war, the final line of one poem reading: ‘I’m better pleased to make one more, | Than be the death of twenty.’ Though there was a social risk in him saying these controversial things, which likely went against society’s conventional views, there was also a physical risk of vandalizing other people’s property, meaning that the outcome of such an expression could have had lawful repercussions. So for Burns the risks were not only community-based, in endangering his reputation, but also legal. With this considered, it is clear that these words were of great worth to Burns by the risks he took in ensuring their perpetuity. He is not just writing these words to be heard, but writing them to be remembered.

To align this with the modern means we have of expressing oneself through social media, we are faced with some similar risks. In the action of speaking out today, we are faced with more social risks: our anxiety is more concerned with how many likes/retweets/shares we get. We want people to know the things that we have to say. Because of this, it often seems as if our words only gain value, rather than having value in the first instance. Through using social media as a tool to express ourselves, we are not only putting ourselves out there but also, and perhaps more importantly, seeking a response from them. Unlike Burns’s expressions engraved on window panes, we are more concerned with who likes what we have to say than what we are actually saying.

Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, Alloway.
A pane of glass engraved by Robert Burns

‘Sound be his sleep and blythe his morn,
That never did a lassie wrang;
Who poverty ne’er held in scorn,
For misery ever tholed a pang.’

I don’t know what motivated Burns to engrave those windows, and I don’t know why people post what they post on social media, but from these comparisons it is clear that expression in society has shifted. The internet is at our fingertips today, and is as permeant as a pane of glass. However, as I write more words of my own onto the glass of the internet, I wonder how we would use our words if all the ‘expressions’ we engrave on the ‘walls’ of social media, were instead inscribed on the windows of our own homes. How then would you value what you had to say, if it not only altered your view to the outside world, but also altered the world’s view of you?

By Kathryn Thomson