Politics

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.

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Graffiti Artist?

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Have you ever had the urge to graffiti? To loudly declare to the world I was here? Well Robert Burns certainly did, and he chose a way with great style and panache too. His was no illegible scrawls or splashes of indescribable colour that we often see now. Instead he scratched his immortal thoughts onto panes of glass. Burns’s creativity was definitely not restricted to certain times of the day or even when he had a handy piece of parchment available. This is evident during his highland tour, when Robert decided to leave a distinctive trail of graffiti in the places he visited. He left behind a series of poems and lines inscribed on chimney pieces and on the window panes of several inns he stayed in.

On the first night of his tour, Burns and his companion William Nicol stayed overnight at the Cross Keys Inn in Falkirk in 1787. This was the beginning of his window pane graffiti trail. Robert had recently acquired a diamond tipped stylus, which he used to scratch four lines into the window pane. The lines entreat that all men who are good to women should be rewarded:

‘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.’

window pane - Falkirk

There are some who question Robert Burn’s relationships with women, and whether he deserved a reward for his ‘good’ treatment of women. Nevertheless, this was not the last of his unusual writings in August 1787. In the royal burgh of Stirling he visited a seat of the Scottish Kings, Stirling Castle. The castle at the time of his visit was in a ruinous state, and this roused Burns’s Jacobitism for the Stewart Kings of previously. In a letter to Robert Muir, Burns outlined his day in Stirling and his indignation at what had occurred to the castle and the fallen Stewarts. These were the ten lines he wrote on his room’s window at the Wingate’s Inn (now the Golden Lion Hotel):

“Here Stewarts once in triumph reigned,

And laws for Scotland’s weal ordained;

But now unroofed their palace stands,

Their sceptre’s swayed by other hands;

Fallen, indeed, and to the earth

Whence grovelling reptiles take their birth,

The injured Stewart line is gone.

A race outlandish fills their throne;

An idiot race, to honour lost;

Who knows them best despise them most.”

This poem is highly critical of the Hanoverian monarchy that had replaced the Stewart Kings. George III was on the throne in 1787 and he is still known today as the Mad King, a member of the ‘idiot race’ as Burns scathingly wrote. In addition to this, the Hanoverians were still seen as alien foreigners, ‘a race outlandish’ that dared to occupy the throne of ‘the injured Stewart line.’ These words, although poetical, are no less treasonous for their meaning. Burns saw the danger of this particular window graffiti and returned later to break the glass to avoid prosecution. Yet these lines almost ruined his chances to become an Excise man later, since he was interrogated like a child about my matters, and blamed and schooled for my inscription on a Stirling window.’ Despite this attempt to erase his glass scribblings, the Stirling Lines have been remembered. The Golden Lion lost the broken fragments of the original Stirling Lines in a fire that occurred last century, but they have been re-engraved for a display dedicated to Robert Burns in the Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum.

Robert Burns had not lost his taste for window graffiti after Stirling, even though these particular lines could have seen him arrested for treason. In 1790, he once again lifted his diamond-tipped stylus and started engraving on several window panes in the Globe Inn in Dumfries. This time Burns decided to omit his opinions on the monarchy, and focused on the relative merits of sex and war instead.

window panes

‘I MURDER hate by field or flood,

Tho’ glory’s name may screen us;

In wars at home I’ll spend my blood,

Life-giving wars of Venus:

The deities that I adore

Are social Peace and Plenty;

I’m better pleased to make one more,

Than be the death of twenty.’

Burns was a lover rather than a fighter, evident perhaps from his many offspring from several different women. He practiced what he wrote, and he had an affair with a barmaid called Anna Park in the same room he wrote these lines. Their relationship together produced a daughter; Elizabeth Park Burns, who was raised with Robert’s other children by Jean.

Robert Burns was a prolific writer across numerous genres, these window panes inscribed with his lines testifies to that. He believed women should be treated in a good manner, and that such men would be justly rewarded in return. He played with this idea of loving women by comparing war with love and sex. It gives life to the old adage of men being ‘lovers’ or ‘fighters.’ Robert Burns was indeed a romantic, but he was also more than that, he was a highly educated and politically opinionated man. This is obvious from his most famous window graffiti, The Stirling Lines, in which his love of Scotland and his nationalistic fervour is clear. All three examples of his window graffiti paint a picture of an unusual man, one who did not necessarily conform to society’s expectations or rules.

The window graffiti from Falkirk and Dumfries are displayed within the museum’s collection for you to see. If you also head into the cottage you will see generations of graffiti carved into the cottage doors, and one visitor even followed Robert Burns’s example and left a message on a window pane in 1881.

By Learning Trainee Kirstie Bingham

 

 

Was He a Fighter too?

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One of the main stereotypes on Robert Burns is that he was a womaniser; it is true he had many female companions in his lifetime. So with that in mind, was Burns a lover or a fighter? The truth is he was a bit of both, well let’s be honest, definitely more of a lover. Yet Burns was willing to fight for something he believed in, especially when it helped to keep him on the right side of the authorities. Consequently, while Burns was living in Dumfries he became a member of the local army unit, The Royal Dumfries Volunteers, and he was an active participant at its meetings and drill sessions.

So why did this widely known ‘lover’ join? Burns supported the principals of republicanism and he was not afraid to voice his controversial opinions to his friends around Dumfries. Unfortunately for him, his behaviour was noticed by his superiors at the Excise office. The recent revolutions in France and the American War of Independence had struck fear into the hearts of the British authorities. Therefore during this time of social and political unrest in the 1790s, the British government and Robert Burns’s employer did not look kindly on any revolutionist sympathisers. Despite this, Burns’s behaviour during this time is certainly questionable. For example, in October 1792 at the Theatre Royal in Dumfries, Burns was seen singing along to the French revolutionary song Ça Ira with a group of radicals. In addition to this he purchased four carronades (cannons) from a public auction, which he later donated to the French Legislative Assembly. For a highly educated and politically interested man, these actions lacked forethought and astuteness.

As a result of this Burns needed to do some ‘grovelling’ as it were, to get back into the good graces of his superiors. In order to prove his loyalty to the British Crown and save his desperately needed position at the Excise; Burns took an Oath of Allegiance and signed the Rules, Regulations and By-Laws on the 28th March 1795 to join the Volunteers. To further prove his allegiance to the British authorities, Burns wrote a song in April 1795 called Does Haughty Gaul Invasion Threat? (more commonly known as The Dumfries Volunteers). The song praises the recently formed Royal Dumfries Volunteers, whose duty was to defend Britain from a French attack. This however did not stop him from writing revolutionary poems and letters anonymously; after all, even this song’s last line is ‘We’ll ne’er forget The People!’

This Cairngorm brooch was given to the Poet for his services with the Royal Dumfries Volunteers

Although he never lost or completely put aside his politically radical thoughts, Burns proved himself to be a committed and hardworking Private in the Royal Dumfries Volunteers. This was not merely an empty gesture to the authorities; he worked hard to fulfil his duties. Burns attended the training sessions, which often lasted for two hours twice a week. He also served on the committee for three months from August 1795, which involved supplying the corps with weapons and other necessary equipment. Furthermore, unlike many of his comrades in the unit he was never fined for absenteeism, drunkenness or insolence. These duties and additional responsibilities were supplementary to his tiring job as an exciseman and a poet. Nevertheless he took them very seriously for the year and half he served with the Dumfries Volunteers.

His position and dedication to the Volunteers is evident, even though so little of his military career is now considered. On the day of his funeral it was not his writing that had the most pervasive presence, but his military career instead. His volunteer uniform, hat and sword rested upon the coffin, which was carried from his home to his final resting place in St Michael’s Churchyard. On Monday 25th July 1796, Burns received a military funeral that included the Dumfries Volunteers, the Cinque Port Cavalry and the Angusshire Fencibles. His comrades from the Volunteers were the pallbearers for his coffin, while the Cinque Port Cavalry band played Handel’s solemn Dead March from Saul. The slow procession moved in time to the music and the occasional toll of the great Church Bells until they reached the graveyard. The funeral party formed two lines and the coffin was carried between them to the grave. Although there are claims that Burns’s dying words were ‘don’t let the awkward squad fire over me,’ three volleys were fired over the coffin when it was deposited into the earth.

St_Michael's_Church,_DumfriesSt Michael’s Churchyard, Dumfries

This truly was a grand spectacle, a fitting ceremony to represent the general regret and sorrow at Robert Burns’s passing. If Robert had not joined the Royal Dumfries Volunteers, would his funeral have been a much quieter affair? Would such an impressive ceremony have been awarded to him, if he had been just an exciseman and poet? We will never be able to answer those questions, but it is interesting that the job we least associate with Burns, is the one that played a defining role in his funeral. Days after his passing, death elegies began pouring out, as people across the country wanted to pay tribute to Scotia’s Bard.

 

Does Haughty Gaul Invasion Threat?

Does haughty Gaul invasion threat?

Then let the louns beware, Sir!

There’s wooden walls upon our seas,

And volunteers on shore, Sir!

The Nith shall run to Corsincon,

And Criffel sink in Solway,

Ere we permit a Foreign Foe

On British ground to rally!

 

O let us not, like snarling tykes,

In wrangling be divided,

Till, slap! come in an inco loun,

And wi’ a rung decide it!

Be Britain still to Britain true,

Amang oursels united!

For never but by British hands

Maun British wrangs be righted!

 

The Kettle o’ the Kirk and State,

Perhaps a clout may fail in’t;

But Deil a foreign tinkler loun

Shall ever ca’a nail in’t.

Our father’s blude the Kettle bought,

And wha wad dare to spoil it;

By Heav’ns! the sacrilegious dog

Shall fuel be to boil it!

 

The wretch that would a tyrant own,

And the wretch, his true-born brother,

Who would set the Mob aboon the Throne,

May they be damn’d together!

Who will not sing “God save the King,”

Shall hang as high’s the steeple;

But while we sing “God save the King,”

We’ll ne’er forget The People!

 

By Learning Trainee Kirstie Bingham

 

The Complexity of Burns

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It is universally acknowledged that Robert Burns was very advanced in his time; he is seen as both an egalitarian and a humanist. He was not afraid to lambast people in positions of authority or challenge accepted social norms that he found distasteful. He openly hated hypocrisy, cruelty and pomposity, championing instead kindness, honesty and fairness. He wrote a poignant poem from the viewpoint of a slave in his work The Slave’s Lament, voicing the hardships that slaves felt as they were stolen from their homeland. This empathy and depth of emotion extended upon humans though. One of his most famous poems To a Mouse even delves into the feelings of an animal, and the similarities that exist between men and beasts. So how could a man like that have considered working on a slave plantation? The truth is there are many facets to Burns, and this complexity continues to make him a man truly difficult to understand and know even to this day.

Robert Burns’s song The Slave’s Lament

His renowned song Is There for Honest Poverty, better known as A Man’s a Man for a’ That, is praised for its sense of social equality and morals. After all:

A prince can mak a belted knight,

A marquis, duke, an’ a’ that

But even a man from the poorer classes who had:

The pith o’ sense, an’ pride o’ worth,

Are higher rank than a’ that.

This is Robert Burns reinforcing what truly matters in life. Yes he grew into his fame during his own lifetime, but he never forgot where he came from. He was proud of his origins and never shied away from who he or his family was. I imagine his time in Edinburgh only further supported this. Although he was the glittering icon admired by the literati, he was kept at an acceptable distance from the elite’s young ladies; he was after all just a Heaven-taught Ploughman. This song was first published anonymously in 1795 in the Glasgow Magazine, nearly a decade after he considered working in Jamaica. Therefore Burns’s feelings upon egalitarianism and democracy had significantly developed within this time; it is hard to consider this Burns employed on a slave plantation. The last two lines of this song truly encapsulate his viewpoint on mankind’s connection to each other:

‘That Man to Man, the world o’er,

Shall brothers be for a’ that.’

ken currie's a man's a man for all that
Ken Currie’s oil painting, which was inspired by A Man’s A Man For All That.

So was there a reason why a younger Burns of 1786 considered life in Jamaica a viable pursuit? The truth is there are many; Burns was having a difficult time both financially and emotionally. At this point in his life he was struggling to earn a living at Mossgiel, whilst also being deemed a fornicator by the Kirk. James Armour had repudiated Burns as a son-in-law, and Burns was subsequently separated from a pregnant Jean. This greatly angered and hurt Burns as he was forced to go into hiding from James Armour’s writ. In addition to this, he had make several penitential appearances in Mauchline Kirk for his indiscretions, a very humiliating and humbling experience in front of his peers. Therefore it is not surprising that Burns was tempted by a new life, in a new land, with a new woman (Highland Mary). He wanted to escape the woes and responsibilities that were currently shadowing him. This was not merely a passing thought for Burns, since he secured himself the post of assistant overseer on an estate owned by his friend, Dr Patrick Douglas. He also put down a deposit of nine guineas and obtained himself passage on the ship Nancy. The prospect of leaving Scotland forever was a real possibility, which is evident in this melancholy verse which he wrote in August 1786:

‘Farewell, my friends, farewell, my foes!

My peace with these, my love with those.

The bursting tears my heart declare—

Farewell the bonnie banks of Ayr!’

Original manuscript of his poem ‘The Gloomy Night is Gath’ring Fast’

However life for Burns took a turn for the better after his Kilmarnock Edition was an overnight success. His old love, Jean, had also given birth to twins Robert and Jean, which delighted him. He abandoned his plans for Jamaica and headed to Edinburgh instead, his future on a slave plantation had been averted.

Although it is recorded that Sir Walter Scott once saw Burns burst into tears at the sight of a Banbury print; Burns was always a practical, hard-working man. He was a survivor, and he did what was necessary to survive. This is evident through his struggles living in Dumfries, since he became an Exciseman to supplement his farming and writing income. The prospect of working on a slave plantation is a hard truth to reconcile with our image of a humanist Burns, but it was an option he had to consider in difficult times. Thankfully his true calling of poetry and songs became a viable possibility in 1786; otherwise the Burns we know today may have taken a drastically different path in life.

By Learning Trainee Kirstie Bingham

Burns for Bonnie Birdies?

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The Rights of Woman, is a poem written in 1792 by Robert Burns, but was written with a particular purpose. It was an occasional address spoken by Miss Louisa Fontenelle on her benefit night: the 26th of November 1792. Fontenelle (1773 —99) was an actress popular in Scotland in Burns’s day. He greatly admired her acting and wrote her a poem and several letters which flattered her immensely (this will not be a surprise to most readers who know of Burns’s character and history with women!). In The Rights of Woman, however, Burns communicates the idea that the ruling class would benefit from turning their attention to the female sex to generate humanity, as opposed to crippling civilisation with war.[1] Indeed, Burns was arguably more of a “lover” than a fighter as he stated: ‘war I deprecate: misery and ruin to thousands are in the last that announces the destructive demon. I am better pleased to make one more than be the death of twenty”.[2]

 

Robert Burns

 

The first stanza starts off strong and excitingly; as does the last stanza, with both referring to politics, a theme Burns knew well and was very passionate about. The rights mentioned are ‘protection’, ‘decorum’ (or good manners) and ‘admiration’. This seems laughable by today’s standards; but the things women’s rights campaigners argue for are more or less the same things Burns was talking about in the 18th century. For example, better laws to ‘protect’ women, ‘admiration’ in the form of equal pay and representation, then ‘decorum’ by not harassing or objectifying women. So, it seems modern women are still in need of what Burns believed was due them.

The poem suggests that society must protect and respect the delicacy of the female sex, and so Burns can be seen to assume a stance typical of his time. In the 18th century, Enlightenment thinkers did place women in what was considered to be a crucial role within society, however, woman’s contribution was measured in terms of the positive and passive effect that they supposedly had upon their husbands. This highly emotional influence was believed to encourage sympathy in men and therefore enrich the structure of society as a whole.[3]

It has to be noted that there are limitations in this poem as it was written to be performed, and performed by a woman at that. If it contained anything too radical then there could be a backlash and prejudice against the actress herself. This is something which Burns would have undoubtedly have thought of, so his own opinions may not be fully expressed within this poem, as it coming from a female protagonist and not himself.

It has been astutely stated that

‘Few poems written in the late 18th Century would have been entirely free of conditioned chauvinist condescension but, in this monologue written from a female point of view for a woman to perform, Burns give voice to sincerely egalitarian opinions, limited by, but enlightened for, their time.’[4]

However, one text which was revolutionary, radical and centuries before its time was Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Woman, written in 1792 (coincidently the same year as Burns’s The Rights of Woman). It is a glorious piece of work which argues vehemently that ‘true equality and reciprocity of affection between the sexes can only be built on a base of intellectual – and economic – independence.’[5] She goes on to argue that ‘would men but generously snap our chains, and be content with rational fellowship instead of slavish obedience, they would find us more observant daughters, more affectionate sisters, more faithful wives, more reasonable wives – in a word, better citizens.’[6] This kind of language coupled with the rational arguments being reasoned here is very enlightened for its time, and in comparison, Burns’s poem seems meek.

 

Mary Wollstonecraft

 

The piercing conclusion of the poem – ‘Ah! Ca ira!’ – is taken from a French revolutionary song. It apparently caused a controversy as it was implied that Burns supported the French Revolution. It has been noted that ‘through invoking the spirit of the French Revolution, Burns the Crown employee, ran a considerable risk.’[7] If Burns felt like he could risk all for supporting the French Revolution, why not for women’s rights? Why not support women’s struggles for equality? The conclusion is simply because this is not something Burns was passionate about.

Burns’s relationships with women were not one of dislike, in fact he liked women very much, but did he fully respect women as equals? I would argue no. He did enjoy women’s company but he seemed to objectify women; his numerous affairs are evidence of this. Also, the Bachelor’s Club debating society rule conveys Burns’s machoism over his sexual endeavours. It stated you had to be “a professed lover of one or more of the female sex”.[8] This kind of attitude is even typical of society today but Burns seemed to have a very gentle soul. He seemed to fall in love, have crushes or infatuations repeatedly with various women and he did so very quickly after meeting them. But, typically of Burns, he is hard to pin down as he also had close, platonic friendships with the opposite sex, for example, Mrs Frances Dunlop. She was suffering from depression when she read The Cotter’s Saturday Night. It led her to communicate with Burns, and resulted in a friendship, which, except for a break towards the end of the poet’s life, seemed very nice.[9]

To conclude, it is worth mentioning one hundred and eighteen years later, two suffragettes attempted to bomb the Burns Cottage, as part of their militant campaigning strategy to gain the right to vote in the UK. They targeted it because of Burns’s famousness – they were not against Burns per say – and the suffragette Frances Parker who got caught and jailed as result of the attack even cried out Burns’s epic lines from Scots Wha Hae in court. She shouted: “Liberty’s in every blow! /Let us do or die!” I wonder how Burns would have felt about his childhood home nearly being destroyed by women campaigning for equal rights… with A Man’s A Man For A’ That ringing in my head, I like to think despite all I have said in this blog, he would not have minded that much.

 

By Parris Joyce, Learning Trainee

 

 

[1] Pauline Gray, http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/robertburns/works/the_rights_of_woman/ [accessed 27.04.18]

[2] Dilys Jones, A Wee Guide to Robert Burns, (Goblinshead: Edinburgh, 2016) p42

[3] Pauline Gray, http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/robertburns/works/the_rights_of_woman/ [accessed 27.04.18]

[4] Donny O’Rourke, http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/robertburns/works/the_rights_of_woman/ [accessed 27.04.18]

[5] Mary Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman in Women, the Family and Freedom. The Debate in Documents, Volume One, 1750 – 1880, ed. By Susan Groag Bell and Karen M. Offen (Stanford Uni Press: Stanford, 1983) p51

[6] Mary Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Woman in Women, the Family and Freedom. The Debate in Documents, Volume One, 1750 – 1880, Ed. By Susan Groag Bell and Karen M. Offen (Stanford Uni Press: Stanford, 1983) p63

[7] Donny O’Rourke, http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/robertburns/works/the_rights_of_woman/ [accessed 27.04.18]

[8] Dilys Jones, A Wee Guide to Robert Burns, (Goblinshead: Edinburgh, 2016) p15

[9] The Burns Encyclopaedia, Dunlop, Mrs Frances Anna (1730 — 1815), http://www.robertburns.org/encyclopedia/DunlopMrsFrancesAnna17301511815.321.shtml [accessed 27.04.18]