For Volunteers Week, we asked our volunteers to write a blog post about their volunteering experience. Here’s Roger Alexander sharing some of his thoughts.
I retired from full time work eleven years ago; having spent the first five of those with The Conservation Volunteers, I came to RBBM just over six years ago as a “Buggy” driver. This involves meeting and greeting visitors, transporting them on the buggy between the Museum and Burns Cottage (or any other places the buggy will reach) and helping with other information and advice where I can.
As with most volunteering, the job rarely stops there. I now find myself helping out from time to time in all sorts of other ways, which I find very rewarding and stimulating, and it helps me feel part of the team.
Driving the buggy allows me to meet a whole range of interesting folk from all four corners of the planet and I am constantly amazed at how well Robert Burns is known even in the smallest and most remote of islands. However, these global travellers offer a wide range of stimulating conversation which is rarely restricted just to the “Bard”.
The Volunteers at RBBM also help run a Garden Shop, situated in the grounds of the museum, which offers a wide variety of goods manufactured by local crafters and is also a shop window for the RBBM itself. However, the main purpose of this venue is to raise funds for the restoration and improvement of the Burns Monument which is just one of the bold and innovative ideas being developed by the management team at RBBM.
One variation on the theme, which I particularly remember, was the great fun we all had on Halloween one year, volunteers and staff together, creating and acting out a costume drama incorporating the Burns Cottage, Poets Path and “Auld Kirk” and providing lots of “bloodthirsty” and scary moments for those visitors brave enough to come back after dark!
I find volunteering a great way to keep fit and active, meet new people and maintain a standard of life which rarely falters, and you may go a long way before finding a better place to do all this than with the team at RBBM and the beautiful countryside surrounding it.
For Volunteers Week, we asked our volunteers to write a blog post about their volunteering experience. Here’s Hugh Farrell sharing some of his thoughts.
As a lifelong admirer of Robert Burns, a past president of four Burns Clubs and past secretary of a fifth, I volunteered to be a guide as soon as the National Trust came to Alloway. Indeed, wild horses could not have held me back! Confirmation that Robert Burns was the prime mover for my desire to become a volunteer.
To have the opportunity to immerse myself in the history of the Cottage and to find myself walking in the footsteps of the young Robert Burns is wonderful. Another plus is the opportunity to meet people who arrive from all around the world to visit the birthplace of Scotland’s National Bard who remains, in my opinion, The International Bard of Humanity. Then there are the thousands of schoolchildren who visit every year who we seek to inspire but who also inspire their guides. The children are encouraged to recite or sing their “Burns “ party pieces and a great many are really delighted to do so.
I always try to bring Robert Burns’ love of Scotland to the fore and note the light that comes into the eyes of visitors when I quote his poetry, songs or prose.
Communication is of course a two way process and whilst it pleases me to speak of the history of the Cottage, I am also intrigued to hear the tales of the visitors such as the American historian who informed me that Robert Burns was the first National Poet of the USA.
The first known Burns Supper was held in the Cottage in 1801, and continued to be held there until 1809, after which time it was relocated to the Kings Arms Hotel in Ayr.
The Supper was returned to the Cottage on 25th January 2016 and has now become a fixture on the calendar. It is organised by the volunteers of the Friends of the Museum, with superb support from NTS staff, and is a major fundraiser.
There are many activities to be involved in at RBBM, some for fundraising and some for fun. There are various crafts and activities, and even a chance to scare visitors at Halloween as they are guided through the gardens to the haunted Auld Kirk of Alloway! (They then went on to the Cottage where Doctor Hornbook, a Burns character, was performing an amputation!)
As a volunteer guide, I also take tours of the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum where I can expand on the life and times of our Bard as we view the great number of artefacts that are on display.
The question is often posed as to what is my favourite item, or song, or poem. The answer is always “too many to cover in such a short time.” However Robert Burns’ Kilmarnock Edition, where it all began, might be a good starting point.
I have written of the fantastic times that I have with our visitors but there is also so much pleasure in the camaraderie within the volunteer team and between volunteers and NTS staff members who support us in everything we do.
Retirement from the “day job” is the end of an era. Volunteering is the beginning of a better era.
For Volunteers Week, we asked our volunteers to write a blog post about their volunteering experience. Here’s Myra McLanaghan sharing some of her thoughts.
I didn’t really volunteer for the Trust – it sort of found me. I was a regular at the Wednesday Highlight talks at the RBBM and the Volunteer Co-ordinator approached me, thinking I would be interested. Of course, you always believe that you have nothing to offer and need qualifications etc.; but the thing is, you suddenly find that you have life experiences of qualifications and so I took the plunge of becoming a Volunteer.
I started off doing craft work, making rag rugs. So, with other volunteers, I commenced making a rag rug for Burns Cottage, where we would sit on a Monday afternoon cutting up fabric and creating our masterpiece. As people came through we found that nostalgia was a big part in discussion and visitors would discuss the rag rug, who made it in their family and what it was even called in different parts of the country. Overseas visitors were most intrigued, and children even tried their hand at putting a piece of material into the rug. The group are now on their third rug and we are now expanding into learning about weaving and dyeing of fabrics on the 18th century. From little acorns large oaks grow.
I have also become involved in a performance team who dress in 18th-century costume and perform the works of Burns. Our overseas visitors really appreciate us in costume and they feel part of what we are trying to tell them about life in Scotland during Burns’ time. Being a volunteer expands your experiences and confidence. I have a natural love for Scotland and volunteering has added a new dimension of meeting new people and making new friends and sharing a common love of Scotland and Robert Burns in the area where not only did I grow up, but he did too.
Myra (second from right) with some more rag ruggers, and their finished product, in Burns Cottage
Friends of Robert Burns Birthplace Museum is a registered independent charity which was created in February 2013 to support the museum. Initially, the Friends group was set up in order to raise funds for the Burns Monument Restoration Appeal – this was a tremendous success, with the Friends donating £30,000 to the Burns Monument Fund in 2017, and a further £6000 donated in 2018. Since then, the Friends have continued to raise funds through a variety of means, and these are donated to the museum for use in other restoration and development projects.
The Friends fundraise in many different ways. Chief amongst them is the Garden Shop: in 2013, the Friends took over the old ticket kiosk in the Burns Monument Garden and set about converting it into a shop. Open during the summer season, the Garden Shop sells plants, bulbs and seeds, as well as Burns-related crafts, drinks and ice-creams to enjoy. Whilst the shop is closed throughout winter, the dedicated volunteers sell Christmas trees and wreaths during the festive season as well. Now in its seventh year, the Garden Shop is set to re-open in the very near future; it is opening later than usual due to work being done on the electronics within the shop.
A number of events also run throughout the year – for example, next month the Friends are putting on a Big Band Night at the museum, featuring the highly popular band That Swing Sensation. Further details can be found on the RBBM website. The Friends also hold an annual quiz night, as well as raffles and tombolas throughout the year.
Finally, it is thanks to the Friends of Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, and in particular the Chair, Hugh Farrell, that the Burns Supper returned to the Burns Cottage. The first ever Burns Supper was held in July 1801, when nine friends of the late Robert Burns gathered in his childhood home to dine, read his poetry and deliver an ode to the Bard before raising a glass in his name. The suppers continued to be held in the Cottage until 1809, before moving to the King’s Arms Hotel in Ayr in 1810. After a gap of two hundred and seven years, on 25th January 2016, a Burns Supper was once again held in Burns Cottage. This event has become the Friends’ major fundraiser.
The Supper has been a regular event every year since and attracts guests from all over the world. The traditional order of a Burns Supper is delivered, complete with piper, fiddler, poetry recitals, songs, and, of course, haggis, neeps and tatties. The names of the nine gentlemen who attended that first supper are listed on the programme, as are the names of all performers and guests at the current supper; a copy of the programme is then placed in the museum archives to become part of the history of the cottage. Attendees at the Burns Cottage Supper are also lucky enough to interact with an object from RBBM’s own collection (with the curator watching closely nearby!). And each year, the Gregg Fiddle that Robert Burns learned to dance to is played: a magical moment.
The Friends of Robert Burns Birthplace Museum are an integral part of RBBM, and the work they do to fundraise for our restoration and development projects is invaluable. We would like to thank them endlessly for the contributions they have made so far, and we look forward to many more years working successfully with them to ensure as many people as possible can enjoy the birthplace of the Bard.
More information on the Friends can be found on their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/friendsofrbbm/
In honour of Women’s History Month, throughout March the RBBM Facebook and Twitter have shared poems linked to influential women in Robert Burns’s life. We thought we’d round off the month with a blog exploring each of these ladies in more detail!
First up is Jean Armour, Robert’s wife. She was born 25th February 1765 in Mauchline, Ayrshire. Whilst growing up, Jean was renowned for her beauty and was part of a group of young women often referred to as ‘the Belles of Mauchline’. She met Robert when she was around eighteen, and less than two years later she was pregnant with his child – her father famously fainted when told that Robert was the father! He refused to allow the couple to marry – this meant he would rather Jean be a single mother than married to Robert, which speaks volumes about Robert’s reputation!
Despite this less than promising start to their relationship, Jean and Robert were formally married on 5th August 1788 – Jean’s father had come round to the idea after Robert’s poetry success. They had a mostly happy marriage, despite Robert’s famous infidelities – Jean herself said that he should have had ‘twa wives’.
Jean and her family moved to Dumfries in 1791 and this is where Robert died in 1796. Jean could not attend his funeral as she was in labour with their ninth child, Maxwell. Tragically, Maxwell died at the age of two – just four of the couple’s children survived to adulthood. However, Jean did also look after Betty Park (Robert’s child to Ann Park) and they had a good relationship. After Robert’s death, Jean never remarried, and she lived in the house they had shared in Dumfries until she died 26th March 1834 – she outlived her husband by thirty-eight years.
Next is Agnes Burnes, née Broun – the Bard’s mother. Agnes was born 17th March 1732 near Kirkoswald in Ayrshire. Her mother died when she was just ten years old; being the eldest sibling, it was then Agnes’s responsibility to care for the family until her father remarried two years later. However, Agnes and her new step-mother did not get on well, and Agnes was sent to live with her maternal grandmother in Maybole. She instilled in Agnes a great love for Scottish folk song and music.
Agnes met William Burnes (spelled differently but pronounced the same as ‘Burns’) in 1756 and they married on 3rd December 1757. They settled in the clay biggin William had built in Alloway; Robert Burns was the eldest of their seven children. It is thought that Agnes was a great influence on Robert’s own love of Scottish folk song and music, just as her grandmother had been to her. After William died in 1784, Agnes went to live with her son Gilbert. She moved around with his family until her death, at the age of eighty-seven, on 14th January 1820.
The third woman we featured this month is Frances Dunlop, a wealthy heiress almost thirty years older than Burns. Born 16th April 1730, her maiden name was Wallace, and her family claimed descent from William Wallace himself! Frances married at eighteen, when her husband, John Dunlop, was in his forties. They had a happy life together – however, John died in 1785. In the same year, Frances’s childhood home and lands were lost to the family. These incidents caused her humongous grief and she fell into a prolonged depression.
What finally roused her was Robert Burns’s poem ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’. She enjoyed reading it so much that she contacted Robert to ask for more copies and to invite him to her home – this began a long and friendly correspondence that lasted until the end of Robert’s life. Frances treated him almost like another son, praising his achievements and admonishing his indiscretions. She even offered advice on drafts of poetry and songs he would send her, the most famous of these being ‘Auld Lang Syne’! Although there was a two-year gap in their correspondence after Burns had offended Frances with some comments she deemed radical, Frances sent him a reconciliatory letter mere days before Robert’s death. She outlived him by nearly twenty years, dying 24th May 1815.
The last woman featured is Agnes Maclehose, aka the ‘Clarinda’ to Burns’s ‘Sylvander’. Agnes was born 26th April 1758 in Glasgow. She grew up to be a very articulate, well-educated and beautiful woman. She married at eighteen, but the marriage was an unhappy one and she separated from her husband in 1780.
Agnes met Robert Burns several years later at a party in Edinburgh – they were immediately taken with each other, and she wrote to him to invite him to tea at her home. Although an accident prevented this from happening, there began a long series of love letters and love poetry sent between the two. They used the pseudonyms ‘Clarinda’ and ‘Sylvander’. Despite the intensity of their correspondence, it is widely-thought that their affair was unconsummated. As Agnes was an incredibly pious woman and, although separated, still married, this makes sense.
In 1791 Agnes sailed for Jamaica to attempt to reconcile with her husband – however, he had started a family with another woman, so she returned to Scotland after only a few months. She met Robert for the last time in December of that year. For the rest of her life Agnes took great care of her letters from Robert, and after his death she even negotiated to have the letters she had sent to him returned to her.
In 1821 Agnes had tea with Jean Armour in Edinburgh. The two women, who could have been viewed as rivals of sorts, got on well and talked at length about their families, as well as their shared regard for Robert Burns. Agnes died twenty years later, at the age of eighty-three, on 23rd October 1841.
You can find the original Facebook and Twitter posts at https://www.facebook.com/RobertBurnsBirthplaceMuseum/ and https://twitter.com/RobertBurnsNTS.
As it’s Women’s History Month, one of the Learning Trainees here at RBBM, Caitlin Walker, has written about the attitudes to women found in Burns’s poetry. She has written the post in a similar way to how she would speak it, which is why there is a mixture of Scots and English language.
Maist folk know that Robert Burns enjoyed the company of women – his famous love affairs, the hundreds of poems and songs they inspired and the thirteen (that we know of!) weans he fathered attest to that. But what did he actually think of women?
Burns was born and lived his life during the latter half of the eighteenth century, a time when women couldnae vote and were rarely, if ever, formally educatit. Gender roles were strictly prescribed – for instance, women of the working class were given no formal education but taught how to run a hoose and look after a faimlie. Tasks were divided by gender completely, to the extent that women milked the coos but men mucked oot the byre, and during harvest time men used the scythe while women used the heuk. Women of higher classes would have learned literacy and maybe even another language or a musical instrument, but the expectation was the same – get merrit and raise a faimlie.
Different poems by Burns depict varying attitudes to women. For instance, ‘Willie Wastle’ – which is perhaps an unsuitably-named poem as it’s really about Willie Wastle’s wife – is hardly complimentary towards women. Burns describes her using terms such as ‘dour’, ‘din’, ‘bow-hough’d’ and ‘hem-shin’d’. She allegedly has ‘but ane’ e’e, ‘five rusty teeth, forbye a stump’, ‘a whiskin beard’ and ‘walie nieves like midden-creels’. Burns rounds off every stanza with the line, ‘I wad na gie a button for her’. This Burns is a far cry from the adorer of women the world recognises – he is being extremely disrespectful and takin nae prisoners in mocking her appearance!
This photograph shows the sign for the Willie Wastle Inn in Crosshill, Ayrshire. It depicts Willie’s wife as she is described in the poem.
Contrast this with ‘The Rights of Woman’, Burns’s call for folk to remember the rights of women amongst the turbulent atmosphere of the eighteenth century, when ‘even children lisp the Rights of Man’. At first glance this seems like Burns being exceptionally forward-thinking for the 1700s – however, the ‘rights’ in question are: the right to protection, the right to decorum and the right to admiration. So really, Burns’s progressive rally for the rights of women is patronising and objectifying, which is a step up from outright insulting maybe, but still no brilliant.
This is a copy of ‘The Rights of Woman’ written by Burns in 1793 and sent to Mrs Graham of Fintry.
Then we have ‘It’s na, Jean, thy bonie face’ – and thank goodness! This poem is an outpouring of Burns’s love for his wife, Jean Armour – but crucially, it is ‘na her bonie face’ that he admires, ‘altho’ [her] beauty and [her] grace/ Might weel awauk desire’. Instead, it is her mind he loves. This shows Burns’s respect for Jean as a person with her own thoughts and desires. He goes on to say that even if he was not the one to make her happy, that someone would and that she’d be ‘blest’. He even says that he would die for her: this selfless desire to see her happy chimes much more with the image of Burns as the great lover of women that the world knows.
This photograph shows a case containing Jean’s wedding ring, as well as a ring containing a lock of her hair and a ring containing a lock of Burns’s.
Of course, cynics may just read ‘It’s na, Jean…’ as a soppy, hyperbolic gesture to get back in Jean’s good books – ye can make up yer ain mind.