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.
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 (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’.
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.
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!
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.
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
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”.
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.
It’s owre twa hunner year syne The Bachelors’ Club in Tarbolton saw the young Robert Burns an his cronies speirin aboot the issues o thaur day. It is therefore a braw honour tae gie this historic biggin a heize ainst mair by bein involved in organisin and hostin monthly spoken word an music nichts in the place whaur Robert Burns fordered his poetic genius, charisma an flair fir debate.
The Bachelors’ Club nichts stairtit in March this year eftir Robert Burns Birthplace Museum volunteer Hugh Farrell envisaged the success of sic nichts in sic an inspirational setting.
Tuesday the third o September saw the eighth session, an it wis wan we will aye hae mind o. Wullie Dick wis oor compère as folk favoured the company wi a turn.
Oor headliner wis Ciaran McGhee, singer, bard an musician. Ciaran bides an works in Embra an I first shook his haun some twa year syne at New Cumnock Burns Club’s annual Scots verse nicht. The company wis impressed then an agin at the annual “smoker” an at a forder Scots verse nicht. Ciaran traivelled doon tae Ayrshire tae play fir us, despite haen jist duin a 52 show marathon owre the duration o Embra festival.
Ciaran stertit wi a roarin rendition o “A Man’s a Man for a That”, an we hud a blether aboot hoo this song is as relevant noo, in these days o inequality an political carnage, as it wis twa hunner year syne, a fine example o Burns genius an insicht. Ciaran follaed wi Hamish Imlach’s birsie “Black is the Colour”, the raw emotion gien us aa goosebumps!! Ciaran also performed Johnny Cash’s cantie “Folsom Prison Blues”, an then Richard Thomson’s classic “Beeswing”, a version sae bonnie it left us hert-sair! Ciaran also performed tracks fae his album “Don’t give up the Day Job”.
The company wir then entertained by Burns recitals an poetry readins fae a wheen o bards an raconteurs. A big hertie chiel recited “The Holy Fair”, speirin wi the company on hoo excitin this maun hae buin in Burns day, amaist lik today’s “T in the Park”.
We hud “Tam the Bunnet” a hilarious parody o Tam o Shanter an Hugh Farrell telt us aboot the dochters ca’ad Elizabeth born tae Burns by different mithers, Burn’s first born bein “Dear bocht Bess”, her mither servant lass Bess Paton. Later oan cam Elizabeth Park, Anna Park’s dochter, reart by Jean Armour, an thaur wis wee Elizabeth Riddell, Robert an Jean’s youngest dochter wha deid aged jist 3 year auld. A “Farrell factoid” we learned wis that in Burns day, if a wee lassie wis born within mairrage, she was ca’ad fir her grandmither, if she wis born oot o wedlock she taen her mither’s first name. Hugh recited “A Poet’s Welcome To His Love-Begotten Daughter” fir us, the tender poem Burns scrievit, lamentin his love fir his first born wean, Elizabeth Paton.
We hud spoken word by various bards on sic diverse topics as a hen doo, a sardonic account o an ex girlfriend’s political tendencies, an a couthie poem inspired by a portrait o a mystery wummin sketched by the poets faither. In homage tae Burn’s “Poor Mailie’s Elegy”, we hud a lament in rhyme scrievit in the Scots leid, featurin the poet’s pet hen.
We learned o the poetess Janet Little, born in the same year as Burns, who selt owre fowre hunner copies o the book o her poetry she scrievit. This wummin wis kent as “The Scotch Milkmaid” an wis connected tae Burn’s freen an patron, Mrs Frances Anna Dunlop.
We also learned o hoo Burns wis spurned by Wilhelmina Alexander, “The Bonnie Lass of Ballochmyle” an hoo, eftir her daith, she wis foun tae hae kept a copy o the poem Burns scrievit fir her.
We hud mair hertie music fae Burness, performin Burns an Scottish songs sic as “Ye Jacobites by Name” an a contemporary version o “Auld Lang Syne” wi words added by Eddie Reader tae an auld Hebrew tune.
We hud “Caledonia” an “Ca the Yowes tae the Knowes” sung beautifully by a sonsie Auchinleck lass wha recently performed it at Lapraik festival in Muirkirk (oan Tibby’s Brig nae less!).
The newly appointed female president o Prestwick Burns Club entertained us on her ukelele wi the Burns song “The Gairdner wi his Paiddle” itherwise kent as “When Rosie May Comes in with Flowers”.
At the hinneren wi hud a sing alang tae Seamus Kennedy’s “The Little Fly” on the guitar an Ciaran feenished wi “Ae Fond Kiss”, interrupted by his mammy wha phoned tae see when he wis comin haim tae New Cumnock!
We hud sae muckle talent in The Bachelors’, that we didnae hae time fir a’body to dae a turn, so thaim that didnae will be first up neist time.
A hertie thanks tae a the crooners, bards an raconteurs an tae a’body in the audience fir gien up thaur time, sharin thaur talent an ken an gien sillar tae The Bachelors’ fund. Sae faur we hae roused £862 which hus been paid intae the account fir the keepin o The Bachelors’ Club.
Hugh Farrell is repeatin history by stertin a debatin group in The Bachelors’ on Monday 11th November, 239 year tae the day syne Burns launched it first time roon. Thaur will be a wee chainge tae the rules hooever, ye dinnae hae tae be a Bachelor an ye dinnae need tae be a man tae tak pairt!!
The Bachelors’ sessions are oan the 1st Tuesday o every month 7pm tae 10.30pm an a’body wi an enthusiasm for Burns is welcome.
Scrievit by Tracy Harvey, Resident Scots Scriever fir RBBM
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.