Poetry, songs and women are widely known to have been Robert Burns’s great passions, but he also loved to step onto the dancefloor as well. In 1779, Burns as a young man decided to attend dancing lessons in Tarbolton. This decision allowed him to temporarily escape the financial difficulties that the family were enduring at Lochlea. Therefore Burns used to regularly walk to a humble thatched house after the farming work was done to enjoy some time with his friends. In the museum collection you will see a beautifully restored fiddle with a red, green and black floral design work. This fiddle was played by Burns’s dance teacher, William Gregg, while Robert learned and practiced his steps. According to Burns he took up dancing to ‘give my manners a brush.’ But improving his manners and exercise were not the only benefits that dancing would give, as it granted Burns an opportunity to get acquainted with the local girls as well. This early time of social and sexual exploration played an important part in shaping Burns into the man he would famously become. To our twenty-first century minds dancing seems like a harmless pastime; but to his father William Burnes, this was an act of rebellion. According to Gilbert their father was often irritated by Robert’s dancing, as it was a clear sign that Robert was no longer listening to William’s advice and counsel. As a consequence of this, Burns himself acknowledged that his decision to continue with his dancing lessons compromised his relationship with his father.
In Burns’s narrative poem Tam O’Shanter you can feel the excitement of the dance unfolding, yet all the while there is a dark truth to this particular social gathering:
Warlocks and witches in a dance:
Nae cotillion, brent new frae France,
But hornpipes, jigs, strathspeys, and reels,
Put life and mettle in their heels.’
This scene of enjoyment is not only watched by the protagonist Tam, but also by Auld Nick who played the music to make them dance. This negative perception of dance being sinful is more in keeping with William’s opinion rather than his son. Nevertheless this moral outlook is undermined by the poem’s greater sense of adventure and humour. These two opposing viewpoints mirror the different standpoints of William and Robert in 1779, one saw dance as wicked and the other saw only pleasure. Despite all of William’s disapproval Robert Burns continued to love music, dance and social gatherings throughout his life. Tam O’Shanter was published in Grose’s Antiquities of Scotland in 1791, which reveals that Burns never forgot his father’s outlook on dance.
If you are a lover of dance yourself, you can follow in the Bard’s footsteps and take part in Scottish country dances set to his songs. For instance Ae fond Kiss is a reel, or perhaps you would prefer a livelier jig to the poem Halloween. One of the most popular times to toast Burns and celebrate his life is at a Burns Supper, so perhaps in the future you will follow his example and take to the dancefloor.
‘The dancers quick and quicker flew,
They reel’d, they set, they cross’d, they cleekit.’
By Kirstie Bingham
Encased within RBBM’s ‘Love’ display is a small fragment of a hawthorn bush which was located at Mill Mannoch near Coylton, South Ayrshire. This small tree had been recognised as a familiar landmark and popular trysting (meeting) spot for lovers in Ayrshire years before Robert Burns’s time, and Burns was well aware of its tradition. He referred to the hawthorn in his song When wild War’s deadly Blast was blawn; lines of which feature on one surface of the cross section displayed at RBBM:
“At length I reached the bonnie glen,
Where early life I sported;
I passed the mill and trysting-thorn
Where Nancy aft I courted.”
The tree died in 1916 and it was cut down two years later by James Pearson Wilson, the miller at the time. Sections were sent by Wilson as collectibles to Burns museums and societies all over the world; whilst a seed from the hawthorn was replanted at the original site at Coylton. It has also been recreated in a 3D metal form for RBBM’s display, with visitors encouraged to hang notes of love to others in reference to the markings left by lovers on trysting trees.
Despite it being 300 years old and engraved with thousands of initials, a trysting tree still standing in Scotland is the Kissing Beech in the grounds of Kilravock Castle, Inverness-shire. Trysting spots further afar include the courtyard beneath ‘Romeo and Juliet’s balcony’ in Verona where thousands of visitors have decorated a wall with their chewing gum and paper love notes; the Daijingu Shrine in Tokyo where romantics queue to buy and leave love charms blessed by local priests; and the Trimurti Lovers’ Shrine in Bangkok where visitors make a floral offering in hope of one day meeting a loved one. Perhaps more famously are the Pont de l’Archevêché and Pont des Arts bridges in Paris which lovers have embellished over the years with over 700,000 padlocks. However, due to both health and safety and degradation concerns, Paris officials began to remove 45 tonnes of locks in 2015. Similar issues with aesthetics and preservation of heritage have also resulted in a fine of €500 for anyone caught sticking chewing gum and notes to the courtyard in Verona. Despite the recent restrictions, lovers have continued to follow these traditions in both cities. The site in Coylton also remains a popular spot for couples and romantics.
As well as being one of the most valuable (and unique) items in the RBBM’s collection, our copy of The Scots Musical Museum featuring Burns’ annotations is also one of the most fascinating. The book itself belonged to Burns and subject of the annotation is the famous song ‘Auld Lang Syne’, which Burns rewrote from an old folk song he had collected whilst travelling Scotland. Alongside poetry, the songs and music of his homeland were the other great loves of his life – and he spent a large portion of his last years compiling and re-writing folksongs and melodies.
The Scots Musical Museum was a major publication; at 6 volumes with 100 songs each it was a hugely positive force in bringing Scottish folk songs and music to the classical repertoire. Other songs and tunes in the collection were contributions and arrangements from composers such as Ludwig van Beethoven and Joseph Hayden (yes, that Beethoven and that Hayden). It is interesting to note that Burn’s songs were found to be more popular than the works of other composers in the Musical Museum, (such as Beethoven specifically) as his work was found to be easier and more accessible for the audience to sing and perform. This was not just a collection of old songs however, as Burns would write new words to the tunes, or entirely different songs to the ancient melodies. Auld Lang Syne, Scots Wha Hae and Green Grow the Rashes, O are known to have much older roots.
In 1786, Robert Burns met James Johnson in Edinburgh and discovered the music engraver shared his passion for old Scots songs and his desire to preserve them. Whilst Burns only contributed 3 songs to the first volume published in 1787, he would eventually contribute about 1/3 of the whole collection as well as have involvement in editing. The final volume was published in 1803.
The most fascinating aspect of the book is the blank page full of Burns’ annotations. This was actually a feature of The Scots Musical Museum, as Burns requested that every other page be left blank in order for him to add notes and changes. This in itself, without even reading the alterations or commentary tells us a great deal about the Bard; that he was conscious of the potential of the song or tune to still be improved, a desire to discuss the theory and purpose behind the lyrics and those he had decided against, and even shines a light into his own passion concerning the music and folk traditions of his country.
Last Saturday, we held our third and final workshop for ‘Friends On Baith Sides’, an intergenerational project aimed at learning new skills through a series of creative endeavours, using Burns as an inspiration.
Our guest workshop leader was Iain Brown from Photography Made Simple, introducing us to the world of photography. We began by looking at some of Ian’s cameras and discovered that some of the most famous photographs in the world were actually taken with relatively simple equipment. The key to a good photograph, as it turns out, was not about a fancy camera but all about setting the shot.
To this end, Iain stepped up as the model/victim for the group’s first attempts at a portrait shot! With little time to prepare, everybody snapped a quick photo of Ian, each directing him to stand up, sit down, smile, look serious, wear glasses, or stare thoughtfully into the distance. We quickly realised we had more than one potential David Bailey in our talented gaggle of budding photographers.
Next up, it was time for the group to hone their skills and consider how to extract light for that perfect shot. Iain explained that they should be aiming to recreate the ‘Rembrandt Triangle’, a popular lighting technique used in portrait photography where light is on one half of the face of the subject, and a triangle of light is on the shadowed side of the face just under the eye.
Tricky indeed but admirably attempted by all and it was obvious to see vast improvements from the original portrait shots. It was also fascinating to see how taking a photograph of the same person in the same place using the same camera could produce completely different images!
To round off the day, the group went outside to explore the landscape that inspired so much of Burns’ poetry. Here the technical side of photography (composition, direction, approach) combined with the creative and the group produced lots of lovely snaps.
All in all, a wonderful day was had by all. New skills were learnt and lots of stories were shared – did you hear the one about the time Iain was the official photographer at a horse-racing event? It involves a slightly new photographer, a nervous horse, a camera flash and a rather disgruntled jockey!
To hear more about this and see the final products from our photographers, come along to our Creative Showcase on Saturday 1st October 11am -1pm. We will be displaying all of the work produced over the last three weeks for Friends On Baith Sides and celebrating the achievements of all involved with songs, stories and refreshments. Free entry, all welcome.
With thanks to Austin Hope Pilkington Trust and Craigie Development Trust for funding this project.
On Saturday the 10th of September we had the second of our Friends on Baith Sides workshops. Friends on Baith Sides is an intergenerational project funded by Austin Hope Pilkington Trust and Craigie Development Trust. The project takes its name from a line in Burns’ 1792 poem ‘Here’s A Health To Them That’s Awa’ and is aimed at getting people of different generations to form friendships and learn skills together, this week we had a song writing workshop led by Jamie McGeechan.
The workshop on Saturday was busy and vibrant with a nice mix of people of all ages. At the beginning of the workshop Jamie highlighted how important he felt it was to interact and form friendships with those of different generations to your own. One of the participants spoke to me during the break about how nice it was to see young people there getting involved and that it ‘Restored his faith in humanity’ he also spoke about the generation gap and how it only exists if you let it.
The workshop took the form of a nice big chat with everyone sharing their own ideas, opinions and experience of song writing and interacting with music. We also had quite a few participants performing for us. It was really lovely to see how comfortable the group was and how supportive everyone was of each other.
Jamie played a couple of his own songs for us including one called ‘These Days.’
Rosie sang a song for us about horses on the boat from Arran during the First World War. It was based on a photo she had seen which she had used for inspiration.
Rebecca is 15 and got into song writing after having been offered music lessons at school. She sang a song she had written called ‘Little Soldier’ for us, she had been inspired by other songs she had heard and the idea of telling another side of the story. The intergenerational aspect of the project was really highlighted when Rebecca said that she was inspired by singer songwriters such as Ed Sheeran and I saw one of the older men in the group looking up and mouthing ‘Who!?’
Hector then sang a song called ‘Smile’ that he had written the previous night which had been based on the good mood he had been in that night. He told us about how he writes about what he sees and how he feels. Hector is 13 now and has been playing guitar since he was in primary 5.
Kenny then performed the ‘Loch Fyne Herring Song’ for us. He wasn’t sure himself if it was a song or a poem but it told the lovely story of him being sent to buy herring for his family when he was a young boy.
Our youngest participants Maisie and Archie played us some music that they had made on an app called Garage Band and Archie also played a wee bit of guitar for us on this very snazzy blue acoustic number.
It was a brilliant day and everyone seemed to have a great time, two of my favourite bits of song writing advice that were shared was Hector’s advice of ‘Nobody said it had to make sense anyway’ and Scott’s comforting statement that ‘Persistent doubt is part of creativity.’ I think one of the participants summed the day up perfectly by saying ‘I enjoyed the workshop, brilliant company and young and old learning together!’
We will be hosting a creative showcase of the work that has been done during the Friends on Baith Sides project on October 1st from 11am-1pm.
For more information about Jamie and his work please visit his website. http://www.littlefiremusic.com
Friends on Baith Sides is an intergenerational outreach project. We are seeking to teach people new skills and make new connections to the museum through a series of creative workshops. Saturday was our first week and we got off to a flying start by making some beautiful handmade willow baskets.
Our teacher, Geoff Forrest, chose a basket for the day’s project as it is an object that may have been familiar and useful in the 18th century when Burns was living in Alloway. We started with a circle of willow that Geoff had already constructed for us. The next step was to add in ‘spines’ using a thick section of willow and then tie it with strands of willow to the circle in a cross stitch. We then simply started weaving the reed between the spines and the circle.
The process sounds fairly simple but the material frays and snaps quite easily and can be tricky to manipulate the way you want it. One trick Geoff showed us was to wind the willow around a stick to start with so it had a curve already as one of our participants demonstrates below:
It was lovely to see everyone pitching in to help each other with the trickier bits and several people commented on how therapeutic it became once they got the hang of the technique.
Feedback on the workshop has been very positive. One person said, ‘Great class, great teacher, great fun. Thank you very much’ while another said ‘what a fabulous day’.
We are pleased to offer these workshops free of charge thanks to funding from Austin Hope Pilkington Trust and The Craigie Development Trust. Next Saturday, 10th September, we have a song writing workshop and there are still a few places left if you would like to take part. A photography workshop will take place on 17th September as well. Contact 01292 430 316 if you would like to book a place.