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.
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.’
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!’
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
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