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
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.
Burns’s poem “Halloween” is a treat to read but a bit of a trick too…
Any reader from the twenty-first century would assume from the title that it is about the now widely celebrated commercial and secular annual event held on the 31st of October. Activities include trick-or-treating – or guising in the Scots language which Burns wrote in and promoted – attending costume parties, carving pumpkins into jack-o’-lanterns (or traditionally turnips in Scotland and Ireland – turnip is tumshie or neep in Scots), dooking for aipples, playing pranks, visiting haunted attractions, telling scary stories and watching horror films. However, the poem focuses on Scottish folk culture and details courting traditions which were performed on Halloween itself. Interestingly, it is widely believed that many Halloween traditions originated from ancient Celtic harvest festivals – particularly the Gaelic festival Samhain – and that Samhain itself was Christianized as Halloween by the early Church. Thus, there is obviously a deep-rooted connection between Scotland, its people and the celebration of All Hallows Eve.
The poem itself was written in 1785 and published in 1786 within Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect – or commonly known as the Kilmarnock Edition – because it was printed and issued by John Wilson of Kilmarnock on 31 July 1786. Although it focuses more on Scottish customs and folklore as opposed to superstition, Burns was interested in the supernatural. His masterful creation of “Tam o’ Shanter” is proof of that as well as his admittance in a letter written in 1787 to Dr. John Moore, a London-based Scottish physician and novelist, as he states:
‘In my infant and boyish days too, I owed much to an old Maid of my Mother’s, remarkable for her ignorance, credulity and superstition. She had, I suppose, the largest collection in the county of tales and songs concerning devils, ghosts, fairies, brownies, witches, warlocks, spunkies, kelpies, elf-candles, dead-lights, wraiths, apparitions, cantraips, giants, inchanted towers, dragons and other trumpery’.
Burns in the first footnote writes that Halloween was thought to be “a night when witches, devils, and other mischief-making beings are abroad on their baneful midnight errands; particularly those aerial people, the fairies, are said on that night to hold a grand anniversary.”
Unlike Burns’s other long narratives such as “Tam o’ Shanter,” “Love and Liberty,” and “The Cotter’s Saturday Night,” “Halloween” has never enjoyed widespread popularity. Critics have argued that is because the poem is one of the densest of Burns’s poems, with a lot of usage of the Scots language, making it harder to read; that its cast of twenty characters often confounds the reader; that the poem’s mysterious folk content alienates readers who do not know anything of the traditions mentioned. Indeed, Burns felt it necessary to provide explanations throughout the poem. Only fourteen of Burns’s works employ his own footnotes. Of the fourteen footnoted works, “Halloween” outnumbers all others with sixteen notes of considerable length. The poem also includes a prose preface, another infrequent device used by Burns in only three other poems. The introduction for the poem states:
The following poem, will, by many readers, be well enough understood; but for the sake of those who are unacquainted with the manners and traditions of the country where the scene is cast, notes are added to give some account of the principal charms and spells of that night, so big with prophecy to the peasantry in the west of Scotland.
Indeed, the footnotes are most illuminating at detailing the intricacies of the rituals and are a crucial part of the poem. Some of my personal favourites are as follows:
[Footnote 5: The first ceremony of Halloween is pulling each a “stock,” or
plant of kail. They must go out, hand in hand, with eyes shut, and pull the
first they meet with: it’s being big or little, straight or crooked, is
prophetic of the size and shape of the grand object of all their spells-the
husband or wife. If any “yird,” or earth, stick to the root, that is “tocher,”
or fortune; and the taste of the “custock,” that is, the heart of the stem, is
indicative of the natural temper and disposition. Lastly, the stems, or, to
give them their ordinary appellation, the “runts,” are placed somewhere above
the head of the door; and the Christian names of the people whom chance brings
into the house are, according to the priority of placing the “runts,” the
names in question.-R. B.]
[Footnote 8: Burning the nuts is a favorite charm. They name the lad and lass to each particular nut, as they lay them in the fire; and according as they burn quietly together, or start from beside one another, the course and issue of the courtship will be.-R.B.]
[Footnote 10: Take a candle and go alone to a looking-glass; eat an apple
before it, and some traditions say you should comb your hair all the time; the
face of your conjungal companion, to be, will be seen in the glass, as if
peeping over your shoulder.-R.B.]
[Footnote 15: Take three dishes, put clean water in one, foul water in another, and leave the third empty; blindfold a person and lead him to the hearth where the dishes are ranged; he (or she) dips the left hand; if by chance in the clean water, the future (husband or) wife will come to the bar of matrimony a maid; if in the foul, a widow; if in the empty dish, it foretells, with equal certainty, no marriage at all. It is repeated three
times, and every time the arrangement of the dishes is altered.-R.B.]
Arguably, the poem has been appreciated more as a kind of historical testimony rather than artistic work. However, it is still a fascinating piece of poetry and definitely should be celebrated for its documentation and preservation of divination traditions and folklore customs which were performed on now one of the most widely celebrated festive days in Western calendars.
By Parris Joyce (Learning Trainee)
Read the full poem here: http://www.robertburns.org/works/74.shtml
Have you ever had the urge to graffiti? To loudly declare to the world I was here? Well Robert Burns certainly did, and he chose a way with great style and panache too. His was no illegible scrawls or splashes of indescribable colour that we often see now. Instead he scratched his immortal thoughts onto panes of glass. Burns’s creativity was definitely not restricted to certain times of the day or even when he had a handy piece of parchment available. This is evident during his highland tour, when Robert decided to leave a distinctive trail of graffiti in the places he visited. He left behind a series of poems and lines inscribed on chimney pieces and on the window panes of several inns he stayed in.
On the first night of his tour, Burns and his companion William Nicol stayed overnight at the Cross Keys Inn in Falkirk in 1787. This was the beginning of his window pane graffiti trail. Robert had recently acquired a diamond tipped stylus, which he used to scratch four lines into the window pane. The lines entreat that all men who are good to women should be rewarded:
‘Sound be his sleep and blythe his morn,
That never did a lassie wrang;
Who poverty ne’er held in scorn,
For misery ever tholed a pang.’
There are some who question Robert Burn’s relationships with women, and whether he deserved a reward for his ‘good’ treatment of women. Nevertheless, this was not the last of his unusual writings in August 1787. In the royal burgh of Stirling he visited a seat of the Scottish Kings, Stirling Castle. The castle at the time of his visit was in a ruinous state, and this roused Burns’s Jacobitism for the Stewart Kings of previously. In a letter to Robert Muir, Burns outlined his day in Stirling and his indignation at what had occurred to the castle and the fallen Stewarts. These were the ten lines he wrote on his room’s window at the Wingate’s Inn (now the Golden Lion Hotel):
“Here Stewarts once in triumph reigned,
And laws for Scotland’s weal ordained;
But now unroofed their palace stands,
Their sceptre’s swayed by other hands;
Fallen, indeed, and to the earth
Whence grovelling reptiles take their birth,
The injured Stewart line is gone.
A race outlandish fills their throne;
An idiot race, to honour lost;
Who knows them best despise them most.”
This poem is highly critical of the Hanoverian monarchy that had replaced the Stewart Kings. George III was on the throne in 1787 and he is still known today as the Mad King, a member of the ‘idiot race’ as Burns scathingly wrote. In addition to this, the Hanoverians were still seen as alien foreigners, ‘a race outlandish’ that dared to occupy the throne of ‘the injured Stewart line.’ These words, although poetical, are no less treasonous for their meaning. Burns saw the danger of this particular window graffiti and returned later to break the glass to avoid prosecution. Yet these lines almost ruined his chances to become an Excise man later, since he was interrogated ‘like a child about my matters, and blamed and schooled for my inscription on a Stirling window.’ Despite this attempt to erase his glass scribblings, the Stirling Lines have been remembered. The Golden Lion lost the broken fragments of the original Stirling Lines in a fire that occurred last century, but they have been re-engraved for a display dedicated to Robert Burns in the Stirling Smith Art Gallery and Museum.
Robert Burns had not lost his taste for window graffiti after Stirling, even though these particular lines could have seen him arrested for treason. In 1790, he once again lifted his diamond-tipped stylus and started engraving on several window panes in the Globe Inn in Dumfries. This time Burns decided to omit his opinions on the monarchy, and focused on the relative merits of sex and war instead.
‘I MURDER hate by field or flood,
Tho’ glory’s name may screen us;
In wars at home I’ll spend my blood,
Life-giving wars of Venus:
The deities that I adore
Are social Peace and Plenty;
I’m better pleased to make one more,
Than be the death of twenty.’
Burns was a lover rather than a fighter, evident perhaps from his many offspring from several different women. He practiced what he wrote, and he had an affair with a barmaid called Anna Park in the same room he wrote these lines. Their relationship together produced a daughter; Elizabeth Park Burns, who was raised with Robert’s other children by Jean.
Robert Burns was a prolific writer across numerous genres, these window panes inscribed with his lines testifies to that. He believed women should be treated in a good manner, and that such men would be justly rewarded in return. He played with this idea of loving women by comparing war with love and sex. It gives life to the old adage of men being ‘lovers’ or ‘fighters.’ Robert Burns was indeed a romantic, but he was also more than that, he was a highly educated and politically opinionated man. This is obvious from his most famous window graffiti, The Stirling Lines, in which his love of Scotland and his nationalistic fervour is clear. All three examples of his window graffiti paint a picture of an unusual man, one who did not necessarily conform to society’s expectations or rules.
The window graffiti from Falkirk and Dumfries are displayed within the museum’s collection for you to see. If you also head into the cottage you will see generations of graffiti carved into the cottage doors, and one visitor even followed Robert Burns’s example and left a message on a window pane in 1881.
By Learning Trainee Kirstie Bingham
Ae Fond Kiss is one of Robert Burns’s most famous love songs, one that outlines not the joy that love can bring but the acute pain of a broken-heart. It is moving, emotional and tender.
The song was written in 1791 and sent in a letter to Mrs Agnes McLehose (addressed as ‘Nancy’ in this instance). Burns met Agnes (1758–1841) in Edinburgh when she arranged an introduction to the bard by a mutual friend, Miss Erskine Nimmo. They engaged in an intense yet unconsummated love affair, largely through a series of passionate letters exchanged between the two.
Following Burns’s departure from Edinburgh in 1788, the bard’s relationship with Agnes suffered owing to his reunion with and eventual marriage to Jean Armour, not to mention an affair with Jennie Clow, Agnes’s maid, which resulted in a child. In 1792, Agnes returned to the West Indies at the request of her estranged husband (only to return after finding out he had started another family). Upon learning of her planned departure, Burns was inspired and sent her the heart-rending song Ae Fond Kiss. The song was first published in 1792 in James Johnson’s Scots Musical Museum (which can be seen on display at RBBM).
Ae fond kiss, and then we sever;
Ae fareweel, alas, for ever!
Deep in heart-wrung tears I’ll pledge thee,
Warring sighs and groans I’ll wage thee.
Who shall say that Fortune grieves him,
While the star of hope she leaves him?
Me, nae cheerful twinkle lights me;
Dark despair around benights me.
I’ll ne’er blame my partial fancy,
Naething could resist my Nancy:
But to see her was to love her;
Love but her, and love for ever.
Had we never lov’d sae kindly,
Had we never lov’d sae blindly,
Never met-or never parted,
We had ne’er been broken-hearted.
Fare-thee-weel, thou first and fairest!
Fare-thee-weel, thou best and dearest!
Thine be ilka joy and treasure,
Peace, Enjoyment, Love and Pleasure!
Ae fond kiss, and then we sever!
Ae fareweeli alas, for ever!
Deep in heart-wrung tears I’ll pledge thee,
Warring sighs and groans I’ll wage thee.
In the third verse, the speaker reflects upon his infatuation with Nancy, suggesting that he could not resist her charms. Notice how the emphasis is on her appearance rather than other attractions: “But to see her was to love her”. Nancy may have had a great personality, came from a respectable background but here the speaker is idealizing the external beauty only. This is classic Burns as he himself and some of his works do have undertones of machoism, for example, cheating on his wife and in Tam o’ Shanter with Kate at home ‘nursing her wrath’ whilst Tam is drunk, flirting with Kirkton Jean and eyeing up Nannie!
The language is relatively straightforward and is polished compared to some of Burns’s other poems in Scots. Scots pronunciations are used throughout – for example, ‘nae’ for ‘no’ and ‘weel’ for ‘well’. Scots terms are limited to ‘ilka’ for ‘each’ or ‘every’ in the fifth verse. Perhaps Burns’s reasoning for this is because Nancy was included in polite 18th century society in Edinburgh and would have spoken in English rather than Scots?
The heavily romanticized and iconic quote from this poem is:
But to see her was to love her;
Love but her, and love for ever.
This would make any romantic swoon but one should keep in mind that on a biographical level, Burns writes to Agnes long after their initial infatuation. We know that Burns had returned to his own wife and he had also got Agnes’ servant pregnant. Can we still see this song as a true outpouring of emotion? Or, should we see it as a carefully crafted piece of poetry? I think it is both – Burns had a tendency to have bursts of illogical emotion when it came to his love affairs, like confessing undying love to one whilst happily married to another, but that does not mean it was not real to him – but I do not think it matters either way you interpret it. It is what it is: and that is a beautiful love song.
In the main exhibition space within the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, there is a display case dedicated to Ae Fond Kiss which has four objects on display as well as an interesting contemporary interpretation of the work through images.
There are five snapshots taken from Hollywood movies that are about unrequited love: Romeo and Juliet, Casa Blanca, Gone with the Wind, Brokeback Mountain and Atonement. This reference to popular culture throughout the 20th and 21st centuries is a great way to convey how love and heart-ache has and always will be a topic of interest and an inspiration for artists no matter their medium.
Also, there is a teacup that belonged to Agnes which is used to represent the different social classes of Burns and her; a letter from Burns to Agnes saying he has included a song for publication (i.e. Ae Fond Kiss); another letter from Burns to Agnes in which they use their code names ‘Sylvander’ and ‘Clarinda’ because though separated, Agnes was deeply concerned with propriety and confidentiality; and Ae Fond Kiss shown in the Scots Musical Museum book.
Other objects within the museum’s collection which are worth noting are the silhouette miniature of Agnes, the pair of wine glasses Burns gifted Agnes and a letter from Agnes to Burns.
You can listen to a beautiful rendition of Ae Fond Kiss here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ax021N4iaFU
By Parris Joyce (Learning Trainee)
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