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This nineteenth century engraving shows Robert Burns reading ‘a Winter Night’ at the Duchess of Gordon’s house in Edinburgh, in 1787. The Duchess of Gordon was described as ‘the empress of fashion’, and this image is a snapshot of Burns’ ‘big break’ in polite Edinburgh society.
In the audience you can spot leading philosophers such as Dugald Stewart (lounging with a hankie) and Adam Ferguson (direct left of Burns). Burns’ aristocratic patron the Duchess of Gordon is sitting in the foreground. One of Burns’ literary heroes, Henry Mackenzie is standing with his back to the door. You can find William Creech, Burns’ publisher, peeking out next to Henry Mackenzie. The butler with his back to the group, on the far right of the image, is Willie Marshall, a well-known composer of strathspeys and reels.
Using the caption at the bottom of this picture (and a magnifying glass!) you can use your detective skills to identify several other people in this picture who supported Robert Burns in various ways. Some of Burns’ appeal in this high society context – which this picture illustrates – must have been due to the novelty value of the ‘heaven-taught ploughman’. Certainly the harsh rural winter in the poem Burns is pictured reciting would have seemed far away from this comfortable salon.
‘List’ning the doors an’ winnocks rattle,
I thought me on the ourie cattle,
Or silly sheep, wha bide this brattle
O’ winter war,
And thro’ the drift, deep-lairing, sprattle
Beneath a scar.’
– A Winter Night
A round up of the year at RBBM; not even including all the craft fairs, farmers markets, lunch time tours and countless other things that were all possible because of the tireless work of our volunteers and staff.
• The year kicked off in style in January with Burns Night celebrations, held in the museum and hosted by Karen Dunbar.
• Haggis-hurling was the big hit of the Alloway 1759 weekend. We’ll be doing it all again this year, so come along to give it a shot.
• February saw the first meeting of the Book Club and Cupcake Cafe, it’s still going if you want to get involved!
• March’s Brass at the Bard’s brought together a fantastic mix of brass bands and the Bard’s Birthplace, with junior bands from around the West of Scotland exceeding expectations with their level of talent.
• Chocolate, badgers and Burns, oh my! In April Badger, Moley and the rest of the Wind in the Willows gang took over the cottage and museum for the annual Easter egg hunt.
• There were a series of craft workshops during the Easter holidays, including clay-modelling and movie-making for Burns, Camera, Action.
• May saw the opening of the new Monument Garden Shop, run by the museum’s volunteers. The opening ceremony was part of the Glorious Gardens event, which had plant sales and children’s crafts.
- Also during May Nich Smith won a Scottish Design Award in the Lighting Design category, for his new lighting scheme at Alloway Auld Kirk, and is also currently for shortlisted for a Lighting Design Award.
- June started with a bang: the fantastic Third Degree Burns Festival, featuring acts such as Trusty and the Foe , Celtic Twist and Macanta!
- The contemporary art exhibit Burnsiana opened, showcasing work by the world renowned photographer Calum Colvin and the accompanying poetry of celebrated Scots poet Rab Wilson.
- July marked the beginning of the School holidays and the summer program of Workshops for Weans and Summer Family Fun Day.
• In August Maurice Lindsay’s The Burns Encyclopaedia was launched at the museum.
• Throughout September there were a series of talks and events, including Rambling Rosie’s Saturday Stories and an enlightening talk on Sylvander and Clarinda given by Dr Pauline Mackay from the Centre for Robert Burns Studies.
• October launched The Big Draw 2013, with visitors drawing what they imagine Burns Cottage will look like in 250 years time. See the cottage underwater or even being invaded by aliens!
• Alloween featured a spooky evening of storytelling, ghost walks and costumed characters across the whole site.
• November brought the opening of our new exhibition Savage and Tender, accompanied by a special visit from a certain John Barrowman! This exhibition will run until the 23rd March so don’t miss the opportunity to catch it in the New Year.
• Novemeber 28th was Kids in Museums Takeover Day, when Primary 6s from Alloway Primary gave us all the chance to take a day off and let them run the museum… object handling, customer service, even live tweeting!
• On St Andrew’s Day RBBM was proud to host a celebratory poetry event, A Scotsman, an Englishman and an Irishman. Many thanks to poets Rab Wilson, Andrew Forster and Terry McDonagh.
• The Independent Minds: Prison, Poems and Politics anthology was launched at the Mitchell Library with a lively debate on prisoners and the vote. It is the result of a long collaboration between RBBM, Kevin Williamson and a group of prisoners from HMP Kilmarnock who took inspiration from Burns to write their own poetry.
• With the approach of Christmas our volunteers worked hard to bring us a wonderful Christmas Craft fair and a festive plant fair.
• Santa’s visit to Burns Cottage was a great surprise, along with Gilbert the Reindeer Keeper, Mrs Claus, the Christmas Tree Fairy and jolly elves! Many hundreds of you came to see him and saved Christmas for us all!
And that rounds off a fantastic year of events, talks, workshops and exhibitions at Robert Burns Birthplace Museum… here’s to 2014!
Thrack Hooks, or sickles, were used by the young Robert Burns as he went about his daily agricultural duties. Born into a farming family and raised on a smallholding until the age of seven, his upbringing not only earned him the nickname of ‘Ploughman Poet’, but hugely influenced his later works, probably inspiring the love of nature apparent in poems such as ‘To a Mouse’. Sickles were used during the harvest to chop the stems of crops such as barley, wheat and corn, and it was with thrack hooks that, in 1774, a fourteen year old Robert removed nettle stings from the hand of his work partner, a local girl and ‘bewitching creature’ probably named Helen Kilpatrick. This awakened in him a ‘certain delicious Passion’ and inspired him to write his first song: ‘O once I lov’d a bonnie lass’ or ‘Handsome Nell’. Burns’s modest upbringing caused him to doubt his abilities as a poet, but after learning that a local farmer had written a song about his sweetheart, he decided to try it out himself… and never looked back! Unfortunately for our Bard, the lady in question did not return his feelings and the poem was not written down until twelve years later, on this very manuscript.
It is now part of the Stair manuscript collection, a group of eight poems and songs Burns copied and sent to Mrs Alexander Stewart of Stair in 1786, and remains a lasting legacy of the farm girl who inspired Burns to write.
In 1787 Robert Burns spent the Christmas period exchanging letters with Agnes MacLehose. Their new love affair was unfolding, with Agnes revealing her unhappy marriage and their agreement to take the Arcadian names of Sylvander and Clarinda.
On 28th December Robert Burns made an unsuitable outpouring of love and was fairly insincere in his contrition over Agnes’ or perhaps a more disapproving audience’s imagined displeasure:
I do love you if possible better for having so fine a taste and turn for Poesy.
I have again gone wrong in my usual unguarded way, but you may erase the word, and put esteem, respect, or any other tame Dutch expression you please in its place.
I like to think of this as significant within a certain genre of love declarations, not because of his indiscretion but the time of year in which he made it. It is the Christmas-inspired ill-advised declaration of love, made recognisable by a Christmas film that is almost unavoidable at this time of year; Richard Curtis’s Love Actually. OK, so perhaps such slushy Christmas spirit wasn’t something so commonly encountered in 18th Century Scotland as it is now, but it’s an amorous story fraught with the problems worthy of a scene in one of our favourite Christmas films nonetheless.
At first glance there might not seem to be a lot in common between Scotland’s bard Robert Burns and comedian Russell Brand past the accusations of womanising and a discredited or sadly real problem with addiction respectively (and of course the UNCANNY similarity between their names…).
Burns enjoyed rude songs and smutty poems and The Merry Muses, although not intended for public consumption, since its publication shortly after his death has been difficult for some to reconcile with their perceptions of him and was banned in the UK until 1965. It is no great stretch to see a similarity in Brand’s style of comedy but there is a more interesting connection to consider. It has recently come to light that Russell Brand’s memoir, Booky Wook 2, was banned from an inmate of Guantanamo Bay. Whilst the book itself is not particularly contentious, the reasons for it being banned are entirely relevant to Burns and his relevance to our contemporary world.
Burns was a noted advocate for freedom, although a freedom negotiated within the 18th century mores and societal norms that allowed him to briefly consider becoming a Bookkeeper for a plantation in Jamaica before his circumstances changed for the better. For the prisoners of Guantanamo Bay, the censorship of what books they receive and what they are allowed to communicate could be seen as the removal of freedoms Burns felt were paramount.
Here’s freedom to them that wad read,
Here’s freedom to them that wad write,
There’s nane ever fear’d that the truth should be heard,
But they whom the truth would indite.
The prisoners have written their own poetry, some of which is now collected in an anthology Poems from Guantanamo. They are the poems that have made it past strict censorship.
Two years have passed in far-away prisons,
Two years my eyes untouched by kohl.
Two years my heart sending out messages
To the homes where my family dwells,
Where lavender cotton sprouts
For grazing herds that leave well fed.
A comparable project has been undertaken in collaboration between the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum and Creative Scotland; with Kevin Williamson leading poetry workshops with some prisoners of HMP Kilmarnock that have also resulted in an anthology of poetry, Independent Minds: Prison, Poems and Politics. Although these are of course different circumstances, the creative freedom of expression that writing poetry has given both these groups of prisoners is something Robert Burns understood and we should not underestimate now.
‘Outside Time’ by Stephen
Vengeance and Incarceration.
Punishment and retribution.
Did I not offend enough.
To be considered with compassion.
Aside Posted on Updated on
The priest-like father reads the sacred page,
How Abram was the friend of God on high;
Or Moses bade eternal warfare wage,
With Amalek’s ungracious progeny;
Or how the royal bard did groaning lie
Beneath the stroke of Heaven’s avenging ire;
Or Job’s pathetic plaint, and wailing cry;
Or rapt Isaiah’s wild, seraphic fire;
Or other holy seers that tune the sacred lyre.
Robert Burns, The Cotter’s Saturday Night
Bibles form key building blocks throughout the life of Scotland’s Bard. His father William was an extremely religious man, and Burns credits him with the inspiration for the ‘priest-like father’ described in the Cotter’s Saturday Night. This religious upbringing, especially when mixed with William’s fierce desire to see his children receive a good education, would have had a huge impact on the young Bard, although as we see in other poems he didn’t always agree with the views of the Kirk itself!
However, this Bible did not just have religious significance. William wrote the names and birthdates of his and Agnes’s children inside the front cover, creating a touching memento for themselves and leaving a lasting legacy for Burns’s followers in the absence of a birth certificate.
This tradition was later carried on by Robert in his own family Bible, inscribing the names of himself, Jean Armour and eight of their nine children within it. His youngest son, Maxwell, was born on the day of the poet’s funeral and so was not entered by the poet himself.
Bibles featured at other key moments in the life of the Bard. This Bible was published by the same printer as published Burns’s Kilmarnock edition, and the book would have played a key role in the Masonic rituals young Robert took part in after he joined the Freemasons.
However, it is perhaps this Bible that was the most poignant to Burns himself. As the poet was gathering together subscriptions to support his first volume of poetry in 1786, he began an intense love affair with ‘Highland Mary’, probably a woman called Margaret Campbell. The Bard presented Mary with this two volume Bible, which some believe may have equated to a form of marriage vow. Inside the volume is Robert Burns’s Masonic mark, the words ‘Robert Burns Mossgavill’ and some Bible verses in the poet’s handwriting. A lock of hair which is thought to be Highland Mary’s was also found in the volume.
However, the affair was destined to be short-lived. Soon after receiving the Bible, Margaret set out to Greenock to visit her family, and died shortly afterwards, possibly while giving birth to Burns’s child. In many roles, be it recording birthdays, forming the centrepiece of ritual, or constituting a heartfelt gift to a lover, the ‘Christian volume’ (The Cotter’s Saturday Night) really did constitute a theme in the life of Robert Burns, and features prominently in RBBM’s collections.
On December 17th 1903 (110 years ago), brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright made their first successful flight with a mechanically-propelled aeroplane, and today is celebrated as ‘Wright Brothers Day’ in the United States. Air-travel has advanced significantly in the past century, but still people are fascinated (or terrified) by the idea of taking to the skies.
Robert Burns was writing a hundred years before the Wright brothers invented their flying machine, yet the appeal of flight still features in his poetry, and innovations in flight were being made in Burns’ lifetime. Coincidentally, today is also the birthday of Scotland’s very own aeronaut. James Tytler (born today 1745) was the editor of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (2nd ed), and in 1784 became the first person in Britain to travel in a hot-air balloon. Unfortunately for him, Tytler’s flights were soon overshadowed by the flamboyant voyages of Italian aeronaut, inventor and adventurer, Vincenco Lunardi. Lunardi carried out five hot-air balloon flights in Scotland in 1785.
These flights so captured the public imagination that Britain underwent a craze called Balloonomania, this spawned balloon poems, balloon skirts, and even a large balloon-shaped hat named ‘the Lunardi bonnet’. Burns was not immune to eighteenth century pop culture, and made reference to the Lunardi bonnet when admonishing the eponymous parasite in ‘To a Louse’:
I wad na been surpris’d to spy
You on an auld wife’s flainen toy;
Or aiblins some bit dubbie boy,
But Miss’ fine Lunardi! fye!
How daur ye do’t?
In the poem, Burns was mocking the bonnet-wearer for looking so ridiculous, Lunardi bonnets were certainly not sensible headwear. Despite the silliness of Balloonomania, even Burns understood the romance in being able to fly away. Flight offers a way for humans to escape their problems, to fly away somewhere over the rainbow. In the poem ‘On scaring some water-fowl in Loch Turit’ Burns advises the birds – and the reader – to escape the cruelty of humans by flying away :
Swiftly seek, on clanging wings,
Other lakes and other springs ;
And the foe you cannot brave,
Scorn at least to be his slave.
So today we say ‘well done’ to the Wright brothers, ‘happy birthday to’ James Tytler, ‘buon viaggio’ to Vincenzo Lunardi, and ‘the sky’s the limit’ to everyone else.