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The curlers quat their roaring play…

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You might have passed these stones at Burns Cottage and not even noticed them. One is under the bench at the garden entry door, one is in the Byre, and one is holding open the door between the Spence and Kitchen. These curling stones probably date from the mid-nineteenth century. They could be ‘sporting relics’ from when the cottage was run as an inn, but it is also not unusual to see old curling stones used as garden ornaments or as doorstops. Curling was once the most popular sport in lowland Scotland.

A large granite rounded stone used for curling

The earliest curling stones were simply riverbed boulders, with holes bored in the sides for finger and thumb. Later, iron handles were added. In Darvel, Ayrshire, it is recorded that the weavers would use the stone weights from their looms. Some stones would be hammer-dressed into a circular shape, with the lower surface polished to enable it to better slide along the ice.

Apparently the earliest written account of curling dates from the 1540s, when a Notary of Paisley relates that a monk at Paisley Abbey had challenged a colleague to a match of ‘quoits’ on the ice. Visual references to a game similar to curling can be found in the works of Pieter Bruegel the Elder, most noticeably in ‘The Hunters in the Snow’ (1565).

Fast-forward to the 18th century, and in John Sinclair’s The Statistical Account of Scotland (1791-1799) entry for Muirkirk, Ayrshire we find the following:

‘Their chief amusement in winter is curling, or playing stones on smooth ice; they eagerly vie with one another who shall come nearest the mark…’

Robert Burns mentions curling in two of his poems:

‘The sun had closed the winter day/The curlers quat their roaring play…’ (The Vision)

‘Roaring’ refers to the noise the granite stones make as they move along the ice. Curling is sometimes referred to as ‘The Roarin’ Game’.

‘When to the loughs the curlers flock,

Wi gleesome speed,

Wha will they station at the cock? —

Tam Samson’s dead!

He was the king o a’ the core,

To guard or draw or wick a bore,

Or up the rink like Jehu roar

In time o’ need;

But now he lags on death’s hog-score,

Tam Samson’s dead!’ (Tam Samson’s Elegy)

  • The ‘cock’ was the term for the ‘tee’ where the curlers start from.
  • To ‘guard’ is to place a stone in front of another to protect it from being knocked out
  • A ‘draw’ is a shot that lands but does not hit another stone out
  • To ‘wick a bore’ is to get a stone through an opening in previously placed stones
  • The ‘hog-score’ is the line on the curling rink that stones must pass or be removed from the ice

Burns was not the only poet to celebrate curling. Allan Ramsay’s 1724 poem ‘To Robert Yarde of Devonshire’ begins thus:

Frae northern mountains clad with snaw,

where whistling winds incessant blaw,

in time now when the curling-stane

Slides murm’ring o’er the icy plain […]’

The Ayr and Alloway Curling Club was established in 1854. The curling pond was situated in the Rozelle Estate, in between the current duck-ponds and the Slaphouse Burn in neighbouring Belleisle. The sides of the pond can still be found in the woods.

In 1934, the Burns Chronicle published a letter between two friends of Burns (John Syme and Alexander Cunninghame) that provide evidence for Burns having been a curler, or at the very least, participated in a match:

[John Symes; 5 January 1789] ‘I missed a match with [Burns] last Friday at Dumfries where he played a Bonespeel with the curlers there…’

There is a bench seat in the Burns Monument Gardens that bears a depiction of curling stones. This is a memorial to Allister Boyd, a young curler who died from a brain tumour in 2009. The Culzean stonemasonry apprentices designed and made this bench, creating the curling stone detail out of Ailsa granite.

Ailsa Craig has been used as a source of granite for curling stones since the mid 19th century. The two types of granite found there are Green Ailsa granite and Blue Hone granite. Although blasting is no longer permitted, there is still plenty of loose granite to be used. The train track used to transport the stone to the small jetty is still visible underneath the grass, and much of the equipment is simply left to the mercy of the elements. The last ‘harvest’ of granite took place in 2013 by Kays of Scotland, who now have exclusive access to Ailsa granite.

(Rebecca Stapley, Curator)


Burns and Money

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Tray of different historical Scottish coins.
Some of the historical denominations of Scottish coins.

During Robert Burns’s life he would spend money, like everyone else, but in his early days he would not have very much to spend. He would probably not handle banknotes until about the time that his Edinburgh Edition of poems was published in 1787.

At the time of Burns the denominations of the coins used were quite different to those we use today. Twelve pennies were equal to one shilling and twenty shillings were equal to one pound. There were eight halfcrowns in a pound and twenty one shillings were known as a guinea.

The Union between Scotland and England had taken place in 1707 and before this date Scotland had its own coinage with the names for smaller denominations being “bawbees” which were sixpennies, “placks” which were fourpennies and “bodles” which were two pennies.

These denominations were Scots and the rate of exchange between Scotland and England required twelve pounds Scots to equal one pound English. The bawbee or sixpence Scots, at the time of Union was only equivalent to one halfpenny Sterling.

Although Robert Burns would never use these Scottish coins the names of the denominations continued to be used by the public and Burns used them to describe money in many of his poems.

In “O`er The Water To Charlie” he says “I’ll gie John Ross anither  bawbee” as “bawbee” was by Burns time the name that was given to a halfpenny Sterling.

A farthing or quarter of a penny had become known as a “plack” and in many of his poems, epistles, songs and stories he mentions placks such as in “Scotch Drink” and in “Epistle to J. Lapraik”.

Another name given to the farthing was a “bodle” from the old Scots twopenny and he mentions a “bodle” in “Tam O’ Shanter” but he spells it with two “ds” instead of the old Scots of one “d”.

Robert Burns referred to many other coins such as the “groat” which was the Sterling fourpence and the “merk” which he spelt as “mark”. A merk was two thirds of a pound (or a 13/4d piece). In “To Collector Mitchell” he states “That one-pound-one, I sairly want it”. He was, of course, referring to a guinea which was one pound, one shilling or twenty one shillings.

I have written mainly of the small denomination coins that were used and quoted by Burns.

In 1786 we know that he was given ten guineas from a friend, Patrick Miller, and we are quite sure that they were Bank of Scotland one guinea notes.

1786 was the time when Robert Burns was thinking of emigrating to Jamaica to escape the problems in farming and, of course the father of Jean Armour, who Rabbie had made pregnant.

At this time he had written on the back of a Bank of Scotland one guinea note a verse :-

“Wae worth thy power, Thou cursed leaf!
Fell Source o’ a’ my woe and grief
For lack o’ thee I’ve lost my lass
For lack o’ thee I scrimp my glass
For lack o’ thee I leave this much-loved shore
Never, perhaps, to greet old Scotland more”.

That guinea note may still be seen at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway.

In recent times the Clydesdale Bank issued a £5 note in 1971 depicting a portrait of Robert Burns. It was based on the famous painting of him by Alexander Nasmyth and in 1996 on the anniversary of his death four different varieties of the note were issued with words from four of his poems.

Picture of the Clydesdale Bank five pound note with Robert Burns on it.

In 2009 the Royal Mint struck £2  coins to commemorate the 250th Anniversary of the birth of the bard and in the same year the Clydesdale Bank promoted Rabbie to the £10 note and two years before the Bank of Scotland introduced the picture on the reverse of their £5 notes of the statue of Burns and the Brig O’Doon.

It will be interesting to see what the future will bring in relation to the commemoration of Robert Burns on money.

Picture showing the first slide of Ronnie's Highlight Talk on Burns and Money

This post was written by one of RBBM’s Volunteers Ronnie Breingan, who gave a Highlight Talk on the subject earlier this year.

Alloway 1759 – a Burns night to remember!

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Last weekend, the world celebrated the birthday of Scotland’s national Bard, and the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum joined in with gusto! The festivities actually began the previous weekend with the ‘Alloway Sessions’, two days of fabulous live music celebrating the songs of Burns and other Scottish favourites. With traditional folk music in the kitchen, a ceilidh band in the barn, and a fantastic programme of Burns music in the education pavilion, we were certainly treated to a wonderful array of performances and would like to thank everybody that took part and came along to support us!

A ceilidh band performs in the Barn

On Thursday 23rd January, our recreation of the first Burns Supper allowed visitors to step back in time to 1801, enjoy good food and meet costumed characters in the cottage. We would like to say a big thanks to our catering staff and to our volunteers and staff members who got involved with the re-enactment.

Two of our costumed actors help us recreate the first Burns Supper in the cottage kitchen

Into the weekend, and the morning of the 25th dawned with such torrential rain that we were all quite concerned about being washed away! Thankfully, the weather brightened up a little in the afternoon, clearing the way for the day’s events. Costumed volunteers in each room of the cottage told the story of the Burns family, with William and Agnes introducing the Barn and the Byre, John Murdoch telling us about his pupils in the Spence, and Aunty Betty spooking us all with scary stories in the kitchen. We even had a couple of genuine 18th century villagers visiting the cottage that day! Weekend guided walks and buggy trips were available as usual, and we also introduced two very successful ‘roving guides’ who were on hand to give anybody looking lost a nudge in the right direction.

An re-enactor dressed in a cream tailcoat and white stock neck tie

A re-enactor telling a crowd of visitors Ayrshire folk tales

Sunday again threatened to be a wash out, but thankfully the skies cleared at midday and the events were able to go ahead as planned. Once again, our costumed characters took to the cottage to introduce themselves to the floods of visitors that poured through the doors. In the pavilion, the education team worked hard to create a programme of children’s events for our youngest visitors, who tackled their own ‘Burns Super Supper Challenge’ and had the chance to win themselves a certificate. Our catering team set up a cafe in the education pavilion and kept our visitors well fed and watered with a variety of refreshments. We were also visited by a selection of owls from Hoots Houlets who set up residence in the barn, and the field outside the cottage played host to the World Haggis Hurling Championships, kindly sponsored by Pollok Williamson. Our volunteers ran a very popular tombola outside the education pavilion, and also staged some ‘pop-up’ recitations of Burns poetry around the museum and wider site. Finally, we were pleased to be able to welcome some musical entertainment in the forms of Ayr Pipe band and Forehill Primary’s ‘Alloway Rap’. 

A signpost for the Haggis Hurling Championships

A traditional food stall making fresh products

The tombola run by our volunteers, including prizes.

All in all, we at RBBM enjoyed our Alloway1759 celebrations immensely. We would like to say a big thank you to all of our fantastic volunteers who gave up their time to come and join us; to our catering, retail and event staff who worked tirelessly to ensure everything went ahead; to our education team who created a wonderful programme of activities for children; and to all of our external and internal helpers who contributed to making the event the success it was! But most of all we would like to thank those of you who visited us over the weekend and helped us make the Bard’s birthday the special occasion that it should be… we’ll see you next year!

A costumed character acting as an eighteenth century villager stands outside the cottage.

The Mauchline Holy Fair

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Public listening to the priest at The Mauchline Holy Fair 

When Robert Burns was alive, Scotland was a very religious country. Robert Burns’s religious beliefs switched between two extremes from not believing in an afterlife to being a very religious person. “The Mauchline Holy Fair” by Alexander Carse, which is on display at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, is a picture from one of the scenes from Burns poem “The Holy Fair” written in 1785.

Holy Fairs were open air events that were held twice yearly; they were not only attended by people from the local parish but also people far and near. Twelve hundred people took to the fair that day! So it’s fair to say that the small village of Mauchline was swamped.

The picture depicts the priest telling the people about the sin of drinking alcohol; however if you look closely at his face, there is a possibility that the priest himself has been drinking. Burns himself had a special hatred for the religious hypocrites such as the priest depicted. He disliked it when people said that they were overly religious but were really not. Such hatred is expressed in his poem, “Holy Willies Prayer”.

If you look to the right of the picture you will see a pub and to the left is the Kirk, this shows that the people in the middle are in a “moral tug of war”

If you have an eagle eye you may spot Robert Burns in the right hand side of the painting by a table. He is being guided round the fair by a woman called “fun”, with “hypocrisy” and “superstition” dressed in black, leaving Burns and going on their own way.

Written by Ross, Work Experience at the museum


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Hornbooks like these would have been instrumental in the early education of young Robert and his brother Gilbert. Although the back is made of wood, the front is made of cow horn, polished to create transparency. This meant that the objects were not only extremely sturdy, but also made out of a readily available material. Robert’s father, William Burnes, was dedicated to the education of his sons, and engaged private tutor John Murdoch to teach them. The hornbooks would have been worn around the wrist during the day whilst the boys were at work on the farm, and would have contained Bible passages and sections of text that needed to be memorised for the evening’s lesson. Unfortunately for Robert, they could also be used as a vessel for delivering a clip round the ear, particularly if the young Bard was engaging in his favourite pastime of swinging on the back legs of his chair! Murdoch was impressed with the progress of both children, although surprisingly remarked on Robert’s lack of musical ear. Later in life he had this to say about his young wards:

‘Gilbert always appeared to me to possess a more lively imagination, and to be more of a wit, than Robert. I attempted to teach them a little church-music. Here they were left far behind by all the rest of the school. Robert’s ear, in particular, was remarkably dull, and his voice untunable. It was long before I could get them to distinguish one tune from another. Robert’s countenance was generally grave and expressive of a serious, contemplative and thoughtful mind. Gilbert’s face said, “Mirth with thee I mean to live”; and certainly if any person who knew the two boys had been asked which of them was most likely to court the Muses, he would surely never have guessed that Robert had a propensity of that kind.’

This all goes to show that even teachers can be wrong sometimes!

Clarinda’s Coffee Cup

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Agnes McLehose, the daughter of a Glasgow surgeon and wife to a lawyer was a woman much above Robert in terms of wealth and family connections. Agnes’s love of poetry had caused within her a strong determination to meet the man who was the talk of Edinburgh. At a tea party held by a mutual friend their connection appeared instantaneous, Agnes’ attributes of intelligence, wit and a passion for poetry encouraged Roberts’s pursuit. The pair planned to meet again, but due to a coach accident Robert was left lame for weeks, putting paid to his plans not only to meet with Agnes but to those of leaving Edinburgh. For six weeks Robert was confined to his room.  Immobilised, he and Agnes communicated via the Edinburgh penny post.

The penny post was however not privy to the rules and regulations of His Majesty’s mail leading to the pair deciding upon noms de plume to cover their tracks and protect her reputation as a married woman; thus Agnes became Clarinda and Robert, Sylvander. The passion between them was keenly felt but she was married and unattainable. Robert returned to Jean and Agnes sailed to find her husband in the West Indies (unfortunately he had already found a mistress and Agnes returned to Scotland alone).

Coffee Cup with a painted blue bird stretching its curved wing over pink flowers

This coffee cup shows the cultural divide between the two, coffee being a luxury reserved for the upper classes. The creature brightly illuminated upon the porcelain is that of a Chinese Pheasant, a symbol of beauty and good fortune, but perhaps most appropriately for both parties the representation of literary refinement.

Despite their shared love of poetry, did their romance really ever stand a chance?

Robert’s Guittar

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For all music lovers especially those with a fascination for stringed instruments, Robert Burns’ guittar on display here at Robert Burns Birthplace Museum is well worth a look.  This beautiful artefact is the earliest known English guittar in any Scottish collection, dating from 1757.18th century English Guittar

  The English guittar was popular during the 18th century and up until the beginning of the 19th century.  The instrument resembles a pear, in shape, and its’ head at the end of the neck is bent backwards slightly.  It would usually have 12 strings although sometimes only 10 or 8 and those would be attached to little ivory knobs at the lower end of the instrument and stretched over a bridge.  Fingerboards on guittars were often covered in ivory and would be complete with bass frets.  Unfortunately there aren’t any strings remaining on Robert’s guittar today. 

The English guittar is more closely related to the cittern (in fact it could be described as a revival of the cittern) than the modern-day guitar.  In France the early form was known as the cistre or guittare allemande and in Italy it was known as the cetre.  There is a theory that Italian musicians introduced the cittern to England where it became very fashionable and gradually became known as the guittar in the 18th century.

Although Robert spoke modestly of his musical ability, he clearly considered himself to be a musician.  In a letter to Charles Sharpe, a talented amateur musician, Robert stated:  “I am a Fiddler and a Poet […] Whenever I feel inclined to rest myself on my way, I take my seat under a hedge, laying my poetic wallet on my one side, and my fiddle case on the other.” It is not illogical then to imagine that he was an enthusiastic and perhaps accomplished fiddler, so I wonder if he would have played his guittar well too?

In 1758 in Edinburgh, Robert Bremner who published the first tutor for the 18th century Scottish guittar stated that; “…Time will…discover more Beauties, in the Instrument than there are yet known…”  For anyone interested in listening to an 18th century guittar played today, there is the musician Rob MacKillop who plays Scottish traditional music written for guittar, lute, mandour and cittern.  You can listen here to his rendition of I Love my Love in Secret, a melody which comes from a manuscript in Berwick, now housed in the National Library of Scotland.