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A small and unassuming exhibit in our museum which people may miss on the way round is this English silver penny.
Minted in Canterbury in the 13th century and only discovered in 2009, this “long cross” coin is from the reign of Edward I which dates it between 1239 and 1300. A “long cross” coin has the design stamped all the way across the face, designed to act as an anti-counterfeit measure. Many coins were clipped – an illegal practice performed by unscrupulous individuals, who would melt down the resulting slivers of metal and profit by selling the silver.
One of Burns’ favourite books was “The History of Sir William Wallace” by Hamilton of Gilbertfield, which he described as follows:
“The two first books I ever read in private, and which gave me more pleasure than any two books I ever read again, were the life of Hannibal and the history of Sir William Wallace… The story of Wallace poured a Scottish prejudice in my veins which will boil along there till the flood-gates of life shut in eternal rest”.
When the Burns family were living at Lochlie farm, Robert would go walking in Leglen wood, a favourite hiding place of Wallace. “I chose a fine summer Sunday, the only day of the week in my power, and walked half a dozen of miles to pay my respects to the “Leglen Wood”, with as much devout enthusiasm as ever pilgrim did to Loreto; and as I explored every den and dell where I could suppose my heroic Countryman to have sheltered, I recollect (for even then I was a Rhymer) that my heart glowed with a wish to be able to make a Song on him, equal to his merits.” That song turned out to be “Scots Wha Hae” and Wallace is mentioned in a footnote to “The Vision” as well, in case the reader misunderstands who Burns means by “His country’s saviour”!
Edward I was known as “The Hammer of the Scots” and Wallace spent his life fighting against Edward’s forces. One of Wallace’s most famous rebellious acts occurred in Ayr in 1297. In revenge for the slaughter by the English of Wallace’s uncle, Wallace and his followers burned the Barns of Ayr, the quarters for the English soldiers. Maybe our coin was dropped by a fleeing soldier, where it lay for 700 years until a worker unearthed it while digging the foundations for the new museum building. I wonder what else is under there…
Excise Dipping Rods are not something many of us would now be familiar with, resembling five fairly unremarkable wooden sticks or perhaps the world’s most useless thermometers. However, for Robert Burns these were essential tools of his trade as an Excise Officer. He would have carried this set as he went about his day, measuring whisky and beer for taxation from the late 1780s. They could measure up to 300 gallons of liquid, fitting together to make a 60 inch rod in total. Despite being unassuming at first glance, these rods would have represented for Burns his measured and controlled life as an official of the crown.
Burns used his connections to secure a job as an Exciseman in Dumfries upon realising that his career as a farmer was rapidly declining. He became responsible not only for collecting tax but thwarting smuggling; prolific during the 18th century, including in its definition the practice of illegal distilling and a dangerous pursuit for all involved. This was perilous and tiring work, requiring the certain amount of protection afforded by the pistols seen below which are emblazoned with the initials R.B. and on display in the museum. Burns also carried an equally fearsome sword-stick.
Burns’ relationship with the profession was far from easy, exemplified by his mocking song ‘The Deil’s Awa Wi the Exciseman’ (1792).
We’ll mak our maut, and we’ll brew our drink,
We’ll laugh, sing, and rejoice, man;
And mony braw thanks to the meikle black deil,
That danc’d awa wi’ th’ Exciseman.
From the early excitement of seizing a smuggling ship in 1792 to writing to Peter Hill to lament the human condition of being ‘under damning necessity of studying selfishness in order that we may exist’, Burns stuck at the profession until his untimely death. Thus the worn leather pouch and precisely ruled wooden rods within are not weighty to carry but perhaps weighed heavily on Burns’ mind as incongruous to his nature but representative of a necessary evil.
Last week, RBBM’s Book Club and Cupcake Cafe celebrated its first birthday in style. For the past year, the group has been meeting on the last Tuesday afternoon of every month and has now swelled in numbers so much it has had to be split into two! Every month a new book is selected and past reading material has included the Suspicions of Mr Whicher and The Widow and her Hero. These books are kindly provided for us by the Carnegie Library in Ayr. To mark this special occasion, our catering department provided some delicious looking scones, and the group’s very own pastry chef created this scrumptious big iced cake and candle! We would like to wish the Book Club a very Happy Birthday and give a big thanks to everyone involved in running it and of course all those who attend!
In other news, our dedicated team of volunteers have been working hard to prepare the garden shop for opening on the 18th April (Good Friday). The Friends of RBBM have raised a lot of money for a very good cause with the proceeds from plant sales and are looking forward to getting stuck in again this year. Watch this space for further details.
Hear, Land o’ Cakes, and brither Scots,
Frae Maidenkirk to Johnie Groat’s
In his poem ‘the Late Captain Grose’s Peregrinations Thro’ Scotland’, Robert Burns referred to his homeland as the ‘Land o Cakes’. This phrase had previously been used to describe Scotland by Burns’ idol Robert Fergusson. Although today this phrase seems more like a Willy Wonka Swedger Scotland, the cakes referred to are not battenbergs, swiss rolls, or even fruitcakes, but rather oatcakes.
The rough or smooth, circular or triangular, porage-like biscuits might not seem particularly special to us, but oatcakes or ‘bannocks’ have been eaten by Scots on the move or at home since at least the middle ages. Oats were particularly popular in Scotland as they were one of few grains that was hardy enough to survive in the harsh climate we know, endure, and joke about.
At the same time as Robert was writing poetry for ‘the Land o Cakes’, Dr. Johnson was writing his famous (and not at all impartial) dictionary. In his dictionary Johnson described Oats as a grain which ‘…in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.” In response to this lexicographical slur Lord Elibank is said to have retorted “Yes, and where else will you see such horses and such men?”
Once the staple food of the poor in Scotland, oatcakes are now more likely to accompany an expensive single malt whisky or appear alongside an array of continental cheeses. In fact, it may now be that the phrase ‘land o cakes’ no longer applies to Scotland. Perhaps ‘land o chips’ would be more accurate, or ‘country o pakora’.
The average Scottish citizen is undoubtedly better nourished than in the eighteenth century. However, the move from a low-meat diet of vegetables and oats, to one consisting of processed foods high in sugar and salt, has not been entirely positive.
So on this day when we use up our eggs, flour and milk to make a pancake feast, let’s spare a thought for the everyday meal-based meals of millions of Scots across the centuries, who lived in this land o cakes.
Last week we were once again overwhelmed by the dedication and talents of our volunteers. On Saturday 22nd February Glasgow Phoenix Choir held a concert in Alloway Parish Church and a special pleasure was the prominence of our own volunteer Billy as solo tenor. His rendition of Ae Fond Kiss was particularly moving. He also came up with the idea of bringing the choir to Alloway in the first place to raise money for the repair and restoration of Burns Monument.
The choir looked stunning as they entered in their white tuxedo jackets and elegant black evening dresses – all seventy of them. The programme, led with great verve by Conductor Marilyn J Smith, was perfectly designed for the venue and audience with a strong theme of Burns and Scottish songs but also sacred and modern classics too. The church was packed and you could feel the warmth of the response to song after song. A Treasurer of the Friends of RBBM has let us know that the concert raised a significant sum!
Many grateful thanks go to everyone who supported it by coming along, spreading the word and selling tickets to family, friends and neighbours and also ‘Team Sandwich’, the band of volunteers who spent hours beforehand buttering and spreading sandwiches for 70 people! Thanks also to the church representatives that were an invaluable help. And not to miss out the staff at RBBM who went above and beyond expectations in selling tickets and giving information.
The week before last, we at Robert Burns Birthplace Museum got into the romantic spirit by hosting a ‘Week of Luve’ in honour of Valentine’s Day. Our Bard is known to have written the occasional love poem, including those little known works ‘My Luve is like a Red, Red, Rose’ and ‘Ae Fond Kiss’, and we thought it would only be fitting to tap into the Valentine’s mood ourselves!
After a diligent Friday of decorating the museum foyer with heart shaped balloons and cards, the week began on Saturday 8th, with children’s craft activities at the museum. The opportunity to make pop-up Valentine’s Day cards and ‘Luve bugs’ with heartfelt messages inside appealed to many and we were soon running out of felt and sticky letters. Alongside this, our luve jewellery market was in full swing, and we set up several stalls of very colourful items for our visitors to browse through. On Sunday, our jewellery market was replaced by a chocolate one, and many treats and goodies were available for sale. We were also selling roses and other plants all weekend to round off the romantic feel.
Throughout the week, we held several luve themed talks and concerts in the lead up to Valentine’s Day. On Monday, we welcomed Linda Somerville to the museum, performing a selection of classical and Scottish luve songs, and on Thursday local Ayrshire singer Roger Paterson treated us all to a session of ‘Live Luve Music’ in the museum cafe. Our curator Rebecca held an in depth talk at the museum on Tuesday exploring Burns’s manuscripts and luve letters, and at our weekly Highlight Talk on Wednesday afternoon, our volunteer co-ordinator Alison Wilson gave a detailed discussion of one of Burns’s most romantic poems ‘My Luve is like a Red, Red, Rose’. All in all, by the time the big day arrived we were already feeling very luved up!
On the 14th itself, our wonderful volunteers held a ‘Red Red Rose’ plant sale at the museum selling plants, along with scrolls of Burns’s famous poem, which went like hot cakes throughout the day. No doubt all those last minute Valentine’s shoppers were out in force!
And that rounded our Week of Luve off nicely. We would like to say a massive thank you to all of our staff and volunteers who worked hard to make each event a success, and to you for joining in! We hope you enjoyed Valentine’s Day as much as we did!
In our family we usually mark birthdays by devouring a Chocolate caterpillar cake (Other insect-shaped desserts are available), and it’s great. It seemed appropriate to mark this sacrifice with a poem to salute the noble pudding, much as Robert Burns addressed his Haggis. This spin on ‘To a Mouse’ is the result:
Wee maukit chocolate-covered beastie,
O’whit a fondant’s in thy breastie,
Ye’ll mak an unco guid feastie,
Fer this birthday
I am sorry sic a hungry caterpillar,
A lettuce-champin cabbage-killer,
Should be a rumbling tummy-filler,
In sic a way
Ye are but swiss roll an smarties
But hame’s nae whit, but whaur the heart is,
An even the best laid birthday parties,
Gang aft agley
May ye hae smiles after ye’ve greetit,
An may ye always be well treatit,
An may ye hae yer cake an eat it,
Whiles cake ye hae