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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).
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?
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.
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.
Our current Scots word of the week is ‘Boak’. Ken whit it means? Visitors to our Facebook page certainly did, and were kind enough to pen these poems on the subject. We think they’re braw!
Cracked open an egg,
Didnae ken it wis broke,
Til oot came a stench,
That gied me tha boak!
So nae eggs fir ma brekkie,
Jist cornflakes instead,
Ah mibbe jist forgit it,
An gang awa’ back tae bed!
– Paul C.
Ma weans were mockit
Been playin in the mud
Broon hair and nails and faces they hud
A filled up the bath, wae bubbles n stuff
Then wan by wan a gave them a scrub
U shoulda seen the water turn into a bog
When I pulled out the plug ‘oh my god’
The stuff at the bottom, I tell ya, no joke
Was enough to gie any mother the boak!
– Lynsey F.
Gonae write your own Scots poem? We’d love to hear it!
Have you heard about all the fantastic things we’ve got planned at the museum in 2014? Follow the links to find out more!
R is for Robert, our warldlie kent bard
Owls from Hoots Houlets, aboot the kailyard
Books clubs aplenty and cupcakes aboond
Each Alloway Session makes a richt bonnie soond
Red are the roses our gardeners growe
Tender and savage; the artworks on show
Burns Night’s approaching; a choir and a feed
Umbrellas? In Alloway? There’ll not be a need!
R! say the pirates that Easter will bring
So many happenings eik up the year, it’s oodles of fun when you veesit us here!
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.