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Fourteen good measur’d verses make a sonnet

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This blog post was originally posted on the National Fund for Acquisitions Blog.

Handling a museum object is a magical thing. To feel the smooth surface of an 18th century horn cup and imagine all the clasped hands that have done the same before you or to feel the coarse fibres of a horse-hair whisk. These are the sensory experiences that can bring history to life. Cherished, abused, appreciated or ignored; the object you handle is part of the human story that we find endlessly fascinating.

I was lucky enough to hold an original manuscript of Robert Burns’ A Sonnet Upon Sonnetsvery recently and I will not soon forget the experience. Acquired with help from the National Fund for Acquisitions, it has been in the care of the museum since 1981. Looking at that carefully preserved manuscript, I felt myself drawn down a multitude of avenues of imagination beyond the ‘fourteen good measur’d verses’. Where was Burns when he wrote this? Head bent over his writing desk? Perhaps ensconced in a cosy inn after a hard day’s Excise duties? Did his hand slip and make that tiny smudge? I found myself wondering what inspired this outpouring of poetic playfulness.

Burns, Sonnet upon Sonnets ms

‘A Sonnet Upon Sonnets’ by Robert Burns

Written in 1788 – the year Burns married Jean Armour, two years after the Kilmarnock Edition had been published and the year in which he leased Ellisland Farm in Dumfries – the poem is an interesting departure from Burns’ usual style. His poems are not normally restricted in their length but he embraced the poetic convention of the sonnet wholeheartedly, playing with the genre seemingly for his own amusement. This was his first attempt at writing a sonnet and the result is a pleasing offering. Despite his fragmentary formal education, his passion for knowledge meant Burns had the capacity to play with poetry as he wished; a skill which only increased throughout his life.

Sonnet upon Sonnets ms detail 1

A detail of the manuscript

Two hundred and twenty six years ago Robert Burns held this page and his quill scratched its way across its surface, each flourishing ‘f’ placed with care as inspiration flowed. It is remarkable that there is nothing crossed out and there are few, if any, mistakes.  It is so tempting to try to read into the loops and bold strokes of his recognisable handwriting in an attempt to discover what made him tick. There is a confidence in the flamboyant strokes that seems to fit with Burns’ reputation as never one to shy away from speaking his mind and there is a precise assertiveness throughout.

There are certain things about museums that make them special places and keep people coming back for more. To get up close and personal with an original Burns poem is surely one of them.


Burns and WW1

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War was an issue Robert Burns felt strongly about. He wrote many poems and songs on the subject, as well as spending the latter part of his life with the Royal Dumfries Volunteers. Since his death, his works and actions have been interpreted very differently at various points in history, and by a range of governments and societies. This capacity to re-interpret his works was very apparent during the Great War.

Throughout World War One, Burns continued to be celebrated. Although activities at Burns clubs dwindled during the war years, their actual numbers increased from 227 in 1915, to 254 in 1918. Events such as the garlanding of his statue in Glasgow and the placing of the floral tribute in Dumfries continued, and Burns concerts and celebrations were held throughout the war, now often in aid of troop entertainment and charitable fundraising. Burns suppers also continued, and were even held at the front.

During the war the militaristic aspects of the Bard’s work were emphasised, as well as his desire to stand up to tyranny and oppression. Scots Wha Hae was included in several martial anthologies, including Oxford University Press’s ‘Poems of War and Battle’, published in 1914. His time spent as a volunteer was also very useful for those claiming he was an ardent militarist, and he appeared on recruitment posters such as this one, which encouraged men to join up.

Recruitment poster for WW1 featuring the bust of Robert Burns and a quote from one of his poems, trying to encourage people to enlist.

At a Burns Supper in London in 1918, John Buchan made this declaration in his Immortal Memory: ‘If you wish for a statement of the Allies’ War Aims you will find it through the poetry of Burns. Freedom, tolerance, sympathy in the State; devotion, courage, sacrifice in the citizen – it is all there’.

However, it should be noted that this idealised view of Burns’s poetry was not shared by all. An American ambassador who heard Buchan’s speech remained sceptical, saying: ‘it is not quite clear to my mind how a man can work in a speech about the Allies on a Robert Burns background’.

Other groups sought to distance themselves from the official view of Burns, emphasising the radical, rather than military, elements of poems like Scots Wha Hae, and also pointing out how Burns often wrote about the negative aspects of war and the hardship it brings. Willie Steward, organiser of the Scottish Independent Labour party, believed that Burns was being misrepresented by the government, and declared: ‘I cannot help but think if [statesmen] had ranted of Burns less and imbibed his spirit more, it had been better for us all to-day’.

As is often the case with our Bard, his views are difficult to pin down. He wrote many poems emphasising the negative aspects of war, but also supported the American and French revolutions. His time spent with the Royal Dumfries Volunteers may have been for pragmatic rather than ideological reasons, as he was probably attempting to make amends for earlier ill-advised comments supporting the French Revolution. However, as can be seen above, whatever his views during his lifetime, his legacy after his death continued in ways beyond his control.

Brass @ the Bards

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Last Saturday, the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum hosted the second annual Brass @ the Bards competition, involving Junior brass bands from all over Ayrshire and beyond. The event was held in the museum gardens, and after a frantic Friday of moving chairs and other furniture around, setting up marquees and staging, and organising timetables, we were good to go. Fortunately, the weather on the day stayed dry, if a little chilly!


Each group played for 10-15 minutes, and we were treated to some brass band classics, alongside well known film themes such as Jurassic Park and James Bond. We were also lucky enough to have John Whitener of the RSNO with us to deliver a musical workshop for both the morning and afternoon groups of players. The cafe and shop were full of people buying snacks and souvenirs, and we were even offering face painting for the younger members of the audience.


We would like to say a massive thank you to everybody from the museum involved in the event, to all those who helped organise it and to all those who came along on the day and supported us. But most of all, we would like to say a huge thank you and well done to all the young musicians who treated us all to a wonderful day of live music! We look forward to seeing everybody back next year.


Tam o Shanter: Happily Ever After?

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Our work experience student, Lachlan, has written a fantastic piece of creative writing, imagining the adventures of Tam o Shanter after his infamous night at Alloway Auld Kirk.  What does life have in store for Tam now? Read on to find out!

Tam is sitting drinking in the local pub like most nights. He has left his wife Kate at home to finish the housework and cook his dinner, little knowing she has different plans for the night…

“Hey Tam, did ya see that lassie? I think she likes you.” Tam did not reply but his look in return let his friend know that he wanted quiet. Still, Tam’s friend stood up and said to him “You want another drink?” Tam replied to him “Sure if you want, but make it a small one. I need to be able to ride home again.” As Tam waited for his drink to arrive he could hear everyone around him laughing and cursing at each other. Suddenly, a barmaid was standing in front of him: “Hi Tammy, how are ya?” Tam glanced at the maid and snapped at her, “I’m fine.” “THAT’S THE LAST DRINK I SERVE YOU TAM” the barmaid shouted, then she walked away.

Tam got up to leave but he heard his friend shouting across the bar, “Hey Tam, where ya goin’? You not having another drink?” He laughed and replied, “No, I need to get home to my wife. If I don’t, she will have ma guts for garters!”“Well then, I guess I’ll see you another day. Goodbye.” Tam said his goodbyes, walked out of the pub door and climbed onto his horse to ride home.

As Tam was riding home he was distracted by thinking about how rude he had been to the barmaid so he decided to turn back. As he turned he noticed something on the road.

It was a body.

It was not moving.

He got off his horse and started to walk over and investigate.

Tam looked down at the body in fear, wondering what had happened. He looked at the man’s face but did not recognise him.  Then suddenly he realised the man had been shot and in his hand there was a rag covered in blood. Tam took the rag out of the man’s hand looked at it closely. Oddly, he recognized the material but he could not think of where it came from so he put the rag back and decided to return home before he was seen.

When Tam arrived home he burst through the door and slammed it shut. “Kate, listen, you would not believe what has happened!” She looked at him and laughed, saying, “Don’t you go talking about witches and the devil again or I’ll be skelping you on the back of the head!” He looked at her seriously and replied, “No Kate, there is a body of a man on the brig. Don’t go out tonight stay.  It’s not safe!” Kate quickly looked at Tam and said, “I need to go and get something. I will be back soon.” Tam moved away from the door and asked her, “What are you getting?”, but she just walked on and opened the door. Tam repeated in anger, “Kate, What are you going to get?” She walked through the door and slammed it shut behind her. Tam sat down in his chair confused and thought to himself, “What have I done now?”

Kate was away for hours, with she has said no word of where she was going. Tam decided to look around the kitchen to find out why she was acting so strangely but he found nothing. As Tam started to walk through the house, he noticed something above the door. It was a box with no design around the outside. Tam opened the box and found a shocking discovery. It was a dress covered in blood with a hole torn in the side. Instantly, Tam dropped the box on the floor. The box hit the floor with enough force to break it. As he looked down at the broken box he noticed that rolled inside the bloody dress was a flintlock that had had its shot fired. Tam grabbed the flintlock and just as he walked into the kitchen, Kate walked through the door with someone that Tam recognized.

It was the barmaid!

Tam turned to Kate: “I know you killed that man on the brig! Why did you do it?” She started to cry. Tam stared at the barmaid and said “ Why are you here?” She looked back at him and laughed. Tam began to understand what had happened: “You both did this together.”

“I am sorry” Kate sobbed, “I had no choice. He was going to kick us out of our home because we can’t pay our tax” Tam fell into his chair and cried to her, “You can’t kill a man because of a reason like that!” The barmaid interrupted in an agitated way, “Don’t get all worked up, he was hassling me too so I shot him.” Tam slammed the flintlock on the table. “WORKED UP?” he yelled, “You killed a man!” The barmaid cackled and then quickly grabbed the flintlock off the table.  As she focused it on him, she sneered “Don’t try anything or I will kill you.”

Tam did not dare to move but said, “Two in one night? You trying to make a record?” She just laughed and said, “You were always charming Tammy, but it won’t get you anywhere now!” Kate was crying because she knew that Tam would have no chance of talking his way out of this one.   “So, what’s your name?” Tam asked the barmaid. “Pousie Nancy, my name is Nancy.” Tam was not sure if she would shoot him. After a pause, Nancy looked him sadly and said, “I am going to need to shoot you Tam”, pulling the trigger as she spoke.

The gun did not fire!

Just as Nancy started to examine the gun in anger, Tam realised that it had run out of bullets. She raced, enraged, towards him and went to hit him with the gun instead but in that moment a group of five guards burst through the door of the house. One of the guards grabbed her and said, “Nancy, we have been looking for you for a long time.” The Guard grabbed her arm and announced, “You’re off to Ayr prison and then you’ll be taken out to the gallows.” Pousie Nancy put up a fight as they took her away.       Kate stood up after the guards were gone. “Why didn’t you tell the guards I was involved?” Tam looked at her and said “Even though you took part in such a crime you are my wife and if you got taken away I don’t think I would be able to bear staying alone.” Kate wiped away the tears and said “I love you, Tam.” Tam looked down at her and said “I love you too” and they kissed

In eternal rest… or not?

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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.

Small English 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…

The Deil’s Awa Wi the Exciseman

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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.

5 wooden rods marked at regular intervals that measure the depth of liquid in a barrel

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.

Two 18th century pistols with wooden handles, one of which is marked with the initials R. B.

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.

Happy Birthday Book club!

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Photo of the book club members at its first birthday party!

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!

The organisers of the book club cut the cake

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.