This blog was written by Iona Fisher, a work experience student from Carrick Academy.
In 1788 Burns trained to be an excise officer and was an excise man until he died in 1796, as well as farming in Ellisland. Excise men (also known as gaugers) covered large areas of Scotland’s countryside and their job was to inspect and record taxable materials, such as malted grain, soap, candles and paper, before and after they were manufactured. To do this Burns would use dipping rods to measure liquids and scales to weigh dried materials. Burns was aware that people did not necessarily like excise men, so he carried a pistol around with him to protect himself.
Also in RBBM’s collection are Robert Burns’s duelling pistols: http://www.burnsmuseum.org.uk/collections/object_detail/3.8557.a-c
With Robert Burns’ health condition getting worse, he moved back to Dumfries to live his last few days. On his deathbed he gave his physician – Dr William Maxwell, his pair of duelling pistols. He died in Dumfries on the 21st of July 1796 from a heart disease. Roberts’s wife, Jean, gave birth to her last child the day of Burns’s funeral and she named him Maxwell after Robert’s physician. The pistols were donated to the Burns Monument Trust by William Hugh Fleming in 1987 and they are now in the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum.
The final blog post in our series written by two placement students from Glasgow University is on the Beggar’s Badge in the museum.
It doesn’t matter who you are, where you live or what you do for a living: you will have come across beggars in some context. Whether that experience is witnessing people begging on the streets of a busy city, or being approached by someone asking for money on public transport, begging is one of the few features which appears to be current in most cultures. Tolerated in some countries, looked down on in others; the presence of begging appears to be both a problem for society and a means of survival for individuals. With the high population of beggars seen today in streets all over the world, it is easy to justify not financially helping individuals due to the overwhelming size of the community. However, perhaps it is time we stopped looking for change in our wallets and purses and instead look at the change we can spare from ourselves.
The beggar’s badge on display in the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum only emphasizes how constant this problem is in society, and the different attempts that have been made to ‘fix’, or at least control, it. It seems quite bewildering that we have managed to go for so many centuries, with no success of fixing this issue. But how can it be fixed?! Alongside the badge in the museum is an edition of The Big Issue, a modern-day scheme which provides a ‘hands-up’ approach to aid solving the problem, giving people in hopeless positions an opportunity to find hope through their own actions. With these items paired together in the museum, the timelessness of the problem of urban poverty and homelessness becomes even more prominent. Though the modern-day scheme of The Big Issue magazine, the people in these vulnerable life-states are empowered, there is still a separation in the wider community today. In all these attempts to tackle the ‘big issue’ are we really just avoiding the issue at the core of the problem? Perhaps the issue is not the presence of beggars on the street, but instead our attitudes towards them?
Today, attitudes toward beggars are not what most people would describe as positive. Often avoided and ignored, those sitting on the street asking for help are subject to both financial and social poverty, in the lack of acknowledgement they are given. Here in the UK street begging is illegal, making it not only socially frowned upon but lawfully as well.
With this in mind, it seems that Burns’s poem ‘The Jolly Beggars’ challenges this view today. It not only goes so far as to acknowledge this community of people, but also to romanticize their situation and their ‘freedom’ from responsibility. How different this view of the homeless is from the one displayed today. Though Burns is obviously not representing the views of his community through this poem, he is providing a new take on the begging community that has for so long been looked down on in so many different cultures. In a documentary by Power and People, Barnaby Phillips investigates the differences that begging has on the culture in Sweden and in the Philippines. At the end of this 30 minute film, Phillips states that despite the differences in how the issue is handled in both countries, the common denominator of both cultures is the ‘growing gap between the rich and poor’ in society. So, if the real issue is the class divide in our society, is this not something that we have the power to improve? Or are we all out of spare change?
By Kathryn Thompson
Earlier this year, two students from the Scottish literature department at Glasgow Uni joined us on a month long placement as part of their degree. This is the first in a series of four blog posts they wrote between them on elements of the exhibition they found significant.
During his lifetime, Burns was inspired by many different things, but one of the most significant aspects – which gave him plenty of creative fodder to chew on – was the oppressive control the Scottish Presbyterian Church held over not only the people within his own locality, who provided his primary concern, but the entire nation. In its ‘A Cauld Kirk’ section, the museum chooses poems which reflect this: ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’, ‘The Holy Fair’, and ‘The Holy Tulzie’. Burns’s religious satire is a rich source for one who wishes to observe the religious climate of the late eighteenth century, and so we must recognise that our present-day attitudes towards Burns’s contemporary Kirk have probably been largely shaped by his poetry. However, Burns’s religion has often been misunderstood by readers and critics alike – Burns was not an enemy of religion, nor a pious Presbyterian, but we can be sure from his satire that he hated religious hypocrisy. Around the time Burns was writing, a rift was beginning to appear within the Church of Scotland. There appeared two branches of Presbyterianism – the ‘Auld Lichts’ who represented a more severe and unforgiving form of Presbyterianism, Calvinism, which involved fire and brimstone sermons and the idea of predestination which Burns so despised. The ‘New Lichts’, with whom Burns shared sentiments and could really get behind, represented a more moderate form of Presbyterianism which sought to put more emphasis on morality and the human aspects of religion, rather than just being blindly faithful.
It cannot be denied that Burns’s religious satire is an attack on the ‘Auld Lichts’. Ever since the Reformation, individual Kirks within small communities held supposedly God-given authority over their people – and they ruled by fear. To illustrate this, the museum allows you to put yourself in Burns’s riding boots by taking a seat on the ‘cutty-stool’ or ‘creepie-chair’, situated in front of the pulpit and therefore the entire congregation. This chair is not dissimilar to the naughty-step your parents might have chastised you on, and in it Burns would have sat and been told off in front of his family and good friends, as well as he entire village of Mauchline, and this did not sit well with him at all. Burns willingly sat in similar sermons all over the country – he was a ‘sermon-taster’ – but it was his experiences within the Mauchline Kirk which inspired poems such as ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’ and ‘The Holy Fair’. However, the museum does acknowledge the fact that Burns’s religious allegiances were not as clear cut as they may appear in his satirical poetry by recognising his relationship with ‘Auld Licht’ minister William Dalrymple, whom Burns admired and respected for his liberal views – it is well known that Burns was a man of many contradictions.
Hanging in the ‘A Cauld Kirk’ section is Alexander Carse’s painting ‘The Mauchline Holy Fair’, a depiction of the twice-yearly gathering described in ‘The Holy Fair’. If you look carefully at it you might notice a character resembling Burns, sporting a rather mischievous smile, walking alongside the bright and beautiful personification of Fun, closely followed by the dark, grim, Calvinist-type women representing Superstition and Hypocrisy. Mauchline Kirk is painted at the left, the pub on the right, and between them the village community, caught up in a kind of moral tug-of-war. Carse depicts the villagers as Burns would have recognised them, as individuals caught up on the tension between religion and traditional culture. This moral tug-of-war was about deciding whether to embrace their freedom – drink, chat, eat, and flirt until there heart was content – or to behave themselves and not risk public condemnation in the sermon. We see now that these people lived in constant fear of the Kirk and its authority – one foot out of place was all it took. Burns was a fond observer of human nature and he recognised that in order to be reformed, the Kirk must take moral weakness and human frailty into account.
This exhibit is only a small sample of what Burns’s moderate Presbyterianism and relationship with the Kirk has inspired, and it is important we remember the unjust Kirk practices that inspired Burns to write, so that people never have to live in fear of being ‘only human’ again.
By Kirsty MacQueen
Whilst museums warmly welcome visitors who come to use their cafe and shop, the ultimate aim is to engage visitors with collections. The collection at Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, has been described as ‘Scotland’s literary crown jewels’ and has been ‘Recognised’ by the Scottish Government as being of national significance.
Despite this, in a visitor survey carried out at RBBM in March 2015, 52% of visitors were unaware of the Recognised collection yards from where they were standing. More generally, the survey also found that the building and foyer space had an identity problem: 60% of visitors did not think the building looked like a museum and there was a consensus that it did not look like a museum about Burns.
The importance of museum thresholds is an area of burgeoning research, for example Parry, Page and Mosely’s forthcoming Museum Thresholds: The Design and Media of Arrival and in pioneering initiatives such as the Transforming Thresholds project which examines liminal spaces and managing visitor needs.
The new RBBM building, designed by Simpson & Brown and opened in November 2010, has the opposite problem of many classically designed, purpose built museums. It does not look like a ‘typical’ museum, so removes a significant barrier to many ‘non visitors’, but there is not an expectation that this is a building which collects and preserves museum objects. This partially explains why there are low expectations and a low level of awareness of the collection.
In order to tackle some of these issues, a project called Recognising Burns (September 2015 – November 2016) aims to address a low awareness among visitors of there being Recognised collections of national significance within Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, and to tackle some of the wider issues about the building’s identity.
Recognising Burns, funded by Museum Galleries Scotland’s Recognition Fund, aims to tackle the low level of collections awareness in three ways:
Visibility: placing items from the Recognised collection in a public space, making the permanent and temporary exhibitions more visible (online, and by replacing solid doors separating the foyer from the exhibition area with glass doors)
Identification: a mural commissioned for the museum foyer to ‘announce’ the presence of the collection and to identify it with Robert Burns, as well as an artwork outside
Engagement: creating artefact trails from the foyer, staging a significant temporary exhibition, and encouraging greater dwell time in the foyer by installing furniture
This project aligns with two other initiatives which, subject to funding, will run parallel with Recognising Burns in addressing levels of awareness of collections and issues with the museum building’s identity: redevelopment of the museum website, and the creation of an artwork outside RBBM.
The redevelopment of the RBBM website, www.burnsmuseum.org.uk, re-launched in May 2016, had similar aims to Recognising Burns and sought to complement it. There had been a low awareness of collections on the former museum website and little interaction with artefacts. A 12 month £30,000 project, running from autumn 2015, aimed to make the collections more prominent as well as optimising the site for use on mobile devices. This project sought to raise awareness of collections of national and international significance as users cross the museum’s digital threshold.
NTS will be crowdfunding for a major artwork outside the museum to help give the building an identity. Proposals will be welcome which suggests that RBBM is a museum about Robert Burns. A crowdfunding drive will then follow to raise enough money to cover costs.
It is hoped that through improving signage and sightlines, and introducing the collection into the foyer, visitors will be more aware that the building is home to the world’s best collection of Burns treasures. A defining artwork outside the museum and work on rebranding will also go some way to priming visitors to raise their expectations and ‘think Burns’.
For more information on the Recognising Burns project, contact David Hopes on email@example.com or 01292 443700.
My favourite item that we have in the museum is a sock that belonged to Robert Burns himself. They are hand knitted and all this hard work is thought to have been done by a member of his family, they have also been lovingly embroidered with his initials which is a very nice personal touch. What is interesting about the socks is that we can tell from them that Burns would have worn a size 8 shoe.
Knitting socks is very difficult but if you fancy a challenge and like the idea of your handy work potentially being in a museum in about 200 years then maybe you could have a go at knitting your own loved one some socks using the knitting pattern below.
FINISHED FOOT LENGTH:
26.5 cm (10-1/2 ins)
- 2 balls (100 g) Sock Wool
- Set of four 4 mm double-pointed needles
- Stitch holder
- Scrap of contrasting colour yarn
- Tapestry needle
cm = centimetre(s)
g = gram(s)
in(s) = inch(es)
k = knit
mm = millimetre(s)
p = purl
psso = pass slipped stitch over
rem = remain(s)(ing)
rep = repeat
rnd(s) = round(s)
sl = slip
st(s) = stitch(es)
tog = together
20 sts and 28 rows = 10 cm/4 ins in stocking stitch using 4 mm needles.
With the exception of the heel, which is worked back and forth on 2 needles, these socks are worked “in the round,” to avoid a bumpy seam, using 4 double-pointed needles. The stitches are evenly distributed on 3 needles which form a triangle; the remaining needle is the working needle. When you work in the round, the right side is always facing you.
TO WORK CUFF:
Loosely cast on 44 sts. Divide so 14 sts are on each of first 2 needles and 16 sts are on third needle. Being careful not to twist sts, join in rnd, pulling yarn firmly to prevent a gap.
Round 1 (right side): [K1,p1] to end of rnd. Mark end of rnd by threading short length of contrasting colour yarn through work between first and last st.
Rounds 2 to 6: Continue in [k1,p1] ribbing.
Next: Knit in rnds until work from end of ribbing measures 18 cm/7 ins, ending at marker. Break yarn.
TO BEGIN HEEL:
Slip last 11 sts from 3rd needle, then first 11sts from first needle onto single needle (for heel), thus having marker at centre. Slip rem 22sts onto st holder (for instep). 22 sts now on needle.
With wrong side of heel sts facing, join yarn and work back and forth as follows:
Row 1 (wrong side): Sl1, purl to end of row.
Row 2: [Sl1,k1] to end of row.
Rep last 2 rows until heel measures 5 cm/2-1/4 ins, ending with wrong side facing for next row.
TO SHAPE HEEL:
Row 1: P14 p2tog, p1. Turn.
Row 2: SI1, k7, sl1, k1, psso, k1. Turn.
Row 3: Sl1, p8, p2tog, p1. Turn.
Row 4: Sl1, k9, sl1, k1, psso, k1. Turn.
Row 5: Sl1, p10, p2 tog, p1. Turn.
Row 6 (right side): Sl1, k11, Sl1, k1, psso, k1. 16 sts now on needle(s).
Large and extra-large size only: Turn.
Row 7: Sl1, p12, p2tog. Turn.
Row 8 (right side): Sl1,k12, sl1, k1, psso. 14 sts now on needle.
All sizes: With right side of work facing, pick up and knit 11sts up left side of heel. With 2nd needle, knit across 22)sts on st holder (instep). With 3rd needle, pick up and knit 11sts down right side of heel. Knit first 7 sts of heel onto end of 3rd needle. Slip rem 7 sts of heel onto beg of first needle. 58 sts now on needles. 18 sts are on first needle, 22 sts are on 2nd needle and 18 sts are on 3rd needle.
Continue, working rnds as follows:
Rnd 1: First needle: Knit to last 3 sts, k2tog, k1. 2nd needle: Knit to end of needle. 3rd needle: K1, sl1, k1, psso, knit to end of needle.
Rnd 2: Knit.
Rep last 2 rnds 6 times more. 11sts now on first needle, 22 sts now on 2nd needle and 11 sts now on 3rd needle, for a total of 44 sts.
Knit even in rnds until foot from picked-up sts at heel measures 18 cm/7 ins, ending with completion of 3rd needle.
TO SHAPE TOE:
Rnd 1: First needle: Knit to last 3 sts, k2tog, k1. 2nd needle: K1, sl1, k1, psso, knit to last 3 sts, k2tog, k1. 3rd needle: K1, sl1, k1, psso, knit to end of needle. Knit.
Rnd 2: Rep last 2 rnds 4(4,5,5) times more. 5 sts now on first needle, 10 sts now on 2nd needle, 5 sts now on 3rd needle. Knit sts from first needle onto 3rd needle. Break yarn approx 30 cm/11-3/4 ins from last st.
With tapestry needle and yarn end, graft rem 2 sets of 10 sts tog to close toe. Remove marker.
Repeat for second sock.
Recent visitors to Burns cottage may have noticed something new. Our volunteers have been spending time demonstrating different 18th Century crafts inside the cottage. These crafts are all skills women in the 18th century would have been very familiar with and it is easy to imagine Agnes Burnes (Robert Burns’ mother) toiling away at these chores over the course of the day in the cottage.
One of the crafts underway is a project to make new rag rugs for the cottage. A group of volunteers have been busy starting this process over the winter and have just begun to demonstrate their new skills to visitors.
Rag rugs were popular because they were easy to make and materials were cheap. All you need to make your own is some hessian and lots of scrap material. Our volunteers started with a large hessian lining which would make up the back of the rug. Their first task was to draw a border which they wanted to fill with black material. Using old clothes kindly donated to us, our volunteers cut the material into strips to add to the rug.
The process is very simple: the material is simply pushed through the hessian using wooden pegs and because the material is tightly packed together it will stay in place.
The volunteers have now finished the black border and have been adding the colourful material to the centre of the rug. The material used for the rugs needs to be quite hard wearing and wool cloth is best; this makes the rugs heavy and warm.
The rag rug team will be demonstrating their crafts on Monday afternoon and we recommend popping in to watch them in action!
When I started as a volunteer and just walked around the Kirk yard I wanted to know more about the Kirk and the people who were buried there. During a tour someone asked me about a headstone, and this started the project of writing down the 219 headstones so I could learn more and be able to answer the any questions.
It started off as just a project to learn more, but it has now become more involved with research of many families, guided tours, and talks on the Kirk yard. It has taken a year to finish it, with the Kirk yard laid out as is on an A1 sheet of paper.
The most well known headstone is of course William Burnes, the flat stone in front is very worn, but it is the resting place of Isabella Begg (Robert Burns’ youngest sister and two of her children Agnes and Isabella, they were all in their 80s when they died.
Do you have a favourite headstone (or stones!)
One is a headstone in remembrance of Charles Acton Broke who was the son of Rear Admiral Sir Philip Bowes Acton Broke. This man was a Captain of a ship during the war with the Americas in 1812, and was the first to defeat and capture an American ship.
There are two headstones of people who died in their 100th year!
My favourite one I cannot read the writing, but on the reverse are two fluted panels with a heart and a tear in each corner. I would love to know who they were.
Also the headstone of John Tennant, as there is so much detail on the stone which I have great pleasure in relating to visitors.
The next step in the research is to write out a Kirkyard plan based from a survey done in 1995 , when completed you will be able to compare the difference in the headstone conditions between 1995 and 2015 many of which are completely eroded.