Commonplace Books first became significant in early modern Europe as a way of compiling knowledge. ‘Commonplace’ is a translation of the Latin phrase locus communis which means ‘a theme or argument of general application’. This original definition has been expanded to now mean a collection of materials on a certain theme by an individual. Importantly, commonplace books are not diaries or journals, as they are structured thematically rather than chronologically, and do not necessarily relate to the personal lives of their compilers. By the 17th Century, commonplacing was prevalent enough to be formally taught at places such as Oxford University, and there is a strong tradition of literary figures such as John Milton, Mark Twain and Thomas Hardy compiling them.
There are two commonplace books belonging to Robert Burns in existence. The first, begun in 1783, was almost certainly not intended for publication, and entries cease in October 1785. The second, begun in Edinburgh in 1787 and sometimes referred to as the Edinburgh Journal, has many interesting entries including early versions of the Bard’s poems and musings on people he knew. On its first page, Burns explains his desire to record his experiences in Edinburgh (where he had just moved), and his observations on the people he has met, while they are still fresh in his mind. He quotes Gray, saying ‘half a word fixed upon… is worth a cart load of recollection’ showing his preference for the written word over memory.
Near the beginning of the Book, Burns starts a discussion relating to his patron, the Earl of Glencairn, and laments the fact that a man with little talent and high social status (the Earl) would naturally be treated with more respect than a man of genius but low social status due to an accident of birth. He says, with similar sentiment to his work ‘A Man’s a Man for a’ That’:
Imagine a man of abilities, his breast glowing with honest pride, conscious that men are born equal, still giving that “honor to whom honor is due”; he meets as a Great man’s table a Squire Something, or a Sir Somebody; he knows the noble landlord at heart pays gives the Bard or what- ever he is, a degree o share of his good wishes beyond any at table perhaps, yet how will it mortify him to see a fellow whose abilities would scarcely have made an eight penny Taylor and whose heart is not worth three farthings meet with attention and notice that are forgot to the Son of Genius and Poverty?
Burns does confess to being torn, however, because Glencairn was so pleasant to him when they met.
Also near the start of the book is a first draft of the song ‘Rantin’ Rovin’ Robin’ referring to the incident in which the gable end of Burns Cottage blew down during a storm in the first few weeks of Robert’s life. Interestingly, in this version, the opening line is ‘There was a birkie born in Kyle,’ as opposed to ‘there was a lad was born in Kyle’. There are then two versions of a poem written in Carse Hermitage on June 1st 1788, with a note beside the first draft instructing the reader to instead read the second draft further into the book. There is also a draft of his more famous poem, On seeing a wounded hare, along with other notes on his works.
Burns’s second commonplace book is on display in our museum collection and is a fascinating insight into some of the Bard’s personal thoughts, and also on how he drafted his poems. We wonder how many of our readers keep scrapbooks of this kind?
The creative talents of Robert Burns extended beyond his poetry and songs when he decided to design his own seal in 1794. In the medieval era a badge like this would have had aristocratic or militaristic origins. So why did a humble farmer poet, who was a believer in love rather than war, want a coat of arms? Burns’s creation can be seen imprinted in crimson wax and on his seal matrix within the exhibition collection at Robert Burns Birthplace Museum. This seal was a public declaration that Burns considered himself equal to any nobleman, and this would have given a clear signal to any that would have seen it. This was an important token of personal and familial identity for Burns, which he would have imprinted onto his letters.
Burns decided to incorporate two mottoes within his seal. ‘Wood-notes wild’ is inscribed across the top of the seal, whilst along the bottom there is the phrase ‘Better a wee bush than nae bield’ (shelter). The first inscription could be signalling how nature has often been an important inspiration in his life, both visually and musically. He often said his wife Jean had the sweetest wood-notes wild singing voice. In the second motto Burns could be highlighting his fears of homelessness that frequently haunted him towards the end of his life. This reminds us to respect Mother Nature, as she can be a refuge for a wee mousie to all mankind as well. In the centre of these two mottoes Burns has placed a shepherd’s crook and pipe, signalling his lifelong connection to nature through his agricultural background.
One of the main elements in his design is a Holly Tree at the bottom. Perhaps Robert Burns wanted to display his love of nature prominently, or perhaps there is another layer of meaning to consider. In Celtic mythology a Holly Tree was a guardian in the dark, winter months. It was seen by the people as a symbol of peace and goodwill. Furthermore, the Druids believed that Holly possessed protective qualities and that it could guard against bad luck and evil spirits. Therefore, this could be Burns recalling his time as a child when he heard stories of folklore and superstition from his mother and Betty Davidson.
A woodlark is a symbol of cheerfulness and joy even in the worst of times, something that Burns would have related to as his own spirits rose and fell throughout his life. But the similarity between Burns and the woodlark does not end there, since this particular song bird can mimic and remember other birds’ songs. Burns was a great lover of songs and music since boyhood, so in order to preserve the traditional songs of his beloved Scotland; Burns dedicated himself to collecting them. These were gathered together and published in an anthology called Scots Musical Museum by James Johnson over several years.
In the closing decade of the eighteenth century, discussion on republicanism and equality were politically rife questions. Robert Burns did not meet the requirements to vote; as such he used his pen and voice to challenge the political authority of the time. In his seal matrix Burns has placed a woodlark upon a branch of bay leaves. In Roman mythology bay leaves were treasured by the Gods, as their crowns of bay leaves connoted their high status and glory. By placing a woodlark, a song bird like himself on top of the branch, Burns could be trying to say his voice has greater potency then the established authority. In addition to this, it could also be interpreted as a form of mockery, as a single songbird could undermine the glory of those in power with his voice alone.
Burns deliberately incorporated multiple layers of meaning within several of his poetical works, and this mastery of disguising his true intention could also be said for his seal. Did he choose these symbols as a way of showing the world how he saw himself or how others saw him? Whether you believe these symbols have multiple meanings or not, it still provides an insight into how Burns wanted to be portrayed and remembered. He was a lover of nature and song, and even in his height of popularity amongst the literati of Edinburgh he never forgot his farming roots, which is evident in the shepherd’s pipe and crook in the centre. Nevertheless Robert Burns was a man not afraid to aspire beyond his supposed class, and this small seal and wax impression is evidence of this.
By Kirstie Bingham
‘Though I am far from meaning to compare our rustic bard to Shakespeare, yet whoever will read his lighter and more humorous poems, … , will perceive with what uncommon penetration and sagacity this heaven taught ploughman, from his humble unlettered station, has looked upon men and manners. – Henry MacKenzie
At the age of 6, a young Robert Burns was sent to school at Alloway Mill to be taught by a William Campbell. The Bard’s father, William Burnes, was a great believer in his children’s education and wanted to ensure they received proper schooling. Unfortunately this was to prove tricky as Campbell the village left shortly afterwards. Not to be deterred, William Burnes approached Ayr Grammar School and requested a private tutor, John Murdoch, to teach his boys alongside 4 other families in the village, and to take turns to board in each of their houses.
Murdoch was a young man of eighteen himself, but struck up a firm friendship with William and enjoyed teaching the boys. Even after the family left Burns Cottage, they continued to attend Murdoch’s school in the village for two years. At this point, Murdoch left the area, but returned in 1772 and taught Robert Burns further, particularly French and English grammar. He also gifted him the works of Alexander Pope, whom Burns quotes frequently in subsequent letters and admired greatly.
Gilbert Burns wrote extensively on his former teacher, and credits him with inspiring Robert’s love of reading:
‘With him we learned to read English tolerably well; and to write a little. He taught us, too, the English grammar; but Robert made some proficiency in it, a circumstance of considerable weight in the unfolding of his genius and character; as he soon became remarkable for the fluency and correctness of his expression, and read the few books that came in his way with much pleasure and improvement; for even then he was a reader when he could get a book. Murdoch, whose library at that time had no great variety in it, lent him the Life of Hannibal, which was the first book he read (the school-books excepted), and almost the only one he had an opportunity of reading while he was at school.’ – Gilbert Burns
Murdoch himself wrote of his time teaching the Burns boys, in which he was less than complimentary about the Bard’s singing abilities, and confesses that he would have thought Gilbert more likely to develop into a famous poet:
‘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.’ – John Murdoch
In 1776, a complaint was made against John Murdoch that he had insulted the local church minister, William Dalrymple, and the former was forced to leave the village. He moved to London, where he actually assisted with the funeral arrangements of Burns’s younger brother William, who he had met with shortly before William’s death. Unfortunately for Murdoch, he died himself in 1824 in extreme poverty.
Thanks to the determination of his father and the dedication of John Murdoch, Robert Burns received a considerable formal education in his youth. This fostered his love of literature, and allowed him to develop the social and political knowledge necessary for writing some of his greatest works. Far from being a ‘heaven taught ploughman’ as MacKenzie suggests in his review of the Kilmarnock Edition in 1786 (see top of blog), Robert Burns received excellent schooling for the time, and was able to put this to full use during his adult life.
There is no doubt that parents and guardians are instrumental in the formative years of a child’s life, and this was certainly the case for Robert Burns. One of his most famous poems, Tam o’ Shanter, was inspired by stories Burns’s relative Betty Davidson used to tell him in his childhood, and he credited Betty with ‘the largest collection in the country of tales and songs concerning devils, ghosts, fairies, brownies, witches, warlocks, spunkries, kelpies, elf-candles, dead-lights, wraiths, apparitions, cantraips, inchanted towers, giants, dragons and other trumpery’ which later inspired many of his folklore related poems. Burns’s father, William, was also hugely influential – Burns himself explained that the Cottar’s Saturday Night is loosely based on his experiences growing up on a farm, and William’s desire to ensure his children were educated meant that Robert received the schooling he needed to write his poetry.
However, the person who would no doubt have had the largest part to play in raising the young Bard was his mother, Agnes. Born Agnes Broun in 1732 in Kirkoswald, the eldest of six children, she received some formal schooling and was taught to read a little, but could never write. Her mother died when she was ten, and her father remarried and seemed to take little interest in her after that. She was sent to be looked after by her grandmother, Mrs Rennie, whose collection of songs and ballads would have probably inspired Agnes’s love of singing.
Young Agnes was initially engaged to a farmhand for seven years, but broke off the relationship after he was unfaithful. She married William in 1757 after meeting him at a fair in Maybole the year before, and the couple went on to have seven children – Robert, Gilbert, Agnes, Annabella, William, John and Isabella.
Agnes loved singing. She had a find collection of lullabies, ballads and even bawdry songs in Scots which she would sing to her children from a young age. This would no doubt have made a huge impression on the young Bard, who later went on to collect many old Scottish songs and ballads in The Scots Musical Museum. Once again, his upbringing against a background of traditional Scottish music and folklore was the perfect inspiration for future literary endeavours. Alongside her singing and domestic chores, she also played an important role in the development of the farm at Burns Cottage – she would have grown vegetables and made butter and cheese from the milk produced by the family’s cows.
William Burnes died in 1784 and was survived by Agnes for 36 years. She spent the majority of this time living with her son Gilbert and died in his home in East Lothian in 1820. Despite an inscription to her on William’s gravestone in Alloway Auld Kirk, she is actually buried in the Churchyard of Bolton. Isabella, Robert’s youngest sister, wrote this about her mother:
‘She was rather under the average height; inclined to plumpness, but neat, shapely, and full of energy; having a beautiful pink-and-white complexion, a fine square forehead, pale red hair but dark eyebrows and dark eyes often ablaze with a temper difficult of control. Her disposition was naturally cheerful; her manner, easy and collected; her address, simple and unpresuming; and her judgement uncommonly sound and good. She possessed a fine musical ear, and sang well.’
Many famous historical figures are men, however the majority of these men were raised by women. There is little doubt that Agnes Broun had a large formative influence on her son, and inspired his love of music and song, as well his appreciation in later life of women who had a musical ear. She not only physically gave birth to Robert Burns, but also brought him up to become Scotland’s National Bard.
The 18th century was a time of great change in Scotland – its major cities were full of learning and progress in areas such as architecture, philosophy, science, religion and – importantly – it marked the beginning of the change from medieval to modern medicine.
Modern medicine is, essentially, just folk medicine that worked. A huge proportion of modern western medicine is derived from plants that had been used for centuries. A well-known example being willow bark used to treat pain; a derivative from this was eventually used in Aspirin. Foxgloves, known to be poisonous (especially to children) were used to treat heart disease and heart attacks – chemicals from these flowers are used today for the same thing. One particularly unappealing cure was eating woodlice (or mixing them with wine) to treat stomach aches, heartburn and indigestion – and considering that their exoskeletons are predominately calcium carbonate (a main ingredient of Rennies) – it might have actually worked.
However, for every tincture, potion, ointment and salve that worked; many more had no more power to heal a wound or illness than the Primary School method of putting a wet paper towel on it. It was a belief that if there was an illness – God provided a cure. Unfortunately, unlike diseases like scurvy, which was cured by something as simple as Vitamin C from Kale or Citrus fruits, a large number of diseases had many treatments, but no cures. Smallpox remained the scourge of the 18th Century, responsible for as much as 10% of all deaths worldwide. Unfortunately, because of the lack of scientific understanding behind how the treatments worked and why, attempts to cure these more serious diseases were for the most part unsuccessful. Any survival was almost entirely down to luck and the patient’s overall health. The cure for Rabies (which still remains incurable today without immediate retroviral drugs) was a prayer for the patient’s soul and then a swift smothering. Our own Bard is testament to the fact that submerging yourself in the ice cold Solway Firth to cure heart problems was not one of these cures that were eventually incorporated into the NHS.
Throughout the 18th Century, the people of rural Scotland were dependant on their home remedies for treating illness; home remedies that were often medieval in their origins. The issue was that although trained Doctors did exist at this time; they were expensive to hire, rare and travel was difficult from city to isolated village. So communities made do with what they could.
Home remedies were often passed down from word of mouth, stories, songs, letters and kitchen cookbooks – meaning they changed very little over the years – much opposed to orthodox medicine, which underwent a huge shift in the 18th century. There were many books on home medicine – including Buchan’s Guide to Domestic Medicine, however, a large proportion of the rural population could not afford the books and illiteracy was still very high.
Most diagnoses and medicines were administered by a local healer, wise-woman (or man), apothecary or family members – as most housewives would have grown herbs for medicinal use or at least have known where to look for them; making potions and ointments to be stored away for later use. Local healers would often be members of a family known for practicing medicine, or even a landowner who owned some of the ‘do-it-yourself’ medicine books. Burns famously wrote of ‘Dr Hornbook’, a teacher who practiced as a healer, albeit not successfully if the Grim Reaper was to be believed.
A famous book of ‘do-it-yourself’ medicine was William Buchan’s succinctly titled ‘Domestic Medicine: or, a Treatise on the Prevention and Cure of Diseases by Regimen and Simple Medicines’. The list of local plants and herbs that could be used in treatments in the book is exhausting;
Wormwood was a cure for jaundice and, as its name suggest, worms. Peppermint was used to treat wind. Common Mugwort was thought to be a cure-all, for everything from consumption to weariness. Juniper was a disinfectant, Bettony healed infected wounds, Poppies were sedatives and Carline thistle was an antibiotic (it’s also worth noting Carline is a scots word for witch). Nettles were for skin conditions, Heather is an antiseptic, Bog myrtle is a midge repellent and fever remedy. Eventually, due to the increasing professionalisation of medicine over the 18th Century, the gulf between local healers and trained, professional Doctors widened – the latter saw the former as superstitious and looked down upon traditional forms of medicine quite vehemently. This led to many folk medicines being abandoned in favour of more modern, clinical and chemical cures. However, even today we still sometimes use folk medicine in its original from, for example: the Dock Leaf, which grows around nettle patches, crushed and is used to cure their stings, is an ancient cure passed down generation to generation.
In 1756 a farmer and landscape gardener called William Burnes took a perpetual lease on a 7 acre piece of land in Alloway. The next year, he started work on a small Cottage for himself and his wife, Agnes, and two years after that their first son Robert was born in its kitchen. 37 years later, Robert Burns died in Dumfries having cemented his place in history as Scotland’s National Bard.
William was an innovator. He had previously worked on the laying out of Edinburgh’s Hope Park (now the Meadows) and believed in agricultural and landscaping improvement. Although they only lived at Burns Cottage until young Robert was 7, it was always William’s dream to create a self-sufficient market garden, ‘New Gardens’ on the site. Unfortunately, his idea did not prosper and over time the land was given over more and more to cattle and poultry. It was with this in mind that the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum (RBBM) team decided to revisit William’s plans and restart ‘New Gardens’ as a working project.
The first steps were taken last year, with the planting of a 39 tree strong orchard which is already bearing fruit. Last week saw the beginning of the next stage of works, carried out by W L Straughan & Son Ltd, to install raised beds, public walkways, and a pond and wetland area. With this, we aim to improve biodiversity onsite, expand on the outdoor learning opportunities (for schools, families and community groups) RBBM currently offers, and to realise William’s ‘New Gardens’ vision and offer up an historic continuum on this plot of land between the time of Burns and the present.
In 1765, William Burnes leased land at Mount Oliphant farm about 2 miles away from Burns Cottage in Alloway, and the family moved there. Soil was poor and the family had to work hard to keep afloat. 12 years later, they moved to Lochlea Farm in Tarbolton, site of the Bachelors’ Club where Robert Burns learnt to dance, founded a debating society, and joined the Freemasons. Unfortunately, the family continued to find it difficult to make ends meet, and became involved in a legal dispute with their landlord. They eventually won the court case in 1784, but William was left physically drained and died just a few weeks afterwards.
233 years later, his New Gardens project is now underway at the Burns’s first family home in Alloway, and will allow RBBM to focus on another of William’s key passions – education – without which the boy born in 1759 in the kitchen of the auld clay biggin’ may never have gone on to become Scotland’s National Bard.
‘I think my ideas are more barren in English than in Scottish’ – Robert Burns, letter to George Thomson, April 1793.
The Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Ayrshire is the birthplace of Scotland’s National Bard, a man who both spoke and wrote in Scots. The language still has many speakers today – it is one of Scotland’s three indigenous languages alongside Gaelic and English. But where does it come from?
The origins of Scots can be traced back to AD 600 with the arrival of the Angles into what we now call Great Britain. At this time, speakers of Northumbrian Old English settled in the Borders of Scotland, explaining Scots language’s close relationship with this tongue. Originally, this language was largely contained within the south of Scotland, and spoken as a common tongue whilst Gaelic was used further north and as a Court language. This began to change in the 12th and 13th centuries. The language spread north and took on many new influences including Norse (from the Vikings), Dutch and Middle Low German (from trade and immigration with the Low Countries), Romance and Norman. It also took on Gaelic influences e.g. galore (lots of) comes from gu leòr (plenty). However, it was not until the 15th Century that the term ‘Scottis’ was used, by one Gavin Douglas, to refer to the language. Thus it became distinguishable from the language over the border, with its own roots and significance.
Over the course of the 16th and 17th centuries, Scots as a language became more and more ‘Anglicised’ and by the 18th Century, many members of ‘polite society’ (but not all!) thought of it as provincial and unrefined, and took steps to distance themselves from it. Not everyone took this view, and a new type of ‘literary Scots’ developed. This was championed by Scots writers such as Allan Ramsay and later by Burns himself.
Of course it would be quite wrong to claim that ‘Scots’ is a homogenous language. Four separate dialects are recognised: Insular (Orkney/Shetland), Northern (e.g. Caithness/North East), Central (central Scotland) and Southern (the Borders). Many different variations of the language exist even within these broad categories.
As shown by the quote at the start of this blog, Burns loved his mother tongue, and credited it with his creativity. We continue to ensure that Scots is a key priority at RBBM – our exhibition labels are written in Scots as well as English, we sell Scots products and books in our shop, and the language is a key learning outcome in our education programmes. You can find out more about our Scots language strategy and future plans for the site here – http://www.burnsmuseum.org.uk/scots-language-strategy/
We would love to hear your favourite or most used Scots words and phrases… why not tweet us @robertburnsnts and join in the conversation? #Scots #Scotslanguage
 Gavin Douglas was a Scottish bishop, makar and translator, known chiefly for his poetry. His works include Palice of Honour and Eneados, a translation of Virgil’s Aeneid into Scots. He died of the plague in 1522.