A previous blog post looked at the ‘up-cycling’ of the press that printed Burns’s first collection of Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect also known as the Kilmarnock Edition. The repurposing of the press happened in 1858 and it was turned into an arm chair. The chair became an ornamental and useful piece of fine oak furnature, that was a souvenir or relic of Burns’s inaugural work.
This is not only one example of creating souvenirs or relics relating to Burns’s work and life from materials which are linked to aspects of his fame and life. At the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum and Bachelors Club, Tarbolton there is an amazing array of material! This blog post will look at a few highlights in the collection.
From the passing of Robert Burns on the 21st of July 1796 at the age of 37 people wanted to own a piece of the man! Over the years after his death the “Burnsiana” grew and developed, the collection of Burns souvenirs is broad and includes material that has been up-cycled from other objects or materials include pieces of Burns Trysting tree made into collectables, hair jewellery made with pieces of Jean Armour’s hair and pieces of Burns’s kist/coffin.
An interesting item in the museum collection is a necklace that is in the Fame section of the museum display. The necklace has 40 wooden beads and a wooden cross at the front with metal embellishments. It is 54cm long and the wood used in the necklace was taken from the Auld Alloway Kirk, just a short walk from Burns Cottage and next to the Burns Monument.
Alloway Kirk is a ruined church, which was built about 1516. By the time Burns wrote Tam O’Shanter the Kirk was in ruins. It had not been used for several decades and was in a ruinous state.
There is little information within the object record other than that the necklace is dated to 1822 – which dates to when Burns Cottage was under the tenancy of John Gaudie, and when the Burns Monument was under construction.
Other unique wooden souvenirs in the collection include a Pipe Case reportedly made from part of Burns’s Kist (3.4572), this is not unusual in the sense that it is connected with Burns’s burial – with the acquisition dated to 1834, below is an image of a piece of wood taken from Burns’s coffin when his tomb was opened so that Jean could be buried alongside him.
As with many souvenirs or relics the authenticity of the object is unclear – in this case eyewitness accounts state that the coffin was intact.
Wooden souvenirs with a direct connection to Burns’s life, made from the wood of trees grown on the banks of the Doon or, in this case, from the rafters of Alloway Auld Kirk, were highly sought after by Burns enthusiasts and general Victorian collectors.
In the 19th century there was a real interest in relic collecting relating to contemporary Poets – for instance at Keats House, Hampstead has in the collection a Gold Broach with some of Keats’s hair displayed in it, c.1822 (K/AR/01/002); another relic kept by the British Library is Percy Shelley’s ashes set inside the back cover of the book Percy Bysshe Shelley, His Last Days Told by His wife, with Locks of Hair and Some of the Poets Ashes (MS 5022).
At RBBM we have a lock of our Poet’s hair which is said to have been snipped from Robert’s head shortly after his death by his wife, Jean Armour, and given to her friend Jean Wilson in Mauchline as a macabre souvenir.
The world of Burns souvenirs and relics is vast and this only highlights some of the more unique… and interesting aspects of Burnsiana!
 Mackay,.J.A Burnsiana (1988)
 Lutz,.D Relics of Death in Victorian Literature and Culture (2015).
by Catriona, Learning Intern
5 years ago, I saw an ad in the Ayrshire Post . Volunteers needed for a new museum opening in Alloway, this was the New Robert Burns Birthplace Museum
I had just retired and was looking for something to fill my time, not just to do charity work but to keep the learning ethos on going , hence I started on the journey (I shall call it ), my knowledge of Robert Burns was very limited. As a school girl we were bused down from Paisley to visit the cottage, I was so bored I threw toffee papers at the film of Tam and Meg as they galloped over the fields.
Today it is a different story ,I am now a guide at RBBM .I am often to be found taking school groups around the site in all kind of weather, I was standing on the Brig O’Doon ,the snow swirling round me ,I was telling a class of 6yr olds about Robert Burns, one little schoolgirl tugged my coat and asked “are you Robert Burns sister” as I knew so much about him
Now another hat I wear is shop assistant in the “Burns an’ a’ that ” shop in the town, we sell NTS goods and local crafters work .
Its a great way of interacting with the public, I am often to be found at the Highlight Talks held in the Museum every Wednesday where one of the volunteers will give an in depth talk on one piece in particular ,it’s an excellent way of getting the knowledge to enhance the visitors experience.
So I would say to anyone thinking about volunteering with the NTS, jump on board ,the journey is amazing.
I am so glad I answered the advert in the Ayrshire Post!
Last weekend, the world celebrated the birthday of Scotland’s national Bard, and the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum joined in with gusto! The festivities actually began the previous weekend with the ‘Alloway Sessions’, two days of fabulous live music celebrating the songs of Burns and other Scottish favourites. With traditional folk music in the kitchen, a ceilidh band in the barn, and a fantastic programme of Burns music in the education pavilion, we were certainly treated to a wonderful array of performances and would like to thank everybody that took part and came along to support us!
On Thursday 23rd January, our recreation of the first Burns Supper allowed visitors to step back in time to 1801, enjoy good food and meet costumed characters in the cottage. We would like to say a big thanks to our catering staff and to our volunteers and staff members who got involved with the re-enactment.
Into the weekend, and the morning of the 25th dawned with such torrential rain that we were all quite concerned about being washed away! Thankfully, the weather brightened up a little in the afternoon, clearing the way for the day’s events. Costumed volunteers in each room of the cottage told the story of the Burns family, with William and Agnes introducing the Barn and the Byre, John Murdoch telling us about his pupils in the Spence, and Aunty Betty spooking us all with scary stories in the kitchen. We even had a couple of genuine 18th century villagers visiting the cottage that day! Weekend guided walks and buggy trips were available as usual, and we also introduced two very successful ‘roving guides’ who were on hand to give anybody looking lost a nudge in the right direction.
Sunday again threatened to be a wash out, but thankfully the skies cleared at midday and the events were able to go ahead as planned. Once again, our costumed characters took to the cottage to introduce themselves to the floods of visitors that poured through the doors. In the pavilion, the education team worked hard to create a programme of children’s events for our youngest visitors, who tackled their own ‘Burns Super Supper Challenge’ and had the chance to win themselves a certificate. Our catering team set up a cafe in the education pavilion and kept our visitors well fed and watered with a variety of refreshments. We were also visited by a selection of owls from Hoots Houlets who set up residence in the barn, and the field outside the cottage played host to the World Haggis Hurling Championships, kindly sponsored by Pollok Williamson. Our volunteers ran a very popular tombola outside the education pavilion, and also staged some ‘pop-up’ recitations of Burns poetry around the museum and wider site. Finally, we were pleased to be able to welcome some musical entertainment in the forms of Ayr Pipe band and Forehill Primary’s ‘Alloway Rap’.
All in all, we at RBBM enjoyed our Alloway1759 celebrations immensely. We would like to say a big thank you to all of our fantastic volunteers who gave up their time to come and join us; to our catering, retail and event staff who worked tirelessly to ensure everything went ahead; to our education team who created a wonderful programme of activities for children; and to all of our external and internal helpers who contributed to making the event the success it was! But most of all we would like to thank those of you who visited us over the weekend and helped us make the Bard’s birthday the special occasion that it should be… we’ll see you next year!
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!