Alloway Auld Kirk
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.
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
Hi my name is Catriona and I am the Learning and Volunteer Intern at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum !
How long have you been volunteering for at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum?
6 months, I volunteer along side my job here in the Learning Team.
Why did you start volunteering at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum?
I volunteer with the Learning Team to gain invaluable experience in Heritage and Museum education. Also get to work alongside an excellent team of staff and volunteers and contunue learning about 18th century Scotland (one of my favorite things ), and I get to understand Robert Burns and his work abit better. I grew up in Ayrshire and Burns featured strongly in my school education, it is nice to learn the more gritty things about his life !
What kind of things do you get up to when you volunteer?
I do a variety of things, from maintaining school stats to delivering workshops to organising events to drinking lots of tea and eating biscuits!
What has been your most memorable experience volunteering here?
It is really hard to pick out one experience. I think the whole of January and most of February was memorable experiance – we were ran of our feet with schools, events and Burns ‘fans’ coming to the museum. I discovered that I love being part of museum education although it was the sheer enthusiasm of the school pupils and visitors which kept me going !
That whole month and a bit is a blur!
What is your favourite thing about RBBM?
School workshops, particularily when you get a class who are very disengaged at the start and by the end they dont want you to leave because they are loving what they are learning it makes the volunteering all worth while ! …… close second is the catering though…. the scones and cakes are pretty awesome.
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!
I have been volunteering at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum as a Guide since it opened in November 2010.
Being an Ayrshire Lass I was fortunate to be brought up learning about Burns, his life and his poetry. I also took part in many Burns Schools Festivals and still perform at many Burns Suppers in Ayrshire and beyond.
As a Volunteer I carry out many varied duties – my main one is guiding visitors around the museum, the wider site which includes the Cottage, the Auld Kirk, the Brig O’Doon, the gardens, the Monument, the Poet’s Path etc., etc.
My Guiding role involves taking school parties, adult groups, overseas visitors, dressing up in costume as and when required for various events and activities – for example Evening Hallowe’en Tours, Mini Burns Suppers which are held in the Cottage and various Burns events centred around the museum and wider site in January.
My most memorable experience and honour was being asked to record “The Cottar’s Saturday Night” for one of the exhibits in the museum.
I carry out many varied duties but first and foremost I try to give all our visitors a memorable experience. This involves passing on knowledge about Burns – his life, family, poem, letters etc. I also inform visitors about the products and services provided e.g. brochures (for all National Trust for Scotland properties), guide books for the Museum and wider site, the resteraunt shop, Garden Shop, Education Tours, etc.
Providing information, advice and assistance to visitors is invaluable.
I always try to present a friendly and positive image to visitor to ensure that they are receiving excellent Customer Service and feel genuinely welcome. At the outset I want them to know they will be well looked after and receive the necessary information and an enjoyable and informative visit.
Asking children if they are learning about Burns or other Scottish poets at school is so special, particularly hearing them recite what they have learnt – after a little encouragement!
I inform/direct visitors to other NTS properties – remembering to mention membership of the NTS. This is so worthwhile especially for visitors who are just beginning their holiday and hope to visit other places of interest.
If visitors leave having learnt something they did not know before this is so satisfying and I feel I have done a good job. Also if visitors leave wanting to return that is a bonus.
It is so enjoyable meeting people from other parts of the world and passing on knowledge,
I have many favourite things about RBBM – the contents of the Museum, the Cottage, the Brig O’Doon, the beautifully kept gardens.
I am so fortunate to be working in such a warm friendly environment with such excellent, helpful colleges and staff.
My name is Sandy. I volunteer at RBBM as a Buggy Driver and Guide.
How long have you been volunteering for at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum and what is your role? I started in 2011, at the time to be 4 hours every fortnight on a Friday. Later I was asked if I would take a school party on the Tam O’Shanter trail which led to taking on other interested parties, from this country and abroad, around the site. While on the Buggy I relate the story of Tam O’Shanter and tell them about the sculptures along the path. I have appeared in costume as Tam O’Shanter for visitors while doing the tours.
What kind of things do you get up to when you volunteer? I am involved in the running of the Garden Shop, also appearing in the Christmas Panto at the cottage and the Ghost walk at Hallowe’en, and the Book Club which meets on the last Tuesday of every month.
What has been your most memorable experience volunteering at Robert Burns Birthplace Museum? Taking a wedding party on the Buggy from Alloway to the Church next to the Brig O’Doon Hotel (Dressed as Tam of course!).
What is your favourite thing about Robert Burns Birthplace Museum? During this time I became very interested in the Old Kirk and its headstones. I have given talks on the Kirk which then led to a project which has taken a year, looking at the headstones and their condition since 1995. In 2014 I was awarded the Volunteer of the Year Award for the National Trust for Scotland. Which was a huge surprise and great honour. Why have I been at RBBM for 4 years? I worked for the Scottish Ambulance Service for 38 years, when I retired, I was very interested in the construction of the museum, so was down many times to watch the progress, often I was asked about the museum, or how to get to the cottage. I enjoyed helping them, which led me wishing to know more about the area. So it’s the satisfaction that I have made the visitors’ visit interesting, knowledgeable and enjoyable! And if you wish to meet me look in the Kirkyard!
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!