‘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.
Scots is one of three indigenous languages in Scotland alongside Gaelic and English. It is recognised as a language in its own right and Burns is recognised as one of the greatest proponents of this language. Here at RBBM, we utilise Scots to reinforce its relevance to the museum, its landscape and its local heritage. You can read more about our promotion and usage of our mither tongue in our Scots Language Strategy: http://www.burnsmuseum.org.uk/scots-language-strategy/.
If you have visited RBBM before, you may have spotted our use of the Scots language in our exhibition labels, products and books in our shop, and in our café menus. We also explore Scots in our education programmes, and it is part of our architecture – you’ll find Scots words engraved into the building’s walls, adorning our glass windows and incorporated into some of our exterior sculptural works. We would love to know which Scots words you have seen around the site are your favourite. Tweet us @robertburnsnts using the hashtags #Scots and #Scotslanguage to share.
At the front of the Museum on the grass, you’ll find a bronze and steel sculpture rising from the leaf-shaped soil. This piece is by Tim Chalks for Chalk Works, and it is site-specific – designed to relate closely to the environment and the people associated with its location, much like Chalks’ other works. The form of this sculpture plays with the way Burns drew inspiration for his poems and songs – from the land – by ploughing Scots words taken from Burns’s To A Mouse from the earth. Further emphasis is placed on Burns’s concern with nature, and his farming background, by two bronze crows attempting to feed from the Scots words. This inclusion of feeding birds is fitting for RBBM too, especially as they are crows, one of the most intelligent types of bird, as we aim to fill (up) our visitors with the knowledge of Burns’s life and works, as well as of the richness of the Scots language.
A crow at RBBM’s entrance, placed to direct visitors into the Museum from the grass, is also part of this sculpture by Chalks, as are the additional crows in the Museum Gardens. The Museum Gardens are also home to a selection of Chalks’ other sculptural works. Why not pop along to see them and explore what their interpretations may be?
By RBBM Learning Trainee, Sophie Watt.
This blog was written by one of Robert Burns Birthplace Museum’s Visitor Service Assistants, Jim Andrews.
In his monograph History of Burns Monument, the Glasgow librarian J.C. Ewing, who was an authority on Burns and whose personal collection of Burns-related books we now have in our library, expressed his disapproval of a new building that was constructed near the monument:
The site [of Burns Monument], which is within half a mile of the Poet’s birthplace, was in every way an eminently appropriate one, though it was years afterwards marred by the erection of Alloway Church close to the Monument precincts, which still blocks the view from the principal line of approach. The Monument would be a beautiful feature in the landscape from this point of view, and seen at a favourable distance, and as the view from all other directions is circumscribed, one cannot help wishing the church in some other place where it would be equally convenient and useful, and where it would not be an eyesore to all enthusiasts of Burns.
Burns monument was completed in 1823: Alloway Parish Church in 1858. If he were alive today, I wonder if the church might have redeemed itself in Mr. Ewing’s eyes, as it now contains a feature that some visitors to the museum have asked me about and seem very keen to find: the Robert Burns Memorial Window. It is a modern stained glass window, installed in the church in 1996 to mark the bicentenary of the poet’s death. The iconography of the design, by the stained glass artist Susan Bradbury, is immediately obvious to Burns enthusiasts: the River Doon and the Brig o’ Doon, a ploughman walking behind a horse-drawn plough, various animals and plants that feature in Burns’s poems and, appropriately for a church, it also features the text of the first verse of Burns’s A Grace before Dinner.
O Thou who kindly dost provide For every creature’s want! We bless Thee, God of Nature wide, For all Thy goodness lent:
The church is also worth a visit for its other stained glass windows. With windows dating from the original building in 1858 through to the 21st century, it contains a history of Scottish stained glass in microcosm.
The story of the stained glass we can see in Scottish churches and cathedrals today starts with, at least from a heritage point of view, a disaster ― the Protestant Reformation of 1560. The violent and thorough iconoclasm of the Reformation deprived Scotland of the bulk of its heritage of the religious art of the Middle Ages. Not only the art, but also lost were the traditional skills of the artists and craftsmen, who found that they could no longer earn a living as they had done during the centuries when the church meant the Roman Catholic Church. The Reformation Kirk was an altogether plainer affair that did not require their particular skills. Robert Burns may never have seen a stained glass window in a church.
The Gothic Revival that began in the late 1700s and flourished throughout the 1800s in Britain brought a renewed interest in the art and architecture of the Middle Ages. It defined the architecture of the Victorian era, and has left a rich legacy of public buildings and churches. The stately homes and public buildings in the Scots Baronial style are an expression of the Gothic Revival in Scotland. The lost art of stained glass was needed once again to complete the neo-Gothic image. Attitudes in the Kirk had also changed, allowing Scotland to reconnect with its pre-Reformation heritage and bring stained glass back into its religious buildings.
Just how the lost art of stained glass came back to Scotland is not known with any certainty. The lives of the early Scottish pioneers are not documented. However, they probably learned the craft in England, where it had not entirely disappeared. They also adopted the English style; there were no surviving examples of stained glass from Mediaeval Scottish churches or cathedrals on which to base their designs. The major source of reference material in the 1850s was a two-volume publication written in 1847 on the mediaeval stained glass that had managed to survive the Reformation in England. England had also endured a period of iconoclasm during its Reformation, though fortunately not as thorough as in Scotland.
Alloway is fortunate to have a fine collection of stained glass in its church, dating from the Victorian era right up to the present century. However, elsewhere, Scotland’s heritage of Victorian church architecture and stained glass was sadly undervalued in the twentieth century. Glasgow’s heritage suffered particularly badly from the urban redevelopment programmes of the decades following the Second World War, which resulted in the demolition of many Victorian church buildings and the loss of many fine examples of early Victorian stained glass.
Every year a team of volunteers keeps Alloway Parish Church open during weekdays (provided the church is not required for a wedding or funeral) throughout the summer months of June, July and August, so that visitors can enjoy the stained glass windows, and in particular the Robert Burns Memorial Window.
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.