The following blog post was written by RBBM’s Learning Officer as a guest blog for Museums Galleries Scotland – http://nationallysignificantcollections.scot/
Few objects associated with Robert Burns are as well-known, or as instrumental to his fame, as the ‘Kilmarnock Edition’. Published on the 31st July 1786 by John Wilson of Kilmarnock, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect was the first volume of poetry and song to be written by the man who was to later become Scotland’s National Bard. Containing some of his best-loved works including Tae a Mouse, The Cotter’s Saturday Night and The Holy Fair, it is one of the items in the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum’s collection treasured most by both staff and visitors.
The Robert Burns Birthplace Museum (RBBM) is based in Alloway, South Ayrshire and is run by the National Trust for Scotland. The site consists of the Birthplace Cottage; Alloway Auld Kirk and the Brig o’ Doon (both of Tam o’ Shanter fame); Burns Monument and gardens; and of course the museum itself. The site is one of three in the ‘Burns Group’, also comprising of the Bachelors’ Club where the young Robert set up his own debating society, and Souter Johnnie’s Gallery, once the home of John Davidson (on whom Burns may have based the character Souter Johnnie in Tam o’ Shanter), and now an art gallery and craft shop showcasing local work.
The museum collection comprises of over 5,500 objects including 2 Kilmarnock editions. Only 612 copies of this first edition were printed, each containing 44 poems and songs written by the Bard. Although John Wilson was known for celebrating local talent, he was still reluctant to take a chance on an unknown poet from Ayrshire – in the end it was agreed that he would print the work only if Burns could raise enough advance subscriptions. The book cost 3 s each – 350 copies went directly to subscribers, and the rest quickly sold out within a month.
Reviews of the Kilmarnock edition were largely positive, although some made reference to Burns’s supposed lack of education (despite his home schooling by tutor John Murdoch and his familiarity with a range of literary and enlightenment figures including Alexander Pope, Adam Smith and Robert Fergusson). The Monthly Review in December 1786 also lamented Burns’s use of, ‘an unknown tongue, which must deprive most of our readers of the pleasure they would otherwise naturally create; being composed in the Scottish dialect, which contains words that are altogether unknown to an English reader…’. This seems a strange notion today, when Burns’s use of Scots is regarded by many as one of his best loved and most distinctive features.
Despite sentiments of this nature, the book began to circulate in Edinburgh, attracting positive attention from eminent society figures. Within 8 weeks, Burns was thinking of re-printing. The second edition of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (the First Edinburgh edition), was printed by William Smellie and published by William Creech in Edinburgh on 21st April 1787. The cost of this was 5 s to subscribers and 6 to other buyers. Over 3,000 copies were published, firmly establishing Burns’s reputation and paving the way for his future success as a poet and songwriter, both during and after his lifetime.
Today, RBBM displays a Kilmarnock edition alongside an interactive facsimile which allows visitors to browse the pages digitally, therefore preserving the original for future generations. But this is not the only item of interest we have relating to this first volume of Burns’s works.
Above we have the printing stocks used to decorate books published by John Wilson in Kilmarnock, and below is an elaborate seat fashioned from the printing press which was used to print the first edition of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. It was converted into a chair during the Victorian period in an early example of ‘upcycling’, and was also famously the chair Muhammed Ali sat in when he visited Burns Cottage in 1965.
The 5,500 objects in RBBM’s collection include original manuscripts of Burns’s works, letters to and from the Bard, artefacts belonging to Burns and his family/friends, artworks, books, Burnsiana (trinkets relating to Burns), and more. Together they make up the most extensive collection of Burns related objects in the world. But none would be important today without the book of 44 poems and songs, originally sold for 3 s each, representing an Ayrshire farmer’s first step towards becoming Scotland’s National Bard.
Ye see yon birkie, ca’d a lord,
Wha struts, an’ stares, an’ a’ that;
Tho’ hundreds worship at his word,
He’s but a coof for a’ that:
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
His ribband, star, an’ a’ that:
The man o’ independent mind
He looks an’ laughs at a’ that.
Robert Burns – A man’s a man for a’ that.
Independence: a word with different connotations for different individuals, and a word that certainly held great significance for Robert Burns. Throughout his life, Burns championed equality and free thinking – he believed in challenging the status quo, be it religious, political or social, and his egalitarian principals have played a huge role in his subsequent worldwide popularity. Burns lived and wrote at a time when only wealthy landowners were allowed to vote; when slavery was widespread in Scotland, Britain and beyond; when the American and French revolutions were ongoing; and when the Acts of Union and Jacobite risings were fresh in people’s minds. Independence was certainly not a matter to be taken lightly.
Unsurprisingly, 250 years later independence is still a fundamental issue. But what does it truly mean? To me, independence is having the freedom to make big decisions about the world I live in today, for example who to vote for in elections and which career path to take. But it’s also in the small things – what to eat for dinner and what to watch on TV. These are all choices that I and many others make on a daily basis, and they all contribute to our sense of independence in their own way.
But is this necessarily the case for everyone? For the past two years, the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum has been working on a Creative Scotland funded project, ‘Independent Mind’ to creatively answer the question posed by Burns himself in Man was made to mourn:
If I’m design’d yon lordling’s slave,
By Nature’s law design’d,
Why was an independent wish
E’er planted in my mind?
Working with creative practitioners including writers, artists and musicians, RBBM sought to work with community groups who are often marginalised by society or considered to be ‘hard-to-reach’ – groups who would not normally walk through the doors of our museum to engage with the collections of Robert Burns. Over the two year period, we worked with five different groups on six different projects, exploring key themes in the works and life of Burns, and how these relate to each group’s feeling of independence.
Our first partner, Recovery Ayr, works with individuals to try and lessen the impact of drug and alcohol dependency within communities, by creating situations in which substance addictions can be openly discussed. It was decided that group members, with the help of facilitators Rab Wilson, Chris Taylor and Andrew O’ Donnell, would put together and perform a Christmas Pantomime ‘Tam o’ Shanter, the mornin’ eftir’ , focussing on events unfolding the day after Tam’s famous ride through Alloway. Through a light-hearted medium, this pantomime was able to explore important issues relating to substance misuse, and gave participants the opportunity to increase their confidence and express themselves in an original way.
Next, we worked with HMP Kilmarnock, alongside writer Kevin Williamson, to explore a wealth of different topics including slavery, religion and Scottish independence. For three months, a group from the prison took part in discussions, debates and writing sessions, culminating in the production of a poetry anthology, ‘Independent Minds’, which is on sale in the museum shop. The anthology was launched at the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, alongside a highly relevant debate over whether or not prisoners in the UK should be allowed to vote, a question we also put to visitors at our pop-up museum in Ayr town centre (results will be announced shortly!).
For our third project, we worked alongside Turning Point Scotland and film director Ruth Carslaw to make a documentary, ‘The Honest Heart’, allowing adults living with learning difficulties in the community to explore what independence means to them. Using a handheld camera, each member was given the opportunity to record themselves taking part in the day-to-day activities which gave them a feeling of independence, as well as exploring their relationships with family and friends. The film premiered at the Odeon Cinema in Kilmarnock, with a red carpet and Oscar awards for all the stars of the show.
Two simultaneous projects were run in partnership with Women’s Aid. One group worked tirelessly with esteemed poet Liz Niven to produce a play, based on the diary entries of one member, showing the effects of an abusive relationship. This hard hitting piece was performed at the UWS Ayr campus in June, and will be performed again at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in December. Accompanied by an education pack, it will be used in schools to raise awareness of domestic abuse, particularly with regards to young people. The other group worked with creative artists Elspeth Lamb and Fiona Dean to produce a series of prints and visual artworks expressing feelings arising from being in an abusive relationship. These were displayed at our pop-up museum, and also collated into a beautiful book for display.
The final project was delivered with the residents of local Alloway care home Rozelle Holm Farm Nursing Home. We worked together with creative practitioners including musicians from the Royal Scottish National Orchestra and Scottish laureate Liz Lochhead to deliver interactive sessions designed to engage the elderly living in care with the works and themes of Robert Burns. We also delivered craft workshops designed to teach residents new skills such as flower arranging and corn dolly making. This project aimed to demonstrate how museums can engage with the elderly, including dementia sufferers, and more importantly how they can contribute to teaching these groups new skills, focussing on the future rather than on the past.
For each of these groups, independence and freedom mean different things. Whether it’s travelling on the bus on your own for the first time, learning new skills at the age of 99, or being given the opportunity to creatively express yourself through poetry, art or drama, the right of each individual to feel that they have achieved their own level of independence is paramount. We at RBBM, along with our partner organisations and creative facilitators, hope that ‘Independent Mind’ has been able to show people the different ways independence can be achieved, and challenge preconceptions attached to particular groups within our society. The groups we have worked with have been truly inspirational, and we hope to be able to continue this vital work within our local community and beyond in the future.
To see some of the fantastic films produces as part of this project, please visit our website: http://www.burnsmuseum.org.uk/education-school-stuff/independentmind