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. 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.
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.