Volunteer Manager Alison Wilson tells us about an unexpected and exciting experience that she had whilst guiding a tour of the museum on Saturday.
I had an amazing experience at the museum on Saturday. There I was, standing at the chair made out of John Wilson’s Kilmarnock printing press which produced the first edition of Burns’s Poems, ‘Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect’ giving it big licks to a group of 15 Americans all about how Muhammad Ali had once sat on it when he visited the cottage in 1965. There is a famous photo of the boxing legend sat in the chair surrounded by fans and I heard that the boy stood nearest Ali in the photo was in the museum that day.
Eventually, with the aid of Ros at the shop, we found the boy from the photo eating his lunch in the cafe. Now a fully grown man, George Spence from Dreghorn was visiting the museum with his wife and grandchildren. He needed little persuasion to have his photo taken next to the original photo of himself at the age of 13 with Muhammad Ali.
George had met Muhammad Ali over 50 years ago during the summer holidays when his father was on shifts. His mother, he said, “made him get up and take them to Burns cottage” as she’d heard Muhammad Ali was coming. When they arrived it seemed to the young George that hundreds of people were milling around on the grass at the back of the cottage trying to get a glimpse of the Heavyweight Champion of the World. George’s canny mother, however, realised that the great celebrity would sooner or later go into the cottage itself. “She grabbed us and pushed us in to the cottage”, he remembered. Whereupon the door slammed shut. George with his wee three-year-old sister, mother and father were inside with just a few others. Suddenly the door burst open and in swept Muhammad Ali with his entourage and all the press.
Ali then stepped over the barrier and sat on the seat pretending to write one of his legendary poems just like Robert Burns. He joked, “Bobbie Burns will be looking down seeing me sitting in his chair”. He spoke to George personally asking if he would like to be a fighter like him.
As you can imagine, George told this story as if it had happened yesterday and it was such a privilege to listen to such a brilliant story about an important part of the recent history of Burns Cottage. George had only recently discovered the photo of himself with Ali on the internet but had cherished the memory of meeting the great man ever since. I only hope he found his return visit to the scene memorable too.
Recent visitors to Burns cottage may have noticed something new. Our volunteers have been spending time demonstrating different 18th Century crafts inside the cottage. These crafts are all skills women in the 18th century would have been very familiar with and it is easy to imagine Agnes Burnes (Robert Burns’ mother) toiling away at these chores over the course of the day in the cottage.
One of the crafts underway is a project to make new rag rugs for the cottage. A group of volunteers have been busy starting this process over the winter and have just begun to demonstrate their new skills to visitors.
Rag rugs were popular because they were easy to make and materials were cheap. All you need to make your own is some hessian and lots of scrap material. Our volunteers started with a large hessian lining which would make up the back of the rug. Their first task was to draw a border which they wanted to fill with black material. Using old clothes kindly donated to us, our volunteers cut the material into strips to add to the rug.
The process is very simple: the material is simply pushed through the hessian using wooden pegs and because the material is tightly packed together it will stay in place.
The volunteers have now finished the black border and have been adding the colourful material to the centre of the rug. The material used for the rugs needs to be quite hard wearing and wool cloth is best; this makes the rugs heavy and warm.
The rag rug team will be demonstrating their crafts on Monday afternoon and we recommend popping in to watch them in action!
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.
Over the 19th century many families lived in Burns Cottage, running the house as a pub. Of some families we know little – names and dates, and not much more. Others, however, have been full of such characters that they have left their mark on history. One of these characters, the head of the last family to reside in the cottage, lived an eventful life that has been recorded by many historians. This man, Thomas Morley, has been described by historian Tom Quinn, who stated that ‘Morley was not just addicted to war, he was also addicted to the idea that he was a great man.‘
War shaped much of Morley’s life as he spent many years as a soldier. Born around 1831 in Nottingham, he joined the 17th Lancers as a young adult and fought in the Crimean War, surviving the charge of the Light Brigade during the battle of Balaclava in 1854. This event quickly became famous, catching the public emotion, as the men were ordered to charge towards a line of Russian guns with an extremely high fatality rate. Thomas Morley recorded his own experiences in a book he wrote in 1896, The Cause of the Charge of the Light Brigade. In this account he describes the loss of life stating that, ‘I am only certain of the figures for my own regiment. The 17th Lancers went into the engagement 145 and came out 45 mounted. Every officer of my squadron was killed or wounded.’
Morley became quickly aggrieved that his heroics in this battle went unrewarded and he is famed for writing continual letters, from 1857 to 1896, to the Queen and military officials asking for his actions to be honoured by a Victoria’s Cross. In order to substantiate his claim, he accrued accounts of fellow soldiers, such as this one from J.W Wightman:
‘We heard the familiar voice of Corporal Morley, of our regiment, a great, rough, bellowing man from Nottingham. He had lost his lance hat, and his long hair was flying out in the wind as he roared, ‘Coom ’ere! coom ’ere! Fall in, lads, fall in!’
Despite his disappointment in his post war treatment and his consequent early retirement from the 17th lancers, Morley voluntarily fought in the American Civil War for the Union side. During the war he became a prisoner inside the infamous Libby prison, an experience he recounted afterwards for the Washington Post:
‘During the time I was prisoner of war, General Cesnola saw me compelled to be vaccinated. The matter turned out bad, my left side and arm swelled to such a degree that I was compelled to lie on the floor for months, my brother officers believing I should die.”
Morley survived his experience though, and after the war he moved to Ayrshire where he was employed as drill troop sergeant in the Ayrshire Yeomanry, and lived at the Auchengree Foundry with his wife Katherine and his children. It is not until the late seventies that Morley took on the lease of Burns Cottage (a photo of the cottage in his time can be seen here) where he lived with his new (and much younger!) wife and his children, two of which were born in the cottage. His war experiences are very much revealed in the names he gave his children, Cesnolia and Cesnola after a Brigadier General from the Civil War, and Balaclava from the Crimean War!
Following their time at the cottage, Thomas Morley returned the States where he worked in the War Department housed at Ford’s Theatre. Three of his children were born in Washington DC and, sadly, 17 year old Cesnola died there in 1890. Another family tragedy occurred in 1893 when Thomas Morley himself was injured in the collapse of Ford’s Theatre and was, from then on, unable to work. The family returned to Britian in 1897 and Thomas Morley lived with his family in Nottingham until his death in Nottingham City Asylum in 1906.
The descriptions we have of him seem to suggest a strong, brave, stern man with a distinct northern English accent and with perhaps a tendency to self publicise and to wax lyrical about his military achievements and lack of official recognition. Of what happened to his children, little has yet been researched, though of Balaclava Morley we know that he decided to live in the U.S.A, where he died in Gardena, Los Angeles, in 1978.
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
This chair was made in 1858, just before the first centenary of Robert Burns’ birth. It is constructed from wood taken from the Kilmarnock printing press which produced the first edition of Burns’s Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect.
John Wilson, owner of the only printing press in the area, was a friend of Robert Burns and a statue of the two of them can be found in the location of the original printing press site. A copy of the printing press can be found in the Dick Institute, in Kilmarnock.
The carvings on the chair depict Luath and Caesar, from the poem The Twa Dogs.
In the centre of the high back you can find a carving of the Bard, after Naysmyth, with two of his most iconic characters, Tam O’Shanter and Souter Johnny on either side. In the centre there is a bas-relief carving showing Tam being chased by the with over the Brig O’Doon. Above this carving you can find a plaque with quotes from Burns’s poem, The Vision. On either side are spiral twist uprights which frame the carving. The chair is upholstered in a red velvet material which also covers the arm rests.
The history of the chair dates back from when the wood which is made of was part of the Kilmarnock Printing Press. Walter Graham had been John Wilson’s pressman for more than 40 years and he had worked on the first printing press brought into Ayrshire (thought to be that of Peter McArthur). The press which Graham had worked moved to Ayr and was used at the Wilson’s business until replaced by a more efficient machine.
It was in 1858 that Thomas M Gemmell, proprietor of the Ayr Advertiser (which had also been printed using the same press), decided to convert the press into an arm chair, wanting to create something ornamental and useful out of the fine oak.
Following Thomas M Gemmell’s death in 1889, the chair was presented to the Trustees of the Burns Monument. It was displayed in the Burns Cottage Museum and for a period of time was undergoing conservation treatment. It is now in museum stores, with the hope of displaying it later in the year.
In 1965 Burns Cottage welcomed a special guest. Muhammad Ali visited when he was in Scotland to fight Harvey ‘Cody’ Jones in Paisley. The World Heavyweight Champion fancied himself as a bit of a poet. He didn’t disappoint – as he sat in the cottage signing autographs and talking to the press he came up with this:
‘I’d heard of a man named Burns – supposed to be a poet;
But, if he was, how come I didn’t know it?
They told me his work was very, very neat,
So I replied: ‘But who did he ever beat?
Re-purposing and ‘up-cycling’ objects relating to Burns is an old tradition: here we have another chair, which is held in a private collection. Made in 1818 from the remains of the oak that composed the old roof of Alloway Kirk. Presented to Hugh, 12th Earl of Eglinton, it has references to the poet’s work.
The front seat rail features an inlaid plough and the inscription ‘In memory, Robt. Burns’. The brass panels are engraved with the poem Tam O’Shanter and signed Robb McWhinnie, Sculp, Ayr. (McWhinnie was an engraver and watchmaker in Ayr. Two cabinet makers – Jno. Underwood and Jas. Loumgair were responsible for its creation. The original home of this Burns chair was Eglinton Castle, Ayrshire, rebuilt in the Gothic ‘Castle Style’ by John Paterson 1798-1803.
Other upcycled objects include a glove box and jewel case, and a snuff box, made from the the original rafters of Burns Cottage and from an oak rafter from Alloway Kirk respectively.
Our most recent object which has been upcycled however can be found on Poet’s Path. The RBBM volunteers have worked hard to re-use some pallets to create a lovely bench which visitors can use when waiting on the buggy and read a selection of great books, stored in a handy section of the bench!
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.