Burnsiana

#ilovemuseums because of the unique collections!

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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”[1] 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.

Piece of the coffin/kist of Burns. Object no.3.4562
Piece of the coffin/kist of Burns. Object no.3.4562
Bracelet made of hair with lock of Mrs. Jean Burns hair in the clasp. Object no. 3.8512
Bracelet made of hair with lock of Mrs. Jean Burns hair in the clasp. Object no. 3.8512
hawthorn bush which was described by Robert as a trysting (meeting) place for sweethearts in his song When wild War’s deadly Blast was blawn: Object no.  3.4564
Hawthorn bush which was described by Robert as a trysting (meeting) place for sweethearts in his song When wild War’s deadly Blast was blawn: Object no. 3.4564

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.

Necklace made from wood from Kirk Alloway. Object no. 3.4531.
Necklace made from wood from Kirk Alloway. Object no. 3.4531.

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).[2]

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.

Object no. 3.5501
Lock of Robert Burns’s hair taken at his death. Object no. 3.5501

The world of Burns souvenirs and relics is vast and this only highlights some of the more unique… and interesting aspects of Burnsiana!

[1] Mackay,.J.A Burnsiana (1988)

[2]  Lutz,.D Relics of Death in Victorian Literature and Culture (2015).

by Catriona, Learning Intern

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RBBM Year Round Up

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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.

Girl about to hurl a haggis
• 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.

Youth brass band
• 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.
  • Children displaying recycled craftsJuly 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.
Painting of a sleeping fox• 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.
Large Christmas wreath• 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!