On the BBC’s website it is listed that there are 118 poems written by our beloved bard Robert Burns with the theme of nature, however, I would argue that there is so many more as nature – a subject which was very close to his heart – is inextricably intertwined in a number of his works.
The reason nature is a genre featured so heavily within Burns’s works can be traced back to his upbringing and lifestyle. Being born in the but-and-ben Burns Cottage in Alloway, he was introduced to the ways of farmlife from childhood. He worked with his family closely there and at multiple farms thereafter such as Mount Oliphant and Lochlea Farm. Burns and his brother Gilbert even farmed at Mossgiel Farm when his father died. He did not just have connections with the land in his younger years but as an adult as well as he worked as a farmer alongside his career as a poet and songwriter. His last farming endevaour was at Ellisland Farm in Dumfrieshire. His rural upbringing and argicultural employment earned him his nickname as “The Ploughman Poet” by the artistocratic society of Edinburgh. Burns lived in Edinburgh for only two years – the city which he described as “noise and nonsense” – to return to his rural roots.
Firstly, I would ask: what is nature? It is defined as the phenomena of the physical world collectively, including plants, animals and the landscape. Burns did not neglect any of these three aspects and used them frequently as the inspiration of his works. He did various works which refer to plants such as To a Mountain Daisy, My Luve is Like a Red Red Rose and The Rosebud. Some of my personal favourite works of Burns which talk about other environmental features include Sweet Afton (about a river) and My Heart’s in the Highlands (which of course is about one of the most rugged, scenic and breath-taking landscapes in the world).
However, what this blog will mainly focus on is that Burns was most notably an animal lover. This is conveyed in his works On Glenriddell’s Fox Breaking his Chain, The Wounded Hare, Address to a Woodlark, The Twa Dogs, To a Louse and the renowned and much adored To a Mouse. This last poem – which was written in 1786 and published in the Kilmarnock Edition – is a perfect example of Burns’s humanity as this poem reflects his concern for animal welfare, his consciousness of humankind’s effect on nature and has empathy for a small creature which is widely considered as “vermin”. This was very ahead of his time and is a concern that is currently proving to be a huge issue as more and more animals become extinct because of human’s destructive actions in the twenty-first century.
The Twa Dogs poem, written in 1796, is another great work of Burns’s which gives the two dogs human-like intellect and the ability to express themselves as it has an upper-class pedigree, Caesar, and an ordinary working collie, Luath, who chat about the differing lives of the social classes. The name “Luath” comes from Ossian’s epic poem Fingal. The Twa Dogs immortalizes Burns’s own dog Luath who came to a cruel end. On the morning of 13th February 1784 Robert and his sister Isabella were distressed to find the poisoned body of Robert’s dog Luath outside their door – the act of a vengeful neighbour. Arguably, Burns intended this poem as a memorial to his canine friend.
An example of one of Burn’s lesser-known poems is The Wounded Hare which was written in 1789. Below are the first three stanzas out of five that complete this poem:
Inhuman man! curse on thy barb’rous art,
And blasted be thy murder-aiming eye;
May never pity soothe thee with a sigh,
Nor ever pleasure glad thy cruel heart!
Go live, poor wand’rer of the wood and field!
The bitter little that of life remains:
No more the thickening brakes and verdant plains
To thee a home, or food, or pastime yield.
Seek, mangled wretch, some place of wonted rest,
No more of rest, but now thy dying bed!
The sheltering rushes whistling o’er thy head,
The cold earth with thy bloody bosom prest.
The word choice makes the moral message of this poem is clear: Burns is vehemently opposed to shooting. The passion and intensity of Burns’s thoughts on this is quite surprising as one would think that as a farmer he would be used to or even dependent on killing animals, however, meat consumption was not as prominent in the eighteenth century as farm animals were only killed for food in old age or special occasions. The family’s provision of milk, cheese, butter and wool came directly from their own animals, and the health and wellbeing of these creatures were paramount. Furthermore they would share the same roof over their heads with them, thus creating strong bonds with their farm animals, and apparently Burns lost his temper with a farm-worked once when the man did not cut the potatoes small enough and Burns was frantic that the beasts might choke on them.
Below is the third stanza of the powerful poem On Glenriddell’s Fox Breaking His Chain written in 1791:
Glenriddell! Whig without a stain,
A Whig in principle and grain,
Could’st thou enslave a free-born creature,
A native denizen of Nature?
How could’st thou, with a heart so good,
(A better ne’er was sluiced with blood!)
Nail a poor devil to a tree,
That ne’er did harm to thine or thee?
Again, you can clearly see that Burns is opposed to the cruel treatment of a “free-born creature” and is in disbelief of the actions of the good-hearted Glenriddell’s actions.
However, one could argue that nature was so deeply rooted in Burns’s psyche – and he quite literally was surrounded by it living on a farm – that he could not escape from being inspired to write about it. An example of this is in his masterpiece Tam o’ Shanter. It is an epic narrative poem written in 1790 which features folklore, superstition, witchcraft and gothic themes… but it also has one of his most poignant and beautiful quotes in which Burns really philosophically details the nature of nature:
But pleasures are like poppies spread,
You seize the flower, its bloom is shed;
Or like the snow falls in the river,
A moment white–then melts for ever;
Or like the borealis race,
That flit ere you can point their place;
Or like the rainbow’s lovely form
Evanishing amid the storm.–
Nae man can tether time or tide;
The hour approaches Tam maun ride;
Burns is saying that nature’s beauty is wistful, forever-changing and is out of the control of humankind as he insightfully states “nae man can tether time or tide”.
In terms of this poem, another point is worth mentioning: the hero of this tale is a horse. Again Burns’s admiration and respect for animals is encompassed in the heroism of Meg, Tam’s horse, who against all odds does get him home in one piece although the same cannot be said for her. Burns was a brilliant horse-rider and would have relied heavily on his four-legged companion as a mode of transportation to socialise, to plough fields and to work as an excise man.
All in all Burns would have been regarded nowadays as an advocate for animal welfare and his works which have animals or nature at their core reflect his love for nature and are some of his most passionate, most thought-provoking and most heart-rending.
By Parris Joyce (Learning Trainee)
From the moment of Burns’s death in 1796, a hunger to obtain original versions of his works, letters and personal items began. Naturally, this led to a number of unscrupulous individuals creating forgeries, or passing off unconnected objects as having belonged to the Bard. Few were as prolific or notorious however as one Alexander Howland Smith, known as ‘Antique Smith’, a Scottish document forger of the late C19th whose efforts are now collection items in their own right.
Born in 1859, Smith was forging documents in Edinburgh by the 1880s, and began selling his forgeries in 1886. He frequented second hand bookshops, purchasing volumes of old books with blank fly leaves, which he then insisted upon carrying home himself rather than asking for them to be delivered – despite their weight (a practise many bookshop owners found strange!). From these blank fly leaves, Smith forged poems, autographs and historical letters purportedly written by a number of historical figures including Mary Queen of Scots, Walter Scott and Burns himself. He gave his documents an antique appearance by dipping them in weak tea!
Things started to go wrong for Smith when manuscript collector James MacKenzie put some of the letters in his ‘Rillbank Collection’ up for auction in 1891, and the auctioneer himself cast doubt on their authenticity by refusing to verify their provenance. A little while later MacKenzie published a letter, supposedly written by Burns, in the Cumnock Express. After a bit of research, one reader discovered that the recipient of this supposed letter, John Hill, had never actually existed, throwing doubt on the entire Rillbank Collection. MacKenzie later published two ‘Burns’ poems in the same paper, only to discover that one of them had been written when Burns was only 7 by an entirely different poet! Other forgeries were discovered in the collection of an American, who had purchased letters from Edinburgh manuscript collector James Stillie.
By now, word was spreading about the forgeries. In 1892, The Edinburgh Evening Dispatch published an article on the issue, and a reader recognised the handwriting on the facsimiles included as that of Smith, at that time working as chief clerk for a lawyer, Thomas Henry Ferrie. Smith was duly arrested and his trial began on June 26th 1893.
Smith was charged with selling forgeries under false pretences. He was found guilty, but the jury recommended leniency and he was sentenced to 12 months. Experts later said that some of his forgeries were not of particularly high quality – often they were dated after the death of their supposed writer, or created using modern paper or writing tools. It is more than possible that many of those who sold his forgeries on would have been fully aware that they were not genuine. It is unknown exactly how many of ‘Antique’ Smith’s forgeries are still around, but we do know that we have some of them in our collection!
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.
While many women in Robert Burns’s life came from the same poor and rural background as he did, one lady he fell in love with came from a much higher social strata. This lady was Agnes McLehose, (or Clarinda, as Burns called her). Agnes was part of the capital’s wealthy society and, through this; she met our bard in 1887. But what did the high class ladies of Burn’s lifetime look like? Here we have 6 unusual facts that lie behind 18th century female fashions!
1) No pants.
In the 18th century ladies might wear a long chemise, a corset, and then layers of petticoats, but no pants would feature in this ensemble of undergarments. Pants for women do not come in until the early 19th century, and even then they are split at the crotch, and tied at the waist: hence why we say ‘pair of pants.’
2) Mouse skin eyebrows.
Timorous beasties! It was fashionable for ladies to glue eyebrows made of mouse skin to their forehead. Why? This was largely due to make up practises at the time causing hair loss, which leads to fun fact number three:
3) Lead white paint
Ever wished to have that wonderful contrast between white skin and blushing cheeks? Well ladies would have achieved it by daubing white lead paint onto their faces, followed by red carmine (also containing lead). While this might have given you a temporary beautiful complexion, it would also have slowly poisoned you and perhaps led to hair loss.
4) Dimity Pockets
Pockets sewn into clothing arrive late in history. In the medieval period, people would string their bags and pouches from their belts. By this time in history, however, pockets for ladies were separate, and had ties attached so they could fasten them under their dress and around their waist.
Powdered wigs became very fashionable in this period, for both men and women. Marie Antoinette would become very famous for her towering ‘pouffe’ (said at one point to have reached a height of 6ft!). For those who could afford these wigs, they had to be treated with care, while particularly huge wigs would involve sleeping upright with two or three pillows.
Where’er that place be priests ca’ hell,
Where a’ the tones o’ misery yell,
An’ ranked plagues their numbers tell,
In dreadfu’ raw,
Thou, Toothache, surely bear’st the bell,
Amang them a’!
Address to a Toothache
Toothache was an unwanted visitor for rich and poor alike, with figures, such as George Washington, known for their fake teeth! So our ladies of the 18th century would probably hide behind a fan rather than flash their pearly whites. If you could afford it, you could buy Ivory dentures, but those often rotted quickly leaving a bad smell.
So behind the silks and embroidered dresses, it is clear that our 18th century ladies have a lot they keep hidden! As to whether Clarinda ever sported a ‘pouffe’ wig, or daubed on white paint for the perfect complexion, we will never really know. Sadly, aside from a silhouette, there are no contemporary paintings, or anything remaining from her wardrobe. Yet, by looking at the secrets on the 18th century wardrobe, we can create a picture of what Edinburgh ladies might have looked like in the time of Robert Burns.
Robert Burns has written many different love poems, and beautiful songs, but what has been his inspiration for such poems and songs?
Well to start us off on this journey through the extensive love life of our Robert Burns, you should probably know that Robert was no saint when it came to the affairs of the heart, he went from woman to woman and relationship to relationship to find his perfect bonnie lass.
At the beginning of his path through the mysteries of the opposite sex there was Nellie, she was considered to be the first girl he ever fell for and certainly not the last but she started him off on the road of love and romance. Robert was only fifteen when he met Nell and he wrote a song for her called ‘Handsome Nell’.
O Once I lov’d a bonnie lass,
An’ aye I love her still,
An’ whilst that virtue warms my breast,
I’ll love my handsome Nell.
As bonnie lasses I hae seen,
And mony full as braw;
But for a modest gracefu’ mein,
The like I never saw.
A bonny lass I will confess,
Is pleasant to the e’e,
But without some better qualities
She’s no a lass for me.
But Nelly’s looks are blythe and sweet,
And what is best of a’,
Her reputation is compleat,
And fair without a flaw;
She dresses ay sae clean and neat,
Both decent and genteel;
And then there’s something in her gait
Gars ony dress look weel.
A gaudy dress and gentle air
May slightly touch the heart,
But it’s innocence and modesty
That polishes the dart.
‘Tis this in Nelly pleases me,
‘Tis this enchants my soul;
For absolutely in my breast
She reigns without controul.
This song was believed to have been written in 1774 and speaks of feminine grace and innocence. This girl was the one that started Robert’s fascination with the opposite sex.
No doubt that Robert had several different women in his life between Nell and his courtships to Jean Armour, however there are only records of the more influential on his romantic radar. Jean Armour was the lucky lass that Robert eventually settled down with and married, however it was not all happy, as at first it was just a fling together in 1785, but then Jean fell pregnant to Robert. She was then taken away to Paisley by her father to prevent her from being with Robert but was later called to admit that she bore an illegitimate child to Robert, from that point Robert and Jean began to court.
The story of the Ayrshire rascal does not end here however, he then met ‘Highland Mary’ later in 1785 and Robert fell for her head over heels instantly. He wrote a song for her called ‘The Highland Lassie’
Nae gentle dames tho’ ne’er sae fair
Shall ever be my Muse’s care;
Their titles a’ are empty show,
Gie me my Highland Lassie, O.
Within the glen sae bushy, O,
Aboon the plain sae rashy, O,
I set me down wi’ right gude will
To sing my Highland Lassie, O.
O were yon hills and vallies mine,
Yon palace and yon gardens fine;
The world then the love should know
I bear my Highland Lassie, O.-
But fickle Fortune frowns on me,
And I maun cross the raging sea;
But while my crimson currents flow,
I love my Highland Lassie, O.-
Altho’ thro’ foreign climes I range,
I know her heart will never change;
For her bosom burns with honor’s glow,
My faithful Highland Lassie, O-
For her I’ll dare the billow’s roar;
For her I’ll trace a distant shore;
That Indian wealth may lustre throw
Around my Highland Lassie, O.-
She has my heart, she has my hand,
By secret Truth and Honor’s band:
Till the mortal stroke shall lay me low,
I’m thine, my Highland Lassie, O.-
Robert loved this woman with his heart and soul, he asked her to elope with him to Jamaica, and she had intended to but alas it was not meant to be, she died in 1786 after falling seriously ill. However, before she died she and Robert had exchanged Bibles, and it was said that they may also have exchanged vows; however no conclusive evidence exists to prove this is correct. So Robert returned to his lass Jean Armour to continue courtship.
The next woman I am going to talk about is Agnes McLehose, but before I do I should comment on how Robert was supposed to be courting Jean Armour at the time while he was sending letters and visiting Agnes. Agnes had previously been married before she met Burns, and although her and her husband were separated, she was technically still married and so she still upheld her vows, and never touched another man.
Robert met Agnes in 1787 while in Edinburgh on publishing business. He quickly discovered that Agnes was a lover of poems and different writings which interested Robert. Agnes and Robert started to write to one another, but not long after Robert was involved in a carriage accident and was bed ridden for a short time. They exchanged many letters which became more intense and intimate as time progressed. Robert would talk of Jean Armour behind her back saying that he could not stand her, and he found her disgusting compared to Agnes, and Agnes would talk of her situation in being a married woman but wanting to be with Robert (some of these letters are in our museum http://www.burnsmuseum.org.uk/collections). After a while they began to exchange visits, this is where their relationship turned sour as Robert wanted to be with Agnes completely but Agnes could not forget her vows which tied her. Not too long after, Robert looked to other woman around him, one such being a servant girl of Agnes’ who bore a child for Robert. From that point on it was over, Robert left her, and she went to seek her husband, whom she found in Jamaica with another woman, who had given him children. So she returned to be with Robert but was too late and he had married Jean Armour.
After Robert’s affair with Highland Mary and Agnes McLehose Robert returned to Jean Armour ready finally to commit himself and in 1788 he married her and was with her until the day he died. Jean Armour gave Robert nine children in total although most of them did not survive very long and died in infancy. He did truly love Jean Armour in the end and was happy with her as a wife.
And so the tale of Roberts’s love life seemed like a never ending story of tragedy and romance, not to mention a lot of beautiful young ladies but in the end he never could live without his Jean that stole his heart.
By Fiona Jones
Volunteer Learning Assistant
This nineteenth century engraving shows Robert Burns reading ‘a Winter Night’ at the Duchess of Gordon’s house in Edinburgh, in 1787. The Duchess of Gordon was described as ‘the empress of fashion’, and this image is a snapshot of Burns’ ‘big break’ in polite Edinburgh society.
In the audience you can spot leading philosophers such as Dugald Stewart (lounging with a hankie) and Adam Ferguson (direct left of Burns). Burns’ aristocratic patron the Duchess of Gordon is sitting in the foreground. One of Burns’ literary heroes, Henry Mackenzie is standing with his back to the door. You can find William Creech, Burns’ publisher, peeking out next to Henry Mackenzie. The butler with his back to the group, on the far right of the image, is Willie Marshall, a well-known composer of strathspeys and reels.
Using the caption at the bottom of this picture (and a magnifying glass!) you can use your detective skills to identify several other people in this picture who supported Robert Burns in various ways. Some of Burns’ appeal in this high society context – which this picture illustrates – must have been due to the novelty value of the ‘heaven-taught ploughman’. Certainly the harsh rural winter in the poem Burns is pictured reciting would have seemed far away from this comfortable salon.
‘List’ning the doors an’ winnocks rattle,
I thought me on the ourie cattle,
Or silly sheep, wha bide this brattle
O’ winter war,
And thro’ the drift, deep-lairing, sprattle
Beneath a scar.’
– A Winter Night