Education

The ‘Heaven taught ploughman’?

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‘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.

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Scots language at RBBM

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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.

Tim Chalk 1

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.

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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.

Alloway 1759 – a Burns night to remember!

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Last weekend, the world celebrated the birthday of Scotland’s national Bard, and the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum joined in with gusto! The festivities actually began the previous weekend with the ‘Alloway Sessions’, two days of fabulous live music celebrating the songs of Burns and other Scottish favourites. With traditional folk music in the kitchen, a ceilidh band in the barn, and a fantastic programme of Burns music in the education pavilion, we were certainly treated to a wonderful array of performances and would like to thank everybody that took part and came along to support us!

A ceilidh band performs in the Barn

On Thursday 23rd January, our recreation of the first Burns Supper allowed visitors to step back in time to 1801, enjoy good food and meet costumed characters in the cottage. We would like to say a big thanks to our catering staff and to our volunteers and staff members who got involved with the re-enactment.

Two of our costumed actors help us recreate the first Burns Supper in the cottage kitchen

Into the weekend, and the morning of the 25th dawned with such torrential rain that we were all quite concerned about being washed away! Thankfully, the weather brightened up a little in the afternoon, clearing the way for the day’s events. Costumed volunteers in each room of the cottage told the story of the Burns family, with William and Agnes introducing the Barn and the Byre, John Murdoch telling us about his pupils in the Spence, and Aunty Betty spooking us all with scary stories in the kitchen. We even had a couple of genuine 18th century villagers visiting the cottage that day! Weekend guided walks and buggy trips were available as usual, and we also introduced two very successful ‘roving guides’ who were on hand to give anybody looking lost a nudge in the right direction.

An re-enactor dressed in a cream tailcoat and white stock neck tie

A re-enactor telling a crowd of visitors Ayrshire folk tales

Sunday again threatened to be a wash out, but thankfully the skies cleared at midday and the events were able to go ahead as planned. Once again, our costumed characters took to the cottage to introduce themselves to the floods of visitors that poured through the doors. In the pavilion, the education team worked hard to create a programme of children’s events for our youngest visitors, who tackled their own ‘Burns Super Supper Challenge’ and had the chance to win themselves a certificate. Our catering team set up a cafe in the education pavilion and kept our visitors well fed and watered with a variety of refreshments. We were also visited by a selection of owls from Hoots Houlets who set up residence in the barn, and the field outside the cottage played host to the World Haggis Hurling Championships, kindly sponsored by Pollok Williamson. Our volunteers ran a very popular tombola outside the education pavilion, and also staged some ‘pop-up’ recitations of Burns poetry around the museum and wider site. Finally, we were pleased to be able to welcome some musical entertainment in the forms of Ayr Pipe band and Forehill Primary’s ‘Alloway Rap’. 

A signpost for the Haggis Hurling Championships

A traditional food stall making fresh products

The tombola run by our volunteers, including prizes.

All in all, we at RBBM enjoyed our Alloway1759 celebrations immensely. We would like to say a big thank you to all of our fantastic volunteers who gave up their time to come and join us; to our catering, retail and event staff who worked tirelessly to ensure everything went ahead; to our education team who created a wonderful programme of activities for children; and to all of our external and internal helpers who contributed to making the event the success it was! But most of all we would like to thank those of you who visited us over the weekend and helped us make the Bard’s birthday the special occasion that it should be… we’ll see you next year!

A costumed character acting as an eighteenth century villager stands outside the cottage.