The final blog post in our series written by two placement students from Glasgow University is on the Beggar’s Badge in the museum.
It doesn’t matter who you are, where you live or what you do for a living: you will have come across beggars in some context. Whether that experience is witnessing people begging on the streets of a busy city, or being approached by someone asking for money on public transport, begging is one of the few features which appears to be current in most cultures. Tolerated in some countries, looked down on in others; the presence of begging appears to be both a problem for society and a means of survival for individuals. With the high population of beggars seen today in streets all over the world, it is easy to justify not financially helping individuals due to the overwhelming size of the community. However, perhaps it is time we stopped looking for change in our wallets and purses and instead look at the change we can spare from ourselves.
The beggar’s badge on display in the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum only emphasizes how constant this problem is in society, and the different attempts that have been made to ‘fix’, or at least control, it. It seems quite bewildering that we have managed to go for so many centuries, with no success of fixing this issue. But how can it be fixed?! Alongside the badge in the museum is an edition of The Big Issue, a modern-day scheme which provides a ‘hands-up’ approach to aid solving the problem, giving people in hopeless positions an opportunity to find hope through their own actions. With these items paired together in the museum, the timelessness of the problem of urban poverty and homelessness becomes even more prominent. Though the modern-day scheme of The Big Issue magazine, the people in these vulnerable life-states are empowered, there is still a separation in the wider community today. In all these attempts to tackle the ‘big issue’ are we really just avoiding the issue at the core of the problem? Perhaps the issue is not the presence of beggars on the street, but instead our attitudes towards them?
Today, attitudes toward beggars are not what most people would describe as positive. Often avoided and ignored, those sitting on the street asking for help are subject to both financial and social poverty, in the lack of acknowledgement they are given. Here in the UK street begging is illegal, making it not only socially frowned upon but lawfully as well.
With this in mind, it seems that Burns’s poem ‘The Jolly Beggars’ challenges this view today. It not only goes so far as to acknowledge this community of people, but also to romanticize their situation and their ‘freedom’ from responsibility. How different this view of the homeless is from the one displayed today. Though Burns is obviously not representing the views of his community through this poem, he is providing a new take on the begging community that has for so long been looked down on in so many different cultures. In a documentary by Power and People, Barnaby Phillips investigates the differences that begging has on the culture in Sweden and in the Philippines. At the end of this 30 minute film, Phillips states that despite the differences in how the issue is handled in both countries, the common denominator of both cultures is the ‘growing gap between the rich and poor’ in society. So, if the real issue is the class divide in our society, is this not something that we have the power to improve? Or are we all out of spare change?
By Kathryn Thompson
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