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!
Commonplace Books first became significant in early modern Europe as a way of compiling knowledge. ‘Commonplace’ is a translation of the Latin phrase locus communis which means ‘a theme or argument of general application’. This original definition has been expanded to now mean a collection of materials on a certain theme by an individual. Importantly, commonplace books are not diaries or journals, as they are structured thematically rather than chronologically, and do not necessarily relate to the personal lives of their compilers. By the 17th Century, commonplacing was prevalent enough to be formally taught at places such as Oxford University, and there is a strong tradition of literary figures such as John Milton, Mark Twain and Thomas Hardy compiling them.
There are two commonplace books belonging to Robert Burns in existence. The first, begun in 1783, was almost certainly not intended for publication, and entries cease in October 1785. The second, begun in Edinburgh in 1787 and sometimes referred to as the Edinburgh Journal, has many interesting entries including early versions of the Bard’s poems and musings on people he knew. On its first page, Burns explains his desire to record his experiences in Edinburgh (where he had just moved), and his observations on the people he has met, while they are still fresh in his mind. He quotes Gray, saying ‘half a word fixed upon… is worth a cart load of recollection’ showing his preference for the written word over memory.
Near the beginning of the Book, Burns starts a discussion relating to his patron, the Earl of Glencairn, and laments the fact that a man with little talent and high social status (the Earl) would naturally be treated with more respect than a man of genius but low social status due to an accident of birth. He says, with similar sentiment to his work ‘A Man’s a Man for a’ That’:
Imagine a man of abilities, his breast glowing with honest pride, conscious that men are born equal, still giving that “honor to whom honor is due”; he meets as a Great man’s table a Squire Something, or a Sir Somebody; he knows the noble landlord at heart pays gives the Bard or what- ever he is, a degree o share of his good wishes beyond any at table perhaps, yet how will it mortify him to see a fellow whose abilities would scarcely have made an eight penny Taylor and whose heart is not worth three farthings meet with attention and notice that are forgot to the Son of Genius and Poverty?
Burns does confess to being torn, however, because Glencairn was so pleasant to him when they met.
Also near the start of the book is a first draft of the song ‘Rantin’ Rovin’ Robin’ referring to the incident in which the gable end of Burns Cottage blew down during a storm in the first few weeks of Robert’s life. Interestingly, in this version, the opening line is ‘There was a birkie born in Kyle,’ as opposed to ‘there was a lad was born in Kyle’. There are then two versions of a poem written in Carse Hermitage on June 1st 1788, with a note beside the first draft instructing the reader to instead read the second draft further into the book. There is also a draft of his more famous poem, On seeing a wounded hare, along with other notes on his works.
Burns’s second commonplace book is on display in our museum collection and is a fascinating insight into some of the Bard’s personal thoughts, and also on how he drafted his poems. We wonder how many of our readers keep scrapbooks of this kind?
The creative talents of Robert Burns extended beyond his poetry and songs when he decided to design his own seal in 1794. In the medieval era a badge like this would have had aristocratic or militaristic origins. So why did a humble farmer poet, who was a believer in love rather than war, want a coat of arms? Burns’s creation can be seen imprinted in crimson wax and on his seal matrix within the exhibition collection at Robert Burns Birthplace Museum. This seal was a public declaration that Burns considered himself equal to any nobleman, and this would have given a clear signal to any that would have seen it. This was an important token of personal and familial identity for Burns, which he would have imprinted onto his letters.
Burns decided to incorporate two mottoes within his seal. ‘Wood-notes wild’ is inscribed across the top of the seal, whilst along the bottom there is the phrase ‘Better a wee bush than nae bield’ (shelter). The first inscription could be signalling how nature has often been an important inspiration in his life, both visually and musically. He often said his wife Jean had the sweetest wood-notes wild singing voice. In the second motto Burns could be highlighting his fears of homelessness that frequently haunted him towards the end of his life. This reminds us to respect Mother Nature, as she can be a refuge for a wee mousie to all mankind as well. In the centre of these two mottoes Burns has placed a shepherd’s crook and pipe, signalling his lifelong connection to nature through his agricultural background.
One of the main elements in his design is a Holly Tree at the bottom. Perhaps Robert Burns wanted to display his love of nature prominently, or perhaps there is another layer of meaning to consider. In Celtic mythology a Holly Tree was a guardian in the dark, winter months. It was seen by the people as a symbol of peace and goodwill. Furthermore, the Druids believed that Holly possessed protective qualities and that it could guard against bad luck and evil spirits. Therefore, this could be Burns recalling his time as a child when he heard stories of folklore and superstition from his mother and Betty Davidson.
A woodlark is a symbol of cheerfulness and joy even in the worst of times, something that Burns would have related to as his own spirits rose and fell throughout his life. But the similarity between Burns and the woodlark does not end there, since this particular song bird can mimic and remember other birds’ songs. Burns was a great lover of songs and music since boyhood, so in order to preserve the traditional songs of his beloved Scotland; Burns dedicated himself to collecting them. These were gathered together and published in an anthology called Scots Musical Museum by James Johnson over several years.
In the closing decade of the eighteenth century, discussion on republicanism and equality were politically rife questions. Robert Burns did not meet the requirements to vote; as such he used his pen and voice to challenge the political authority of the time. In his seal matrix Burns has placed a woodlark upon a branch of bay leaves. In Roman mythology bay leaves were treasured by the Gods, as their crowns of bay leaves connoted their high status and glory. By placing a woodlark, a song bird like himself on top of the branch, Burns could be trying to say his voice has greater potency then the established authority. In addition to this, it could also be interpreted as a form of mockery, as a single songbird could undermine the glory of those in power with his voice alone.
Burns deliberately incorporated multiple layers of meaning within several of his poetical works, and this mastery of disguising his true intention could also be said for his seal. Did he choose these symbols as a way of showing the world how he saw himself or how others saw him? Whether you believe these symbols have multiple meanings or not, it still provides an insight into how Burns wanted to be portrayed and remembered. He was a lover of nature and song, and even in his height of popularity amongst the literati of Edinburgh he never forgot his farming roots, which is evident in the shepherd’s pipe and crook in the centre. Nevertheless Robert Burns was a man not afraid to aspire beyond his supposed class, and this small seal and wax impression is evidence of this.
By Kirstie Bingham
In November 2009, a small book containing 14 Burns poems and songs was presented to astronaut Nick Patrick by ten young Scots taking part in the Scottish Space School. This book was to make a 5.7 million mile journey the following February, completing 217 orbits of the Earth on a two week long mission to the International Space Station.
The Scottish Space School is an initiative delivered by the University of Strathclyde, designed to encourage young people to consider careers in science and engineering. These particular students were taking part in a trip to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas, where they were able to hand the book over to Nick Patrick. Originally, the book was given to the Space School by Alan Archibald, a distant relative of Jean Armour, Burns’s wife. It made its out of this world trip to celebrate the Year of Homecoming in 2010 aboard NASA’s STS 130 Endeavour spacecraft.
The book is now part of our museum collection, alongside a photograph of Nick who said:
‘It was a real honour to have met such an enthusiastic group of young people, not only to continue the inspirational work undertaken by the Scottish Space School, but to also help spread the timeless poetry of Robert Burns.’
This blog was written by Iona Fisher, a work experience student from Carrick Academy.
In 1788 Burns trained to be an excise officer and was an excise man until he died in 1796, as well as farming in Ellisland. Excise men (also known as gaugers) covered large areas of Scotland’s countryside and their job was to inspect and record taxable materials, such as malted grain, soap, candles and paper, before and after they were manufactured. To do this Burns would use dipping rods to measure liquids and scales to weigh dried materials. Burns was aware that people did not necessarily like excise men, so he carried a pistol around with him to protect himself.
Also in RBBM’s collection are Robert Burns’s duelling pistols: http://www.burnsmuseum.org.uk/collections/object_detail/3.8557.a-c
With Robert Burns’ health condition getting worse, he moved back to Dumfries to live his last few days. On his deathbed he gave his physician – Dr William Maxwell, his pair of duelling pistols. He died in Dumfries on the 21st of July 1796 from a heart disease. Roberts’s wife, Jean, gave birth to her last child the day of Burns’s funeral and she named him Maxwell after Robert’s physician. The pistols were donated to the Burns Monument Trust by William Hugh Fleming in 1987 and they are now in the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum.
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