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)
‘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.
Once I started working at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum I realised that this is only one small part of the wider Burns landscape. Part of this landscape, which I had not visited until working here at the museum, was the Bachelors Club in Tarbolton. The Bachelors Club has a different feel from Burns cottage – you have more of a sense of Robert Burns as an animated, creative and sometimes mischievous young man.
The building itself is a 17th century house in Tarbolton, Ayrshire and is just a short drive from the cottage in Alloway. In its restored state it shows an 18th century domestic interior from when John Richard and his family lived in the lower floor. The upstairs was used for functions; such as the country dancing lessons which Robert Burns enjoyed much to the distain of his father!
When you visit the Bachelors Club you start the tour on the ground floor in the 18th century interior and as you sit in the room it feels like you have stepped back in time. With little traffic noise all you can hear is the creak of people sitting on the chairs, the upstairs floor boards, and the ticking of the clock. As it was pointed out to us by Alistair, our guide, the building has a long history which both pre and superseded Burns. But it is Burns’s connection to the property which has ultimately saved it.
To gain access to the upper floor you head back out and up the external stair way, the Bachelors Club itself was in the first floor room which is the same footprint as the two rooms downstairs. The upstairs space was reopened as one room when the National Trust for Scotland took on the property; prior to this the area had been divided into two rooms with a partition wall.
The space is full of Burns memorabilia, relics and nicknacks, after a few minutes of exploring I found my favourite objects – some clay pipes! While these might not seem exciting, I am a fan of them, and I loved the way they were all hanging higgity on the wall next to one of the two fireplaces. The fire places are really interesting too – Alistair explained to us that it was thought that the circles on the floor around the fire place are to help protect the inhabitants from evil spirits. This is because the fire place is always ‘open’ compared to the windows and doors which can be shut. This little bit of superstition is kept going by the staff at the property for ‘auld’ times sake.
This space is where the Club was formed by Robert, his brother Gilbert, and some friends from the parish. Other than the images of Burns and his poems on the wall you could really be sitting in the room waiting on the Bachelors Club arriving for their meeting. The Club itself is very interesting, what I found most interesting was the questions proposed for debating by the members.
The first question is one which maybe reflects the young male membership – as a poor farmer with no money, if you have a choice between a rich woman with no personality and a poor woman you love who would you choose? (Robert reportedly debated for the girl with no money!) Topics they also discussed were issues around politics, education and philosophy.
While in the cottage you experience Burns’s life as a child, the Bachelors Club introduces you to the Burns who we think we know. I felt like Burns could just saunter into the Club and start debating.
This gem in the Burns landscape is one which should not be missed, the amazing atmosphere and the knowledgeable staff brings this little building to life.
Opening times Friday to Tuesday 1pm to 5pm. This property has seasonal openings, and this year (2015) is open through to the 30th September. For more information, please click!
In 1791 Robert Burns’ younger brother, Gilbert, got married. For Gilbert’s wedding present Robert gave a somewhat bizarre gift – a wax ornamental apple. In an attempt to rationalise the possible thought process behind this present we have interpreted in diary form the thoughts that might have been going on in Robert’s head as the wedding approached.
It’s Gilbert’s wedding soon an’ I really need tae think about what I’m goin tae get him. Gilbert and I are gey close, and I’d love tae get him something special. First I thought about books, you know – he was awfy keen on books, just like me as a lad. That Hannibal book that I loved, I sure I mind he was fair intae the story himsel’, or was it just me that really liked it? Jean tells me that while books may count as special tae me, its nae abodie that feels that way.
Ellisland, April 1791
I was sitting by the fire the other nicht when I saw Jean yaisen the bannock toaster we got for oor wedding, and I started tae think on getting Gilbert wan o’ those, but Jean says that’s nae guid – she’s heard that some other billie has already got them wan.
Ellisland, May 1791
It’s getting right close tae the wedding now and I still haven’t got Gilbert oniething for it. I’ve thought of so many things: shaving kit, coffee cups, tea cups, books, farm stuff, but nane o’ those things are that special. Jean’s been getting on at me again. She says if I don’t buy him something soon, she’ll go out herself and get it. Ah, if only I was wi’ my sweet Clarinda! I’m sure she wouldn’t hassle me in such a fashion.
Ellisland, May 1791
Well, wi’ a week till the wedding, I’ve finally got somethin. Jean’s no happy – she says it’s a weird gift and that she cannae think what brought me tae buy it. Still, what’s wrong wi an’ ornamental wax apple? Gilbert likes apples – he likes them straight fae the tree, and stewed in a pie, so why wouldn’t he like a wee wax wan on his mantel piece? But that’s wumman for ye.
Ellisland, June 1791
Sadly it is quite likely we will never know why Robert Burns gave his brother such a peculiar gift. Was it an inside joke? Did Gilbert just have a weird taste in interior design? What do you think?
Written by Mhairi Gowans, Learning Intern
Hornbooks like these would have been instrumental in the early education of young Robert and his brother Gilbert. Although the back is made of wood, the front is made of cow horn, polished to create transparency. This meant that the objects were not only extremely sturdy, but also made out of a readily available material. Robert’s father, William Burnes, was dedicated to the education of his sons, and engaged private tutor John Murdoch to teach them. The hornbooks would have been worn around the wrist during the day whilst the boys were at work on the farm, and would have contained Bible passages and sections of text that needed to be memorised for the evening’s lesson. Unfortunately for Robert, they could also be used as a vessel for delivering a clip round the ear, particularly if the young Bard was engaging in his favourite pastime of swinging on the back legs of his chair! Murdoch was impressed with the progress of both children, although surprisingly remarked on Robert’s lack of musical ear. Later in life he had this to say about his young wards:
‘Gilbert always appeared to me to possess a more lively imagination, and to be more of a wit, than Robert. I attempted to teach them a little church-music. Here they were left far behind by all the rest of the school. 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.’
This all goes to show that even teachers can be wrong sometimes!