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.
“A pity you didn’t have a sheet of paper and paints with you Andy. Isn’t that a great picture?”
“I’ll store it in my memory and send it on to you when I have it finished”
So went the conversation between young Andrew (Andy) S Winton and his uncle as they surveyed with some satisfaction, field of ripening crops on the latter’s farm prior to World War II. This is detailed in Mr Winton’s fascinating memoir ‘Open Road to Faraway: Escapes from Nazi POW Camps 1941-45’ (Cualann Press, 2001)
Andrew Winton was a lover of the Scottish countryside, an art student and a devoted fan of Robert Burns. It was this artist’s ability to recall scenes so vividly to memory that helped sustain him through the dark days of WWII. Drafted into the RAF, Andy became part of a bomber crew. Shot down in 1941, he was to spend the next four years in POW camps. His desire to see his beloved Scotland again drove Andy to escape no less than four times, once in 1942, twice in 44 and the fourth occasion in 1945, this occasion being a success.
That same ability to recall scenes means that – at times – Open Road to Faraway is a difficult read as the author describes scenes of horror and brutality in war-torn occupied Europe. He retells the horrors of Buchenwald where he and a fellow escapee were beaten and tortured as part of a Gestapo interrogation, or Brno, where he witnessed the brutal murder of Gypsies. Difficult to read, but captivating and compelling none the less, these horrors left their mark on young Andy who suffered flashback inspired blackouts in the years following the war.
His final escape in early 1945 saw him picked up by an advancing Russian tank column near the Oder delta on the freezing, winter Baltic. Andy, along with his escape companion Pete, were taken along, with the view that they would be useful in communicating with any British service personnel the Russians might encounter in liberated POW camps. It was during this period that a truly remarkable thing happened. For those of us in the Robert Burns world, the love that Russians have for our national Bard is well known. As a Scot, Andy was drafted once again into service, this time as a performer at a Burns Night celebration held by the Soviet troops in the tank column! As the night drave on, Andy recited ‘To a Mouse, ‘Red, Red Rose’, ‘A Man’s a Man for A That’ and then he finished off in a sung duet of ‘Ye Banks and Braes’ with a female Russian Tank Commander providing a ‘Jean’ to his ‘Robert’!
This bizarre, even slightly surreal event took place amidst the greatest horror of the 20th Century, yet, a shared love of a poet provided comfort and some shared understanding in a frozen hell. Mr Winton’s own words sum it up best:
‘…I was completely shattered. Here was I, shut in with a group of people who had travelled hundreds of miles in tanks fitted with guns, with the sole intention of wreaking vengeance on a country that had dared destroy them; and a freezing wind blowing snow from the Baltic ocean bringing everything to a standstill and kindly covering the dead and dying women and children lying in groups along the roadsides. And a sad little song with a Scottish air and words by Robert Burns, written two hundred years before, had changed the world around us!’
Over the 19th century many families lived in Burns Cottage, running the house as a pub. Of some families we know little – names and dates, and not much more. Others, however, have been full of such characters that they have left their mark on history. One of these characters, the head of the last family to reside in the cottage, lived an eventful life that has been recorded by many historians. This man, Thomas Morley, has been described by historian Tom Quinn, who stated that ‘Morley was not just addicted to war, he was also addicted to the idea that he was a great man.‘
War shaped much of Morley’s life as he spent many years as a soldier. Born around 1831 in Nottingham, he joined the 17th Lancers as a young adult and fought in the Crimean War, surviving the charge of the Light Brigade during the battle of Balaclava in 1854. This event quickly became famous, catching the public emotion, as the men were ordered to charge towards a line of Russian guns with an extremely high fatality rate. Thomas Morley recorded his own experiences in a book he wrote in 1896, The Cause of the Charge of the Light Brigade. In this account he describes the loss of life stating that, ‘I am only certain of the figures for my own regiment. The 17th Lancers went into the engagement 145 and came out 45 mounted. Every officer of my squadron was killed or wounded.’
Morley became quickly aggrieved that his heroics in this battle went unrewarded and he is famed for writing continual letters, from 1857 to 1896, to the Queen and military officials asking for his actions to be honoured by a Victoria’s Cross. In order to substantiate his claim, he accrued accounts of fellow soldiers, such as this one from J.W Wightman:
‘We heard the familiar voice of Corporal Morley, of our regiment, a great, rough, bellowing man from Nottingham. He had lost his lance hat, and his long hair was flying out in the wind as he roared, ‘Coom ’ere! coom ’ere! Fall in, lads, fall in!’
Despite his disappointment in his post war treatment and his consequent early retirement from the 17th lancers, Morley voluntarily fought in the American Civil War for the Union side. During the war he became a prisoner inside the infamous Libby prison, an experience he recounted afterwards for the Washington Post:
‘During the time I was prisoner of war, General Cesnola saw me compelled to be vaccinated. The matter turned out bad, my left side and arm swelled to such a degree that I was compelled to lie on the floor for months, my brother officers believing I should die.”
Morley survived his experience though, and after the war he moved to Ayrshire where he was employed as drill troop sergeant in the Ayrshire Yeomanry, and lived at the Auchengree Foundry with his wife Katherine and his children. It is not until the late seventies that Morley took on the lease of Burns Cottage (a photo of the cottage in his time can be seen here) where he lived with his new (and much younger!) wife and his children, two of which were born in the cottage. His war experiences are very much revealed in the names he gave his children, Cesnolia and Cesnola after a Brigadier General from the Civil War, and Balaclava from the Crimean War!
Following their time at the cottage, Thomas Morley returned the States where he worked in the War Department housed at Ford’s Theatre. Three of his children were born in Washington DC and, sadly, 17 year old Cesnola died there in 1890. Another family tragedy occurred in 1893 when Thomas Morley himself was injured in the collapse of Ford’s Theatre and was, from then on, unable to work. The family returned to Britian in 1897 and Thomas Morley lived with his family in Nottingham until his death in Nottingham City Asylum in 1906.
The descriptions we have of him seem to suggest a strong, brave, stern man with a distinct northern English accent and with perhaps a tendency to self publicise and to wax lyrical about his military achievements and lack of official recognition. Of what happened to his children, little has yet been researched, though of Balaclava Morley we know that he decided to live in the U.S.A, where he died in Gardena, Los Angeles, in 1978.