Inspiration

Burns and Books!

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Today is the first day of Book Week Scotland, a national celebration of books and reading which takes place every year in November. Nearly everyone can say that they’ve been inspired by books at some point in their life, and Robert Burns was no exception. Thanks to William Burnes’s belief that his children should receive an education, and the diligence of the family’s tutor John Murdoch, Burns could both read and write. As a result of this, he was able to immerse himself in the various authors and poets who inspired him to become Scotland’s National Bard.

Robert himself, in an autobiographical letter to Dr John Moore, talks of two books that influenced him during his childhood:

‘The two first books I ever read in private, and which gave me more pleasure than any two books I ever read again, were, the life of Hannibal and the history of Sir William Wallace. Hannibal gave my young ideas such a turn that I used to strut in raptures up and down after the recruiting drum and bagpipe, and wish myself tall enough to be a soldier; while the story of Wallace poured a Scottish prejudice in my veins which will boil along there till the flood-gates of life shut in eternal rest.’

Evidence of that ‘Scottish prejudice’ can be seen in poems such as Scots Wha Hae, and Burns wrote many poems on the subject of war throughout his life, evidencing the impact both of these works had on him.

Gilbert – Robert’s brother – recalls one particular book which affected the future poet considerably, which was actually bought in error by their Uncle: ‘Luckily, in place of The Complete Letter-Writer, he got by mistake a small collection of letters by the most eminent writers… This book was to Robert of the greatest consequence. It inspired him with a strong desire to excel in letter-writing, while it furnished him with models by some of the first writers in our language’.

Robert wrote a great deal of letters throughout his life to his friends and family, and modelled many of them on letters that he read in this volume.

man-of-feeling

Burns read and was influenced by many more authors and poets throughout his life. He quoted Alexander Pope frequently, particularly in his early letters; described Henry MacKenzie’s ‘Man of Feeling’ as ‘the book I prize next to the Bible’; and perhaps most importantly was influenced by earlier vernacular poets such as Alan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson to write his poetry in Scots rather than English. There was however one book, or rather play, that certainly did not take his fancy – Titus Andronicus by Shakespeare. As he was about to leave for Dumfries, John Murdoch presented the Burns family with the play as a gift, but it proved too violent for the young Robert, who threatened to burn it if his tutor did not take it away again. Not all books are for everyone!

However you’re celebrating Scottish Book Week, whether it’s by picking up a new book for the first time, or by going back to an old favourite, we hope you enjoy wherever it may take you, and we hope it inspires you as much as Robert’s books inspired him!

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Thrack Hooks

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Thrack Hooks, or sickles, were used by the young Robert Burns as he went about his daily agricultural duties. Born into a farming family and raised on a smallholding until the age of seven, his upbringing not only earned him the nickname of ‘Ploughman Poet’, but hugely influenced his later works, probably inspiring the love of nature apparent in poems such as ‘To a Mouse’. Sickles were used during the harvest to chop the stems of crops such as barley, wheat and corn, and it was with thrack hooks that, in 1774, a fourteen year old Robert removed nettle stings from the hand of his work partner, a local girl and ‘bewitching creature’ probably named Helen Kilpatrick. This awakened in him a ‘certain delicious Passion’ and inspired him to write his first song: ‘O once I lov’d a bonnie lass’ or ‘Handsome Nell’. Burns’s modest upbringing caused him to doubt his abilities as a poet, but after learning that a local farmer had written a song about his sweetheart, he decided to try it out himself… and never looked back! Unfortunately for our Bard, the lady in question did not return his feelings and the poem was not written down until twelve years later, on this very manuscript.

O once I loved a bonnie lass
Manuscript of the poem ‘O Once I loved a bonnie lass’

It is now part of the Stair manuscript collection, a group of eight poems and songs Burns copied and sent to Mrs Alexander Stewart of Stair in 1786, and remains a lasting legacy of the farm girl who inspired Burns to write.