A previous blog post looked at the ‘up-cycling’ of the press that printed Burns’s first collection of Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect also known as the Kilmarnock Edition. The repurposing of the press happened in 1858 and it was turned into an arm chair. The chair became an ornamental and useful piece of fine oak furnature, that was a souvenir or relic of Burns’s inaugural work.
This is not only one example of creating souvenirs or relics relating to Burns’s work and life from materials which are linked to aspects of his fame and life. At the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum and Bachelors Club, Tarbolton there is an amazing array of material! This blog post will look at a few highlights in the collection.
From the passing of Robert Burns on the 21st of July 1796 at the age of 37 people wanted to own a piece of the man! Over the years after his death the “Burnsiana” grew and developed, the collection of Burns souvenirs is broad and includes material that has been up-cycled from other objects or materials include pieces of Burns Trysting tree made into collectables, hair jewellery made with pieces of Jean Armour’s hair and pieces of Burns’s kist/coffin.
An interesting item in the museum collection is a necklace that is in the Fame section of the museum display. The necklace has 40 wooden beads and a wooden cross at the front with metal embellishments. It is 54cm long and the wood used in the necklace was taken from the Auld Alloway Kirk, just a short walk from Burns Cottage and next to the Burns Monument.
Alloway Kirk is a ruined church, which was built about 1516. By the time Burns wrote Tam O’Shanter the Kirk was in ruins. It had not been used for several decades and was in a ruinous state.
There is little information within the object record other than that the necklace is dated to 1822 – which dates to when Burns Cottage was under the tenancy of John Gaudie, and when the Burns Monument was under construction.
Other unique wooden souvenirs in the collection include a Pipe Case reportedly made from part of Burns’s Kist (3.4572), this is not unusual in the sense that it is connected with Burns’s burial – with the acquisition dated to 1834, below is an image of a piece of wood taken from Burns’s coffin when his tomb was opened so that Jean could be buried alongside him.
As with many souvenirs or relics the authenticity of the object is unclear – in this case eyewitness accounts state that the coffin was intact.
Wooden souvenirs with a direct connection to Burns’s life, made from the wood of trees grown on the banks of the Doon or, in this case, from the rafters of Alloway Auld Kirk, were highly sought after by Burns enthusiasts and general Victorian collectors.
In the 19th century there was a real interest in relic collecting relating to contemporary Poets – for instance at Keats House, Hampstead has in the collection a Gold Broach with some of Keats’s hair displayed in it, c.1822 (K/AR/01/002); another relic kept by the British Library is Percy Shelley’s ashes set inside the back cover of the book Percy Bysshe Shelley, His Last Days Told by His wife, with Locks of Hair and Some of the Poets Ashes (MS 5022).
At RBBM we have a lock of our Poet’s hair which is said to have been snipped from Robert’s head shortly after his death by his wife, Jean Armour, and given to her friend Jean Wilson in Mauchline as a macabre souvenir.
The world of Burns souvenirs and relics is vast and this only highlights some of the more unique… and interesting aspects of Burnsiana!
 Mackay,.J.A Burnsiana (1988)
 Lutz,.D Relics of Death in Victorian Literature and Culture (2015).
by Catriona, Learning Intern
Tea or Coffee? The question is simple but can evoke strong opinions from people. Likewise people can have strong connections and feelings to the cup they choose to use. Here in the RBBM education office we are mixed tea and coffee drinkers, but our cups are very different: some have polar bears, others star signs – mine is a purple donkey!
In our museum collection we have Agnes ‘Clarinda’ McLehose’s coffee cup and Jean Armour’s tea cup and saucer. These two objects stuck with me, and when I thought of the objects side by side, I began to draw comparisons between the design, liquid, and ultimately, the two women who were big personalities in Robert’s life. What did the cup say about them? I began to think through the drink and cup and create an image of these women in my head.
Tea and coffee were both expensive drinks in the eighteenth century. Coffee was consumed in Coffee Houses, which were hubs for the discussion of trade and politics; while tea was far more gentile and social, and employed a whole set delicate paraphernalia. Also, by 1785 tea was far more affordable than it had been previously -this was due to the Government slashing duty on tea to reduce smuggling.
Clarinda is already looking a wee bit adventurous… and exotic? While Jean, the gentle ‘wife’ is more feminine with her tea!
Jean’s tea cup and matching saucer is white with a red floral decoration. The cup and saucer appears sturdy and reliable, even today there are little signs of damage or tea staining! A frequent problem in break room mugs… The flower decor is pretty but it looks tough and enduring like it would survive storms and frosts. For me it speaks to the fact that Jean stuck with Robert through thick and thin!
By comparison Clarinda’s coffee cup is far more exotic, But then Clarinda was exotic, she was part of the upper classes and literati of Edinburgh, a far cry from Jean in the countryside. Her cup is refined and dainty, porcelain with the Chinese Pheasant; a symbol of beauty and good fortune, also the representation of literary refinement.
The imagery behind the cups brought to life for me parts of their characters and personalities, giving us hints about the two main women in Roberts’s life.
In the end I love the delicate design of Clarinda’s coffee cup, but I am a tea drinker at heart….
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
Robert Burns has written many different love poems, and beautiful songs, but what has been his inspiration for such poems and songs?
Well to start us off on this journey through the extensive love life of our Robert Burns, you should probably know that Robert was no saint when it came to the affairs of the heart, he went from woman to woman and relationship to relationship to find his perfect bonnie lass.
At the beginning of his path through the mysteries of the opposite sex there was Nellie, she was considered to be the first girl he ever fell for and certainly not the last but she started him off on the road of love and romance. Robert was only fifteen when he met Nell and he wrote a song for her called ‘Handsome Nell’.
O Once I lov’d a bonnie lass,
An’ aye I love her still,
An’ whilst that virtue warms my breast,
I’ll love my handsome Nell.
As bonnie lasses I hae seen,
And mony full as braw;
But for a modest gracefu’ mein,
The like I never saw.
A bonny lass I will confess,
Is pleasant to the e’e,
But without some better qualities
She’s no a lass for me.
But Nelly’s looks are blythe and sweet,
And what is best of a’,
Her reputation is compleat,
And fair without a flaw;
She dresses ay sae clean and neat,
Both decent and genteel;
And then there’s something in her gait
Gars ony dress look weel.
A gaudy dress and gentle air
May slightly touch the heart,
But it’s innocence and modesty
That polishes the dart.
‘Tis this in Nelly pleases me,
‘Tis this enchants my soul;
For absolutely in my breast
She reigns without controul.
This song was believed to have been written in 1774 and speaks of feminine grace and innocence. This girl was the one that started Robert’s fascination with the opposite sex.
No doubt that Robert had several different women in his life between Nell and his courtships to Jean Armour, however there are only records of the more influential on his romantic radar. Jean Armour was the lucky lass that Robert eventually settled down with and married, however it was not all happy, as at first it was just a fling together in 1785, but then Jean fell pregnant to Robert. She was then taken away to Paisley by her father to prevent her from being with Robert but was later called to admit that she bore an illegitimate child to Robert, from that point Robert and Jean began to court.
The story of the Ayrshire rascal does not end here however, he then met ‘Highland Mary’ later in 1785 and Robert fell for her head over heels instantly. He wrote a song for her called ‘The Highland Lassie’
Nae gentle dames tho’ ne’er sae fair
Shall ever be my Muse’s care;
Their titles a’ are empty show,
Gie me my Highland Lassie, O.
Within the glen sae bushy, O,
Aboon the plain sae rashy, O,
I set me down wi’ right gude will
To sing my Highland Lassie, O.
O were yon hills and vallies mine,
Yon palace and yon gardens fine;
The world then the love should know
I bear my Highland Lassie, O.-
But fickle Fortune frowns on me,
And I maun cross the raging sea;
But while my crimson currents flow,
I love my Highland Lassie, O.-
Altho’ thro’ foreign climes I range,
I know her heart will never change;
For her bosom burns with honor’s glow,
My faithful Highland Lassie, O-
For her I’ll dare the billow’s roar;
For her I’ll trace a distant shore;
That Indian wealth may lustre throw
Around my Highland Lassie, O.-
She has my heart, she has my hand,
By secret Truth and Honor’s band:
Till the mortal stroke shall lay me low,
I’m thine, my Highland Lassie, O.-
Robert loved this woman with his heart and soul, he asked her to elope with him to Jamaica, and she had intended to but alas it was not meant to be, she died in 1786 after falling seriously ill. However, before she died she and Robert had exchanged Bibles, and it was said that they may also have exchanged vows; however no conclusive evidence exists to prove this is correct. So Robert returned to his lass Jean Armour to continue courtship.
The next woman I am going to talk about is Agnes McLehose, but before I do I should comment on how Robert was supposed to be courting Jean Armour at the time while he was sending letters and visiting Agnes. Agnes had previously been married before she met Burns, and although her and her husband were separated, she was technically still married and so she still upheld her vows, and never touched another man.
Robert met Agnes in 1787 while in Edinburgh on publishing business. He quickly discovered that Agnes was a lover of poems and different writings which interested Robert. Agnes and Robert started to write to one another, but not long after Robert was involved in a carriage accident and was bed ridden for a short time. They exchanged many letters which became more intense and intimate as time progressed. Robert would talk of Jean Armour behind her back saying that he could not stand her, and he found her disgusting compared to Agnes, and Agnes would talk of her situation in being a married woman but wanting to be with Robert (some of these letters are in our museum http://www.burnsmuseum.org.uk/collections). After a while they began to exchange visits, this is where their relationship turned sour as Robert wanted to be with Agnes completely but Agnes could not forget her vows which tied her. Not too long after, Robert looked to other woman around him, one such being a servant girl of Agnes’ who bore a child for Robert. From that point on it was over, Robert left her, and she went to seek her husband, whom she found in Jamaica with another woman, who had given him children. So she returned to be with Robert but was too late and he had married Jean Armour.
After Robert’s affair with Highland Mary and Agnes McLehose Robert returned to Jean Armour ready finally to commit himself and in 1788 he married her and was with her until the day he died. Jean Armour gave Robert nine children in total although most of them did not survive very long and died in infancy. He did truly love Jean Armour in the end and was happy with her as a wife.
And so the tale of Roberts’s love life seemed like a never ending story of tragedy and romance, not to mention a lot of beautiful young ladies but in the end he never could live without his Jean that stole his heart.
By Fiona Jones
Volunteer Learning Assistant