Poetry, songs and women are widely known to have been Robert Burns’s great passions, but he also loved to step onto the dancefloor as well. In 1779, Burns as a young man decided to attend dancing lessons in Tarbolton. This decision allowed him to temporarily escape the financial difficulties that the family were enduring at Lochlea. Therefore Burns used to regularly walk to a humble thatched house after the farming work was done to enjoy some time with his friends. In the museum collection you will see a beautifully restored fiddle with a red, green and black floral design work. This fiddle was played by Burns’s dance teacher, William Gregg, while Robert learned and practiced his steps. According to Burns he took up dancing to ‘give my manners a brush.’ But improving his manners and exercise were not the only benefits that dancing would give, as it granted Burns an opportunity to get acquainted with the local girls as well. This early time of social and sexual exploration played an important part in shaping Burns into the man he would famously become. To our twenty-first century minds dancing seems like a harmless pastime; but to his father William Burnes, this was an act of rebellion. According to Gilbert their father was often irritated by Robert’s dancing, as it was a clear sign that Robert was no longer listening to William’s advice and counsel. As a consequence of this, Burns himself acknowledged that his decision to continue with his dancing lessons compromised his relationship with his father.
In Burns’s narrative poem Tam O’Shanter you can feel the excitement of the dance unfolding, yet all the while there is a dark truth to this particular social gathering:
Warlocks and witches in a dance:
Nae cotillion, brent new frae France,
But hornpipes, jigs, strathspeys, and reels,
Put life and mettle in their heels.’
This scene of enjoyment is not only watched by the protagonist Tam, but also by Auld Nick who played the music to make them dance. This negative perception of dance being sinful is more in keeping with William’s opinion rather than his son. Nevertheless this moral outlook is undermined by the poem’s greater sense of adventure and humour. These two opposing viewpoints mirror the different standpoints of William and Robert in 1779, one saw dance as wicked and the other saw only pleasure. Despite all of William’s disapproval Robert Burns continued to love music, dance and social gatherings throughout his life. Tam O’Shanter was published in Grose’s Antiquities of Scotland in 1791, which reveals that Burns never forgot his father’s outlook on dance.
If you are a lover of dance yourself, you can follow in the Bard’s footsteps and take part in Scottish country dances set to his songs. For instance Ae fond Kiss is a reel, or perhaps you would prefer a livelier jig to the poem Halloween. One of the most popular times to toast Burns and celebrate his life is at a Burns Supper, so perhaps in the future you will follow his example and take to the dancefloor.
‘The dancers quick and quicker flew,
They reel’d, they set, they cross’d, they cleekit.’
By Kirstie Bingham
Earlier this year, two students from the Scottish literature department at Glasgow Uni joined us on a month long placement as part of their degree. This is the first in a series of four blog posts they wrote between them on elements of the exhibition they found significant.
During his lifetime, Burns was inspired by many different things, but one of the most significant aspects – which gave him plenty of creative fodder to chew on – was the oppressive control the Scottish Presbyterian Church held over not only the people within his own locality, who provided his primary concern, but the entire nation. In its ‘A Cauld Kirk’ section, the museum chooses poems which reflect this: ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’, ‘The Holy Fair’, and ‘The Holy Tulzie’. Burns’s religious satire is a rich source for one who wishes to observe the religious climate of the late eighteenth century, and so we must recognise that our present-day attitudes towards Burns’s contemporary Kirk have probably been largely shaped by his poetry. However, Burns’s religion has often been misunderstood by readers and critics alike – Burns was not an enemy of religion, nor a pious Presbyterian, but we can be sure from his satire that he hated religious hypocrisy. Around the time Burns was writing, a rift was beginning to appear within the Church of Scotland. There appeared two branches of Presbyterianism – the ‘Auld Lichts’ who represented a more severe and unforgiving form of Presbyterianism, Calvinism, which involved fire and brimstone sermons and the idea of predestination which Burns so despised. The ‘New Lichts’, with whom Burns shared sentiments and could really get behind, represented a more moderate form of Presbyterianism which sought to put more emphasis on morality and the human aspects of religion, rather than just being blindly faithful.
It cannot be denied that Burns’s religious satire is an attack on the ‘Auld Lichts’. Ever since the Reformation, individual Kirks within small communities held supposedly God-given authority over their people – and they ruled by fear. To illustrate this, the museum allows you to put yourself in Burns’s riding boots by taking a seat on the ‘cutty-stool’ or ‘creepie-chair’, situated in front of the pulpit and therefore the entire congregation. This chair is not dissimilar to the naughty-step your parents might have chastised you on, and in it Burns would have sat and been told off in front of his family and good friends, as well as he entire village of Mauchline, and this did not sit well with him at all. Burns willingly sat in similar sermons all over the country – he was a ‘sermon-taster’ – but it was his experiences within the Mauchline Kirk which inspired poems such as ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’ and ‘The Holy Fair’. However, the museum does acknowledge the fact that Burns’s religious allegiances were not as clear cut as they may appear in his satirical poetry by recognising his relationship with ‘Auld Licht’ minister William Dalrymple, whom Burns admired and respected for his liberal views – it is well known that Burns was a man of many contradictions.
Hanging in the ‘A Cauld Kirk’ section is Alexander Carse’s painting ‘The Mauchline Holy Fair’, a depiction of the twice-yearly gathering described in ‘The Holy Fair’. If you look carefully at it you might notice a character resembling Burns, sporting a rather mischievous smile, walking alongside the bright and beautiful personification of Fun, closely followed by the dark, grim, Calvinist-type women representing Superstition and Hypocrisy. Mauchline Kirk is painted at the left, the pub on the right, and between them the village community, caught up in a kind of moral tug-of-war. Carse depicts the villagers as Burns would have recognised them, as individuals caught up on the tension between religion and traditional culture. This moral tug-of-war was about deciding whether to embrace their freedom – drink, chat, eat, and flirt until there heart was content – or to behave themselves and not risk public condemnation in the sermon. We see now that these people lived in constant fear of the Kirk and its authority – one foot out of place was all it took. Burns was a fond observer of human nature and he recognised that in order to be reformed, the Kirk must take moral weakness and human frailty into account.
This exhibit is only a small sample of what Burns’s moderate Presbyterianism and relationship with the Kirk has inspired, and it is important we remember the unjust Kirk practices that inspired Burns to write, so that people never have to live in fear of being ‘only human’ again.
By Kirsty MacQueen