Commonplace Books first became significant in early modern Europe as a way of compiling knowledge. ‘Commonplace’ is a translation of the Latin phrase locus communis which means ‘a theme or argument of general application’. This original definition has been expanded to now mean a collection of materials on a certain theme by an individual. Importantly, commonplace books are not diaries or journals, as they are structured thematically rather than chronologically, and do not necessarily relate to the personal lives of their compilers. By the 17th Century, commonplacing was prevalent enough to be formally taught at places such as Oxford University, and there is a strong tradition of literary figures such as John Milton, Mark Twain and Thomas Hardy compiling them.
There are two commonplace books belonging to Robert Burns in existence. The first, begun in 1783, was almost certainly not intended for publication, and entries cease in October 1785. The second, begun in Edinburgh in 1787 and sometimes referred to as the Edinburgh Journal, has many interesting entries including early versions of the Bard’s poems and musings on people he knew. On its first page, Burns explains his desire to record his experiences in Edinburgh (where he had just moved), and his observations on the people he has met, while they are still fresh in his mind. He quotes Gray, saying ‘half a word fixed upon… is worth a cart load of recollection’ showing his preference for the written word over memory.
Near the beginning of the Book, Burns starts a discussion relating to his patron, the Earl of Glencairn, and laments the fact that a man with little talent and high social status (the Earl) would naturally be treated with more respect than a man of genius but low social status due to an accident of birth. He says, with similar sentiment to his work ‘A Man’s a Man for a’ That’:
Imagine a man of abilities, his breast glowing with honest pride, conscious that men are born equal, still giving that “honor to whom honor is due”; he meets as a Great man’s table a Squire Something, or a Sir Somebody; he knows the noble landlord at heart pays gives the Bard or what- ever he is, a degree o share of his good wishes beyond any at table perhaps, yet how will it mortify him to see a fellow whose abilities would scarcely have made an eight penny Taylor and whose heart is not worth three farthings meet with attention and notice that are forgot to the Son of Genius and Poverty?
Burns does confess to being torn, however, because Glencairn was so pleasant to him when they met.
Also near the start of the book is a first draft of the song ‘Rantin’ Rovin’ Robin’ referring to the incident in which the gable end of Burns Cottage blew down during a storm in the first few weeks of Robert’s life. Interestingly, in this version, the opening line is ‘There was a birkie born in Kyle,’ as opposed to ‘there was a lad was born in Kyle’. There are then two versions of a poem written in Carse Hermitage on June 1st 1788, with a note beside the first draft instructing the reader to instead read the second draft further into the book. There is also a draft of his more famous poem, On seeing a wounded hare, along with other notes on his works.
Burns’s second commonplace book is on display in our museum collection and is a fascinating insight into some of the Bard’s personal thoughts, and also on how he drafted his poems. We wonder how many of our readers keep scrapbooks of this kind?
‘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.
Our latest blog post was written by Visitor Services Assistant, Jim Andrews.
Access to rare books and manuscripts is generally only given by special arrangement to well qualified academics, who are only allowed to handle the originals very carefully while wearing clean white gloves. Today, however, digitised versions of rare documents can be viewed by anyone with a computer and access to the Internet. For Burns enthusiasts there is a digitised copy of an original Kilmarnock edition available in the digital gallery of the National Library of Scotland. It can be accessed on https://digital.nls.uk under the heading Literature & writers.
Seeing a copy of the original version of 1786 as printed by John Wilson can be a bit of a surprise, if it is your first time. It does not look quite right, not at all like any of the editions of Burns’s works you might find today. The reason for the unfamiliar appearance is the rather odd-looking spelling of some words: words containing the letter s. At the time of printing there were two versions of that letter in common use: a long one and a short one. The short one is the only one in use today: the long one looks confusingly like the letter f with a bit missing (the bar across the middle). The line Wee, ſleekit, cowran, tim’rous beaſtie shows how it was generally used. It appears at the beginning and in the middle of a word, but the short s is always used at the end of a word. That is a rough guide: there were some exceptions.
The disappearance of the long s in English was a gradual process that started during Burns’s lifetime towards the end of the 18th century. Between 1800 and 1820 it was well on its way out, and by the middle of the 19th century it had gone. According to an article about the long s in Wikipedia, you can use it to date early editions of Burns published in the 1780s and 1790s that may have lost their title page and year of publication. In these you will find the long s, but not in any of the 2,000 plus editions published after 1800.
In many countries spelling is controlled by government-sponsored organisations that determine what is correct and, from time to time, change their minds and alter or revise what is correct. English spelling has never endured any such official interference, but that is not to say it has not changed. Changes in English spelling have been brought about by the printing and publishing industry: a convenient convention that seems to work quite well. There is a story that the disappearance of the long s in English may have been set in motion in 1791 by the printer and publisher John Bell. It may be fanciful, but they say he dropped the long s because he did not like how it looked in his edition of Shakespeare’s plays.
The following blog post was written by Jim Andrews, one of Robert Burns Birthplace Museum’s Visitor Service Assistants.
There may be something about dialect poets that attracts a dedicated and loyal following. I have never been a member of a Burns club or society, though I do have several friends who are, and I used to believe that such organisations were uniquely Burns-related phenomena. That is, until I came across the Austrian writer Franz Stelzhamer, remembered today for his poems and songs in the dialect of Upper Austria. He has been called “the Austrian Burns” and, from a heritage point of view, Stelzhamer, like Burns, is very well represented in his country. There is a Stelzhamerbund (Stelzhamer Federation – web address http://www.stelzhamerbund.at), a Stelzhamerhaus (birthplace and museum), a Stelzhamer prize, a play about his life and some statues of him.
Like Burns, Stelzhamer was born into a rural family of modest means. However, he was recognised quite early as a particularly gifted child and sent to school in Salzburg. He went on to study law in Graz and Vienna and theology in Linz. He abandoned his studies before qualifying (much to his father’s displeasure) and became instead an actor, writer and journalist. Burns had a breakthrough moment with Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect: Stelzhamer’s came with Lieder in obderenns’scher Volksmundart (Songs in the Upper-Enns Dialect). He continued as a writer in both standard German and dialect, but it is for his work in dialect that he is now remembered and admired. Although Upper Austria is not an independent nation, it has its own anthem, Hoamatgsang, with words by Stelzhamer in the Upper Austrian dialect, of course.
It is a rather curious fact that Stelzhamer translated five of Burns’s works into the Upper Austrian dialect: curious, because Stelzhamer had no knowledge of English or of Scottish dialect. His sources were translations of Burns in standard literary German. I have always thought that Burns’s poems and songs are very comfortably accommodated in German: it seems to be able to preserve the natural rhythms of the original works. I think that even a non-German-speaker with some knowledge of Burns could easily identify the original work from the following lines: Mein Herz ist im Hochland, Mein Herz is nicht hier… But just in case, they are, of course, the first lines of My Heart’s in the Highlands.
One of the songs that Stelzhamer translated was John Barleycorn (in German, Hans Gerstenkorn). Here is the final verse in Burns’s original, in Georg Pertz’s German translation, which was probably Stelzhamer’s source text, and in Stelzhamer’s translation:
Then let us toast John Barleycorn,
Each man a glass in hand;
And may his great posterity
Ne’er fail in old Scotland!
Drum lebe hoch Hans Gerstenkorn,
Ein Jeder nehm’ sein Glas,
Und daß sein Saame, weit und breit
Altschottland nie verlaß’!
Drum Hans Gerstenkern hoch!
Und höbts Glas olle z’gleich, ,
Daß a dableibt bon üns
In liebn Obröstareich.
It is a reasonably fair translation of a translation, but there is an interesting discrepancy in the last line. The very last word, Obröstareich, is the dialect form of the standard German word Oberösterreich. It is not old Scotland, as in the original, or even Altschottland (old Scotland), as in Georg Pertz’s version: Oberösterreich is Upper Austria. Moreover, at the beginning, the three kings in Burns’s original and Pertz’s translation are replaced with three simple Austrian farmers. Perhaps not just translated: could we say “hijacked”? To be fair, Stelzhamer did acknowledge Burns as the original author. Burns would probably have approved of being translated into a German dialect rather than into the standard literary language, and perhaps even of some creative tweeking to bring the narrative closer to the intended readership.
‘I think my ideas are more barren in English than in Scottish’ – Robert Burns, letter to George Thomson, April 1793.
The Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Ayrshire is the birthplace of Scotland’s National Bard, a man who both spoke and wrote in Scots. The language still has many speakers today – it is one of Scotland’s three indigenous languages alongside Gaelic and English. But where does it come from?
The origins of Scots can be traced back to AD 600 with the arrival of the Angles into what we now call Great Britain. At this time, speakers of Northumbrian Old English settled in the Borders of Scotland, explaining Scots language’s close relationship with this tongue. Originally, this language was largely contained within the south of Scotland, and spoken as a common tongue whilst Gaelic was used further north and as a Court language. This began to change in the 12th and 13th centuries. The language spread north and took on many new influences including Norse (from the Vikings), Dutch and Middle Low German (from trade and immigration with the Low Countries), Romance and Norman. It also took on Gaelic influences e.g. galore (lots of) comes from gu leòr (plenty). However, it was not until the 15th Century that the term ‘Scottis’ was used, by one Gavin Douglas, to refer to the language. Thus it became distinguishable from the language over the border, with its own roots and significance.
Over the course of the 16th and 17th centuries, Scots as a language became more and more ‘Anglicised’ and by the 18th Century, many members of ‘polite society’ (but not all!) thought of it as provincial and unrefined, and took steps to distance themselves from it. Not everyone took this view, and a new type of ‘literary Scots’ developed. This was championed by Scots writers such as Allan Ramsay and later by Burns himself.
Of course it would be quite wrong to claim that ‘Scots’ is a homogenous language. Four separate dialects are recognised: Insular (Orkney/Shetland), Northern (e.g. Caithness/North East), Central (central Scotland) and Southern (the Borders). Many different variations of the language exist even within these broad categories.
As shown by the quote at the start of this blog, Burns loved his mother tongue, and credited it with his creativity. We continue to ensure that Scots is a key priority at RBBM – our exhibition labels are written in Scots as well as English, we sell Scots products and books in our shop, and the language is a key learning outcome in our education programmes. You can find out more about our Scots language strategy and future plans for the site here – http://www.burnsmuseum.org.uk/scots-language-strategy/
We would love to hear your favourite or most used Scots words and phrases… why not tweet us @robertburnsnts and join in the conversation? #Scots #Scotslanguage
 Gavin Douglas was a Scottish bishop, makar and translator, known chiefly for his poetry. His works include Palice of Honour and Eneados, a translation of Virgil’s Aeneid into Scots. He died of the plague in 1522.
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.