Forging the Bard

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From the moment of Burns’s death in 1796, a hunger to obtain original versions of his works, letters and personal items began. Naturally, this led to a number of unscrupulous individuals creating forgeries, or passing off unconnected objects as having belonged to the Bard. Few were as prolific or notorious however as one Alexander Howland Smith, known as ‘Antique Smith’, a Scottish document forger of the late C19th whose efforts are now collection items in their own right.

Born in 1859, Smith was forging documents in Edinburgh by the 1880s, and began selling his forgeries in 1886. He frequented second hand bookshops, purchasing volumes of old books with blank fly leaves, which he then insisted upon carrying home himself rather than asking for them to be delivered – despite their weight (a practise many bookshop owners found strange!). From these blank fly leaves, Smith forged poems, autographs and historical letters purportedly written by a number of historical figures including Mary Queen of Scots, Walter Scott and Burns himself. He gave his documents an antique appearance by dipping them in weak tea!

A forgery of a letter from Robert Burns to Reverend John McMath
A forgery of a letter from Robert Burns to Reverend John McMath

Things started to go wrong for Smith when manuscript collector James MacKenzie put some of the letters in his ‘Rillbank Collection’ up for auction in 1891, and the auctioneer himself cast doubt on their authenticity by refusing to verify their provenance. A little while later MacKenzie published a letter, supposedly written by Burns, in the Cumnock Express. After a bit of research, one reader discovered that the recipient of this supposed letter, John Hill, had never actually existed, throwing doubt on the entire Rillbank Collection. MacKenzie later published two ‘Burns’ poems in the same paper, only to discover that one of them had been written when Burns was only 7 by an entirely different poet! Other forgeries were discovered in the collection of an American, who had purchased letters from Edinburgh manuscript collector James Stillie.

By now, word was spreading about the forgeries. In 1892, The Edinburgh Evening Dispatch published an article on the issue, and a reader recognised the handwriting on the facsimiles included as that of Smith, at that time working as chief clerk for a lawyer, Thomas Henry Ferrie. Smith was duly arrested and his trial began on June 26th 1893.

Newspaper cuttings of the Antique Smith trial in 1892
Newspaper cuttings of the Antique Smith trial

Smith was charged with selling forgeries under false pretences. He was found guilty, but the jury recommended leniency and he was sentenced to 12 months. Experts later said that some of his forgeries were not of particularly high quality – often they were dated after the death of their supposed writer, or created using modern paper or writing tools. It is more than possible that many of those who sold his forgeries on would have been fully aware that they were not genuine. It is unknown exactly how many of ‘Antique’ Smith’s forgeries are still around, but we do know that we have some of them in our collection!

Fourteen good measur’d verses make a sonnet

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This blog post was originally posted on the National Fund for Acquisitions Blog.

Handling a museum object is a magical thing. To feel the smooth surface of an 18th century horn cup and imagine all the clasped hands that have done the same before you or to feel the coarse fibres of a horse-hair whisk. These are the sensory experiences that can bring history to life. Cherished, abused, appreciated or ignored; the object you handle is part of the human story that we find endlessly fascinating.

I was lucky enough to hold an original manuscript of Robert Burns’ A Sonnet Upon Sonnetsvery recently and I will not soon forget the experience. Acquired with help from the National Fund for Acquisitions, it has been in the care of the museum since 1981. Looking at that carefully preserved manuscript, I felt myself drawn down a multitude of avenues of imagination beyond the ‘fourteen good measur’d verses’. Where was Burns when he wrote this? Head bent over his writing desk? Perhaps ensconced in a cosy inn after a hard day’s Excise duties? Did his hand slip and make that tiny smudge? I found myself wondering what inspired this outpouring of poetic playfulness.

Burns, Sonnet upon Sonnets ms

‘A Sonnet Upon Sonnets’ by Robert Burns

Written in 1788 – the year Burns married Jean Armour, two years after the Kilmarnock Edition had been published and the year in which he leased Ellisland Farm in Dumfries – the poem is an interesting departure from Burns’ usual style. His poems are not normally restricted in their length but he embraced the poetic convention of the sonnet wholeheartedly, playing with the genre seemingly for his own amusement. This was his first attempt at writing a sonnet and the result is a pleasing offering. Despite his fragmentary formal education, his passion for knowledge meant Burns had the capacity to play with poetry as he wished; a skill which only increased throughout his life.

Sonnet upon Sonnets ms detail 1

A detail of the manuscript

Two hundred and twenty six years ago Robert Burns held this page and his quill scratched its way across its surface, each flourishing ‘f’ placed with care as inspiration flowed. It is remarkable that there is nothing crossed out and there are few, if any, mistakes.  It is so tempting to try to read into the loops and bold strokes of his recognisable handwriting in an attempt to discover what made him tick. There is a confidence in the flamboyant strokes that seems to fit with Burns’ reputation as never one to shy away from speaking his mind and there is a precise assertiveness throughout.

There are certain things about museums that make them special places and keep people coming back for more. To get up close and personal with an original Burns poem is surely one of them.

Week of Luve!

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The week before last, we at Robert Burns Birthplace Museum got into the romantic spirit by hosting a ‘Week of Luve’ in honour of Valentine’s Day. Our Bard is known to have written the occasional love poem, including those little known works ‘My Luve is like a Red, Red, Rose’ and ‘Ae Fond Kiss’, and we thought it would only be fitting to tap into the Valentine’s mood ourselves!

After a diligent Friday of decorating the museum foyer with heart shaped balloons and cards, the week began on Saturday 8th, with children’s craft activities at the museum. The opportunity to make pop-up Valentine’s Day cards and ‘Luve bugs’ with heartfelt messages inside appealed to many and we were soon running out of felt and sticky letters. Alongside this, our luve jewellery market was in full swing, and we set up several stalls of very colourful items for our visitors to browse through. On Sunday, our jewellery market was replaced by a chocolate one, and many treats and goodies were available for sale. We were also selling roses and other plants all weekend to round off the romantic feel.

The Valentine's Craft fair at the museum

Throughout the week, we held several luve themed talks and concerts in the lead up to Valentine’s Day. On Monday, we welcomed Linda Somerville to the museum, performing a selection of classical and Scottish luve songs, and on Thursday local Ayrshire singer Roger Paterson treated us all to a session of ‘Live Luve Music’ in the museum cafe. Our curator Rebecca held an in depth talk at the museum on Tuesday exploring Burns’s manuscripts and luve letters, and at our weekly Highlight Talk on Wednesday afternoon, our volunteer co-ordinator Alison Wilson gave a detailed discussion of one of Burns’s most romantic poems ‘My Luve is like a Red, Red, Rose’. All in all, by the time the big day arrived we were already feeling very luved up!

One of the stalls at our jewellery market

On the 14th itself, our wonderful volunteers held a ‘Red Red Rose’ plant sale at the museum selling plants, along with scrolls of Burns’s famous poem, which went like hot cakes throughout the day. No doubt all those last minute Valentine’s shoppers were out in force!

And that rounded our Week of Luve off nicely. We would like to say a massive thank you to all of our staff and volunteers who worked hard to make each event a success, and to you for joining in! We hope you enjoyed Valentine’s Day as much as we did!

Some of the chocolates at our chocolate market