Object Number: 3.4521
On display: in the museum exhibition space
This remarkable chair is made of wood sourced from the Kilmarnock printing press which produced the first edition of Robert Burns’s work Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect known as ‘The Kilmarnock Edition’. It was published on the 31st July 1786 at the cost of three shillings per copy. 612 copies were printed and the edition was sold out in just over a month after publication. The printing press no longer exists but in its stead there are two statues: one of Burns and one of John Wilson (the owner of the press) to commemorate the publication of Burns’s first works.
This chair was constructed in 1858, just before the Burns Centenary Festival in Ayr in 1859. The one hundredth year anniversary of the bard’s birth was celebrated far and wide by many. One contemporary counted 676 local festivals in Scotland alone, thus, showing the widespread popularity of Burns.
The chair has plush red velvet on the cushion and is elaborately carved with symbolism and references to some of Burns’s most loved works. Each arm rest ends with a carving of a dog, Luath and Caesar, from the poem ‘The Twa Dogs’.
A carving of Robert Burns himself, after the artist Alexander Nasmyth’s famous portrait – whereby he is shown fashionably dressed in a waistcoat, tailcoat and stalk – is placed in the centre at the highest point of the back of the chair with the infamous characters Tam and Souter Johnnie from the narrative poem ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ on either side. Thistles, commonly regarded as the floral national emblem of Scotland, decorate the gaps between the figures.
The central carving is of the climactic scene of Tam crossing the Brig o’ Doon atop of his trusty cuddie (horse in Scots) Meg with Nannie the witch at their heels. The Brig o’ Doon is actually a real bridge and is located in Alloway where Burns was born and lived for seven years.
A small plaque above this quotes a verse from Burns’s poem ‘The Vision’ which was written in 1785 and published in Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. It takes the form of a poetic ‘dream vision’, a form used in medieval Scottish verse and revived by Allan Ramsay in his own poem ‘The Vision’, from which Burns takes his title and was influenced and inspired by immensely. In the long narrative poem, Burns as speaker returns from a hard day in the fields and, after resting by the fireside, falls into a dream state in which he is visited by Coila, a regional muse. Coila (whom the speaker is clearly attracted to) addresses Burns, describing how she watched his development from a young age – thereby offering an imaginative reworking of Burns’s emergence as a poetic talent. She ends with a confirmation of his poetic mission and crowns him as bard. The striking thing here is the self-consciousness Burns displays about his position even this early in his career.
The inclusion of these particular carvings could be symbolism of the themes in which Burns explored most through his works: nature with the dogs representing this; the supernatural via the Brig o’ Doon scene; comradery through Tam and Souter Johnnie the “drouthy cronie” and the nature of the self and humankind through the quote from ‘The Vision’ and Robert Burns himself.
Interestingly, during a visit to Burns Cottage in 1965, the boxing legend Muhammad Ali was pictured sitting in this chair. Following this visit he was made an honorary member of Alloway Burns Club. If you are intrigued by this then please read a previous blog by volunteer Alison Wilson about an extraordinary meeting to do with this celebrity visit to Alloway here: https://burnsmuseum.wordpress.com/2016/06/13/memories-of-muhammad-ali/.
By Parris Joyce, Learning Trainee.
Volunteer Manager Alison Wilson tells us about an unexpected and exciting experience that she had whilst guiding a tour of the museum on Saturday.
I had an amazing experience at the museum on Saturday. There I was, standing at the chair made out of John Wilson’s Kilmarnock printing press which produced the first edition of Burns’s Poems, ‘Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect’ giving it big licks to a group of 15 Americans all about how Muhammad Ali had once sat on it when he visited the cottage in 1965. There is a famous photo of the boxing legend sat in the chair surrounded by fans and I heard that the boy stood nearest Ali in the photo was in the museum that day.
Eventually, with the aid of Ros at the shop, we found the boy from the photo eating his lunch in the cafe. Now a fully grown man, George Spence from Dreghorn was visiting the museum with his wife and grandchildren. He needed little persuasion to have his photo taken next to the original photo of himself at the age of 13 with Muhammad Ali.
George had met Muhammad Ali over 50 years ago during the summer holidays when his father was on shifts. His mother, he said, “made him get up and take them to Burns cottage” as she’d heard Muhammad Ali was coming. When they arrived it seemed to the young George that hundreds of people were milling around on the grass at the back of the cottage trying to get a glimpse of the Heavyweight Champion of the World. George’s canny mother, however, realised that the great celebrity would sooner or later go into the cottage itself. “She grabbed us and pushed us in to the cottage”, he remembered. Whereupon the door slammed shut. George with his wee three-year-old sister, mother and father were inside with just a few others. Suddenly the door burst open and in swept Muhammad Ali with his entourage and all the press.
Ali then stepped over the barrier and sat on the seat pretending to write one of his legendary poems just like Robert Burns. He joked, “Bobbie Burns will be looking down seeing me sitting in his chair”. He spoke to George personally asking if he would like to be a fighter like him.
As you can imagine, George told this story as if it had happened yesterday and it was such a privilege to listen to such a brilliant story about an important part of the recent history of Burns Cottage. George had only recently discovered the photo of himself with Ali on the internet but had cherished the memory of meeting the great man ever since. I only hope he found his return visit to the scene memorable too.
This chair was made in 1858, just before the first centenary of Robert Burns’ birth. It is constructed from wood taken from the Kilmarnock printing press which produced the first edition of Burns’s Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect.
John Wilson, owner of the only printing press in the area, was a friend of Robert Burns and a statue of the two of them can be found in the location of the original printing press site. A copy of the printing press can be found in the Dick Institute, in Kilmarnock.
The carvings on the chair depict Luath and Caesar, from the poem The Twa Dogs.
In the centre of the high back you can find a carving of the Bard, after Naysmyth, with two of his most iconic characters, Tam O’Shanter and Souter Johnny on either side. In the centre there is a bas-relief carving showing Tam being chased by the with over the Brig O’Doon. Above this carving you can find a plaque with quotes from Burns’s poem, The Vision. On either side are spiral twist uprights which frame the carving. The chair is upholstered in a red velvet material which also covers the arm rests.
The history of the chair dates back from when the wood which is made of was part of the Kilmarnock Printing Press. Walter Graham had been John Wilson’s pressman for more than 40 years and he had worked on the first printing press brought into Ayrshire (thought to be that of Peter McArthur). The press which Graham had worked moved to Ayr and was used at the Wilson’s business until replaced by a more efficient machine.
It was in 1858 that Thomas M Gemmell, proprietor of the Ayr Advertiser (which had also been printed using the same press), decided to convert the press into an arm chair, wanting to create something ornamental and useful out of the fine oak.
Following Thomas M Gemmell’s death in 1889, the chair was presented to the Trustees of the Burns Monument. It was displayed in the Burns Cottage Museum and for a period of time was undergoing conservation treatment. It is now in museum stores, with the hope of displaying it later in the year.
In 1965 Burns Cottage welcomed a special guest. Muhammad Ali visited when he was in Scotland to fight Harvey ‘Cody’ Jones in Paisley. The World Heavyweight Champion fancied himself as a bit of a poet. He didn’t disappoint – as he sat in the cottage signing autographs and talking to the press he came up with this:
‘I’d heard of a man named Burns – supposed to be a poet;
But, if he was, how come I didn’t know it?
They told me his work was very, very neat,
So I replied: ‘But who did he ever beat?
Re-purposing and ‘up-cycling’ objects relating to Burns is an old tradition: here we have another chair, which is held in a private collection. Made in 1818 from the remains of the oak that composed the old roof of Alloway Kirk. Presented to Hugh, 12th Earl of Eglinton, it has references to the poet’s work.
The front seat rail features an inlaid plough and the inscription ‘In memory, Robt. Burns’. The brass panels are engraved with the poem Tam O’Shanter and signed Robb McWhinnie, Sculp, Ayr. (McWhinnie was an engraver and watchmaker in Ayr. Two cabinet makers – Jno. Underwood and Jas. Loumgair were responsible for its creation. The original home of this Burns chair was Eglinton Castle, Ayrshire, rebuilt in the Gothic ‘Castle Style’ by John Paterson 1798-1803.
Other upcycled objects include a glove box and jewel case, and a snuff box, made from the the original rafters of Burns Cottage and from an oak rafter from Alloway Kirk respectively.
Our most recent object which has been upcycled however can be found on Poet’s Path. The RBBM volunteers have worked hard to re-use some pallets to create a lovely bench which visitors can use when waiting on the buggy and read a selection of great books, stored in a handy section of the bench!