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.
For all music lovers especially those with a fascination for stringed instruments, Robert Burns’ guittar on display here at Robert Burns Birthplace Museum is well worth a look. This beautiful artefact is the earliest known English guittar in any Scottish collection, dating from 1757.
The English guittar was popular during the 18th century and up until the beginning of the 19th century. The instrument resembles a pear, in shape, and its’ head at the end of the neck is bent backwards slightly. It would usually have 12 strings although sometimes only 10 or 8 and those would be attached to little ivory knobs at the lower end of the instrument and stretched over a bridge. Fingerboards on guittars were often covered in ivory and would be complete with bass frets. Unfortunately there aren’t any strings remaining on Robert’s guittar today.
The English guittar is more closely related to the cittern (in fact it could be described as a revival of the cittern) than the modern-day guitar. In France the early form was known as the cistre or guittare allemande and in Italy it was known as the cetre. There is a theory that Italian musicians introduced the cittern to England where it became very fashionable and gradually became known as the guittar in the 18th century.
Although Robert spoke modestly of his musical ability, he clearly considered himself to be a musician. In a letter to Charles Sharpe, a talented amateur musician, Robert stated: “I am a Fiddler and a Poet […] Whenever I feel inclined to rest myself on my way, I take my seat under a hedge, laying my poetic wallet on my one side, and my fiddle case on the other.” It is not illogical then to imagine that he was an enthusiastic and perhaps accomplished fiddler, so I wonder if he would have played his guittar well too?
In 1758 in Edinburgh, Robert Bremner who published the first tutor for the 18th century Scottish guittar stated that; “…Time will…discover more Beauties, in the Instrument than there are yet known…” For anyone interested in listening to an 18th century guittar played today, there is the musician Rob MacKillop who plays Scottish traditional music written for guittar, lute, mandour and cittern. You can listen here to his rendition of I Love my Love in Secret, a melody which comes from a manuscript in Berwick, now housed in the National Library of Scotland.