National Trust for Scotland
This blog was written by Iona Fisher, a work experience student from Carrick Academy.
In 1788 Burns trained to be an excise officer and was an excise man until he died in 1796, as well as farming in Ellisland. Excise men (also known as gaugers) covered large areas of Scotland’s countryside and their job was to inspect and record taxable materials, such as malted grain, soap, candles and paper, before and after they were manufactured. To do this Burns would use dipping rods to measure liquids and scales to weigh dried materials. Burns was aware that people did not necessarily like excise men, so he carried a pistol around with him to protect himself.
Also in RBBM’s collection are Robert Burns’s duelling pistols: http://www.burnsmuseum.org.uk/collections/object_detail/3.8557.a-c
With Robert Burns’ health condition getting worse, he moved back to Dumfries to live his last few days. On his deathbed he gave his physician – Dr William Maxwell, his pair of duelling pistols. He died in Dumfries on the 21st of July 1796 from a heart disease. Roberts’s wife, Jean, gave birth to her last child the day of Burns’s funeral and she named him Maxwell after Robert’s physician. The pistols were donated to the Burns Monument Trust by William Hugh Fleming in 1987 and they are now in the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum.
The final blog post in our series written by two placement students from Glasgow University is on the Beggar’s Badge in the museum.
It doesn’t matter who you are, where you live or what you do for a living: you will have come across beggars in some context. Whether that experience is witnessing people begging on the streets of a busy city, or being approached by someone asking for money on public transport, begging is one of the few features which appears to be current in most cultures. Tolerated in some countries, looked down on in others; the presence of begging appears to be both a problem for society and a means of survival for individuals. With the high population of beggars seen today in streets all over the world, it is easy to justify not financially helping individuals due to the overwhelming size of the community. However, perhaps it is time we stopped looking for change in our wallets and purses and instead look at the change we can spare from ourselves.
The beggar’s badge on display in the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum only emphasizes how constant this problem is in society, and the different attempts that have been made to ‘fix’, or at least control, it. It seems quite bewildering that we have managed to go for so many centuries, with no success of fixing this issue. But how can it be fixed?! Alongside the badge in the museum is an edition of The Big Issue, a modern-day scheme which provides a ‘hands-up’ approach to aid solving the problem, giving people in hopeless positions an opportunity to find hope through their own actions. With these items paired together in the museum, the timelessness of the problem of urban poverty and homelessness becomes even more prominent. Though the modern-day scheme of The Big Issue magazine, the people in these vulnerable life-states are empowered, there is still a separation in the wider community today. In all these attempts to tackle the ‘big issue’ are we really just avoiding the issue at the core of the problem? Perhaps the issue is not the presence of beggars on the street, but instead our attitudes towards them?
Today, attitudes toward beggars are not what most people would describe as positive. Often avoided and ignored, those sitting on the street asking for help are subject to both financial and social poverty, in the lack of acknowledgement they are given. Here in the UK street begging is illegal, making it not only socially frowned upon but lawfully as well.
With this in mind, it seems that Burns’s poem ‘The Jolly Beggars’ challenges this view today. It not only goes so far as to acknowledge this community of people, but also to romanticize their situation and their ‘freedom’ from responsibility. How different this view of the homeless is from the one displayed today. Though Burns is obviously not representing the views of his community through this poem, he is providing a new take on the begging community that has for so long been looked down on in so many different cultures. In a documentary by Power and People, Barnaby Phillips investigates the differences that begging has on the culture in Sweden and in the Philippines. At the end of this 30 minute film, Phillips states that despite the differences in how the issue is handled in both countries, the common denominator of both cultures is the ‘growing gap between the rich and poor’ in society. So, if the real issue is the class divide in our society, is this not something that we have the power to improve? Or are we all out of spare change?
By Kathryn Thompson
Visitors to the museum lately can hardly help but have noticed our latest temporary exhibition – ‘Witches’ Brouhaha Spooks and Spells’ by Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre. Sharmanka, which is the Russian word for ‘Barrel-Organ’, is a collaboration between sculptor-mechanic Eduard Bersudsky, theatre director Tatyana Jakovskaya, and light and sound designer Sergey Jakovsky. You can see more of their work at Trongate 103 in the centre of Glasgow.
The exhibition consists of five ‘Kinemats’, or motorised machine sculptures – carved figures and pieces of old scrap which perform an incredible choreography to haunting music and synchronized light. One is themed on Burns’s famous poem ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ and the other four are all themed on witches, giving the whole exhibition a Burnsian feel. Due to the nature of the exhibition, shows are timed throughout the day and are introduced by our hard-working volunteers, but the exhibition is open for viewing the sculptures between shows as well. It runs until February 28th and is free! Why not pop down and see it one day and bring the family? Shows last approximately ten minutes.
Alongside the exhibition itself, our new Scots Scriever (poet in residence) Rab Wilson has written a fantastic poem in Scots to compliment the show:
Professor Sharmanka’s Magick Sheddae Schaw
Wheesht! Whit’s gaun oan in the Burns Museum,
In the howe-dumb-deid o the wee sma hours,
Thair’s eldritch whigmaleeries cam alive,
Tae fleg the weans oan this All-Hallow’s Eve!
Professor Sharmanka’s traivellin schaw,
Trundles ower the Brig O’Doon’s auld keystane,
An frae his cairpet-bag cam’s crawlin oot,
A damned menagerie o infernal craiturs!
Whan nae-yin is abraid they tak their post,
Heizin scrap-yaird treasuirs intil place,
Bits o cast-iron Singer shewin machines,
A pair o auld pram wheels, a lavvie cistern.
The doors frae a bracken doll’s hoose kythe,
Blinkin de’ils Hieronymous Bosch wid ken,
Biggin their Heath Robinson contraptions,
Ilk beam an ratchet fixed, when naethin steers.
Uncanny bears an wolves an burly bulls,
Rax an jundy, streetch an rax an puhl,
Wi aa their micht an main, wi sweit an thew,
Til evri gear an wheel an pinion’s fixt.
Sharmanka taks his concert-maister’s place,
Syne shoogles his sauch wan an gies a tap,
Ilk craitur in their place taks tentie care,
An then a kist o whustles girns tae life!
Rid lichts lowe oot, glentin lik damnation,
The eerie music rises tae its pitch,
The strainin chains growe taut, the gear-wheels catch,
An syne the hale clanjamfrie jyne the dance!
Sharmanka’s airm flails lik a Tattie-Bogle,
Claucht in some back-end November storm,
Whiles oan their heich trapeze the ferlies birl,
The Tod an Yowe, a Bear wi bairn in airms,
Lood an looder screichs the Deevils score,
The hale queer unco’s gaun lik a fair!
The ragged Gaberlunzie’s Hurdy-gurdy,
Adds its timmer-tuned vyce tae the choir.
Chained in their wee bit hoosie, backs tae the licht,
The ‘Children o the Daurk’ jalouse frae sheddaes,
The warld they ken frae saicent-haund daylicht;
Cantrips dancin oan the wa afore thaim.
An aa the hoose around is sleepin soundly,
Anely a doverin Houlet blinks an ee,
Douce fowk o Ayr! Gin anely ye cuid see!
Sharmanka’s diabolical Kinetics!
When aa a suddent, chanticleer dis craw,
The dancin stoaps an lichts aa fade awa,
Sharmanka pynts his wan i the risin sun,
The Houlet shaks his feathers, aa’s gaen lown.
The Gallery door’s flang apen tae the public,
A mither wi her twa bit bairns gangs furth,
The auldest lassie rugs her mither’s sleevie,
‘Mammy, mammy! Thon bear winkt its ee!’
Hi my name is Catriona and I am the Learning and Volunteer Intern at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum !
How long have you been volunteering for at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum?
6 months, I volunteer along side my job here in the Learning Team.
Why did you start volunteering at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum?
I volunteer with the Learning Team to gain invaluable experience in Heritage and Museum education. Also get to work alongside an excellent team of staff and volunteers and contunue learning about 18th century Scotland (one of my favorite things ), and I get to understand Robert Burns and his work abit better. I grew up in Ayrshire and Burns featured strongly in my school education, it is nice to learn the more gritty things about his life !
What kind of things do you get up to when you volunteer?
I do a variety of things, from maintaining school stats to delivering workshops to organising events to drinking lots of tea and eating biscuits!
What has been your most memorable experience volunteering here?
It is really hard to pick out one experience. I think the whole of January and most of February was memorable experiance – we were ran of our feet with schools, events and Burns ‘fans’ coming to the museum. I discovered that I love being part of museum education although it was the sheer enthusiasm of the school pupils and visitors which kept me going !
That whole month and a bit is a blur!
What is your favourite thing about RBBM?
School workshops, particularily when you get a class who are very disengaged at the start and by the end they dont want you to leave because they are loving what they are learning it makes the volunteering all worth while ! …… close second is the catering though…. the scones and cakes are pretty awesome.
5 years ago, I saw an ad in the Ayrshire Post . Volunteers needed for a new museum opening in Alloway, this was the New Robert Burns Birthplace Museum
I had just retired and was looking for something to fill my time, not just to do charity work but to keep the learning ethos on going , hence I started on the journey (I shall call it ), my knowledge of Robert Burns was very limited. As a school girl we were bused down from Paisley to visit the cottage, I was so bored I threw toffee papers at the film of Tam and Meg as they galloped over the fields.
Today it is a different story ,I am now a guide at RBBM .I am often to be found taking school groups around the site in all kind of weather, I was standing on the Brig O’Doon ,the snow swirling round me ,I was telling a class of 6yr olds about Robert Burns, one little schoolgirl tugged my coat and asked “are you Robert Burns sister” as I knew so much about him
Now another hat I wear is shop assistant in the “Burns an’ a’ that ” shop in the town, we sell NTS goods and local crafters work .
Its a great way of interacting with the public, I am often to be found at the Highlight Talks held in the Museum every Wednesday where one of the volunteers will give an in depth talk on one piece in particular ,it’s an excellent way of getting the knowledge to enhance the visitors experience.
So I would say to anyone thinking about volunteering with the NTS, jump on board ,the journey is amazing.
I am so glad I answered the advert in the Ayrshire Post!
Once I started working at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum I realised that this is only one small part of the wider Burns landscape. Part of this landscape, which I had not visited until working here at the museum, was the Bachelors Club in Tarbolton. The Bachelors Club has a different feel from Burns cottage – you have more of a sense of Robert Burns as an animated, creative and sometimes mischievous young man.
The building itself is a 17th century house in Tarbolton, Ayrshire and is just a short drive from the cottage in Alloway. In its restored state it shows an 18th century domestic interior from when John Richard and his family lived in the lower floor. The upstairs was used for functions; such as the country dancing lessons which Robert Burns enjoyed much to the distain of his father!
When you visit the Bachelors Club you start the tour on the ground floor in the 18th century interior and as you sit in the room it feels like you have stepped back in time. With little traffic noise all you can hear is the creak of people sitting on the chairs, the upstairs floor boards, and the ticking of the clock. As it was pointed out to us by Alistair, our guide, the building has a long history which both pre and superseded Burns. But it is Burns’s connection to the property which has ultimately saved it.
To gain access to the upper floor you head back out and up the external stair way, the Bachelors Club itself was in the first floor room which is the same footprint as the two rooms downstairs. The upstairs space was reopened as one room when the National Trust for Scotland took on the property; prior to this the area had been divided into two rooms with a partition wall.
The space is full of Burns memorabilia, relics and nicknacks, after a few minutes of exploring I found my favourite objects – some clay pipes! While these might not seem exciting, I am a fan of them, and I loved the way they were all hanging higgity on the wall next to one of the two fireplaces. The fire places are really interesting too – Alistair explained to us that it was thought that the circles on the floor around the fire place are to help protect the inhabitants from evil spirits. This is because the fire place is always ‘open’ compared to the windows and doors which can be shut. This little bit of superstition is kept going by the staff at the property for ‘auld’ times sake.
This space is where the Club was formed by Robert, his brother Gilbert, and some friends from the parish. Other than the images of Burns and his poems on the wall you could really be sitting in the room waiting on the Bachelors Club arriving for their meeting. The Club itself is very interesting, what I found most interesting was the questions proposed for debating by the members.
The first question is one which maybe reflects the young male membership – as a poor farmer with no money, if you have a choice between a rich woman with no personality and a poor woman you love who would you choose? (Robert reportedly debated for the girl with no money!) Topics they also discussed were issues around politics, education and philosophy.
While in the cottage you experience Burns’s life as a child, the Bachelors Club introduces you to the Burns who we think we know. I felt like Burns could just saunter into the Club and start debating.
This gem in the Burns landscape is one which should not be missed, the amazing atmosphere and the knowledgeable staff brings this little building to life.
Opening times Friday to Tuesday 1pm to 5pm. This property has seasonal openings, and this year (2015) is open through to the 30th September. For more information, please click!