National Trust for Scotland

Burns’s Commonplace Books

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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.

Robert Burns’s commonplace book discussing the Earl of Glencairn

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.

Rantin’ Rovin’ Robin

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?

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A day in the life of a museum curator

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We were sad to say goodbye to our Curator, Sean, last week as he retired from the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum to spend more time on his art and in his garden! We did manage to persuade him to write a quick blog post before he left, looking back on his time as curator here… we would like to wish him all the best in his retirement, and thank him for all his hard work at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum over the years.

From September 2014 until January 2018, I was curator at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway, part of the National Trust for Scotland.

Some people ask “what does a curator do?” Every post is different. I was curator of contemporary and modern art for Glasgow Museums from 1999 until 2014. It was a similar job but had many differences too. In many ways it was a faster pace at GoMA with much larger gallery spaces and constantly changing displays of collections and loans. 

Here at RBBM one of the main things I do is type as I am now. That was true of GoMA too and I suppose most jobs now. Other things I do besides typing include giving tours of the museum, surrounding sites and the stores. This is one of my favourite things to do and most visitors interested in Burns enjoy it. I enjoy conveying my love of Burns and knowledge of the collection. I am new to Burns and only started studying him when I started this job, I was hired for my ‘museum experience’. But I was pleasantly surprised to find I really like Burns as a subject. I enjoy his mind through his letters, poems and songs. He was both talented and humane. It is quite thrilling to hold original letters and manuscripts that he wrote or objects he owned. I will miss this aspect of the job, but of course, anyone anywhere can read Burns. That is one of the perks of writing, it is easily dispersed.  

A picture of the Kilmarnock edition and electronic facsimile we have in our collection
The Kilmarnock edition and facsimile in our collection…

I also had the responsibility here of planning and running three or four temporary exhibitions a year in the gallery space. This could be quite a challenge with little funds. I think my favourites were the Sharmanka show and Burns Squared.  

I also answer lots of enquiries from around the world. This is the largest collection of Burns objects in the world – over 300 rare books and 312 original manuscripts by Burns himself. I am only now beginning to comprehend and understand the collection. Collections are only as good as the caretakers who speak for them and love them and this knowledge takes time. Without this knowledge and passion collections become mute objects. 

Probably one of my favourite objects in the collection is Robert’s writing set. http://www.burnsmuseum.org.uk/collections/object_detail/3.t13 

Robert Burns writing set including sharpening knives and quills
Robert Burns’s writing set

These pens are much mightier than the sword!

 

 

Robert Burns’s Seal

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The creative talents of Robert Burns extended beyond his poetry and songs when he decided to design his own seal in 1794. In the medieval era a badge like this would have had aristocratic or militaristic origins. So why did a humble farmer poet, who was a believer in love rather than war, want a coat of arms? Burns’s creation can be seen imprinted in crimson wax and on his seal matrix within the exhibition collection at Robert Burns Birthplace Museum. This seal was a public declaration that Burns considered himself equal to any nobleman, and this would have given a clear signal to any that would have seen it. This was an important token of personal and familial identity for Burns, which he would have imprinted onto his letters.

Glass Matrix of Robert Burns's Seal
Glass Matrix of Robert Burns’s Seal

Burns decided to incorporate two mottoes within his seal. ‘Wood-notes wild’ is inscribed across the top of the seal, whilst along the bottom there is the phrase ‘Better a wee bush than nae bield’ (shelter). The first inscription could be signalling how nature has often been an important inspiration in his life, both visually and musically. In the second motto Burns could be highlighting his fears of homelessness that frequently haunted him towards the end of his life. This reminds us to respect Mother Nature, as she can be a refuge for a wee mousie to all mankind as well. In the centre of these two mottoes Burns has placed a shepherd’s crook and pipe, signalling his lifelong connection to nature through his agricultural background.

One of the main elements in his design is a Holly Tree at the bottom. Perhaps Robert Burns wanted to display his love of nature prominently, or perhaps there is another layer of meaning to consider. In Celtic mythology a Holly Tree was a guardian in the dark, winter months. It was seen by the people as a symbol of peace and goodwill. Furthermore, the Druids believed that Holly possessed protective qualities and that it could guard against bad luck and evil spirits. Therefore, this could be Burns recalling his time as a child when he heard stories of folklore and superstition from his mother and Betty Davidson.

A woodlark is a symbol of cheerfulness and joy even in the worst of times, something that Burns would have related to as his own spirits rose and fell throughout his life. But the similarity between Burns and the woodlark does not end there, since this particular song bird can mimic and remember other birds’ songs. Burns was a great lover of songs and music since boyhood, so in order to preserve the traditional songs of his beloved Scotland; Burns dedicated himself to collecting them.  These were gathered together and published in an anthology called Scots Musical Museum by James Johnson over several years.

 

Wax Impression of Robert Burns's Seal
Wax Impression of Robert Burns’s Seal

In the closing decade of the eighteenth century, discussion on republicanism and equality were politically rife questions. Robert Burns did not meet the requirements to vote; as such he used his pen and voice to challenge the political authority of the time. In his seal matrix Burns has placed a woodlark upon a branch of bay leaves. In Roman mythology bay leaves were treasured by the Gods, as their crowns of bay leaves connoted their high status and glory. By placing a woodlark, a song bird like himself on top of the branch, Burns could be trying to say his voice has greater potency then the established authority. In addition to this, it could also be interpreted as a form of mockery, as a single songbird could undermine the glory of those in power with his voice alone.

Burns deliberately incorporated multiple layers of meaning within several of his poetical works, and this mastery of disguising his true intention could also be said for his seal. Did he choose these symbols as a way of showing the world how he saw himself or how others saw him? Whether you believe these symbols have multiple meanings or not, it still provides an insight into how Burns wanted to be portrayed and remembered. He was a lover of nature and song, and even in his height of popularity amongst the literati of Edinburgh he never forgot his farming roots, which is evident in the shepherd’s pipe and crook in the centre. Nevertheless Robert Burns was a man not afraid to aspire beyond his supposed class, and this small seal and wax impression is evidence of this.

By Kirstie Bingham

Mother of the Bard

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There is no doubt that parents and guardians are instrumental in the formative years of a child’s life, and this was certainly the case for Robert Burns. One of his most famous poems, Tam o’ Shanter, was inspired by stories Burns’s relative Betty Davidson used to tell him in his childhood, and he credited Betty with ‘the largest collection in the country of tales and songs concerning devils, ghosts, fairies, brownies, witches, warlocks, spunkries, kelpies, elf-candles, dead-lights, wraiths, apparitions, cantraips, inchanted towers, giants, dragons and other trumpery’ which later inspired many of his folklore related poems. Burns’s father, William, was also hugely influential – Burns himself explained that the Cottar’s Saturday Night is loosely based on his experiences growing up on a farm, and William’s desire to ensure his children were educated meant that Robert received the schooling he needed to write his poetry.

However, the person who would no doubt have had the largest part to play in raising the young Bard was his mother, Agnes. Born Agnes Broun in 1732 in Kirkoswald, the eldest of six children, she received some formal schooling and was taught to read a little, but could never write. Her mother died when she was ten, and her father remarried and seemed to take little interest in her after that. She was sent to be looked after by her grandmother, Mrs Rennie, whose collection of songs and ballads would have probably inspired Agnes’s love of singing.

Young Agnes was initially engaged to a farmhand for seven years, but broke off the relationship after he was unfaithful. She married William in 1757 after meeting him at a fair in Maybole the year before, and the couple went on to have seven children – Robert, Gilbert, Agnes, Annabella, William, John and Isabella.

Agnes loved singing. She had a find collection of lullabies, ballads and even bawdry songs in Scots which she would sing to her children from a young age. This would no doubt have made a huge impression on the young Bard, who later went on to collect many old Scottish songs and ballads in The Scots Musical Museum. Once again, his upbringing against a background of traditional Scottish music and folklore was the perfect inspiration for future literary endeavours. Alongside her singing and domestic chores, she also played an important role in the development of the farm at Burns Cottage – she would have grown vegetables and made butter and cheese from the milk produced by the family’s cows.

William Burnes died in 1784 and was survived by Agnes for 36 years. She spent the majority of this time living with her son Gilbert and died in his home in East Lothian in 1820. Despite an inscription to her on William’s gravestone in Alloway Auld Kirk, she is actually buried in the Churchyard of Bolton. Isabella, Robert’s youngest sister, wrote this about her mother:

‘She was rather under the average height; inclined to plumpness, but neat, shapely, and full of energy; having a beautiful pink-and-white complexion, a fine square forehead, pale red hair but dark eyebrows and dark eyes often ablaze with a temper difficult of control. Her disposition was naturally cheerful; her manner, easy and collected; her address, simple and unpresuming; and her judgement uncommonly sound and good. She possessed a fine musical ear, and sang well.’

Many famous historical figures are men, however the majority of these men were raised by women. There is little doubt that Agnes Broun had a large formative influence on her son, and inspired his love of music and song, as well his appreciation in later life of women who had a musical ear. She not only physically gave birth to Robert Burns, but also brought him up to become Scotland’s National Bard.

Scots language at RBBM

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Scots is one of three indigenous languages in Scotland alongside Gaelic and English. It is recognised as a language in its own right and Burns is recognised as one of the greatest proponents of this language. Here at RBBM, we utilise Scots to reinforce its relevance to the museum, its landscape and its local heritage. You can read more about our promotion and usage of our mither tongue in our Scots Language Strategy: http://www.burnsmuseum.org.uk/scots-language-strategy/.

If you have visited RBBM before, you may have spotted our use of the Scots language in our exhibition labels, products and books in our shop, and in our café menus. We also explore Scots in our education programmes, and it is part of our architecture – you’ll find Scots words engraved into the building’s walls, adorning our glass windows and incorporated into some of our exterior sculptural works. We would love to know which Scots words you have seen around the site are your favourite. Tweet us @robertburnsnts using the hashtags #Scots and #Scotslanguage to share.

Tim Chalk 1

At the front of the Museum on the grass, you’ll find a bronze and steel sculpture rising from the leaf-shaped soil. This piece is by Tim Chalks for Chalk Works, and it is site-specific – designed to relate closely to the environment and the people associated with its location, much like Chalks’ other works. The form of this sculpture plays with the way Burns drew inspiration for his poems and songs – from the land – by ploughing Scots words taken from Burns’s To A Mouse from the earth. Further emphasis is placed on Burns’s concern with nature, and his farming background, by two bronze crows attempting to feed from the Scots words. This inclusion of feeding birds is fitting for RBBM too, especially as they are crows, one of the most intelligent types of bird, as we aim to fill (up) our visitors with the knowledge of Burns’s life and works, as well as of the richness of the Scots language.

Tim Chalk 2.JPG

A crow at RBBM’s entrance, placed to direct visitors into the Museum from the grass, is also part of this sculpture by Chalks, as are the additional crows in the Museum Gardens. The Museum Gardens are also home to a selection of Chalks’ other sculptural works. Why not pop along to see them and explore what their interpretations may be?

By RBBM Learning Trainee, Sophie Watt.

New Gardens

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In 1756 a farmer and landscape gardener called William Burnes took a perpetual lease on a 7 acre piece of land in Alloway. The next year, he started work on a small Cottage for himself and his wife, Agnes, and two years after that their first son Robert was born in its kitchen. 37 years later, Robert Burns died in Dumfries having cemented his place in history as Scotland’s National Bard.

William was an innovator. He had previously worked on the laying out of Edinburgh’s Hope Park (now the Meadows) and believed in agricultural and landscaping improvement. Although they only lived at Burns Cottage until young Robert was 7, it was always William’s dream to create a self-sufficient market garden, ‘New Gardens’ on the site. Unfortunately, his idea did not prosper and over time the land was given over more and more to cattle and poultry. It was with this in mind that the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum (RBBM) team decided to revisit William’s plans and restart ‘New Gardens’ as a working project.


The first steps were taken last year, with the planting of a 39 tree strong orchard which is already bearing fruit. Last week saw the beginning of the next stage of works, carried out by W L Straughan & Son Ltd, to install raised beds, public walkways, and a pond and wetland area. With this, we aim to improve biodiversity onsite, expand on the outdoor learning opportunities (for schools, families and community groups) RBBM currently offers, and to realise William’s ‘New Gardens’ vision and offer up an historic continuum on this plot of land between the time of Burns and the present.
In 1765, William Burnes leased land at Mount Oliphant farm about 2 miles away from Burns Cottage in Alloway, and the family moved there. Soil was poor and the family had to work hard to keep afloat. 12 years later, they moved to Lochlea Farm in Tarbolton, site of the Bachelors’ Club where Robert Burns learnt to dance, founded a debating society, and joined the Freemasons. Unfortunately, the family continued to find it difficult to make ends meet, and became involved in a legal dispute with their landlord. They eventually won the court case in 1784, but William was left physically drained and died just a few weeks afterwards.

233 years later, his New Gardens project is now underway at the Burns’s first family home in Alloway, and will allow RBBM to focus on another of William’s key passions – education – without which the boy born in 1759 in the kitchen of the auld clay biggin’ may never have gone on to become Scotland’s National Bard.

Franz Stelzhamer: ‘The Austrian Burns’

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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.

Franz Stelzhamer

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.