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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

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It’s a’ for the apple he’ll nourish the tree

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Today, Friday 21st October, marks Apple Day in the UK. We at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum have been lucky enough this year to open an orchard consisting of 39 trees in the smallholding beside Burns Cottage. The orchard has 28 different varieties of tree, many of which are Scottish in origin, and we are grateful to the organisation ‘Scottish Fruit Trees’ who supplied us with them, as well as advising us on their selection.

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In 1756, William Burnes (Robert’s father), took lease of the 7 acres of land around Burns Cottage. The following year, he built the first two rooms of what went on to become the four roomed Cottage that we know today, but it was always his plan to create a market garden on his land – he called this the ‘New Gardens’ project. Burnes was an ‘improver’ and sought new ways of doing things, evident in both his building of Burns Cottage and in his plans for the smallholding. As well as his own land, he worked as a gardener for a John Crawford at Doonside House in Alloway, and had previously been involved in the landscaping of Edinburgh’s Hope Park – now the Meadows.

Unfortunately for William, his New Gardens project did not prosper. Today, over 250 years later, the National Trust for Scotland is trying to recreate some of his ideas, starting with the orchard which was officially opened in July this year.

The national celebration of Apple Day was launched in 1983 by Common Ground, intended to raise awareness of the biodiversity and ecology that we are in danger of losing. Over the years, events celebrating apple day have increased, and have grown in scope – for example encouraging people towards healthy eating. As a lover of nature, Robert Burns would no doubt have been delighted to see his father’s project taken forward, and would have enjoyed watching the trees in our orchard grow year by year. We’ve already been able to watch our trees grow nicely over the last 3 months, and are looking forward to future opportunities to make more of our smallholding here at Burns Cottage!

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We hope wherever you are today you’re able to celebrate Apple Day one way or another – why not let us know what you’re doing or send us some pictures?

Recycle your leftovers!

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This week, the 12th – 18th September, is Recycle Week Scotland, with this year’s focus being food waste reduction. As a lover of nature, Robert Burns would almost certainly have cared passionately about protecting our environment, and coming from a farming family would have found the concept of wasting food quite alien. This week, we asked our staff and volunteers to share their favourite ‘leftover’ recipes – ways to use up those bits and bobs still in the fridge at the end of the week. We’ve chosen our favourites below, including a guest recipe from our neighbours at Culzean Castle and Country Park! We hope you enjoy them – if you have any of your own ideas then let us know in the comments.

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1. Left over stir fry – by Learning Intern, Linda Muir

Ingredients:
Use leftover boiled rice (if you need to make rice, cook it and let it cool down first)
Any vegetables in your fridge or freezer. Broccoli, carrots, peas, bell peppers etc work best. I like to add some pak choi or kai lan (Chinese broccoli) if I can.
Meat: I like to use left over chicken from a roast but any small pieces of meat will work. Otherwise fresh chicken breast or pork fillet cut into small pieces.
1 or 2 eggs, beaten
1 Onion, diced
Ginger or garlic
1 teaspoon of ground Szechuan pepper (if you have it)
Soy sauce
Oyster sauce (if you have it)
Sesame oil (if you have it)

Instructions:
Using a wok on a high temperature, fry your ginger or garlic with a splash of oil. Add the diced onion and the Szechuan pepper and fry for a few minutes. Add any meat and cook if required (if the meat is already cooked then add it later) Move the ingredients from the wok to the side and add your egg, stirring to prevent it sticking so you have some scrambled egg. Add in any vegetables or cooked meat now along with roughly a tablespoon of soy sauce and a teaspoon of oyster sauce. Cook for 30 seconds or so, stirring continuously. Now add the cold rice and stir it all together. The rice should have a coating of sauce on it, if it doesn’t add a little more soy sauce. Serve in bowls with a drizzle of sesame oil over the top.
The ingredients for this can be changed quite easily, as long as you have some rice and veg you can make a version of it. I like to use all the random bits in the fridge I haven’t managed to use in other meals. It’s also a great way to use left over rice if you are like me and always make way more than you need!

2. Pasta Asciutta – by Volunteer, Tricia Candlish

Ingredients:
Left-over mince
1 onion (chopped)
1 – 2 cloves garlic (finely chopped/minced)
1 tin chopped tomatoes
Quantity of cooked pasta (macaroni or similar type)
Parmesan cheese, to serve

Instructions:
1. Sautee the chopped onion in a little oil (or simmer in a couple of tablespoons of water for a lighter version).
2. When the onion is soft, add the chopped garlic.
3. Add the tin of chopped tomatoes.
4. Salt and pepper, to taste.
5. Simmer for a few minutes.
6. Add the left-over mince and heat through.
7. Add the cooked pasta and mix till coated with sauce.
8. Serve sprinkled with some parmesan cheese.

Note: It is also nice to grate some cheddar cheese and mix into the sauce mixture after adding the cooked pasta.

3. Spanish Omelettes or frittata – by Volunteer, Rosie Mapplebeck

Ingredients (suggested for lunch for 4 people!)
150-200g boiled potatoes, cut in 2cm chunks
4 eggs
5 green-tails, chopped, or 2 sprouting onions. You can also use wild garlic leaves if you like.
1 handful leftover bits of veg like red pepper, frozen peas or green beans, beetroot (boiled or baked not pickled), even kale or young nettle tops are good.
1 handful feta cheese, cubed plus any cheese ends, grated.
1 dessert spoon olive oil and teaspoon sunflower oil
2 teaspoons Italian herb seasoning/ mixed herbs

Instructions:
Heat oils in a large seasoned or non-stick frying pan. Fry potatoes and turn over when golden.
Crack eggs into a bowl and add 100 ml tepid water, herbs, seasoning and beat till mixed
Pour eggs into pan over potatoes and immediately add the veg, green-tails and top with cheese cubes
Pop a lid over the pan and cook on medium heat till egg is set.
Cool slightly then turn out onto a large plate. Serve hot or cold with salad or steamed seasonal greens.
Note: To season a pan to make it non-stick, heat pan and wipe with kitchen roll dipped in oil and fine salt. Wipe pan thoroughly, heat and repeat several times. A patina will form which stops adhesion. After use re-season with another wipe and heating.

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4. ‘Sellery sauce’ – a guest 18th century recipe from Culzean Castle and Country Park!

Ever wondered what to do with those leftover bits of celery in the fridge? Hannah Glasse, one of the most famous cookbook authors of the 18th Century, provides us with a delicious recipe to make a sauce in her The Art of Cookery, made plain and easy.
To make celery sauce either for roasted or boiled fowl, turkeys, partridges or any other game
Take a large bunch of celery, wash and clean it, cut it into little bits, and boil it softly in a little water till it is tender; then add a little beaten mace, some nutmeg, pepper and salt, thickened with a good piece of butter rolled in flour; then boil it up, and pour into your dish.
You may make it with cream thus: boil your celery as above, and add some mace, nutmeg, some butter as big as a walnut, rolled in flour and half a pint of cream: boil them all together, and you may add, if you will, a glass of white wine, and a spoonful of ketchup.
Yum!

Early gems adorning

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The Scottish spring is in full swing around the museum gardens and there are ‘early gems’ popping up everywhere you look. Some of Burns most famous and well kent works are his vivid nature poems and below are some of the flowers he would have known and as such, immortalised in verse.  Admittedly, some of these are different varieties than he might have been familiar with (I’m looking at you Californian poppy), but beautiful nonetheless.

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For more pictures of the Monument Gardens, look us up on Pinterest!