On the BBC’s website it is listed that there are 118 poems written by our beloved bard Robert Burns with the theme of nature, however, I would argue that there is so many more as nature – a subject which was very close to his heart – is inextricably intertwined in a number of his works.
The reason nature is a genre featured so heavily within Burns’s works can be traced back to his upbringing and lifestyle. Being born in the but-and-ben Burns Cottage in Alloway, he was introduced to the ways of farmlife from childhood. He worked with his family closely there and at multiple farms thereafter such as Mount Oliphant and Lochlea Farm. Burns and his brother Gilbert even farmed at Mossgiel Farm when his father died. He did not just have connections with the land in his younger years but as an adult as well as he worked as a farmer alongside his career as a poet and songwriter. His last farming endevaour was at Ellisland Farm in Dumfrieshire. His rural upbringing and argicultural employment earned him his nickname as “The Ploughman Poet” by the artistocratic society of Edinburgh. Burns lived in Edinburgh for only two years – the city which he described as “noise and nonsense” – to return to his rural roots.
Firstly, I would ask: what is nature? It is defined as the phenomena of the physical world collectively, including plants, animals and the landscape. Burns did not neglect any of these three aspects and used them frequently as the inspiration of his works. He did various works which refer to plants such as To a Mountain Daisy, My Luve is Like a Red Red Rose and The Rosebud. Some of my personal favourite works of Burns which talk about other environmental features include Sweet Afton (about a river) and My Heart’s in the Highlands (which of course is about one of the most rugged, scenic and breath-taking landscapes in the world).
However, what this blog will mainly focus on is that Burns was most notably an animal lover. This is conveyed in his works On Glenriddell’s Fox Breaking his Chain, The Wounded Hare, Address to a Woodlark, The Twa Dogs, To a Louse and the renowned and much adored To a Mouse. This last poem – which was written in 1786 and published in the Kilmarnock Edition – is a perfect example of Burns’s humanity as this poem reflects his concern for animal welfare, his consciousness of humankind’s effect on nature and has empathy for a small creature which is widely considered as “vermin”. This was very ahead of his time and is a concern that is currently proving to be a huge issue as more and more animals become extinct because of human’s destructive actions in the twenty-first century.
The Twa Dogs poem, written in 1796, is another great work of Burns’s which gives the two dogs human-like intellect and the ability to express themselves as it has an upper-class pedigree, Caesar, and an ordinary working collie, Luath, who chat about the differing lives of the social classes. The name “Luath” comes from Ossian’s epic poem Fingal. The Twa Dogs immortalizes Burns’s own dog Luath who came to a cruel end. On the morning of 13th February 1784 Robert and his sister Isabella were distressed to find the poisoned body of Robert’s dog Luath outside their door – the act of a vengeful neighbour. Arguably, Burns intended this poem as a memorial to his canine friend.
An example of one of Burn’s lesser-known poems is The Wounded Hare which was written in 1789. Below are the first three stanzas out of five that complete this poem:
Inhuman man! curse on thy barb’rous art,
And blasted be thy murder-aiming eye;
May never pity soothe thee with a sigh,
Nor ever pleasure glad thy cruel heart!
Go live, poor wand’rer of the wood and field!
The bitter little that of life remains:
No more the thickening brakes and verdant plains
To thee a home, or food, or pastime yield.
Seek, mangled wretch, some place of wonted rest,
No more of rest, but now thy dying bed!
The sheltering rushes whistling o’er thy head,
The cold earth with thy bloody bosom prest.
The word choice makes the moral message of this poem is clear: Burns is vehemently opposed to shooting. The passion and intensity of Burns’s thoughts on this is quite surprising as one would think that as a farmer he would be used to or even dependent on killing animals, however, meat consumption was not as prominent in the eighteenth century as farm animals were only killed for food in old age or special occasions. The family’s provision of milk, cheese, butter and wool came directly from their own animals, and the health and wellbeing of these creatures were paramount. Furthermore they would share the same roof over their heads with them, thus creating strong bonds with their farm animals, and apparently Burns lost his temper with a farm-worked once when the man did not cut the potatoes small enough and Burns was frantic that the beasts might choke on them.
Below is the third stanza of the powerful poem On Glenriddell’s Fox Breaking His Chain written in 1791:
Glenriddell! Whig without a stain,
A Whig in principle and grain,
Could’st thou enslave a free-born creature,
A native denizen of Nature?
How could’st thou, with a heart so good,
(A better ne’er was sluiced with blood!)
Nail a poor devil to a tree,
That ne’er did harm to thine or thee?
Again, you can clearly see that Burns is opposed to the cruel treatment of a “free-born creature” and is in disbelief of the actions of the good-hearted Glenriddell’s actions.
However, one could argue that nature was so deeply rooted in Burns’s psyche – and he quite literally was surrounded by it living on a farm – that he could not escape from being inspired to write about it. An example of this is in his masterpiece Tam o’ Shanter. It is an epic narrative poem written in 1790 which features folklore, superstition, witchcraft and gothic themes… but it also has one of his most poignant and beautiful quotes in which Burns really philosophically details the nature of nature:
But pleasures are like poppies spread,
You seize the flower, its bloom is shed;
Or like the snow falls in the river,
A moment white–then melts for ever;
Or like the borealis race,
That flit ere you can point their place;
Or like the rainbow’s lovely form
Evanishing amid the storm.–
Nae man can tether time or tide;
The hour approaches Tam maun ride;
Burns is saying that nature’s beauty is wistful, forever-changing and is out of the control of humankind as he insightfully states “nae man can tether time or tide”.
In terms of this poem, another point is worth mentioning: the hero of this tale is a horse. Again Burns’s admiration and respect for animals is encompassed in the heroism of Meg, Tam’s horse, who against all odds does get him home in one piece although the same cannot be said for her. Burns was a brilliant horse-rider and would have relied heavily on his four-legged companion as a mode of transportation to socialise, to plough fields and to work as an excise man.
All in all Burns would have been regarded nowadays as an advocate for animal welfare and his works which have animals or nature at their core reflect his love for nature and are some of his most passionate, most thought-provoking and most heart-rending.
By Parris Joyce (Learning Trainee)
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.
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. He often said his wife Jean had the sweetest wood-notes wild singing voice. 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.
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
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.
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!
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?
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.
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)
Oyster sauce (if you have it)
Sesame oil (if you have it)
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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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.
For more pictures of the Monument Gardens, look us up on Pinterest!