Object Focus

Excise Pistols

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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 Scots Musical Museum – Annotations and Auld Lang Syne

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The Scots Musical Museum - opened to Auld Lang Syne and annotated by Robert Burns.
The Scots Musical Museum – Opened to Auld Lang Syne. Each copy was annotated by Burns himself.

As well as being one of the most valuable (and unique) items in the RBBM’s collection, our copy of The Scots Musical Museum featuring Burns’ annotations is also one of the most fascinating. The book itself belonged to Burns and subject of the annotation is the famous song ‘Auld Lang Syne’, which Burns rewrote from an old folk song he had collected whilst travelling Scotland. Alongside poetry, the songs and music of his homeland were the other great loves of his life – and he spent a large portion of his last years compiling and re-writing folksongs and melodies.

The Scots Musical Museum was a major publication; at 6 volumes with 100 songs each it was a hugely positive force in bringing Scottish folk songs and music to the classical repertoire. Other songs and tunes in the collection were contributions and arrangements from composers such as Ludwig van Beethoven and Joseph Hayden (yes, that Beethoven and that Hayden). It is interesting to note that Burn’s songs were found to be more popular than the works of other composers in the Musical Museum, (such as Beethoven specifically) as his work was found to be easier and more accessible for the audience to sing and perform. This was not just a collection of old songs however, as Burns would write new words to the tunes, or entirely different songs to the ancient melodies. Auld Lang Syne, Scots Wha Hae and Green Grow the Rashes, O are known to have much older roots.

In 1786, Robert Burns met James Johnson in Edinburgh and discovered the music engraver shared his passion for old Scots songs and his desire to preserve them. Whilst Burns only contributed 3 songs to the first volume published in 1787, he would eventually contribute about 1/3 of the whole collection as well as have involvement in editing. The final volume was published in 1803.

The most fascinating aspect of the book is the blank page full of Burns’ annotations. This was actually a feature of The Scots Musical Museum, as Burns requested that every other page be left blank in order for him to add notes and changes. This in itself, without even reading the alterations or commentary tells us a great deal about the Bard; that he was conscious of the potential of the song or tune to still be improved, a desire to discuss the theory and purpose behind the lyrics and those he had decided against, and even shines a light into his own passion concerning the music and folk traditions of his country.

 

The Mauchline Holy Fair

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Public listening to the priest at The Mauchline Holy Fair 

When Robert Burns was alive, Scotland was a very religious country. Robert Burns’s religious beliefs switched between two extremes from not believing in an afterlife to being a very religious person. “The Mauchline Holy Fair” by Alexander Carse, which is on display at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, is a picture from one of the scenes from Burns poem “The Holy Fair” written in 1785.

Holy Fairs were open air events that were held twice yearly; they were not only attended by people from the local parish but also people far and near. Twelve hundred people took to the fair that day! So it’s fair to say that the small village of Mauchline was swamped.

The picture depicts the priest telling the people about the sin of drinking alcohol; however if you look closely at his face, there is a possibility that the priest himself has been drinking. Burns himself had a special hatred for the religious hypocrites such as the priest depicted. He disliked it when people said that they were overly religious but were really not. Such hatred is expressed in his poem, “Holy Willies Prayer”.

If you look to the right of the picture you will see a pub and to the left is the Kirk, this shows that the people in the middle are in a “moral tug of war”

If you have an eagle eye you may spot Robert Burns in the right hand side of the painting by a table. He is being guided round the fair by a woman called “fun”, with “hypocrisy” and “superstition” dressed in black, leaving Burns and going on their own way.

Written by Ross, Work Experience at the museum

‘Perhaps this Christian volume is the theme…’

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The priest-like father reads the sacred page,
How Abram was the friend of God on high;
Or Moses bade eternal warfare wage,
With Amalek’s ungracious progeny;
Or how the royal bard did groaning lie
Beneath the stroke of Heaven’s avenging ire;
Or Job’s pathetic plaint, and wailing cry;
Or rapt Isaiah’s wild, seraphic fire;
Or other holy seers that tune the sacred lyre.

Robert Burns, The Cotter’s Saturday Night

William's Bible
Bible belonging to William Burnes, containing the names and birthdates of his children.

Bibles form key building blocks throughout the life of Scotland’s Bard. His father William was an extremely religious man, and Burns credits him with the inspiration for the ‘priest-like father’ described in the Cotter’s Saturday Night. This religious upbringing, especially when mixed with William’s fierce desire to see his children receive a good education, would have had a huge impact on the young Bard, although as we see in other poems he didn’t always agree with the views of the Kirk itself!

However, this Bible did not just have religious significance. William wrote the names and birthdates of his and Agnes’s children inside the front cover, creating a touching memento for themselves and leaving a lasting legacy for Burns’s followers in the absence of a birth certificate.

Robert's Bible
Bible belonging to Robert Burns, with the names of his children inscribed

This tradition was later carried on by Robert in his own family Bible, inscribing the names of himself, Jean Armour and eight of their nine children within it. His youngest son, Maxwell, was born on the day of the poet’s funeral and so was not entered by the poet himself.

Kilmarnock Bible
Bible belonging to John Wilson, published in Kilmarnock

Bibles featured at other key moments in the life of the Bard. This Bible was published by the same printer as published Burns’s Kilmarnock edition, and the book would have played a key role in the Masonic rituals young Robert took part in after he joined the Freemasons.

Highland Mary Bible
Bible Burns gave to Highland Mary, containing a lock of her hair

However, it is perhaps this Bible that was the most poignant to Burns himself. As the poet was gathering together subscriptions to support his first volume of poetry in 1786, he began an intense love affair with ‘Highland Mary’, probably a woman called Margaret Campbell. The Bard presented Mary with this two volume Bible, which some believe may have equated to a form of marriage vow. Inside the volume is Robert Burns’s Masonic mark, the words ‘Robert Burns Mossgavill’ and some Bible verses in the poet’s handwriting. A lock of hair which is thought to be Highland Mary’s was also found in the volume.

However, the affair was destined to be short-lived. Soon after receiving the Bible, Margaret set out to Greenock to visit her family, and died shortly afterwards, possibly while giving birth to Burns’s child. In many roles, be it recording birthdays, forming the centrepiece of ritual, or constituting a heartfelt gift to a lover, the ‘Christian volume’ (The Cotter’s Saturday Night) really did constitute a theme in the life of Robert Burns, and features prominently in RBBM’s collections.