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
For all music lovers especially those with a fascination for stringed instruments, Robert Burns’ guittar on display here at Robert Burns Birthplace Museum is well worth a look. This beautiful artefact is the earliest known English guittar in any Scottish collection, dating from 1757.
The English guittar was popular during the 18th century and up until the beginning of the 19th century. The instrument resembles a pear, in shape, and its’ head at the end of the neck is bent backwards slightly. It would usually have 12 strings although sometimes only 10 or 8 and those would be attached to little ivory knobs at the lower end of the instrument and stretched over a bridge. Fingerboards on guittars were often covered in ivory and would be complete with bass frets. Unfortunately there aren’t any strings remaining on Robert’s guittar today.
The English guittar is more closely related to the cittern (in fact it could be described as a revival of the cittern) than the modern-day guitar. In France the early form was known as the cistre or guittare allemande and in Italy it was known as the cetre. There is a theory that Italian musicians introduced the cittern to England where it became very fashionable and gradually became known as the guittar in the 18th century.
Although Robert spoke modestly of his musical ability, he clearly considered himself to be a musician. In a letter to Charles Sharpe, a talented amateur musician, Robert stated: “I am a Fiddler and a Poet […] Whenever I feel inclined to rest myself on my way, I take my seat under a hedge, laying my poetic wallet on my one side, and my fiddle case on the other.” It is not illogical then to imagine that he was an enthusiastic and perhaps accomplished fiddler, so I wonder if he would have played his guittar well too?
In 1758 in Edinburgh, Robert Bremner who published the first tutor for the 18th century Scottish guittar stated that; “…Time will…discover more Beauties, in the Instrument than there are yet known…” For anyone interested in listening to an 18th century guittar played today, there is the musician Rob MacKillop who plays Scottish traditional music written for guittar, lute, mandour and cittern. You can listen here to his rendition of I Love my Love in Secret, a melody which comes from a manuscript in Berwick, now housed in the National Library of Scotland.