poetry

The Beggar’s Badge – any spare change?

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The final blog post in our series written by two placement students from Glasgow University is on the Beggar’s Badge in the museum.

It doesn’t matter who you are, where you live or what you do for a living: you will have come across beggars in some context. Whether that experience is witnessing people begging on the streets of a busy city, or being approached by someone asking for money on public transport, begging is one of the few features which appears to be current in most cultures. Tolerated in some countries, looked down on in others; the presence of begging appears to be both a problem for society and a means of survival for individuals. With the high population of beggars seen today in streets all over the world, it is easy to justify not financially helping individuals due to the overwhelming size of the community. However, perhaps it is time we stopped looking for change in our wallets and purses and instead look at the change we can spare from ourselves.

The beggar’s badge on display in the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum only emphasizes how constant this problem is in society, and the different attempts that have been made to ‘fix’, or at least control, it. It seems quite bewildering that we have managed to go for so many centuries, with no success of fixing this issue. But how can it be fixed?! Alongside the badge in the museum is an edition of The Big Issue, a modern-day scheme which provides a ‘hands-up’ approach to aid solving the problem, giving people in hopeless positions an opportunity to find hope through their own actions. With these items paired together in the museum, the timelessness of the problem of urban poverty and homelessness becomes even more prominent. Though the modern-day scheme of The Big Issue magazine, the people in these vulnerable life-states are empowered, there is still a separation in the wider community today. In all these attempts to tackle the ‘big issue’ are we really just avoiding the issue at the core of the problem? Perhaps the issue is not the presence of beggars on the street, but instead our attitudes towards them?

Today, attitudes toward beggars are not what most people would describe as positive. Often avoided and ignored, those sitting on the street asking for help are subject to both financial and social poverty, in the lack of acknowledgement they are given. Here in the UK street begging is illegal, making it not only socially frowned upon but lawfully as well.

jolly-beggars

With this in mind, it seems that Burns’s poem ‘The Jolly Beggars’ challenges this view today. It not only goes so far as to acknowledge this community of people, but also to romanticize their situation and their ‘freedom’ from responsibility. How different this view of the homeless is from the one displayed today. Though Burns is obviously not representing the views of his community through this poem, he is providing a new take on the begging community that has for so long been looked down on in so many different cultures. In a documentary by Power and People, Barnaby Phillips investigates the differences that begging has on the culture in Sweden and in the Philippines. At the end of this 30 minute film, Phillips states that despite the differences in how the issue is handled in both countries, the common denominator of both cultures is the ‘growing gap between the rich and poor’ in society. So, if the real issue is the class divide in our society, is this not something that we have the power to improve? Or are we all out of spare change?

By Kathryn Thompson

Professor Sharmanka’s Magick Sheddae Schaw

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Visitors to the museum lately can hardly help but have noticed our latest temporary exhibition – ‘Witches’ Brouhaha Spooks and Spells’ by Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre. Sharmanka, which is the Russian word for ‘Barrel-Organ’, is a collaboration between sculptor-mechanic Eduard Bersudsky, theatre director Tatyana Jakovskaya, and light and sound designer Sergey Jakovsky. You can see more of their work at Trongate 103 in the centre of Glasgow.

sharmanka

The exhibition consists of five ‘Kinemats’, or motorised machine sculptures – carved figures and pieces of old scrap which perform an incredible choreography to haunting music and synchronized light. One is themed on Burns’s famous poem ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ and the other four are all themed on witches, giving the whole exhibition a Burnsian feel. Due to the nature of the exhibition, shows are timed throughout the day and are introduced by our hard-working volunteers, but the exhibition is open for viewing the sculptures between shows as well. It runs until February 28th and is free! Why not pop down and see it one day and bring the family? Shows last approximately ten minutes.

Alongside the exhibition itself, our new Scots Scriever (poet in residence) Rab Wilson has written a fantastic poem in Scots to compliment the show:

Professor Sharmanka’s Magick Sheddae Schaw

Wheesht! Whit’s gaun oan in the Burns Museum,

In the howe-dumb-deid o the wee sma hours,

Thair’s eldritch whigmaleeries cam alive,

Tae fleg the weans oan this All-Hallow’s Eve!

Professor Sharmanka’s traivellin schaw,

Trundles ower the Brig O’Doon’s auld keystane,

An frae his cairpet-bag cam’s crawlin oot,

A damned menagerie o infernal craiturs!

Whan nae-yin is abraid they tak their post,

Heizin scrap-yaird treasuirs intil place,

Bits o cast-iron Singer shewin machines,

A pair o auld pram wheels, a lavvie cistern.

The doors frae a bracken doll’s hoose kythe,

Blinkin de’ils Hieronymous Bosch wid ken,

Biggin their Heath Robinson contraptions,

Ilk beam an ratchet fixed, when naethin steers.

Uncanny bears an wolves an burly bulls,

Rax an jundy, streetch an rax an puhl,

Wi aa their micht an main, wi sweit an thew,

Til evri gear an wheel an pinion’s fixt.

Sharmanka taks his concert-maister’s place,

Syne shoogles his sauch wan an gies a tap,

Ilk craitur in their place taks tentie care,

An then a kist o whustles girns tae life!

Rid lichts lowe oot, glentin lik damnation,

The eerie music rises tae its pitch,

The strainin chains growe taut, the gear-wheels catch,

An syne the hale clanjamfrie jyne the dance!

Sharmanka’s airm flails lik a Tattie-Bogle,

Claucht in some back-end November storm,

Whiles oan their heich trapeze the ferlies birl,

The Tod an Yowe, a Bear wi bairn in airms,

Lood an looder screichs the Deevils score,

The hale queer unco’s gaun lik a fair!

The ragged Gaberlunzie’s Hurdy-gurdy,

Adds its timmer-tuned vyce tae the choir.

Chained in their wee bit hoosie, backs tae the licht,

The ‘Children o the Daurk’ jalouse frae sheddaes,

The warld they ken frae saicent-haund daylicht;

Cantrips dancin oan the wa afore thaim.

An aa the hoose around is sleepin soundly,

Anely a doverin Houlet blinks an ee,

Douce fowk o Ayr! Gin anely ye cuid see!

Sharmanka’s diabolical Kinetics!

When aa a suddent, chanticleer dis craw,

The dancin stoaps an lichts aa fade awa,

Sharmanka pynts his wan i the risin sun,

The Houlet shaks his feathers, aa’s gaen lown.

The Gallery door’s flang apen tae the public,

A mither wi her twa bit bairns gangs furth,

The auldest lassie rugs her mither’s sleevie,

‘Mammy, mammy! Thon bear winkt its ee!’

Burns in the USSR

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The third in our series of guest blog posts written by Glasgow University students examines Burns’s influence on the USSR.

The works of Robert Burns have been translated most frequently into Russian and Eastern European languages. In the era of the Soviet Union, Burns was promoted as the ‘people’s poet’ and was taught in USSR classrooms alongside their own national poets. Although the Soviet Regime was known to be slaughtering and silencing its own contemporary poets, Burns’s reputation endured. In fact, in 1965 the USSR was the first country in the world to honour Burns’s memory with a postage stamp, one of which is on display in the museum.

During 19th Century Imperial times when Russia was still ruled by the Tsar, intellectuals were so out-of-touch with the realities of peasant life that translations of Burns became representative of the common man. His empathy with the poor and oppressed, and his sympathies for revolutionary causes held mass appeal amongst middle-class circles, and his work also proved extremely popular amongst the ordinary Russian people.

marshak-book

To discover the reasons why, we must first look to Samuil Marshak’s translation of Burns which is housed in the museum. Marshak studied at the University of London but in 1914, just three years before the collapse of the Tsardom, he moved back to Russia and fully devoted himself to the art of translation. He began his translated version of the complete works of Robert Burns in the same year and published it by 1924. However, due to restrictions in the translation process in Imperial Russia, Burns’s poetic sensibilities have been vastly misinterpreted by the readers of Marshak’s translation, which not only sold 600,000 copies after its first publication, but was also a frequent bestseller throughout the 20th century. However, due to ideological restrictions within the arts during the tsarist regime, Marshak’s translations and adaptations do not bear much resemblance to Burns’s original poetry. An artist, or in Marshak’s case a translator, was not allowed to criticise the monarchy nor show any sympathy for revolutionary causes in their works. Marshak also tended to over-stress the ideas of religious resignation, duty, and dignity, and so due to the overwhelming popularity of his translations, aspects of Burns’s work alluding to any of the above themes have either been completely ignored or gravely misunderstood in Russia and beyond. That is not to say that Marshak’s translations do not hold any literary value, for in fact their quality is quite exceptional.

russian-burns

In the height of the Soviet Regime, Burns’s works were continually republished and new versions written – the USSR was very particular about which literature was appropriate. Soviet readers were living in a literary bubble, isolated from international readers. Translations of such poems as ‘A Man’s a Man for a’ That’ and ‘Love and Liberty’ were hailed as examples of Burns’s empathy with the poor, his democratic spirit and his connection with the worker, peasant, and beggar – the USSR was keen to elevate his desire for equality and democracy for the people.

Many aspects of Burns’s biography which are common knowledge amongst the former USSR are quite simply not true and, like his poetry, have been intercepted by ideology. For example, when the USSR started to reject churches as independent organisations, Burns was presented to the public as being anti-Christian. Biographers put uncommon and often untrue emphasis on his role as a victim of the upper classes, as a suffering alcoholic brought on by the observation of the unjust treatment of the poor, and as a wholesome, smiley family man who married once and adored his wife. His biography was both made up and emphasised in equal measure in order to bring his image closer to that of the common man.

And so we can observe how ideology has intercepted and interfered with the memorialisation of Burns in Russia and in ex-Soviet states. Although his work is still extremely popular, more efforts need to be made to separate his work and biography from pre-Soviet and Soviet ideologies.

By Kirsty Macqueen

Writing on the glass

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The second of our guest blog posts from students at the University of Glasgow focusses on Burns’s habit of engraving poetry into glass windows… and the potential parallels with how we use social media today!

We all have things we want to say, whether they be in public or private. Robert Burns, a poet known for his way with words, was not without this urgency to express what he felt was important to him. Often saying them in a manner that was not altogether lawful, one of Burns’s tendencies was to engrave windows with his own words, both in public and private places, as a means of expressing himself. Though it is not as common for people to carve their thoughts into nearby windows today, we still have the same urge to express our views. However, for our generation the ‘windows’ are the windows of the internet, through which a large portion of society can easily express their views from a distance. Through these expressions , projected on a significantly more public level, it is questionable what, in both Burns’s case and ours, gives our words their worth.

Diamon Cutter
Robert Burns’s diamond cutter, which he used to carve poems into glass.

Three window panes featuring Burns poems were found in the Globe Inn in Dumfries, which became one of Burns’s favourite places to drink. The verses, found in one of the upstairs lodging rooms, include him expressing his views on the worth of sex and war, the final line of one poem reading: ‘I’m better pleased to make one more, | Than be the death of twenty.’ Though there was a social risk in him saying these controversial things, which likely went against society’s conventional views, there was also a physical risk of vandalizing other people’s property, meaning that the outcome of such an expression could have had lawful repercussions. So for Burns the risks were not only community-based, in endangering his reputation, but also legal. With this considered, it is clear that these words were of great worth to Burns by the risks he took in ensuring their perpetuity. He is not just writing these words to be heard, but writing them to be remembered.

To align this with the modern means we have of expressing oneself through social media, we are faced with some similar risks. In the action of speaking out today, we are faced with more social risks: our anxiety is more concerned with how many likes/retweets/shares we get. We want people to know the things that we have to say. Because of this, it often seems as if our words only gain value, rather than having value in the first instance. Through using social media as a tool to express ourselves, we are not only putting ourselves out there but also, and perhaps more importantly, seeking a response from them. Unlike Burns’s expressions engraved on window panes, we are more concerned with who likes what we have to say than what we are actually saying.

Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, Alloway.
A pane of glass engraved by Robert Burns

‘Sound be his sleep and blythe his morn,
That never did a lassie wrang;
Who poverty ne’er held in scorn,
For misery ever tholed a pang.’

I don’t know what motivated Burns to engrave those windows, and I don’t know why people post what they post on social media, but from these comparisons it is clear that expression in society has shifted. The internet is at our fingertips today, and is as permeant as a pane of glass. However, as I write more words of my own onto the glass of the internet, I wonder how we would use our words if all the ‘expressions’ we engrave on the ‘walls’ of social media, were instead inscribed on the windows of our own homes. How then would you value what you had to say, if it not only altered your view to the outside world, but also altered the world’s view of you?

By Kathryn Thomson

‘I’ll go and be a sodger’

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Robert_Burns_WWI_poster

Exactly one hundred years ago, the Battle of the Somme, one of the deadliest in history, was raging on the fields of France. Originally intended as a quick and decisive victory for the allies, the Battle became one of attrition, with the result that over one million men were wounded or killed over the course of four and a half months of bloody conflict. Tanks were used for the first time, and the battle saw the first significant use of air strikes; changing the nature of warfare forever.

Robert Burns wrote many poems and songs on the subject of war, as well as spending the latter part of his life with the Royal Dumfries Volunteers. During the Great War, over a hundred years after his death, Burns continued to be celebrated. Burns clubs increased from 227 in 1915, to 254 in 1918, and Burns Suppers continued to be held, even at the front. Events such as the garlanding of his statue in Glasgow and the placing of the floral tribute in Dumfries continued, and Burns concerts and celebrations were held throughout the war, now often in aid of troop entertainment and charitable fundraising.

During the war the militaristic aspects of the Bard’s work were emphasised, as well as his desire to stand up to tyranny and oppression. Scots Wha Hae was included in several martial anthologies, including Oxford University Press’s ‘Poems of War and Battle’, published in 1914. His time spent as a volunteer in Dumfries was also very useful to those claiming he was an ardent militarist, and he appeared on a recruitment poster, using a quote from his poetry, which encouraged men to join up. At a Burns Supper in London in 1918, John Buchan made this declaration in his Immortal Memory: ‘If you wish for a statement of the Allies’ War Aims you will find it through the poetry of Burns. Freedom, tolerance, sympathy in the State; devotion, courage, sacrifice in the citizen – it is all there’.

Other groups sought to distance themselves from the official view of Burns, emphasising the radical, rather than military, elements of poems like Scots Wha Hae, and also pointing out how Burns often wrote about the negative aspects of war and the hardship it brings. Willie Steward, organiser of the Scottish Independent Labour party, believed that Burns was being misrepresented by the government, and declared: ‘I cannot help but think if [statesmen] had ranted of Burns less and imbibed his spirit more, it had been better for us all to-day’.

As is often the case with our Bard, his views are difficult to pin down. He wrote many poems emphasising the negative aspects of war, but also supported the American and French revolutions. However, as can be seen above, whatever his views during his lifetime, his legacy after his death continued in ways beyond his control.

References: http://www.ijsl.stir.ac.uk/issue6/goldie.htm – David Goldie, Burns and the First World War, International Journal of Scottish Literature, Issue 6, Spring/Summer 2010.

Volunteers’ Week 2015 : Meet our Volunteers – Sheona

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I have been volunteering at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum as a Guide since it opened in November 2010.

Being an Ayrshire Lass I was fortunate to be brought up learning about Burns, his life and his poetry. I also took part in many Burns Schools Festivals and still perform at many Burns Suppers in Ayrshire and beyond.

As a Volunteer I carry out many varied duties – my main one is guiding visitors around the museum, the wider site which includes the Cottage, the Auld Kirk, the Brig O’Doon, the gardens, the Monument, the Poet’s Path etc., etc.

My Guiding role involves taking school parties, adult groups, overseas visitors, dressing up in costume as and when required for various events and activities – for example Evening Hallowe’en Tours, Mini Burns Suppers which are held in the Cottage and various Burns events centred around the museum and wider site in January.

My most memorable experience and honour was being asked to record “The Cottar’s Saturday Night” for one of the exhibits in the museum.

I carry out many varied duties but first and foremost I try to give all our visitors a memorable experience. This involves passing on knowledge about Burns – his life, family, poem, letters etc. I also inform visitors about the products and services provided e.g. brochures (for all National Trust for Scotland properties), guide books for the Museum and wider site, the resteraunt shop, Garden Shop, Education Tours, etc.

Providing information, advice and assistance to visitors is invaluable.

I always try to present a friendly and positive image to visitor to ensure that they are receiving excellent Customer Service and feel genuinely welcome. At the outset I want them to know they will be well looked after and receive the necessary information and an enjoyable and informative visit.

Asking children if they are learning about Burns or other Scottish poets at school is so special, particularly hearing them recite what they have learnt – after a little encouragement!

I inform/direct visitors to other NTS properties – remembering to mention membership of the NTS. This is so worthwhile especially for visitors who are just beginning their holiday and hope to visit other places of interest.

If visitors leave having learnt something they did not know before this is so satisfying and I feel I have done a good job. Also if visitors leave wanting to return that is a bonus.

It is so enjoyable meeting people from other parts of the world and passing on knowledge,

I have many favourite things about RBBM – the contents of the Museum, the Cottage, the Brig O’Doon, the beautifully kept gardens.

I am so fortunate to be working in such a warm friendly environment with such excellent, helpful colleges and staff.

Sheona

Volunteerweekcomp

Will the Real Robert Burns Please Stand Up?

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Our forthcoming exhibition, The Real Face of Burns, explores the legend of imagery that has grown up around our bard. While we think we know what Burns looked like, the majority of Burns imagery is based on a portrait done by the artist, Alexander Naysmith. Yet, while Naysmith knew Burns, the other images done during the life of Burns seem to conflict. Who is the real Robert Burns here, in our collection of images, and will he please stand up?

Copy of the Naysmith Burns
Print of the Alexander Naysmith Bust Portrait of Robert Burns

This is our main image of Burns, isn’t it? It has become the most popular and the most often copied, perhaps because its original creator, Alexander Naysmith, was a famous painter and his images were well known and seen. However, while Naysmith was well acquainted with Burns, has he perhaps idealised his friend in this image? Robert Burns in the Naysmith style is handsome, perhaps even slightly ‘pretty’, with slim features and fashionable dress. While the Scottish countryside evokes Burns’s farming background, the muck and pleiter of farming life seems absent in this Edinburgh painting.

Engraving by Peter Taylor 1786-87
Engraving by Peter Taylor 1786-87

There are other paintings of Robert Burns done by people who knew him and saw him, and they differ substantially. There is the Peter Taylor portrait in our collection here at Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, which shows Burns again in Scottish landscape, still fairly slim, sitting quite formally with a large farmer’s bunnet, but with none of the refined air of Naysmith. Sir Walter Scott, who had met Robert Burns, said of the portrait that ‘I would not hesitate to recognise this portrait as a striking resemblance of the Poet.’

Portrait of Robert Burns Alexander Reid, 1796 On loan from the Scottish National Portrait Gallery
Portrait of Robert Burns
Alexander Reid, 1796
On loan from the Scottish National Portrait Gallery

Then, to confuse us further, there is also the Alexander Reid miniature of Burns. This shows him fairly swarthy in face and with a sturdier figure. Yet this portrait was painted only 6 months prior to Burns’s death, at which point he was often described as looking visibly ill and worn. Nonetheless, Burns himself said that this portrait was the best likeness of him that had been taken, and the thicker figure also seems to match with silhouettes taken at the time.

Photographic copy of silhouette of Burns - Kilmarnock 1787
Photographic copy of silhouette of Burns – Kilmarnock 1787

So who is the real Robert Burns? Is it the slender man gazing across the ethereal landscape? Is it the sturdy farmer with ruddy cheeks? Or are these depictions merely focusing on specific aspects of the man, perhaps adapting his image to portray him as they saw him, or wished to see him? The romantic poet, the Ayrshire farmer, the common man, the heaven taught ploughman, the lover, the debater, are all different sides of the real face of Burns.

So come along to the Real Face of Burns and discover old and new ways of seeing Robert Burns! Exhibition opens February 21st at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum.