Poetry, songs and women are widely known to have been Robert Burns’s great passions, but he also loved to step onto the dancefloor as well. In 1779, Burns as a young man decided to attend dancing lessons in Tarbolton. This decision allowed him to temporarily escape the financial difficulties that the family were enduring at Lochlea. Therefore Burns used to regularly walk to a humble thatched house after the farming work was done to enjoy some time with his friends. In the museum collection you will see a beautifully restored fiddle with a red, green and black floral design work. This fiddle was played by Burns’s dance teacher, William Gregg, while Robert learned and practiced his steps. According to Burns he took up dancing to ‘give my manners a brush.’ But improving his manners and exercise were not the only benefits that dancing would give, as it granted Burns an opportunity to get acquainted with the local girls as well. This early time of social and sexual exploration played an important part in shaping Burns into the man he would famously become. To our twenty-first century minds dancing seems like a harmless pastime; but to his father William Burnes, this was an act of rebellion. According to Gilbert their father was often irritated by Robert’s dancing, as it was a clear sign that Robert was no longer listening to William’s advice and counsel. As a consequence of this, Burns himself acknowledged that his decision to continue with his dancing lessons compromised his relationship with his father.
In Burns’s narrative poem Tam O’Shanter you can feel the excitement of the dance unfolding, yet all the while there is a dark truth to this particular social gathering:
Warlocks and witches in a dance:
Nae cotillion, brent new frae France,
But hornpipes, jigs, strathspeys, and reels,
Put life and mettle in their heels.’
This scene of enjoyment is not only watched by the protagonist Tam, but also by Auld Nick who played the music to make them dance. This negative perception of dance being sinful is more in keeping with William’s opinion rather than his son. Nevertheless this moral outlook is undermined by the poem’s greater sense of adventure and humour. These two opposing viewpoints mirror the different standpoints of William and Robert in 1779, one saw dance as wicked and the other saw only pleasure. Despite all of William’s disapproval Robert Burns continued to love music, dance and social gatherings throughout his life. Tam O’Shanter was published in Grose’s Antiquities of Scotland in 1791, which reveals that Burns never forgot his father’s outlook on dance.
If you are a lover of dance yourself, you can follow in the Bard’s footsteps and take part in Scottish country dances set to his songs. For instance Ae fond Kiss is a reel, or perhaps you would prefer a livelier jig to the poem Halloween. One of the most popular times to toast Burns and celebrate his life is at a Burns Supper, so perhaps in the future you will follow his example and take to the dancefloor.
‘The dancers quick and quicker flew,
They reel’d, they set, they cross’d, they cleekit.’
By Kirstie Bingham
‘Though I am far from meaning to compare our rustic bard to Shakespeare, yet whoever will read his lighter and more humorous poems, … , will perceive with what uncommon penetration and sagacity this heaven taught ploughman, from his humble unlettered station, has looked upon men and manners. – Henry MacKenzie
At the age of 6, a young Robert Burns was sent to school at Alloway Mill to be taught by a William Campbell. The Bard’s father, William Burnes, was a great believer in his children’s education and wanted to ensure they received proper schooling. Unfortunately this was to prove tricky as Campbell the village left shortly afterwards. Not to be deterred, William Burnes approached Ayr Grammar School and requested a private tutor, John Murdoch, to teach his boys alongside 4 other families in the village, and to take turns to board in each of their houses.
Murdoch was a young man of eighteen himself, but struck up a firm friendship with William and enjoyed teaching the boys. Even after the family left Burns Cottage, they continued to attend Murdoch’s school in the village for two years. At this point, Murdoch left the area, but returned in 1772 and taught Robert Burns further, particularly French and English grammar. He also gifted him the works of Alexander Pope, whom Burns quotes frequently in subsequent letters and admired greatly.
Gilbert Burns wrote extensively on his former teacher, and credits him with inspiring Robert’s love of reading:
‘With him we learned to read English tolerably well; and to write a little. He taught us, too, the English grammar; but Robert made some proficiency in it, a circumstance of considerable weight in the unfolding of his genius and character; as he soon became remarkable for the fluency and correctness of his expression, and read the few books that came in his way with much pleasure and improvement; for even then he was a reader when he could get a book. Murdoch, whose library at that time had no great variety in it, lent him the Life of Hannibal, which was the first book he read (the school-books excepted), and almost the only one he had an opportunity of reading while he was at school.’ – Gilbert Burns
Murdoch himself wrote of his time teaching the Burns boys, in which he was less than complimentary about the Bard’s singing abilities, and confesses that he would have thought Gilbert more likely to develop into a famous poet:
‘Robert’s ear, in particular, was remarkably dull, and his voice untunable. It was long before I could get them to distinguish one tune from another. Robert’s countenance was generally grave and expressive of a serious, contemplative and thoughtful mind. Gilbert’s face said, “Mirth with thee I mean to live”; and certainly if any person who knew the two boys had been asked which of them was most likely to court the Muses, he would surely never have guessed that Robert had a propensity of that kind.’ – John Murdoch
In 1776, a complaint was made against John Murdoch that he had insulted the local church minister, William Dalrymple, and the former was forced to leave the village. He moved to London, where he actually assisted with the funeral arrangements of Burns’s younger brother William, who he had met with shortly before William’s death. Unfortunately for Murdoch, he died himself in 1824 in extreme poverty.
Thanks to the determination of his father and the dedication of John Murdoch, Robert Burns received a considerable formal education in his youth. This fostered his love of literature, and allowed him to develop the social and political knowledge necessary for writing some of his greatest works. Far from being a ‘heaven taught ploughman’ as MacKenzie suggests in his review of the Kilmarnock Edition in 1786 (see top of blog), Robert Burns received excellent schooling for the time, and was able to put this to full use during his adult life.
There is no doubt that parents and guardians are instrumental in the formative years of a child’s life, and this was certainly the case for Robert Burns. One of his most famous poems, Tam o’ Shanter, was inspired by stories Burns’s relative Betty Davidson used to tell him in his childhood, and he credited Betty with ‘the largest collection in the country of tales and songs concerning devils, ghosts, fairies, brownies, witches, warlocks, spunkries, kelpies, elf-candles, dead-lights, wraiths, apparitions, cantraips, inchanted towers, giants, dragons and other trumpery’ which later inspired many of his folklore related poems. Burns’s father, William, was also hugely influential – Burns himself explained that the Cottar’s Saturday Night is loosely based on his experiences growing up on a farm, and William’s desire to ensure his children were educated meant that Robert received the schooling he needed to write his poetry.
However, the person who would no doubt have had the largest part to play in raising the young Bard was his mother, Agnes. Born Agnes Broun in 1732 in Kirkoswald, the eldest of six children, she received some formal schooling and was taught to read a little, but could never write. Her mother died when she was ten, and her father remarried and seemed to take little interest in her after that. She was sent to be looked after by her grandmother, Mrs Rennie, whose collection of songs and ballads would have probably inspired Agnes’s love of singing.
Young Agnes was initially engaged to a farmhand for seven years, but broke off the relationship after he was unfaithful. She married William in 1757 after meeting him at a fair in Maybole the year before, and the couple went on to have seven children – Robert, Gilbert, Agnes, Annabella, William, John and Isabella.
Agnes loved singing. She had a find collection of lullabies, ballads and even bawdry songs in Scots which she would sing to her children from a young age. This would no doubt have made a huge impression on the young Bard, who later went on to collect many old Scottish songs and ballads in The Scots Musical Museum. Once again, his upbringing against a background of traditional Scottish music and folklore was the perfect inspiration for future literary endeavours. Alongside her singing and domestic chores, she also played an important role in the development of the farm at Burns Cottage – she would have grown vegetables and made butter and cheese from the milk produced by the family’s cows.
William Burnes died in 1784 and was survived by Agnes for 36 years. She spent the majority of this time living with her son Gilbert and died in his home in East Lothian in 1820. Despite an inscription to her on William’s gravestone in Alloway Auld Kirk, she is actually buried in the Churchyard of Bolton. Isabella, Robert’s youngest sister, wrote this about her mother:
‘She was rather under the average height; inclined to plumpness, but neat, shapely, and full of energy; having a beautiful pink-and-white complexion, a fine square forehead, pale red hair but dark eyebrows and dark eyes often ablaze with a temper difficult of control. Her disposition was naturally cheerful; her manner, easy and collected; her address, simple and unpresuming; and her judgement uncommonly sound and good. She possessed a fine musical ear, and sang well.’
Many famous historical figures are men, however the majority of these men were raised by women. There is little doubt that Agnes Broun had a large formative influence on her son, and inspired his love of music and song, as well his appreciation in later life of women who had a musical ear. She not only physically gave birth to Robert Burns, but also brought him up to become Scotland’s National Bard.
Our latest blog post was written by Visitor Services Assistant, Jim Andrews.
Access to rare books and manuscripts is generally only given by special arrangement to well qualified academics, who are only allowed to handle the originals very carefully while wearing clean white gloves. Today, however, digitised versions of rare documents can be viewed by anyone with a computer and access to the Internet. For Burns enthusiasts there is a digitised copy of an original Kilmarnock edition available in the digital gallery of the National Library of Scotland. It can be accessed on https://digital.nls.uk under the heading Literature & writers.
Seeing a copy of the original version of 1786 as printed by John Wilson can be a bit of a surprise, if it is your first time. It does not look quite right, not at all like any of the editions of Burns’s works you might find today. The reason for the unfamiliar appearance is the rather odd-looking spelling of some words: words containing the letter s. At the time of printing there were two versions of that letter in common use: a long one and a short one. The short one is the only one in use today: the long one looks confusingly like the letter f with a bit missing (the bar across the middle). The line Wee, ſleekit, cowran, tim’rous beaſtie shows how it was generally used. It appears at the beginning and in the middle of a word, but the short s is always used at the end of a word. That is a rough guide: there were some exceptions.
The disappearance of the long s in English was a gradual process that started during Burns’s lifetime towards the end of the 18th century. Between 1800 and 1820 it was well on its way out, and by the middle of the 19th century it had gone. According to an article about the long s in Wikipedia, you can use it to date early editions of Burns published in the 1780s and 1790s that may have lost their title page and year of publication. In these you will find the long s, but not in any of the 2,000 plus editions published after 1800.
In many countries spelling is controlled by government-sponsored organisations that determine what is correct and, from time to time, change their minds and alter or revise what is correct. English spelling has never endured any such official interference, but that is not to say it has not changed. Changes in English spelling have been brought about by the printing and publishing industry: a convenient convention that seems to work quite well. There is a story that the disappearance of the long s in English may have been set in motion in 1791 by the printer and publisher John Bell. It may be fanciful, but they say he dropped the long s because he did not like how it looked in his edition of Shakespeare’s plays.
The following blog post was written by Jim Andrews, one of Robert Burns Birthplace Museum’s Visitor Service Assistants.
There may be something about dialect poets that attracts a dedicated and loyal following. I have never been a member of a Burns club or society, though I do have several friends who are, and I used to believe that such organisations were uniquely Burns-related phenomena. That is, until I came across the Austrian writer Franz Stelzhamer, remembered today for his poems and songs in the dialect of Upper Austria. He has been called “the Austrian Burns” and, from a heritage point of view, Stelzhamer, like Burns, is very well represented in his country. There is a Stelzhamerbund (Stelzhamer Federation – web address http://www.stelzhamerbund.at), a Stelzhamerhaus (birthplace and museum), a Stelzhamer prize, a play about his life and some statues of him.
Like Burns, Stelzhamer was born into a rural family of modest means. However, he was recognised quite early as a particularly gifted child and sent to school in Salzburg. He went on to study law in Graz and Vienna and theology in Linz. He abandoned his studies before qualifying (much to his father’s displeasure) and became instead an actor, writer and journalist. Burns had a breakthrough moment with Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect: Stelzhamer’s came with Lieder in obderenns’scher Volksmundart (Songs in the Upper-Enns Dialect). He continued as a writer in both standard German and dialect, but it is for his work in dialect that he is now remembered and admired. Although Upper Austria is not an independent nation, it has its own anthem, Hoamatgsang, with words by Stelzhamer in the Upper Austrian dialect, of course.
It is a rather curious fact that Stelzhamer translated five of Burns’s works into the Upper Austrian dialect: curious, because Stelzhamer had no knowledge of English or of Scottish dialect. His sources were translations of Burns in standard literary German. I have always thought that Burns’s poems and songs are very comfortably accommodated in German: it seems to be able to preserve the natural rhythms of the original works. I think that even a non-German-speaker with some knowledge of Burns could easily identify the original work from the following lines: Mein Herz ist im Hochland, Mein Herz is nicht hier… But just in case, they are, of course, the first lines of My Heart’s in the Highlands.
One of the songs that Stelzhamer translated was John Barleycorn (in German, Hans Gerstenkorn). Here is the final verse in Burns’s original, in Georg Pertz’s German translation, which was probably Stelzhamer’s source text, and in Stelzhamer’s translation:
Then let us toast John Barleycorn,
Each man a glass in hand;
And may his great posterity
Ne’er fail in old Scotland!
Drum lebe hoch Hans Gerstenkorn,
Ein Jeder nehm’ sein Glas,
Und daß sein Saame, weit und breit
Altschottland nie verlaß’!
Drum Hans Gerstenkern hoch!
Und höbts Glas olle z’gleich, ,
Daß a dableibt bon üns
In liebn Obröstareich.
It is a reasonably fair translation of a translation, but there is an interesting discrepancy in the last line. The very last word, Obröstareich, is the dialect form of the standard German word Oberösterreich. It is not old Scotland, as in the original, or even Altschottland (old Scotland), as in Georg Pertz’s version: Oberösterreich is Upper Austria. Moreover, at the beginning, the three kings in Burns’s original and Pertz’s translation are replaced with three simple Austrian farmers. Perhaps not just translated: could we say “hijacked”? To be fair, Stelzhamer did acknowledge Burns as the original author. Burns would probably have approved of being translated into a German dialect rather than into the standard literary language, and perhaps even of some creative tweeking to bring the narrative closer to the intended readership.