Burns’s Commonplace Books

Posted on

Commonplace Books first became significant in early modern Europe as a way of compiling knowledge. ‘Commonplace’ is a translation of the Latin phrase locus communis which means ‘a theme or argument of general application’. This original definition has been expanded to now mean a collection of materials on a certain theme by an individual. Importantly, commonplace books are not diaries or journals, as they are structured thematically rather than chronologically, and do not necessarily relate to the personal lives of their compilers. By the 17th Century, commonplacing was prevalent enough to be formally taught at places such as Oxford University, and there is a strong tradition of literary figures such as John Milton, Mark Twain and Thomas Hardy compiling them.

There are two commonplace books belonging to Robert Burns in existence. The first, begun in 1783, was almost certainly not intended for publication, and entries cease in October 1785. The second, begun in Edinburgh in 1787 and sometimes referred to as the Edinburgh Journal, has many interesting entries including early versions of the Bard’s poems and musings on people he knew. On its first page, Burns explains his desire to record his experiences in Edinburgh (where he had just moved), and his observations on the people he has met, while they are still fresh in his mind. He quotes Gray, saying ‘half a word fixed upon… is worth a cart load of recollection’ showing his preference for the written word over memory.

Near the beginning of the Book, Burns starts a discussion relating to his patron, the Earl of Glencairn, and laments the fact that a man with little talent and high social status (the Earl) would naturally be treated with more respect than a man of genius but low social status due to an accident of birth. He says, with similar sentiment to his work ‘A Man’s a Man for a’ That’:

Imagine a man of abilities, his breast glowing with honest pride, conscious that men are born equal, still giving that “honor to whom honor is due”; he meets as a Great man’s table a Squire Something, or a Sir Somebody; he knows the noble landlord at heart pays gives the Bard or what- ever he is, a degree o share of his good wishes beyond any at table perhaps, yet how will it mortify him to see a fellow whose abilities would scarcely have made an eight penny Taylor and whose heart is not worth three farthings meet with attention and notice that are forgot to the Son of Genius and Poverty?

Burns does confess to being torn, however, because Glencairn was so pleasant to him when they met.

Robert Burns’s commonplace book discussing the Earl of Glencairn

Also near the start of the book is a first draft of the song ‘Rantin’ Rovin’ Robin’ referring to the incident in which the gable end of Burns Cottage blew down during a storm in the first few weeks of Robert’s life. Interestingly, in this version, the opening line is ‘There was a birkie born in Kyle,’ as opposed to ‘there was a lad was born in Kyle’. There are then two versions of a poem written in Carse Hermitage on June 1st 1788, with a note beside the first draft instructing the reader to instead read the second draft further into the book. There is also a draft of his more famous poem, On seeing a wounded hare, along with other notes on his works.

Rantin’ Rovin’ Robin

Burns’s second commonplace book is on display in our museum collection and is a fascinating insight into some of the Bard’s personal thoughts, and also on how he drafted his poems. We wonder how many of our readers keep scrapbooks of this kind?


A day in the life of a museum curator

Posted on Updated on

We were sad to say goodbye to our Curator, Sean, last week as he retired from the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum to spend more time on his art and in his garden! We did manage to persuade him to write a quick blog post before he left, looking back on his time as curator here… we would like to wish him all the best in his retirement, and thank him for all his hard work at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum over the years.

From September 2014 until January 2018, I was curator at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway, part of the National Trust for Scotland.

Some people ask “what does a curator do?” Every post is different. I was curator of contemporary and modern art for Glasgow Museums from 1999 until 2014. It was a similar job but had many differences too. In many ways it was a faster pace at GoMA with much larger gallery spaces and constantly changing displays of collections and loans. 

Here at RBBM one of the main things I do is type as I am now. That was true of GoMA too and I suppose most jobs now. Other things I do besides typing include giving tours of the museum, surrounding sites and the stores. This is one of my favourite things to do and most visitors interested in Burns enjoy it. I enjoy conveying my love of Burns and knowledge of the collection. I am new to Burns and only started studying him when I started this job, I was hired for my ‘museum experience’. But I was pleasantly surprised to find I really like Burns as a subject. I enjoy his mind through his letters, poems and songs. He was both talented and humane. It is quite thrilling to hold original letters and manuscripts that he wrote or objects he owned. I will miss this aspect of the job, but of course, anyone anywhere can read Burns. That is one of the perks of writing, it is easily dispersed.  

A picture of the Kilmarnock edition and electronic facsimile we have in our collection
The Kilmarnock edition and facsimile in our collection…

I also had the responsibility here of planning and running three or four temporary exhibitions a year in the gallery space. This could be quite a challenge with little funds. I think my favourites were the Sharmanka show and Burns Squared.  

I also answer lots of enquiries from around the world. This is the largest collection of Burns objects in the world – over 300 rare books and 312 original manuscripts by Burns himself. I am only now beginning to comprehend and understand the collection. Collections are only as good as the caretakers who speak for them and love them and this knowledge takes time. Without this knowledge and passion collections become mute objects. 

Probably one of my favourite objects in the collection is Robert’s writing set. 

Robert Burns writing set including sharpening knives and quills
Robert Burns’s writing set

These pens are much mightier than the sword!



A convenient convention

Posted on Updated on

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 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.

Writing on the glass

Posted on Updated on

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

“Alloway’s Auld Kirk” Research Project

Posted on Updated on

When I started as a volunteer and just walked around the Kirk yard I wanted to know more about the Kirk and the people who were buried there. During a tour someone asked me about a headstone, and this started the project of writing down the 219 headstones so I could learn more and be able to answer the any questions.

It started off as just a project to learn more, but it has now become more involved with research of many families, guided tours, and talks on the Kirk yard. It has taken a year to finish it, with the Kirk yard laid out as is on an A1 sheet of paper.

The most well known headstone is of course William Burnes, the flat stone in front is very worn, but it is the resting place of Isabella Begg (Robert Burns’ youngest sister and two of her children Agnes and Isabella, they were all in their 80s when they died.

William Burns's headstone, Alloway Kirk
William Burns’s headstone, Alloway Kirk
Headstone for Charles Acton Broke
Headstone for Charles Acton Broke

Do you have a favourite headstone (or stones!)

One is a headstone in remembrance of Charles Acton Broke who was the son of Rear Admiral Sir Philip Bowes Acton Broke. This man was a Captain of a ship during the war with the Americas in 1812, and was the first to defeat and capture an American ship.

There are two headstones of people who died in their 100th year!

My favourite one I cannot read the writing, but on the reverse are two fluted panels with a heart and a tear in each corner. I would love to know who they were.

Also the headstone of John Tennant, as there is so much detail on the stone which I have great pleasure in relating to visitors.

Headstone from Alloway Kirk that shows a blacksmith shoeing a horse
Headstone from Alloway Kirk that shows a blacksmith shoeing a horse

The next step in the research is to write out a Kirkyard plan based from a survey done in 1995 , when completed you will be able to compare the difference in the headstone conditions between 1995 and 2015 many of which are completely eroded.