Robert Burns Birthplace Museum

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.

Burns’s Trysting Thorn

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Encased within RBBM’s ‘Love’ display is a small fragment of a hawthorn bush which was located at Mill Mannoch near Coylton, South Ayrshire. This small tree had been recognised as a familiar landmark and popular trysting (meeting) spot for lovers in Ayrshire years before Robert Burns’s time, and Burns was well aware of its tradition. He referred to the hawthorn in his song When wild War’s deadly Blast was blawn; lines of which feature on one surface of the cross section displayed at RBBM:

“At length I reached the bonnie glen,
Where early life I sported;
I passed the mill and trysting-thorn
Where Nancy aft I courted.”

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Wood cuts from Robert Burns’s trysting thorn (RBBM/NTS)

 

The tree died in 1916 and it was cut down two years later by James Pearson Wilson, the miller at the time. Sections were sent by Wilson as collectibles to Burns museums and societies all over the world; whilst a seed from the hawthorn was replanted at the original site at Coylton. It has also been recreated in a 3D metal form for RBBM’s display, with visitors encouraged to hang notes of love to others in reference to the markings left by lovers on trysting trees.

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RBBM’s trysting tree (Watt)

 

Despite it being 300 years old and engraved with thousands of initials, a trysting tree still standing in Scotland is the Kissing Beech in the grounds of Kilravock Castle, Inverness-shire. Trysting spots further afar include the courtyard beneath ‘Romeo and Juliet’s balcony’ in Verona where thousands of visitors have decorated a wall with their chewing gum and paper love notes; the Daijingu Shrine in Tokyo where romantics queue to buy and leave love charms blessed by local priests; and the Trimurti Lovers’ Shrine in Bangkok where visitors make a floral offering in hope of one day meeting a loved one. Perhaps more famously are the Pont de l’Archevêché and Pont des Arts bridges in Paris which lovers have embellished over the years with over 700,000 padlocks. However, due to both health and safety and degradation concerns, Paris officials began to remove 45 tonnes of locks in 2015. Similar issues with aesthetics and preservation of heritage have also resulted in a fine of €500 for anyone caught sticking chewing gum and notes to the courtyard in Verona. Despite the recent restrictions, lovers have continued to follow these traditions in both cities. The site in Coylton also remains a popular spot for couples and romantics.

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The Kissing Beech, Kilravock Castle, Inverness-shire (BBC and Woodland Trust)

 

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Romeo and Juliet’s Balcony, Verona (Getty and The Telegraph)

 

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Pont des Arts, Paris (Tripshooter)

 

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.

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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.

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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’s relationship with the Kirk

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Earlier this year, two students from the Scottish literature department at Glasgow Uni joined us on a month long placement as part of their degree. This is the first in a series of four blog posts they wrote between them on elements of the exhibition they found significant.

During his lifetime, Burns was inspired by many different things, but one of the most significant aspects – which gave him plenty of creative fodder to chew on – was the oppressive control the Scottish Presbyterian Church held over not only the people within his own locality, who provided his primary concern, but the entire nation. In its ‘A Cauld Kirk’ section, the museum chooses poems which reflect this: ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’, ‘The Holy Fair’, and ‘The Holy Tulzie’. Burns’s religious satire is a rich source for one who wishes to observe the religious climate of the late eighteenth century, and so we must recognise that our present-day attitudes towards Burns’s contemporary Kirk have probably been largely shaped by his poetry. However, Burns’s religion has often been misunderstood by readers and critics alike – Burns was not an enemy of religion, nor a pious Presbyterian, but we can be sure from his satire that he hated religious hypocrisy. Around the time Burns was writing, a rift was beginning to appear within the Church of Scotland. There appeared two branches of Presbyterianism – the ‘Auld Lichts’ who represented a more severe and unforgiving form of Presbyterianism, Calvinism, which involved fire and brimstone sermons and the idea of predestination which Burns so despised. The ‘New Lichts’, with whom Burns shared sentiments and could really get behind, represented a more moderate form of Presbyterianism which sought to put more emphasis on morality and the human aspects of religion, rather than just being blindly faithful.

It cannot be denied that Burns’s religious satire is an attack on the ‘Auld Lichts’. Ever since the Reformation, individual Kirks within small communities held supposedly God-given authority over their people – and they ruled by fear. To illustrate this, the museum allows you to put yourself in Burns’s riding boots by taking a seat on the ‘cutty-stool’ or ‘creepie-chair’, situated in front of the pulpit and therefore the entire congregation. This chair is not dissimilar to the naughty-step your parents might have chastised you on, and in it Burns would have sat and been told off in front of his family and good friends, as well as he entire village of Mauchline, and this did not sit well with him at all. Burns willingly sat in similar sermons all over the country – he was a ‘sermon-taster’ – but it was his experiences within the Mauchline Kirk which inspired poems such as ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer’ and ‘The Holy Fair’. However, the museum does acknowledge the fact that Burns’s religious allegiances were not as clear cut as they may appear in his satirical poetry by recognising his relationship with ‘Auld Licht’ minister William Dalrymple, whom Burns admired and respected for his liberal views – it is well known that Burns was a man of many contradictions.

Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, Alloway.

Hanging in the ‘A Cauld Kirk’ section is Alexander Carse’s painting ‘The Mauchline Holy Fair’, a depiction of the twice-yearly gathering described in ‘The Holy Fair’. If you look carefully at it you might notice a character resembling Burns, sporting a rather mischievous smile, walking alongside the bright and beautiful personification of Fun, closely followed by the dark, grim, Calvinist-type women representing Superstition and Hypocrisy. Mauchline Kirk is painted at the left, the pub on the right, and between them the village community, caught up in a kind of moral tug-of-war. Carse depicts the villagers as Burns would have recognised them, as individuals caught up on the tension between religion and traditional culture. This moral tug-of-war was about deciding whether to embrace their freedom – drink, chat, eat, and flirt until there heart was content – or to behave themselves and not risk public condemnation in the sermon. We see now that these people lived in constant fear of the Kirk and its authority – one foot out of place was all it took. Burns was a fond observer of human nature and he recognised that in order to be reformed, the Kirk must take moral weakness and human frailty into account.

This exhibit is only a small sample of what Burns’s moderate Presbyterianism and relationship with the Kirk has inspired, and it is important we remember the unjust Kirk practices that inspired Burns to write, so that people never have to live in fear of being ‘only human’ again.

By Kirsty MacQueen

Friends on Baith Sides: Willow Weaving

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Friends on Baith Sides is an intergenerational outreach project. We are seeking to teach people new skills and make new connections to the museum through a series of creative workshops. Saturday was our first week and we got off to a flying start by making some beautiful handmade willow baskets.

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Our teacher, Geoff Forrest, chose a basket for the day’s project as it is an object that may have been familiar and useful in the 18th century when Burns was living in Alloway. We started with a circle of willow that Geoff had already constructed for us. The next step was to add in ‘spines’ using a thick section of willow and then tie it with strands of willow to the circle in a cross stitch. We then simply started weaving the reed between the spines and the circle.

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The process sounds fairly simple but the material frays and snaps quite easily and can be tricky to manipulate the way you want it. One trick Geoff showed us was to wind the willow around a stick to start with so it had a curve already as one of our participants demonstrates below:

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It was lovely to see everyone pitching in to help each other with the trickier bits and several people commented on how therapeutic it became once they got the hang of the technique.

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Feedback on the workshop has been very positive. One person said, ‘Great class, great teacher, great fun. Thank you very much’ while another said ‘what a fabulous day’.

We are pleased to offer these workshops free of charge thanks to funding from Austin Hope Pilkington Trust and The Craigie Development Trust. Next Saturday, 10th September, we have a song writing workshop and there are still a few places left if you would like to take part. A photography workshop will take place on 17th September as well. Contact 01292 430 316 if you would like to book a place.

Three new art and craft commissions by Scottish makers

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Over the past two years the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum has benefited from generous grants from Museums and Galleries Scotland to enhance the grounds and entrance to the museum with three high quality art and craft commissions.

In 2015 a national call for entries for a new sculpture about or related to Robert Burns to be sited on Poet’s Path. This would be the newest addition to an evolving sculpture garden devoted to Burns.

Scottish sculptor Jake Harvey http://www.artfirst.co.uk/jake_harvey/biography.html won the commission with his modernist, minimalist sculpture of a haggis carved from two types of British granite.

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In 2016 there was another open commission to create a mural in the entry foyer above the admissions desk. This commission also attracted many high quality submissions won by Glasgow based duo Little Book Transfers  http://www.littlebooktransfers.co.uk/ LBT have painted many large, murals around Scotland for both a public and private clients.

The brief was to create a mural of images based on objects from the collection as a way to encourage visits into the museum. Perched high on scaffolding during open hours LBT painted a dynamic, graphic mural that compliments the architecture with images of star objects from the collection.

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The third commission was for benches and cases in the foyer. Craftsman Willie Love from Maryhill http://makeworks.co.uk/companies/WestendCabinetmaker/ created hand-made unique cases and benches from oak. The sleek slat benches echo traditional rail station benches with a contemporary twist. The two museum quality cases combine Victorian and modernist styles with museum quality glass ‘cells’ that use the best archival materials internally.
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Like the mural this commission is intended to whet the appetite of interest and encourage visits into the museum. A small study for a Robert Burns statue in Wyoming, a facsimile of the Kilmarnock Edition and even one of Robert Burns’s socks!