Robert Burns

Bards, Burns an Blether in The Bachelors’

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The Bachelors’ Club in Tarbolton: https://www.nts.org.uk/visit/places/bachelors-club

It’s owre twa hunner year syne The Bachelors’ Club in Tarbolton saw the young Robert Burns an his cronies speirin aboot the issues o thaur day. It is therefore a braw honour tae gie this historic biggin a heize ainst mair by bein involved in organisin and hostin monthly spoken word an music nichts in the place whaur Robert Burns fordered his poetic genius, charisma an flair fir debate.

The Bachelors’ Club nichts stairtit in March this year eftir Robert Burns Birthplace Museum volunteer Hugh Farrell envisaged the success of sic nichts in sic an inspirational setting.

Hugh Farrell, volunteer at Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, in front of the Burns Cottage. (June 2019)

Tuesday the third o September saw the eighth session, an it wis wan we will aye hae mind o. Wullie Dick wis oor compère as folk favoured the company wi a turn.

Oor headliner wis Ciaran McGhee, singer, bard an musician. Ciaran bides an works in Embra an I first shook his haun some twa year syne at New Cumnock Burns Club’s annual Scots verse nicht. The company wis impressed then an agin at the annual “smoker” an at a forder Scots verse nicht. Ciaran traivelled doon tae Ayrshire tae play fir us, despite haen jist duin a 52 show marathon owre the duration o Embra festival.

 Ciaran stertit wi a roarin rendition o “A Man’s a Man for a That”, an we hud a blether aboot hoo this song is as relevant noo, in these days o inequality an political carnage, as it wis twa hunner year syne, a fine example o Burns genius an insicht. Ciaran follaed wi Hamish Imlach’s birsie “Black is the Colour”, the raw emotion gien us aa goosebumps!!  Ciaran also performed Johnny Cash’s cantie “Folsom Prison Blues”, an then Richard Thomson’s classic “Beeswing”, a version sae bonnie it left us hert-sair! Ciaran also performed tracks fae his album “Don’t give up the Day Job”.

Ciaran McGhee jamming. (Photie taken by Robert Neil)

The company wir then entertained by Burns recitals an poetry readins fae a wheen o bards an raconteurs. A big hertie chiel recited “The Holy Fair”, speirin wi the company on hoo excitin this maun hae buin in Burns day, amaist lik today’s “T in the Park”.

We hud “Tam the Bunnet” a hilarious parody o Tam o Shanter an Hugh Farrell telt us aboot the dochters ca’ad Elizabeth born tae Burns by different mithers, Burn’s first born bein “Dear bocht Bess”, her mither servant lass Bess Paton. Later oan cam Elizabeth Park, Anna Park’s dochter, reart by Jean Armour, an thaur wis wee Elizabeth Riddell, Robert an Jean’s youngest dochter wha deid aged jist 3 year auld.  A “Farrell factoid” we learned wis that in Burns day, if a wee lassie wis born within mairrage, she was ca’ad fir her grandmither, if she wis born oot o wedlock she taen her mither’s first name. Hugh recited “A Poet’s Welcome To His Love-Begotten Daughter” fir us, the tender poem Burns scrievit, lamentin his love fir his first born wean, Elizabeth Paton.

We hud spoken word by various bards on sic diverse topics as a hen doo, a sardonic account o an ex girlfriend’s political tendencies, an a couthie poem inspired by a portrait o a mystery wummin sketched by the poets faither. In homage tae Burn’s “Poor Mailie’s Elegy”, we hud a lament in rhyme scrievit in the Scots leid, featurin the poet’s pet hen.

We learned o the poetess Janet Little, born in the same year as Burns, who selt owre fowre hunner copies o the book o her poetry she scrievit. This wummin wis kent as “The Scotch Milkmaid” an wis connected tae Burn’s freen an patron, Mrs Frances Anna Dunlop.

An engraving of Mrs Frances Anna Dunlop held at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum

We also learned o hoo Burns wis spurned by Wilhelmina Alexander, “The Bonnie Lass of Ballochmyle” an hoo, eftir her daith, she wis foun tae hae kept a copy o the poem Burns scrievit fir her.

We hud mair hertie music fae Burness, performin Burns an Scottish songs sic as “Ye Jacobites by Name” an a contemporary version o “Auld Lang Syne” wi words added by Eddie Reader tae an auld Hebrew tune.

We hud “Caledonia” an “Ca the Yowes tae the Knowes” sung beautifully by a sonsie Auchinleck lass wha recently performed it at Lapraik festival in Muirkirk (oan Tibby’s Brig nae less!).

The newly appointed female president o Prestwick Burns Club entertained us on her ukelele wi the Burns song “The Gairdner wi his Paiddle” itherwise kent as “When Rosie May Comes in with Flowers”.

At the hinneren wi hud a sing alang tae Seamus Kennedy’s “The Little Fly” on the guitar an Ciaran feenished wi “Ae Fond Kiss”, interrupted by his mammy wha phoned tae see when he wis comin haim tae New Cumnock!

We hud sae muckle talent in The Bachelors’, that we didnae hae time fir a’body to dae a turn, so thaim that didnae will be first up neist time.

A braw photie o the company cheerin. (Photie taken by Robert Neil).

A hertie thanks tae a the crooners, bards an raconteurs an tae a’body in the audience fir gien up thaur time, sharin thaur talent an ken an gien sillar tae The Bachelors’ fund. Sae faur we hae roused £862 which hus been paid intae the account fir the keepin o The Bachelors’ Club.

Hugh Farrell is repeatin history by stertin a debatin group in The Bachelors’ on Monday 11th November, 239 year tae the day syne Burns launched it first time roon. Thaur will be a wee chainge tae the rules hooever, ye dinnae hae tae be a Bachelor an ye dinnae need tae be a man tae tak pairt!!

The Bachelors’ sessions are oan the 1st Tuesday o every month 7pm tae 10.30pm an a’body wi an enthusiasm for Burns is welcome.

Tracy Harvey in front of the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum. (August 2019)

Scrievit by Tracy Harvey, Resident Scots Scriever fir RBBM

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Scots Leid: It Isnae Deid Yit!

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Scots Language: It Isn’t Dead Yet!

We had a guest speaker at one of our weekly Highlight Talks on the 13th February 2019, a Mr Derek Rogers, who delivered a presentation titled “Did Robert Burns Use Scots and Does the Scots Language Exist?” It proved to be an interesting event – the Scots language tends to be an engaging albeit sometimes controversial topic – and amongst the following debate that ensued at the end of the talk, a visitor quite rightly stated that they had observed that the Scots language seems to be being lost, through younger generations not using or understanding it, as older generations of Scots once did. There are several reasons why this is the case (and is worthwhile of another separate blog within itself) but the visitor then asked the audience: what could be done to keep it alive? Thus, I felt inspired to write a piece on how we provide the perfect opportunity for younger generations to learn more about the Scots language by visiting us with their school and/or their families.

When you google “the Scots language it states: ‘Scots is one of three native languages spoken in Scotland today, the other two being English and Scottish Gaelic. Scots is mainly a spoken language with a number of local varieties, each with its own distinctive character.’ That in a nutshell is the Scots language.

It is an essential element of the educational experience we provide here at RBBM because Robert Burns chose to use both Scots and English to write his works in. To quote our bard, he saidI think my ideas are more barren in English than in Scottish.” Thus, it is an important part of the Burns legacy.

Scots is recognised as a language by our governments and we believe it makes up an important part of Scotland’s heritage, it is in our strategy to promote Scots, and furthermore, the learning and sharing of languages could not be more relevant in the 21st century as our world becomes more globalised and international (there is research that proves that there are multiple benefits of being bilingual).

In regards to our formal school workshops, we have Scots language elements running through all of them; however, three in particular have Scots at their core. Tim’rous Beasties, which is suitable for Nursery – Primary 1 aged children, learn about the poem Tae a Moose and the Scots words for the song Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes – or Heid, Shouthers, Knaps n Taes – as well as animals native to Scotland. Did you know that the Scots word for badger is brock? Another workshop tailored for the same age group is Cantie Capers which focuses on farmyard tools and animals assisted with the setting of the Burns Cottage. Then for Primary 5 – 7 aged pupils, we have Being Burns, which uses costume and the Burns Cottage to assist discussing Scots words for numerous everyday items like peenies, bunnets, luggies and kirns.

A horn cup, two horn books and Scots language interpretation on the wall inside Burns Cottage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Furthermore, we have Scots interpretation throughout our museum, play park and the Burns Cottage itself. Visitors can read and learn the meanings of words Burns and his family members would have undoubtedly have used.

A label inside our Museum Exhibition explaining our use of Scots language interpretation.

 

 

Scots language interpretation on the outside of our mini Burns Cottage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Scots language interpretation within our adventure Scots Wa-Hey play park which is Robert Burns and Tam o Shanter themed.

Do you live outside of Scotland? Or don’t envision being able to visit us anytime soon but want to learn more about Scots? Then you might be interested in knowing that we also run a Scots word of the week campaign on our Facebook (@RobertBurnsBirthplaceMuseum) and Twitter (@RobertBurnsNTS) pages, encouraging our followers to guess what they mean or to discuss if or how they use the words. We often get international audiences commenting on fond memories these words bring to mind or the similarities between Scots and various other European languages like Dutch, Norwegian, Danish and German.

 

 

 

Other pages worth a follow on Twitter include: @lairnscots, @scotslanguage, @ScotsScriever and @TheScotsCafe.

Also, there is a Scots Dictionary app you can download onto your phone: type ‘Scots Dictionary for Schools’ and you’ll see the Abc Scottish flag icon.

So, we absolutely hope that by visiting us or following our social media channels, you feel inspired to use Scots: to celebrate it, discuss it and learn about it. If it was good enough for Burns, then it is good enough for our bairns!

 

By Parris Joyce, Learning Officer at RBBM.

 

 

PS. The irony of this blog being in English when it is discussing and celebrating the Scots language was too great to not act upon. So, here is the blog in Scots for you to read and enjoy!

 

 

Scots Language: it isnae deid yit!

We hud a guest speiker at ane o oor weekly Heichlicht Talks oan the 13th Februar 2019, a Mr Derek Rogers, wha gien an ootsettin entitled “Did Robert Burns Use Scots and Does the Scots Language Exist?” It pruived tae be an interestin event – the Scots leid is aye-an-oan a thocht provokin topic that e’en these days can heize up a guid gaun collishangie amangst oor audiences – at the hinnerend o the ongauns ane o wir veesitors quite richtly stated that they hud observed that the Scots leid seemt tae be gettin loast due tae oor young fowk no uisin or unnerstaunin it the same as aulder generations o Scots aince did. Thair a hauntle o raisons why this micht be the case (an this micht be warthy o anither separate blog in itsel!) but the veesitor then spiert o the audience: whit micht be duin tae keep the Scots leid alive? Syne, then ah felt inspired tae scrieve a piece oan hou we provide the perfit chaunce fir younger generations tae lairn mair anent the Scots leid bi veesitin us here at the RBBM wi their schuil and/or their faimilies.

When ye google “the Scots language” it kythes: ‘‘Scots is one of three native languages spoken in Scotland today, the other two being English and Scottish Gaelic. Scots is mainly a spoken language with a number of local varieties, each with its own distinctive character.’ That, short an lang, is the Scots language or leid.

Scots is a perteecular pairt o the educational ongauns we provide here at RBBM because Robert Burns chose tae uise baith Scots an English tae scrieve his warks. Tae quote oor bard, he said I think my ideas are more barren in English than in Scottish.” Thus, Scots is an aefauld important pairt o the Burns legacy.

Scots is offeeshully recognized as a leid bi oor governments an it is oor thocht that it maks up a verra important pairt o Scotland’s heritage. It kythes in oor strategy to promote Scots, an forby, the lairnin an sharin o languages cuidnae be mair relevant in the 21st century as oor warld turns e’en mair globalised an international (thair’s alsae an awfie loat o faur-i-the-buik resairch that ettles that there are a wheen o benefits fir us aa frae bein bilingual).

Tam o Shanter display case interpretive label in our Museum Exhibition.

Scots language interpretation on a wall within the Burns Cottage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In regairds tae oor formal schuil warkshoaps, we hae Scots leid elements rinnin throu the hail jing-bang o thaim; houanevir, three in perteecular hae Scots at their hairt. Tim’rous Beasties, that’s suitable fir Nursery – Primary 1 aged weans, whaur they  lairn aboot the poem Tae a Moose an the Scots wirds fir the sang ‘Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’ – or Heid, Shouthers, Knaps an Taes. Forby this we alsae teach thaim the nems fir native animals o Scotland. Did you ken the Scots wird fir a Badger is a Brock? Anither warkshoap tailored fir the samen age group is Cantie Capers , this focuses oan fairmyaird tools an animals conneckit athin the settin o the Burns Cottage. Syne, fir Primary 5 – 7 aged weans, we hae Being Burns, that uises costumes an the Burns Cottage tae gie a heeze in the discussion o Scots wirds fir a thrang o ilk-a-day knick-knackets, lik peenies, bunnets, luggies an kirns.

Forby, we hae Scots information athort oor museum, its playpark an the Burns Cottage itsel. Veesitors can read an lairn the meanins o wirds Burns an his faimily wid nae dout hae uised in their ilka day spik.

Dae you bide furth o Scotland? Or dinnae ettle oan bein able tae veesit us ony time suin but wid fair like tae lairn mair anent Scots? Then ye micht be keen tae luik the gate o some o the  ither ongauns we hae anent the Scots leid; we rin a Scots wird o the week campaign oan oor Facebook (@RobertBurnsBirthplaceMuseum) an Twitter (@RobertBurnsNTS) pages, giein a heeze tae oor follaers tae guess whit the wirds mean or collogue oan hou they micht uise the wirds. We gey aften get international audiences haudin furth oan aefauld memories that these wirds bring tae mind, or the seemilarities atween Scots an sindrie ither European leids, sic as Dutch, Norwegian, Danish and German. Ither pages warth follaein oan Twitter include: @lairnscots, @scotslanguage, @ScotsScriever and @TheScotsCafe.

Alsae, there is a free Scots Dictionary app ye can dounload oantae yer phone that is byordnar uisefu fir aa age groups. Jist type in ‘Scots Dictionary for Schools’ in yer app store an ye’ll see the Abc Scottish flag icon.

We fair howp that bi veesitin us or follaein oor social media channels ye wull feel inspired tae uise Scots: tae celebrate it, discuss it an lairn aboot it. Gin it wis guide enow fir Burns, then it is guid enow fir oor bairns!

 

Owerset intil Scots by RBBM Scots Scriever an Poet Rab Wilson.

Haud forrit – an keep a guid Scots tung in yer heid!

 

 

Sites warth veesitin wi regairds tae the Scots leid:

Volunteers Week – Roger Alexander

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For Volunteers Week, we asked our volunteers to write a blog post about their volunteering experience. Here’s Roger Alexander sharing some of his thoughts.

I retired from full time work eleven years ago; having spent the first five of those with The Conservation Volunteers, I came to RBBM just over six years ago as a “Buggy” driver. This involves meeting and greeting visitors, transporting them on the buggy between the Museum and Burns Cottage (or any other places the buggy will reach) and helping with other information and advice where I can.

As with most volunteering, the job rarely stops there. I now find myself helping out from time to time in all sorts of other ways, which I find very rewarding and stimulating, and it helps me feel part of the team.

Driving the buggy allows me to meet a whole range of interesting folk from all four corners of the planet and I am constantly amazed at how well Robert Burns is known even in the smallest and most remote of islands. However, these global travellers offer a wide range of stimulating conversation which is rarely restricted just to the “Bard”.

The Volunteers at RBBM also help run a Garden Shop, situated in the grounds of the museum, which offers a wide variety of goods manufactured by local crafters and is also a shop window for the RBBM itself. However, the main purpose of this venue is to raise funds for the restoration and improvement of the Burns Monument which is just one of the bold and innovative ideas being developed by the management team at RBBM.

One variation on the theme, which I particularly remember, was the great fun we all had on Halloween one year, volunteers and staff together, creating and acting out a costume drama incorporating the Burns Cottage, Poets Path and “Auld Kirk” and providing lots of “bloodthirsty” and scary moments for those visitors brave enough  to come back after dark!

I find volunteering a great way to keep fit and active, meet new people and maintain a standard of life which rarely falters, and you may go a long way before finding a better place to do all this than with the team at RBBM and the beautiful countryside surrounding it.

Volunteers Week: Hugh Farrell

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For Volunteers Week, we asked our volunteers to write a blog post about their volunteering experience. Here’s Hugh Farrell sharing some of his thoughts.

As a lifelong admirer of Robert Burns, a past president of four Burns Clubs and past secretary of a fifth, I volunteered to be a guide as soon as the National Trust came to Alloway. Indeed, wild horses could not have held me back! Confirmation that Robert Burns was the prime mover for my desire to become a volunteer.

To have the opportunity to immerse myself in the history of the Cottage and to find myself walking in the footsteps of the young Robert Burns is wonderful. Another plus is the opportunity to meet people who arrive from all around the world to visit the birthplace of Scotland’s National Bard who remains, in my opinion, The International Bard of Humanity. Then there are the thousands of schoolchildren who visit every year who we seek to inspire but who also inspire their guides. The children are encouraged to recite or sing their “Burns “ party pieces and a great many are really delighted to do so.

I always try to bring Robert Burns’ love of Scotland to the fore and note the light that comes into the eyes of visitors when I quote his poetry, songs or prose.

Communication is of course a two way process and whilst it pleases me to speak of the history of the Cottage, I am also intrigued to hear the tales of the visitors such as the American historian who informed me that Robert Burns was the first National Poet of the USA.

The first known Burns Supper was held in the Cottage in 1801, and continued to be held there until 1809, after which time it was relocated to the Kings Arms Hotel in Ayr. 

The Supper was returned to the Cottage on 25th January 2016 and has now become a fixture on the calendar. It is organised by the volunteers of the Friends of the Museum, with superb support from NTS staff, and is a major fundraiser.

There are many activities to be involved in at RBBM, some for fundraising and some for fun. There are various crafts and activities, and even a chance to scare visitors at Halloween as they are guided through the gardens to the haunted Auld Kirk of Alloway! (They then went on to the Cottage where Doctor Hornbook, a Burns character, was performing an amputation!)

As a volunteer guide, I also take tours of the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum where I can expand on the life and times of our Bard as we view the great number of artefacts that are on display.

The question is often posed as to what is my favourite item, or song, or poem. The answer is always “too many to cover in such a short time.” However Robert Burns’ Kilmarnock Edition, where it all began, might be a good starting point.

I have written of the fantastic times that I have with our visitors but there is also so much pleasure in the camaraderie within the volunteer team and between volunteers and NTS staff members who support us in everything we do.

Retirement from the “day job” is the end of an era. Volunteering is the beginning of a better era.

Volunteers Week: Myra McLanaghan

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For Volunteers Week, we asked our volunteers to write a blog post about their volunteering experience. Here’s Myra McLanaghan sharing some of her thoughts.

I didn’t really volunteer for the Trust – it sort of found me. I was a regular at the Wednesday Highlight talks at the RBBM and the Volunteer Co-ordinator approached me, thinking I would be interested. Of course, you always believe that you have nothing to offer and need qualifications etc.; but the thing is, you suddenly find that you have life experiences of qualifications and so I took the plunge of becoming a Volunteer.

I started off doing craft work, making rag rugs. So, with other volunteers, I commenced making a rag rug for Burns Cottage, where we would sit on a Monday afternoon cutting up fabric and creating our masterpiece. As people came through we found that nostalgia was a big part in discussion and visitors would discuss the rag rug, who made it in their family and what it was even called in different parts of the country. Overseas visitors were most intrigued, and children even tried their hand at putting a piece of material into the rug. The group are now on their third rug and we are now expanding into learning about weaving and dyeing of fabrics on the 18th century. From little acorns large oaks grow.

I have also become involved in a performance team who dress in 18th-century costume and perform the works of Burns. Our overseas visitors really appreciate us in costume and they feel part of what we are trying to tell them about life in Scotland during Burns’ time. Being a volunteer expands your experiences and confidence. I have a natural love for Scotland and volunteering has added a new dimension of meeting new people and making new friends and sharing a common love of Scotland and Robert Burns in the area where not only did I grow up, but he did too.

ragrugday

Myra (second from right) with some more rag ruggers, and their finished product, in Burns Cottage

From Burns Country to the Highlands

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Recently three of our staff from the learning team here at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum visited our fellow National Trust for Scotland property Culloden Battlefield Visitor Centre. Parris, our Learning Officer, was accompanied by Caitlin and Lizzie who are both Learning Trainee’s, to attend the second Women in Scottish Heritage event (the first took place in October 2018 at NTS property Pollok House in Glasgow and was highly successful).

Our guest speaker was the amazing Talat Yaqoob from Equate Scotland and the title of the talk was “Authenticity and Confidence in an Unequal Culture”. The event was an opportunity to network with other women working for NTS, see some familiar faces and to find out more about what we can do in the workplace to make it an environment where all women feel confident to contribute. Did you know that women are more likely to apply for jobs if they meet 100% of the criteria, whereas men are more likely to apply for jobs if they meet only 60% of the criteria? This was just one of many examples highlighted to us that clearly suggest inequality between the genders. However, it was not all doom and gloom; overall it was a very wholesome, interesting and hilarious talk.

2nd WiSH event at Culloden Battlefield Visitor Centre.

 

 

 

 

 

We then got a women-themed tour led by Visitor Services Assistant Emilie which was utterly fascinating. Did you know where the saying no room to swing a cat comes from? It doesn’t mean an actual furry feline but a cat-o’-nine-tails whip which was used to flog Jacobite soldiers and supporters.

When museum people go to a museum they analyse EVERYTHING: so, we noted that the design of the exhibits and the interpretation was balanced and neutral, with the interactive elements of the Centre – the intense film and the eerie ‘night march’ corridor – being particularly effective in engaging visitors to imagine the dreadful circumstances the Jacobite army found themselves in. However, the Battlefield itself is incredibly atmospheric; on the days we visited the sun might have been shining but the wind made our eyes stream and carried our voices off in a gust, again it was easy to understand how difficult the terrain made it for the Jacobite army to do their famous Highland Charge.

Night March corridor inside the Visitor Centre.

 

 

A view of the Battlefield itself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The following day we shadowed a Primary 6 class doing a formal workshop led by Raymond, another VSA, which consisted of a class-room based activity, a Battlefield tour and a museum tour. As a learning team we were able to see how we differed in our delivery, style and content. It was insightful to see how their team have adapted and tailored their programming according to their subject matter, collection and site. We also saw two ‘Presentations’ led by Raymond and James, another VSA, which are themed on a particular subject/person and include acting, costumes, objects and audience participation. This was highly entertaining and we had so much fun being picked on by both Raymond and James to get involved!

Caitlin and James doing their Highland Charge.

Caitlin enjoying being a human wardrobe.

 

Parris and James. CHARRRRRGGGGEEEEE!!!!

 

Props, objects and costumes used to deliver presentations.

 

Our properties are connected through shared history; both are about either a person or event from 18th century Scotland, with Burns acknowledging the Jacobite’s through his song ‘Ye Jacobite’s By Name’ written in 1791 and Culloden Battlefield Visitor Centre even do a yearly project in January called ‘Bring on Burns’ with three Primary 6 classes.

All in all, it was a fantastic visit which had multiple continuous professional development benefits: we met other NTS colleague’s out-with the Ayrshire and Arran region, created a friendly partnership with Culloden’s engagement team, discovered what we could do to support other women in the workplace more thanks to Talat, learned lots about the Battle of Culloden and got to visit a massively important historical site which has a superb centre and great staff.

A warm thank you to everyone who we met, chatted with, fed and watered us or answered our questions – but a massive thank you to Sarah and Talat for a wonderful WiSH event and to Raymond, James and Emilie for a taking the time to talk all things learning and engagement, which is the bread and butter of heritage.

 

Get social with heritage! Here are the social media handles for the above mentioned organisations:

National Trust for Scotland

  • Instagram: @nationaltrustforscotland
  • Facebook: The National Trust for Scotland
  • Twitter: @N_T_S

 

Culloden Battlefield Visitor Centre

  • Instagram: @cullodenbattlefield
  • Facebook: Culloden Battlefield & Visitor Centre
  • Twitter: @CullodenNTS

 

Equate Scotland

  • Instagram: @equatescotland
  • Facebook: Equate Scotland
  • Twitter: @equatescotland

Burns and his Wumin: The Attitudes to Women Found in Burns’s Poetry

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As it’s Women’s History Month, one of the Learning Trainees here at RBBM, Caitlin Walker, has written about the attitudes to women found in Burns’s poetry. She has written the post in a similar way to how she would speak it, which is why there is a mixture of Scots and English language.

Maist folk know that Robert Burns enjoyed the company of women – his famous love affairs, the hundreds of poems and songs they inspired and the thirteen (that we know of!) weans he fathered attest to that. But what did he actually think of women?

Burns was born and lived his life during the latter half of the eighteenth century, a time when women couldnae vote and were rarely, if ever, formally educatit. Gender roles were strictly prescribed – for instance, women of the working class were given no formal education but taught how to run a hoose and look after a faimlie. Tasks were divided by gender completely, to the extent that women milked the coos but men mucked oot the byre, and during harvest time men used the scythe while women used the heuk. Women of higher classes would have learned literacy and maybe even another language or a musical instrument, but the expectation was the same – get merrit and raise a faimlie.

Different poems by Burns depict varying attitudes to women. For instance, ‘Willie Wastle’ – which is perhaps an unsuitably-named poem as it’s really about Willie Wastle’s wife – is hardly complimentary towards women. Burns describes her using terms such as ‘dour’, ‘din’, ‘bow-hough’d’ and ‘hem-shin’d’. She allegedly has ‘but ane’ e’e, ‘five rusty teeth, forbye a stump’, ‘a whiskin beard’ and ‘walie nieves like midden-creels’. Burns rounds off every stanza with the line, ‘I wad na gie a button for her’. This Burns is a far cry from the adorer of women the world recognises – he is being extremely disrespectful and takin nae prisoners in mocking her appearance!

willie's wifeThis photograph shows the sign for the Willie Wastle Inn in Crosshill, Ayrshire. It depicts Willie’s wife as she is described in the poem.

Contrast this with ‘The Rights of Woman’, Burns’s call for folk to remember the rights of women amongst the turbulent atmosphere of the eighteenth century, when ‘even children lisp the Rights of Man’. At first glance this seems like Burns being exceptionally forward-thinking for the 1700s – however, the ‘rights’ in question are: the right to protection, the right to decorum and the right to admiration. So really, Burns’s progressive rally for the rights of women is patronising and objectifying, which is a step up from outright insulting maybe, but still no brilliant.

rights of women II

This is a copy of ‘The Rights of Woman’ written by Burns in 1793 and sent to Mrs Graham of Fintry.

Then we have ‘It’s na, Jean, thy bonie face’ – and thank goodness! This poem is an outpouring of Burns’s love for his wife, Jean Armour – but crucially, it is ‘na her bonie face’ that he admires, ‘altho’ [her] beauty and [her] grace/ Might weel awauk desire’. Instead, it is her mind he loves. This shows Burns’s respect for Jean as a person with her own thoughts and desires. He goes on to say that even if he was not the one to make her happy, that someone would and that she’d be ‘blest’. He even says that he would die for her: this selfless desire to see her happy chimes much more with the image of Burns as the great lover of women that the world knows.

This photograph shows a case containing Jean’s wedding ring, as well as a ring containing a lock of her hair and a ring containing a lock of Burns’s.

Of course, cynics may just read ‘It’s na, Jean…’ as a soppy, hyperbolic gesture to get back in Jean’s good books – ye can make up yer ain mind.