The following blog post was written by RBBM’s Learning Officer as a guest blog for Museums Galleries Scotland – http://nationallysignificantcollections.scot/
Few objects associated with Robert Burns are as well-known, or as instrumental to his fame, as the ‘Kilmarnock Edition’. Published on the 31st July 1786 by John Wilson of Kilmarnock, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect was the first volume of poetry and song to be written by the man who was to later become Scotland’s National Bard. Containing some of his best-loved works including Tae a Mouse, The Cotter’s Saturday Night and The Holy Fair, it is one of the items in the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum’s collection treasured most by both staff and visitors.
The Robert Burns Birthplace Museum (RBBM) is based in Alloway, South Ayrshire and is run by the National Trust for Scotland. The site consists of the Birthplace Cottage; Alloway Auld Kirk and the Brig o’ Doon (both of Tam o’ Shanter fame); Burns Monument and gardens; and of course the museum itself. The site is one of three in the ‘Burns Group’, also comprising of the Bachelors’ Club where the young Robert set up his own debating society, and Souter Johnnie’s Gallery, once the home of John Davidson (on whom Burns may have based the character Souter Johnnie in Tam o’ Shanter), and now an art gallery and craft shop showcasing local work.
The museum collection comprises of over 5,500 objects including 2 Kilmarnock editions. Only 612 copies of this first edition were printed, each containing 44 poems and songs written by the Bard. Although John Wilson was known for celebrating local talent, he was still reluctant to take a chance on an unknown poet from Ayrshire – in the end it was agreed that he would print the work only if Burns could raise enough advance subscriptions. The book cost 3 s each – 350 copies went directly to subscribers, and the rest quickly sold out within a month.
Reviews of the Kilmarnock edition were largely positive, although some made reference to Burns’s supposed lack of education (despite his home schooling by tutor John Murdoch and his familiarity with a range of literary and enlightenment figures including Alexander Pope, Adam Smith and Robert Fergusson). The Monthly Review in December 1786 also lamented Burns’s use of, ‘an unknown tongue, which must deprive most of our readers of the pleasure they would otherwise naturally create; being composed in the Scottish dialect, which contains words that are altogether unknown to an English reader…’. This seems a strange notion today, when Burns’s use of Scots is regarded by many as one of his best loved and most distinctive features.
Despite sentiments of this nature, the book began to circulate in Edinburgh, attracting positive attention from eminent society figures. Within 8 weeks, Burns was thinking of re-printing. The second edition of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (the First Edinburgh edition), was printed by William Smellie and published by William Creech in Edinburgh on 21st April 1787. The cost of this was 5 s to subscribers and 6 to other buyers. Over 3,000 copies were published, firmly establishing Burns’s reputation and paving the way for his future success as a poet and songwriter, both during and after his lifetime.
Today, RBBM displays a Kilmarnock edition alongside an interactive facsimile which allows visitors to browse the pages digitally, therefore preserving the original for future generations. But this is not the only item of interest we have relating to this first volume of Burns’s works.
Above we have the printing stocks used to decorate books published by John Wilson in Kilmarnock, and below is an elaborate seat fashioned from the printing press which was used to print the first edition of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. It was converted into a chair during the Victorian period in an early example of ‘upcycling’, and was also famously the chair Muhammed Ali sat in when he visited Burns Cottage in 1965.
The 5,500 objects in RBBM’s collection include original manuscripts of Burns’s works, letters to and from the Bard, artefacts belonging to Burns and his family/friends, artworks, books, Burnsiana (trinkets relating to Burns), and more. Together they make up the most extensive collection of Burns related objects in the world. But none would be important today without the book of 44 poems and songs, originally sold for 3 s each, representing an Ayrshire farmer’s first step towards becoming Scotland’s National Bard.
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.
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!’