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.
As well as being one of the most valuable (and unique) items in the RBBM’s collection, our copy of The Scots Musical Museum featuring Burns’ annotations is also one of the most fascinating. The book itself belonged to Burns and subject of the annotation is the famous song ‘Auld Lang Syne’, which Burns rewrote from an old folk song he had collected whilst travelling Scotland. Alongside poetry, the songs and music of his homeland were the other great loves of his life – and he spent a large portion of his last years compiling and re-writing folksongs and melodies.
The Scots Musical Museum was a major publication; at 6 volumes with 100 songs each it was a hugely positive force in bringing Scottish folk songs and music to the classical repertoire. Other songs and tunes in the collection were contributions and arrangements from composers such as Ludwig van Beethoven and Joseph Hayden (yes, that Beethoven and that Hayden). It is interesting to note that Burn’s songs were found to be more popular than the works of other composers in the Musical Museum, (such as Beethoven specifically) as his work was found to be easier and more accessible for the audience to sing and perform. This was not just a collection of old songs however, as Burns would write new words to the tunes, or entirely different songs to the ancient melodies. Auld Lang Syne, Scots Wha Hae and Green Grow the Rashes, O are known to have much older roots.
In 1786, Robert Burns met James Johnson in Edinburgh and discovered the music engraver shared his passion for old Scots songs and his desire to preserve them. Whilst Burns only contributed 3 songs to the first volume published in 1787, he would eventually contribute about 1/3 of the whole collection as well as have involvement in editing. The final volume was published in 1803.
The most fascinating aspect of the book is the blank page full of Burns’ annotations. This was actually a feature of The Scots Musical Museum, as Burns requested that every other page be left blank in order for him to add notes and changes. This in itself, without even reading the alterations or commentary tells us a great deal about the Bard; that he was conscious of the potential of the song or tune to still be improved, a desire to discuss the theory and purpose behind the lyrics and those he had decided against, and even shines a light into his own passion concerning the music and folk traditions of his country.