Tam O’ Shanter

A wee introducation to Souter Johnnie’s Cottage, Kirkoswald

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An exterior view of the thatched Souter Johnnie's Cottage, built in 1785.
An exterior view of the thatched Souter Johnnie’s Cottage, built in 1785.

One of Robert Burns’s most famous poems, Tam O’Shanter; features characters who were inspired by people that Burns had met over the years, several of whom came from Kirkoswald. One such character, Souter Johnnie, was based on John Davidson, a souter or shoe maker, who lived in what is now known as Souter Johnnie’s Cottage.

Kirkoswald features strongly in the landscape of Burns history. Burns’s mother Agnes was born near Culzean Castle, a 5 minute car journey from Souter Johnnie’s Cottage. Robert’s mother Agnes had strong links with the area for, after her mother died when she was 10 and her father remarried, she was sent to live with her grandmother (Mrs Ranie) in Kirkoswald. Agnes, who had a strong influence with regards to Scottish music and ballads, developed her knowledge from her grandmother in Kirkoswald as Grannie Ranie was a repository for old Scottish ballads and Covenanter stories.

Burns himself had spent some time in Kirkoswald in the summer and autumn of 1775 at a school where he learnt the tasks of “mensuration, surveying, dialling, &c” which were mathematical instructions relating to surveying.

John Davidson’s house, or Souter Johnnie’s Cottage, was built around 1785 and it sits on the main trunk road that runs through Kirkoswald. Davidson lived in the cottage until 1806 when he died and the cottage remained in his family as a home until 1920 when it was handed over to a committee headed by Rev James Muir, who was a scholar of Burns’s work. The property was taken over by the NTS in 1932 and restored to how it would have looked in the 18th century when Davidson would have live there.

The cottage itself has two large rooms, with a workshop extension at the back. It sits amongst a lovely garden, which has a brew house featuring life sized sandstone statues of the poems main characters carved by Scottish sculptor James Thom around 1830.

Davidson’s neighbour was a man called Douglas Graham, he had married Robert’s mother’s, Agnes, friend who was called Agnes Gillespie. Graham was the inspiration for Tam himself!

Life-sized stone figures of Souter Johnnie, Tam the innkeeper and his wife in the restored alehouse at Souter Johnnie's cottage, Ayrshire.
Life-sized stone figures of Souter Johnnie, Tam the innkeeper and his wife in the restored alehouse at Souter Johnnie’s cottage, Ayrshire.

The workshop features a large selection of objects that were used in the process of shoe making. At the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum there is one object that belonged to Davidson – his hand guard used for protecting his hand while stitching shoes. There are other really interesting objects dotted around Souter Johnnie’s Cottage – when you are there have a look for a Family Bible and a large gun over the fireplace.

Interior shot of Souter Johnnie's Cottage - showing the workshop
Interior shot of Souter Johnnie’s Cottage – showing the workshop

Souter Johnnie’s is currently undergoing some exciting conservation work. So far the cottage extension has been re slated and over the coming months the main cottage roof will be re thatched. There is also a photographic exhibition which shows local images of Old Kirkoswald in the cottage.

An exterior view of Souter Johnnie's Cottage.
An exterior view of Souter Johnnie’s Cottage.

After you have visited Souter Johnnie’s, there is a lot of exploring in Kirkoswald.

The village kirk yard (on the Main Street on the opposite side of the road from Souter Johnnie’s) is particularly worth exploring. Three main inspirations for Tam O’Shanter  – John Davidson, Douglas Graham (Tam O’ Shanter) and Jean Kennedy (Kirkton Jean) – are buried here as well as Robert the Bruce’s baptismal font.

The Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, the Bachelors Club and Souter Johnnie’s Cottage make a fantastic day out exploring Burns landscape and history in Ayrshire.

Souter Johnnie’s Cottage is open until the 30 September, Friday to Tuesday 11 30 to 5pm. For more information contact: burns@nts.org.uk or visit http://www.nts.org.uk/Property/Souter-Johnnies-Cottage/Property-description

Volunteers’ Week 2015 : Meet our Volunteers – Sandy

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My name is Sandy. I volunteer at RBBM as a Buggy Driver and Guide.

Sandy dressed as Tam O'Shanter for the launch of the newly extended X77 bus route which comes to the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum
Sandy dressed as Tam O’Shanter for the launch of the newly extended X77 bus route which comes to the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum from Buchannan Street Bus Station, Glasgow

How long have you been volunteering for at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum and what is your role? I started in 2011, at the time to be 4 hours every fortnight on a Friday. Later I was asked if I would take a school party on the Tam O’Shanter trail which led to taking on other interested parties, from this country and abroad, around the site. While on the Buggy I relate the story of Tam O’Shanter and tell them about the sculptures along the path. I have appeared in costume as Tam O’Shanter for visitors while doing the tours.

What kind of things do you get up to when you volunteer? I am involved in the running of the Garden Shop, also appearing in the Christmas Panto at the cottage and the Ghost walk at Hallowe’en, and the Book Club which meets on the last Tuesday of every month.

What has been your most memorable experience volunteering at Robert Burns Birthplace Museum? Taking a wedding party on the Buggy from Alloway to the Church next to the Brig O’Doon Hotel (Dressed as Tam of course!).

What is your favourite thing about Robert Burns Birthplace Museum? During this time I became very interested in the Old Kirk and its headstones. I have given talks on the Kirk which then led to a project which has taken a year, looking at the headstones and their condition since 1995. In 2014 I was awarded the Volunteer of the Year Award for the National Trust for Scotland. Which was a huge surprise and great honour. Why have I been at RBBM for 4 years? I worked for the Scottish Ambulance Service for 38 years, when I retired, I was very interested in the construction of the museum, so was down many times to watch the progress, often I was asked about the museum, or how to get to the cottage. I enjoyed helping them, which led me wishing to know more about the area. So it’s the satisfaction that I have made the visitors’ visit interesting, knowledgeable and enjoyable! And if you wish to meet me look in the Kirkyard!

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Is a picture worth a thousand words?

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Banks of the River Doon was painted by Patrick C Auld 43 years after the poet’s death, when his status as Scotland’s shining bard was already celebrated in full force.  His life is commemorated by the monument still found in Alloway today and the painting reminds us of Burns’ well kent poem Tam o’ Shanter, with the brig given centre stage. For someone with no background in art history, it is tempting to think that this is just another pretty landscape painting whose deeper meanings no doubt soar straight over my head. But I’d like to think that this isn’t necessarily the case! Do you ever find yourself intrigued by what a painting is hiding or what else there is to see on second glance?  Here’s what I came up with doing exactly that…

Oil painting of the Brig o Doon and Burns Monument

This painting is of an idyllic, almost pastoral scene; a visual representation of the same warm fuzzy feeling in which Burns wraps his audience with the Cotter’s Saturday Night.  Picturesque? Yes. Realistic? No.

The perspective of the picture is distorted, and rather than cast aspersions on the skill of the painter, I rather think that he is hinting at the Brig’s otherworldly connections, its shadowed underside hiding dark secrets.  Not always quite so serene, there is the suggestion of Tam’s frenzied ride over the Brig pursued by the howling witches.  From this slightly more sinister perspective, we as viewers are part of the dark foreground of the picture, looking in.  Are we the witches, waiting on the sidelines to be let loose on the chocolate-box landscape?

Flights of fancy aside, the impressive monument dominating the horizon and right in the viewers’ eye line was designed by Thomas Hamilton and opened 1823 to much acclaim.  There is an interesting juxtaposition between the offset monument and surrounding landscape.  It almost shines as a beacon apart, reminiscent of Burns mythology that renders him as the ‘heav’n taught’ genius in an otherwise dark and dismal rural 18th century Scotland.  Here we see the wild and rugged in contrast with the civilised achievements of man so disparagingly compared in Burns’ poem ‘Tae a Moose’:

I’m truly sorry man’s dominion

Has broken nature’s social union

The Corinthian columns burst through the Scottish countryside as a conquering edifice, symbolising the achievements of man but running in counter to Burns’ perception of man’s dominance over the natural world as a sadly destructive force.  And yet, not all has been conquered, not all is lost to the order of Enlightenment.  The wild darkness is on the edges, just waiting to get in.

So how would you read this painting?

This one of the objects acquired by the museum with the help of the National Fund for Acquisitions, which celebrated its 60th birthday in December 2013.

Burns and Money

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Tray of different historical Scottish coins.
Some of the historical denominations of Scottish coins.

During Robert Burns’s life he would spend money, like everyone else, but in his early days he would not have very much to spend. He would probably not handle banknotes until about the time that his Edinburgh Edition of poems was published in 1787.

At the time of Burns the denominations of the coins used were quite different to those we use today. Twelve pennies were equal to one shilling and twenty shillings were equal to one pound. There were eight halfcrowns in a pound and twenty one shillings were known as a guinea.

The Union between Scotland and England had taken place in 1707 and before this date Scotland had its own coinage with the names for smaller denominations being “bawbees” which were sixpennies, “placks” which were fourpennies and “bodles” which were two pennies.

These denominations were Scots and the rate of exchange between Scotland and England required twelve pounds Scots to equal one pound English. The bawbee or sixpence Scots, at the time of Union was only equivalent to one halfpenny Sterling.

Although Robert Burns would never use these Scottish coins the names of the denominations continued to be used by the public and Burns used them to describe money in many of his poems.

In “O`er The Water To Charlie” he says “I’ll gie John Ross anither  bawbee” as “bawbee” was by Burns time the name that was given to a halfpenny Sterling.

A farthing or quarter of a penny had become known as a “plack” and in many of his poems, epistles, songs and stories he mentions placks such as in “Scotch Drink” and in “Epistle to J. Lapraik”.

Another name given to the farthing was a “bodle” from the old Scots twopenny and he mentions a “bodle” in “Tam O’ Shanter” but he spells it with two “ds” instead of the old Scots of one “d”.

Robert Burns referred to many other coins such as the “groat” which was the Sterling fourpence and the “merk” which he spelt as “mark”. A merk was two thirds of a pound (or a 13/4d piece). In “To Collector Mitchell” he states “That one-pound-one, I sairly want it”. He was, of course, referring to a guinea which was one pound, one shilling or twenty one shillings.

I have written mainly of the small denomination coins that were used and quoted by Burns.

In 1786 we know that he was given ten guineas from a friend, Patrick Miller, and we are quite sure that they were Bank of Scotland one guinea notes.

1786 was the time when Robert Burns was thinking of emigrating to Jamaica to escape the problems in farming and, of course the father of Jean Armour, who Rabbie had made pregnant.

At this time he had written on the back of a Bank of Scotland one guinea note a verse :-

“Wae worth thy power, Thou cursed leaf!
Fell Source o’ a’ my woe and grief
For lack o’ thee I’ve lost my lass
For lack o’ thee I scrimp my glass
For lack o’ thee I leave this much-loved shore
Never, perhaps, to greet old Scotland more”.

That guinea note may still be seen at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway.

In recent times the Clydesdale Bank issued a £5 note in 1971 depicting a portrait of Robert Burns. It was based on the famous painting of him by Alexander Nasmyth and in 1996 on the anniversary of his death four different varieties of the note were issued with words from four of his poems.

Picture of the Clydesdale Bank five pound note with Robert Burns on it.

In 2009 the Royal Mint struck £2  coins to commemorate the 250th Anniversary of the birth of the bard and in the same year the Clydesdale Bank promoted Rabbie to the £10 note and two years before the Bank of Scotland introduced the picture on the reverse of their £5 notes of the statue of Burns and the Brig O’Doon.

It will be interesting to see what the future will bring in relation to the commemoration of Robert Burns on money.

Picture showing the first slide of Ronnie's Highlight Talk on Burns and Money

This post was written by one of RBBM’s Volunteers Ronnie Breingan, who gave a Highlight Talk on the subject earlier this year.