Tam O’ Shanter
On the BBC’s website it is listed that there are 118 poems written by our beloved bard Robert Burns with the theme of nature, however, I would argue that there is so many more as nature – a subject which was very close to his heart – is inextricably intertwined in a number of his works.
The reason nature is a genre featured so heavily within Burns’s works can be traced back to his upbringing and lifestyle. Being born in the but-and-ben Burns Cottage in Alloway, he was introduced to the ways of farmlife from childhood. He worked with his family closely there and at multiple farms thereafter such as Mount Oliphant and Lochlea Farm. Burns and his brother Gilbert even farmed at Mossgiel Farm when his father died. He did not just have connections with the land in his younger years but as an adult as well as he worked as a farmer alongside his career as a poet and songwriter. His last farming endevaour was at Ellisland Farm in Dumfrieshire. His rural upbringing and argicultural employment earned him his nickname as “The Ploughman Poet” by the artistocratic society of Edinburgh. Burns lived in Edinburgh for only two years – the city which he described as “noise and nonsense” – to return to his rural roots.
Firstly, I would ask: what is nature? It is defined as the phenomena of the physical world collectively, including plants, animals and the landscape. Burns did not neglect any of these three aspects and used them frequently as the inspiration of his works. He did various works which refer to plants such as To a Mountain Daisy, My Luve is Like a Red Red Rose and The Rosebud. Some of my personal favourite works of Burns which talk about other environmental features include Sweet Afton (about a river) and My Heart’s in the Highlands (which of course is about one of the most rugged, scenic and breath-taking landscapes in the world).
However, what this blog will mainly focus on is that Burns was most notably an animal lover. This is conveyed in his works On Glenriddell’s Fox Breaking his Chain, The Wounded Hare, Address to a Woodlark, The Twa Dogs, To a Louse and the renowned and much adored To a Mouse. This last poem – which was written in 1786 and published in the Kilmarnock Edition – is a perfect example of Burns’s humanity as this poem reflects his concern for animal welfare, his consciousness of humankind’s effect on nature and has empathy for a small creature which is widely considered as “vermin”. This was very ahead of his time and is a concern that is currently proving to be a huge issue as more and more animals become extinct because of human’s destructive actions in the twenty-first century.
The Twa Dogs poem, written in 1796, is another great work of Burns’s which gives the two dogs human-like intellect and the ability to express themselves as it has an upper-class pedigree, Caesar, and an ordinary working collie, Luath, who chat about the differing lives of the social classes. The name “Luath” comes from Ossian’s epic poem Fingal. The Twa Dogs immortalizes Burns’s own dog Luath who came to a cruel end. On the morning of 13th February 1784 Robert and his sister Isabella were distressed to find the poisoned body of Robert’s dog Luath outside their door – the act of a vengeful neighbour. Arguably, Burns intended this poem as a memorial to his canine friend.
An example of one of Burn’s lesser-known poems is The Wounded Hare which was written in 1789. Below are the first three stanzas out of five that complete this poem:
Inhuman man! curse on thy barb’rous art,
And blasted be thy murder-aiming eye;
May never pity soothe thee with a sigh,
Nor ever pleasure glad thy cruel heart!
Go live, poor wand’rer of the wood and field!
The bitter little that of life remains:
No more the thickening brakes and verdant plains
To thee a home, or food, or pastime yield.
Seek, mangled wretch, some place of wonted rest,
No more of rest, but now thy dying bed!
The sheltering rushes whistling o’er thy head,
The cold earth with thy bloody bosom prest.
The word choice makes the moral message of this poem is clear: Burns is vehemently opposed to shooting. The passion and intensity of Burns’s thoughts on this is quite surprising as one would think that as a farmer he would be used to or even dependent on killing animals, however, meat consumption was not as prominent in the eighteenth century as farm animals were only killed for food in old age or special occasions. The family’s provision of milk, cheese, butter and wool came directly from their own animals, and the health and wellbeing of these creatures were paramount. Furthermore they would share the same roof over their heads with them, thus creating strong bonds with their farm animals, and apparently Burns lost his temper with a farm-worked once when the man did not cut the potatoes small enough and Burns was frantic that the beasts might choke on them.
Below is the third stanza of the powerful poem On Glenriddell’s Fox Breaking His Chain written in 1791:
Glenriddell! Whig without a stain,
A Whig in principle and grain,
Could’st thou enslave a free-born creature,
A native denizen of Nature?
How could’st thou, with a heart so good,
(A better ne’er was sluiced with blood!)
Nail a poor devil to a tree,
That ne’er did harm to thine or thee?
Again, you can clearly see that Burns is opposed to the cruel treatment of a “free-born creature” and is in disbelief of the actions of the good-hearted Glenriddell’s actions.
However, one could argue that nature was so deeply rooted in Burns’s psyche – and he quite literally was surrounded by it living on a farm – that he could not escape from being inspired to write about it. An example of this is in his masterpiece Tam o’ Shanter. It is an epic narrative poem written in 1790 which features folklore, superstition, witchcraft and gothic themes… but it also has one of his most poignant and beautiful quotes in which Burns really philosophically details the nature of nature:
But pleasures are like poppies spread,
You seize the flower, its bloom is shed;
Or like the snow falls in the river,
A moment white–then melts for ever;
Or like the borealis race,
That flit ere you can point their place;
Or like the rainbow’s lovely form
Evanishing amid the storm.–
Nae man can tether time or tide;
The hour approaches Tam maun ride;
Burns is saying that nature’s beauty is wistful, forever-changing and is out of the control of humankind as he insightfully states “nae man can tether time or tide”.
In terms of this poem, another point is worth mentioning: the hero of this tale is a horse. Again Burns’s admiration and respect for animals is encompassed in the heroism of Meg, Tam’s horse, who against all odds does get him home in one piece although the same cannot be said for her. Burns was a brilliant horse-rider and would have relied heavily on his four-legged companion as a mode of transportation to socialise, to plough fields and to work as an excise man.
All in all Burns would have been regarded nowadays as an advocate for animal welfare and his works which have animals or nature at their core reflect his love for nature and are some of his most passionate, most thought-provoking and most heart-rending.
By Parris Joyce (Learning Trainee)
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!
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.
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.
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: email@example.com or visit http://www.nts.org.uk/Property/Souter-Johnnies-Cottage/Property-description
My name is Sandy. I volunteer at RBBM as a Buggy Driver and Guide.
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!
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…
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.
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.
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.
This post was written by one of RBBM’s Volunteers Ronnie Breingan, who gave a Highlight Talk on the subject earlier this year.