Poetry, songs and women are widely known to have been Robert Burns’s great passions, but he also loved to step onto the dancefloor as well. In 1779, Burns as a young man decided to attend dancing lessons in Tarbolton. This decision allowed him to temporarily escape the financial difficulties that the family were enduring at Lochlea. Therefore Burns used to regularly walk to a humble thatched house after the farming work was done to enjoy some time with his friends. In the museum collection you will see a beautifully restored fiddle with a red, green and black floral design work. This fiddle was played by Burns’s dance teacher, William Gregg, while Robert learned and practiced his steps. According to Burns he took up dancing to ‘give my manners a brush.’ But improving his manners and exercise were not the only benefits that dancing would give, as it granted Burns an opportunity to get acquainted with the local girls as well. This early time of social and sexual exploration played an important part in shaping Burns into the man he would famously become. To our twenty-first century minds dancing seems like a harmless pastime; but to his father William Burnes, this was an act of rebellion. According to Gilbert their father was often irritated by Robert’s dancing, as it was a clear sign that Robert was no longer listening to William’s advice and counsel. As a consequence of this, Burns himself acknowledged that his decision to continue with his dancing lessons compromised his relationship with his father.
In Burns’s narrative poem Tam O’Shanter you can feel the excitement of the dance unfolding, yet all the while there is a dark truth to this particular social gathering:
Warlocks and witches in a dance:
Nae cotillion, brent new frae France,
But hornpipes, jigs, strathspeys, and reels,
Put life and mettle in their heels.’
This scene of enjoyment is not only watched by the protagonist Tam, but also by Auld Nick who played the music to make them dance. This negative perception of dance being sinful is more in keeping with William’s opinion rather than his son. Nevertheless this moral outlook is undermined by the poem’s greater sense of adventure and humour. These two opposing viewpoints mirror the different standpoints of William and Robert in 1779, one saw dance as wicked and the other saw only pleasure. Despite all of William’s disapproval Robert Burns continued to love music, dance and social gatherings throughout his life. Tam O’Shanter was published in Grose’s Antiquities of Scotland in 1791, which reveals that Burns never forgot his father’s outlook on dance.
If you are a lover of dance yourself, you can follow in the Bard’s footsteps and take part in Scottish country dances set to his songs. For instance Ae fond Kiss is a reel, or perhaps you would prefer a livelier jig to the poem Halloween. One of the most popular times to toast Burns and celebrate his life is at a Burns Supper, so perhaps in the future you will follow his example and take to the dancefloor.
‘The dancers quick and quicker flew,
They reel’d, they set, they cross’d, they cleekit.’
By Kirstie Bingham
‘Though I am far from meaning to compare our rustic bard to Shakespeare, yet whoever will read his lighter and more humorous poems, … , will perceive with what uncommon penetration and sagacity this heaven taught ploughman, from his humble unlettered station, has looked upon men and manners. – Henry MacKenzie
At the age of 6, a young Robert Burns was sent to school at Alloway Mill to be taught by a William Campbell. The Bard’s father, William Burnes, was a great believer in his children’s education and wanted to ensure they received proper schooling. Unfortunately this was to prove tricky as Campbell the village left shortly afterwards. Not to be deterred, William Burnes approached Ayr Grammar School and requested a private tutor, John Murdoch, to teach his boys alongside 4 other families in the village, and to take turns to board in each of their houses.
Murdoch was a young man of eighteen himself, but struck up a firm friendship with William and enjoyed teaching the boys. Even after the family left Burns Cottage, they continued to attend Murdoch’s school in the village for two years. At this point, Murdoch left the area, but returned in 1772 and taught Robert Burns further, particularly French and English grammar. He also gifted him the works of Alexander Pope, whom Burns quotes frequently in subsequent letters and admired greatly.
Gilbert Burns wrote extensively on his former teacher, and credits him with inspiring Robert’s love of reading:
‘With him we learned to read English tolerably well; and to write a little. He taught us, too, the English grammar; but Robert made some proficiency in it, a circumstance of considerable weight in the unfolding of his genius and character; as he soon became remarkable for the fluency and correctness of his expression, and read the few books that came in his way with much pleasure and improvement; for even then he was a reader when he could get a book. Murdoch, whose library at that time had no great variety in it, lent him the Life of Hannibal, which was the first book he read (the school-books excepted), and almost the only one he had an opportunity of reading while he was at school.’ – Gilbert Burns
Murdoch himself wrote of his time teaching the Burns boys, in which he was less than complimentary about the Bard’s singing abilities, and confesses that he would have thought Gilbert more likely to develop into a famous poet:
‘Robert’s ear, in particular, was remarkably dull, and his voice untunable. It was long before I could get them to distinguish one tune from another. Robert’s countenance was generally grave and expressive of a serious, contemplative and thoughtful mind. Gilbert’s face said, “Mirth with thee I mean to live”; and certainly if any person who knew the two boys had been asked which of them was most likely to court the Muses, he would surely never have guessed that Robert had a propensity of that kind.’ – John Murdoch
In 1776, a complaint was made against John Murdoch that he had insulted the local church minister, William Dalrymple, and the former was forced to leave the village. He moved to London, where he actually assisted with the funeral arrangements of Burns’s younger brother William, who he had met with shortly before William’s death. Unfortunately for Murdoch, he died himself in 1824 in extreme poverty.
Thanks to the determination of his father and the dedication of John Murdoch, Robert Burns received a considerable formal education in his youth. This fostered his love of literature, and allowed him to develop the social and political knowledge necessary for writing some of his greatest works. Far from being a ‘heaven taught ploughman’ as MacKenzie suggests in his review of the Kilmarnock Edition in 1786 (see top of blog), Robert Burns received excellent schooling for the time, and was able to put this to full use during his adult life.
In 1756 a farmer and landscape gardener called William Burnes took a perpetual lease on a 7 acre piece of land in Alloway. The next year, he started work on a small Cottage for himself and his wife, Agnes, and two years after that their first son Robert was born in its kitchen. 37 years later, Robert Burns died in Dumfries having cemented his place in history as Scotland’s National Bard.
William was an innovator. He had previously worked on the laying out of Edinburgh’s Hope Park (now the Meadows) and believed in agricultural and landscaping improvement. Although they only lived at Burns Cottage until young Robert was 7, it was always William’s dream to create a self-sufficient market garden, ‘New Gardens’ on the site. Unfortunately, his idea did not prosper and over time the land was given over more and more to cattle and poultry. It was with this in mind that the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum (RBBM) team decided to revisit William’s plans and restart ‘New Gardens’ as a working project.
The first steps were taken last year, with the planting of a 39 tree strong orchard which is already bearing fruit. Last week saw the beginning of the next stage of works, carried out by W L Straughan & Son Ltd, to install raised beds, public walkways, and a pond and wetland area. With this, we aim to improve biodiversity onsite, expand on the outdoor learning opportunities (for schools, families and community groups) RBBM currently offers, and to realise William’s ‘New Gardens’ vision and offer up an historic continuum on this plot of land between the time of Burns and the present.
In 1765, William Burnes leased land at Mount Oliphant farm about 2 miles away from Burns Cottage in Alloway, and the family moved there. Soil was poor and the family had to work hard to keep afloat. 12 years later, they moved to Lochlea Farm in Tarbolton, site of the Bachelors’ Club where Robert Burns learnt to dance, founded a debating society, and joined the Freemasons. Unfortunately, the family continued to find it difficult to make ends meet, and became involved in a legal dispute with their landlord. They eventually won the court case in 1784, but William was left physically drained and died just a few weeks afterwards.
233 years later, his New Gardens project is now underway at the Burns’s first family home in Alloway, and will allow RBBM to focus on another of William’s key passions – education – without which the boy born in 1759 in the kitchen of the auld clay biggin’ may never have gone on to become Scotland’s National Bard.
Today, Friday 21st October, marks Apple Day in the UK. We at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum have been lucky enough this year to open an orchard consisting of 39 trees in the smallholding beside Burns Cottage. The orchard has 28 different varieties of tree, many of which are Scottish in origin, and we are grateful to the organisation ‘Scottish Fruit Trees’ who supplied us with them, as well as advising us on their selection.
In 1756, William Burnes (Robert’s father), took lease of the 7 acres of land around Burns Cottage. The following year, he built the first two rooms of what went on to become the four roomed Cottage that we know today, but it was always his plan to create a market garden on his land – he called this the ‘New Gardens’ project. Burnes was an ‘improver’ and sought new ways of doing things, evident in both his building of Burns Cottage and in his plans for the smallholding. As well as his own land, he worked as a gardener for a John Crawford at Doonside House in Alloway, and had previously been involved in the landscaping of Edinburgh’s Hope Park – now the Meadows.
Unfortunately for William, his New Gardens project did not prosper. Today, over 250 years later, the National Trust for Scotland is trying to recreate some of his ideas, starting with the orchard which was officially opened in July this year.
The national celebration of Apple Day was launched in 1983 by Common Ground, intended to raise awareness of the biodiversity and ecology that we are in danger of losing. Over the years, events celebrating apple day have increased, and have grown in scope – for example encouraging people towards healthy eating. As a lover of nature, Robert Burns would no doubt have been delighted to see his father’s project taken forward, and would have enjoyed watching the trees in our orchard grow year by year. We’ve already been able to watch our trees grow nicely over the last 3 months, and are looking forward to future opportunities to make more of our smallholding here at Burns Cottage!
We hope wherever you are today you’re able to celebrate Apple Day one way or another – why not let us know what you’re doing or send us some pictures?
When I started as a volunteer and just walked around the Kirk yard I wanted to know more about the Kirk and the people who were buried there. During a tour someone asked me about a headstone, and this started the project of writing down the 219 headstones so I could learn more and be able to answer the any questions.
It started off as just a project to learn more, but it has now become more involved with research of many families, guided tours, and talks on the Kirk yard. It has taken a year to finish it, with the Kirk yard laid out as is on an A1 sheet of paper.
The most well known headstone is of course William Burnes, the flat stone in front is very worn, but it is the resting place of Isabella Begg (Robert Burns’ youngest sister and two of her children Agnes and Isabella, they were all in their 80s when they died.
Do you have a favourite headstone (or stones!)
One is a headstone in remembrance of Charles Acton Broke who was the son of Rear Admiral Sir Philip Bowes Acton Broke. This man was a Captain of a ship during the war with the Americas in 1812, and was the first to defeat and capture an American ship.
There are two headstones of people who died in their 100th year!
My favourite one I cannot read the writing, but on the reverse are two fluted panels with a heart and a tear in each corner. I would love to know who they were.
Also the headstone of John Tennant, as there is so much detail on the stone which I have great pleasure in relating to visitors.
The next step in the research is to write out a Kirkyard plan based from a survey done in 1995 , when completed you will be able to compare the difference in the headstone conditions between 1995 and 2015 many of which are completely eroded.
Hornbooks like these would have been instrumental in the early education of young Robert and his brother Gilbert. Although the back is made of wood, the front is made of cow horn, polished to create transparency. This meant that the objects were not only extremely sturdy, but also made out of a readily available material. Robert’s father, William Burnes, was dedicated to the education of his sons, and engaged private tutor John Murdoch to teach them. The hornbooks would have been worn around the wrist during the day whilst the boys were at work on the farm, and would have contained Bible passages and sections of text that needed to be memorised for the evening’s lesson. Unfortunately for Robert, they could also be used as a vessel for delivering a clip round the ear, particularly if the young Bard was engaging in his favourite pastime of swinging on the back legs of his chair! Murdoch was impressed with the progress of both children, although surprisingly remarked on Robert’s lack of musical ear. Later in life he had this to say about his young wards:
‘Gilbert always appeared to me to possess a more lively imagination, and to be more of a wit, than Robert. I attempted to teach them a little church-music. Here they were left far behind by all the rest of the school. Robert’s ear, in particular, was remarkably dull, and his voice untunable. It was long before I could get them to distinguish one tune from another. Robert’s countenance was generally grave and expressive of a serious, contemplative and thoughtful mind. Gilbert’s face said, “Mirth with thee I mean to live”; and certainly if any person who knew the two boys had been asked which of them was most likely to court the Muses, he would surely never have guessed that Robert had a propensity of that kind.’
This all goes to show that even teachers can be wrong sometimes!
Aside Posted on Updated on
The priest-like father reads the sacred page,
How Abram was the friend of God on high;
Or Moses bade eternal warfare wage,
With Amalek’s ungracious progeny;
Or how the royal bard did groaning lie
Beneath the stroke of Heaven’s avenging ire;
Or Job’s pathetic plaint, and wailing cry;
Or rapt Isaiah’s wild, seraphic fire;
Or other holy seers that tune the sacred lyre.
Robert Burns, The Cotter’s Saturday Night
Bibles form key building blocks throughout the life of Scotland’s Bard. His father William was an extremely religious man, and Burns credits him with the inspiration for the ‘priest-like father’ described in the Cotter’s Saturday Night. This religious upbringing, especially when mixed with William’s fierce desire to see his children receive a good education, would have had a huge impact on the young Bard, although as we see in other poems he didn’t always agree with the views of the Kirk itself!
However, this Bible did not just have religious significance. William wrote the names and birthdates of his and Agnes’s children inside the front cover, creating a touching memento for themselves and leaving a lasting legacy for Burns’s followers in the absence of a birth certificate.
This tradition was later carried on by Robert in his own family Bible, inscribing the names of himself, Jean Armour and eight of their nine children within it. His youngest son, Maxwell, was born on the day of the poet’s funeral and so was not entered by the poet himself.
Bibles featured at other key moments in the life of the Bard. This Bible was published by the same printer as published Burns’s Kilmarnock edition, and the book would have played a key role in the Masonic rituals young Robert took part in after he joined the Freemasons.
However, it is perhaps this Bible that was the most poignant to Burns himself. As the poet was gathering together subscriptions to support his first volume of poetry in 1786, he began an intense love affair with ‘Highland Mary’, probably a woman called Margaret Campbell. The Bard presented Mary with this two volume Bible, which some believe may have equated to a form of marriage vow. Inside the volume is Robert Burns’s Masonic mark, the words ‘Robert Burns Mossgavill’ and some Bible verses in the poet’s handwriting. A lock of hair which is thought to be Highland Mary’s was also found in the volume.
However, the affair was destined to be short-lived. Soon after receiving the Bible, Margaret set out to Greenock to visit her family, and died shortly afterwards, possibly while giving birth to Burns’s child. In many roles, be it recording birthdays, forming the centrepiece of ritual, or constituting a heartfelt gift to a lover, the ‘Christian volume’ (The Cotter’s Saturday Night) really did constitute a theme in the life of Robert Burns, and features prominently in RBBM’s collections.