Today is the first day of Book Week Scotland, a national celebration of books and reading which takes place every year in November. Nearly everyone can say that they’ve been inspired by books at some point in their life, and Robert Burns was no exception. Thanks to William Burnes’s belief that his children should receive an education, and the diligence of the family’s tutor John Murdoch, Burns could both read and write. As a result of this, he was able to immerse himself in the various authors and poets who inspired him to become Scotland’s National Bard.
Robert himself, in an autobiographical letter to Dr John Moore, talks of two books that influenced him during his childhood:
‘The two first books I ever read in private, and which gave me more pleasure than any two books I ever read again, were, the life of Hannibal and the history of Sir William Wallace. Hannibal gave my young ideas such a turn that I used to strut in raptures up and down after the recruiting drum and bagpipe, and wish myself tall enough to be a soldier; while the story of Wallace poured a Scottish prejudice in my veins which will boil along there till the flood-gates of life shut in eternal rest.’
Evidence of that ‘Scottish prejudice’ can be seen in poems such as Scots Wha Hae, and Burns wrote many poems on the subject of war throughout his life, evidencing the impact both of these works had on him.
Gilbert – Robert’s brother – recalls one particular book which affected the future poet considerably, which was actually bought in error by their Uncle: ‘Luckily, in place of The Complete Letter-Writer, he got by mistake a small collection of letters by the most eminent writers… This book was to Robert of the greatest consequence. It inspired him with a strong desire to excel in letter-writing, while it furnished him with models by some of the first writers in our language’.
Robert wrote a great deal of letters throughout his life to his friends and family, and modelled many of them on letters that he read in this volume.
Burns read and was influenced by many more authors and poets throughout his life. He quoted Alexander Pope frequently, particularly in his early letters; described Henry MacKenzie’s ‘Man of Feeling’ as ‘the book I prize next to the Bible’; and perhaps most importantly was influenced by earlier vernacular poets such as Alan Ramsay and Robert Fergusson to write his poetry in Scots rather than English. There was however one book, or rather play, that certainly did not take his fancy – Titus Andronicus by Shakespeare. As he was about to leave for Dumfries, John Murdoch presented the Burns family with the play as a gift, but it proved too violent for the young Robert, who threatened to burn it if his tutor did not take it away again. Not all books are for everyone!
However you’re celebrating Scottish Book Week, whether it’s by picking up a new book for the first time, or by going back to an old favourite, we hope you enjoy wherever it may take you, and we hope it inspires you as much as Robert’s books inspired him!
A small and unassuming exhibit in our museum which people may miss on the way round is this English silver penny.
Minted in Canterbury in the 13th century and only discovered in 2009, this “long cross” coin is from the reign of Edward I which dates it between 1239 and 1300. A “long cross” coin has the design stamped all the way across the face, designed to act as an anti-counterfeit measure. Many coins were clipped – an illegal practice performed by unscrupulous individuals, who would melt down the resulting slivers of metal and profit by selling the silver.
One of Burns’ favourite books was “The History of Sir William Wallace” by Hamilton of Gilbertfield, which he described as follows:
“The two first books I ever read in private, and which gave me more pleasure than any two books I ever read again, were the life of Hannibal and the history of Sir William Wallace… The story of Wallace poured a Scottish prejudice in my veins which will boil along there till the flood-gates of life shut in eternal rest”.
When the Burns family were living at Lochlie farm, Robert would go walking in Leglen wood, a favourite hiding place of Wallace. “I chose a fine summer Sunday, the only day of the week in my power, and walked half a dozen of miles to pay my respects to the “Leglen Wood”, with as much devout enthusiasm as ever pilgrim did to Loreto; and as I explored every den and dell where I could suppose my heroic Countryman to have sheltered, I recollect (for even then I was a Rhymer) that my heart glowed with a wish to be able to make a Song on him, equal to his merits.” That song turned out to be “Scots Wha Hae” and Wallace is mentioned in a footnote to “The Vision” as well, in case the reader misunderstands who Burns means by “His country’s saviour”!
Edward I was known as “The Hammer of the Scots” and Wallace spent his life fighting against Edward’s forces. One of Wallace’s most famous rebellious acts occurred in Ayr in 1297. In revenge for the slaughter by the English of Wallace’s uncle, Wallace and his followers burned the Barns of Ayr, the quarters for the English soldiers. Maybe our coin was dropped by a fleeing soldier, where it lay for 700 years until a worker unearthed it while digging the foundations for the new museum building. I wonder what else is under there…