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A Fragment of History: Robert Burns’s Glossary Manuscript

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The second edition of Robert Burns’s poetry, known as the ‘Edinburgh Edition’ and published in 1787, contained a few differences from his first ‘Kilmarnock’ edition of 1786. For example, the Edinburgh Edition contained 22 more works, as well as a list of subscriber names and a 24-page glossary of Scots words. The collection at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum contains a fragment of the original manuscript of this glossary:

 Written by Burns himself in 1787, each entry has been subsequently scored out; this may have been as each was copied into a new, neater copy which itself has not survived. Words which Burns has glossed include ‘kaittly’, which means ‘to tickle’ or ‘ticklish’, ‘kebbuck’ which means ‘a (usually whole, homemade) cheese’ and ‘kelpies’, ‘mischievous Spirits that haunt fords at night’.

So why was Burns having to define words in his own native language to an audience of people who were also from Scotland?

The inclusion of the glossary is very indicative of the status of Scots language at the end of the 18th century. Since as far back as the Reformation in the mid-16th century, Scots had been subject to a great deal of anglicising influences – for example, English translations of the Bible, the removal of the royal court to London in 1603 and, of course, the Union of the Parliaments between Scotland and England in 1707. All of these influences meant that Scots had undergone a massive change in how it was written and also, we can probably assume, how it was spoken. Some Scottish people even went to elocution-style classes in order to eliminate ‘Scotticisms’ from their speech; Scots was seen as the language of the common people and therefore not fit for the ‘high’ subjects of politics, religion, culture or trade.

Burns was part of a tradition of writers who bucked this trend and started writing in Scots again. However, his Scottish audience were in need of a little assistance when it came to understanding some of the Scots words he used – hence, the glossary. Of course, Burns had fans out-with Scotland as well: before the 18th century was over, editions of his work had been published in Dublin, Belfast, London and New York. Audiences in each of these places would have needed plenty of help to understand Scots language as well.

Burns’s popularisation of Scots took inspiration from writers like Allan Ramsay (father of Allan Ramsay, the painter) and Robert Ferguson (Burns’s ‘elder brother in the muse’). Although the Scots was changed in some ways to make it more intelligible to non-Scots-speaking audiences – for example, inserting apostrophes where English versions of words would have other letters – it did mean speakers of other languages could understand and enjoy Scots literature and language.

The sheer stardom of Burns elevated people’s perception of it further, to the point where people across the globe sing ‘Auld Lang Syne’ – a traditional Scottish folk song with words, in Scots – at Hogmanay. Although there is still a long way to go until Scots is back at the same level of recognition it would’ve been at in the early 16th century, campaigns by the Scottish Government and the work of contemporary writers in Scots show its well on its way there. Without Burns, and his predecessors, the Scots language would definitely be in a very different position nowadays.

A convenient convention

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Our latest blog post was written by Visitor Services Assistant, Jim Andrews.

Access to rare books and manuscripts is generally only given by special arrangement to well qualified academics, who are only allowed to handle the originals very carefully while wearing clean white gloves. Today, however, digitised versions of rare documents can be viewed by anyone with a computer and access to the Internet. For Burns enthusiasts there is a digitised copy of an original Kilmarnock edition available in the digital gallery of the National Library of Scotland. It can be accessed on https://digital.nls.uk under the heading Literature & writers.

Seeing a copy of the original version of 1786 as printed by John Wilson can be a bit of a surprise, if it is your first time. It does not look quite right, not at all like any of the editions of Burns’s works you might find today. The reason for the unfamiliar appearance is the rather odd-looking spelling of some words: words containing the letter s. At the time of printing there were two versions of that letter in common use: a long one and a short one. The short one is the only one in use today: the long one looks confusingly like the letter f with a bit missing (the bar across the middle). The line Wee, ſleekit, cowran, tim’rous beaſtie  shows how it was generally used. It appears at the beginning and in the middle of a word, but the short s is always used at the end of a word. That is a rough guide: there were some exceptions.

The disappearance of the long s in English was a gradual process that started during Burns’s lifetime towards the end of the 18th century. Between 1800 and 1820 it was well on its way out, and by the middle of the 19th century it had gone. According to an article about the long s in Wikipedia, you can use it to date early editions of Burns published in the 1780s and 1790s that may have lost their title page and year of publication. In these you will find the long s, but not in any of the 2,000 plus editions published after 1800.

In many countries spelling is controlled by government-sponsored organisations that determine what is correct and, from time to time, change their minds and alter or revise what is correct. English spelling has never endured any such official interference, but that is not to say it has not changed. Changes in English spelling have been brought about by the printing and publishing industry: a convenient convention that seems to work quite well. There is a story that the disappearance of the long s in English may have been set in motion in 1791 by the printer and publisher John Bell.  It may be fanciful, but they say he dropped the long s because he did not like how it looked in his edition of Shakespeare’s plays.

Writing on the glass

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The second of our guest blog posts from students at the University of Glasgow focusses on Burns’s habit of engraving poetry into glass windows… and the potential parallels with how we use social media today!

We all have things we want to say, whether they be in public or private. Robert Burns, a poet known for his way with words, was not without this urgency to express what he felt was important to him. Often saying them in a manner that was not altogether lawful, one of Burns’s tendencies was to engrave windows with his own words, both in public and private places, as a means of expressing himself. Though it is not as common for people to carve their thoughts into nearby windows today, we still have the same urge to express our views. However, for our generation the ‘windows’ are the windows of the internet, through which a large portion of society can easily express their views from a distance. Through these expressions , projected on a significantly more public level, it is questionable what, in both Burns’s case and ours, gives our words their worth.

Diamon Cutter
Robert Burns’s diamond cutter, which he used to carve poems into glass.

Three window panes featuring Burns poems were found in the Globe Inn in Dumfries, which became one of Burns’s favourite places to drink. The verses, found in one of the upstairs lodging rooms, include him expressing his views on the worth of sex and war, the final line of one poem reading: ‘I’m better pleased to make one more, | Than be the death of twenty.’ Though there was a social risk in him saying these controversial things, which likely went against society’s conventional views, there was also a physical risk of vandalizing other people’s property, meaning that the outcome of such an expression could have had lawful repercussions. So for Burns the risks were not only community-based, in endangering his reputation, but also legal. With this considered, it is clear that these words were of great worth to Burns by the risks he took in ensuring their perpetuity. He is not just writing these words to be heard, but writing them to be remembered.

To align this with the modern means we have of expressing oneself through social media, we are faced with some similar risks. In the action of speaking out today, we are faced with more social risks: our anxiety is more concerned with how many likes/retweets/shares we get. We want people to know the things that we have to say. Because of this, it often seems as if our words only gain value, rather than having value in the first instance. Through using social media as a tool to express ourselves, we are not only putting ourselves out there but also, and perhaps more importantly, seeking a response from them. Unlike Burns’s expressions engraved on window panes, we are more concerned with who likes what we have to say than what we are actually saying.

Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, Alloway.
A pane of glass engraved by Robert Burns

‘Sound be his sleep and blythe his morn,
That never did a lassie wrang;
Who poverty ne’er held in scorn,
For misery ever tholed a pang.’

I don’t know what motivated Burns to engrave those windows, and I don’t know why people post what they post on social media, but from these comparisons it is clear that expression in society has shifted. The internet is at our fingertips today, and is as permeant as a pane of glass. However, as I write more words of my own onto the glass of the internet, I wonder how we would use our words if all the ‘expressions’ we engrave on the ‘walls’ of social media, were instead inscribed on the windows of our own homes. How then would you value what you had to say, if it not only altered your view to the outside world, but also altered the world’s view of you?

By Kathryn Thomson