Burns, and the commemorations in his name, entrenched what might suitably be described as a memory community, and one effective in maintaining links globally. The Burns centenary celebrations held in 1896, honouring the poet’s death on 21 July, serve as a useful case study. Managed by various committees in connection with the Dumfries Burns Club and the Burns Federation, the centenary event organisers were keen to involve members from overseas to do honour to Burns.
I recently came across this cup and saucer at the Writers Museum. It originally belonged to Wilhelmina Alexander, or “The Bonnie Lass o’Ballochmyle”.
The Bonnie Lass o’ Ballochmyle was Wilhelmina Alexander (1753-1843) who was a sister of the laird of Ballochmyle, on the banks of the River Ayr. Shortly after the successful publication of the Kilmarnock edition of his poems, Burns was walking by the banks of Ayr when he spotted Wilhelmina Alexander, the sister of the landowner.
He was deeply impressed and penned a poem ‘The Bony Lass O’ Ballochmyle’ which he sent to her with an effusive covering note. She did not acknowledge it; not unsurprisingly perhaps, in view of the intimacy of his sentiments (and the implication that she would have reciprocated them). But over the decades, as Burns’s legend grew, Wilhelmina would not be parted from the now precious manuscript. She died, a spinster, in Glasgow in 1843.
This weeks fascinating object comes courtesy of the Writers Museum in Edinburgh. Yes, that’s right, it’s a sword once owned by the bard himself. He used this swordstick in the course of his duties as an exciseman.
Excise was a tax similar to V.A.T. but collected at the point of manufacture or import rather than at the point of sale. A wide range of goods was liable for it, mostly notably silk, tobacco and spirits. Burns as a gauger had to calculate and collect the tax due. Thus in addition to improving a run down farm he had to travel over 200 miles per week on horseback collecting excise duties and complete the necessary bookwork during his evenings. For this he received £50 per year plus £50 for every smuggler arrested and half of any goods seized.
Although he had two full-time jobs and his health was not good he found time to write many songs. The long hours on horseback allowed him to work over verses.
Fortunately in July 1790 he was transferred to the Dumfries Third (or Tobacco) Division which reduced his weekly mileage. He was good at his job and popular with his superiors. His standard of living on the farm was above average and he could employ farmworkers to help him with the improvements.
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A new initiative to bring Scotland’s heritage to the widest possible audience using Soundslides has recently been launched by the National Trust for Scotland. You can view the Soundslide The Bard’s Tale on Robert Burns by former curator of the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum David Hopes below:
A total of twenty Stories are told using a mixture of sound-recording, photography, video and special effects. Each story will be told by Trust staff, enthusiasts or volunteers who work with the National Trust for Scotland. They aim to give an insight into the secret stories of Scotland – the behind the scenes activities that happen on a daily basis but which the visitor might not come into direct contact with. View The Making of Scotland’s Stories below to find out more.
You can view all the stories here.
Two of the strangest objects that I’ve come across in this project are shown below:
They are of course characters that appear in Robert Burns’ poem “Tam O’Shanter”. The central characters of the poem were Tam o’ Shanter and Souter Johnnie (The images themselves don’t convey just how large and imposing they are in person!). They were both readily identified by residents of Kirkoswald as neighbours Douglas Graham and John Davidson. The two were old friends who were well known for socialising enthusiastically in Ayr on market days, often returning home late.
Souter Johnnie was based on a local Kirkoswald man, John Davidson, who was a cobbler. “Souter” is an old Scots word for Cobbler. His cottage was built in 1785 and is situated on Main Street, Kirkoswald and he lived and worked there until his death in 1806. His descendants owned the cottage until 1920 when it was handed over to a local committee, formed by the parish minister and Burns scholar, the Reverend James Muir. It was taken over by the National Trust of Scotland in 1932 and was furnished in the style of Burns’ time. It had a room set aside as a shoemaker’s workplace, and has many family and local relics on display.
In this weeks Friday Gem, we have a very special treat courtesy of the National Library of Scotland (NLS). ”The Battle of Sherramuir” is a song written by Robert Burns about the Battle of Sheriffmuir which occurred in Scotland in 1715 at the height of the Jacobite rebellion in England and Scotland. It was written when Burns toured the Highlands in 1787 and first published in The Scots Musical Museum, 1790.
The Battle of Sheriff-muir was so closely fought that it was difficult to establish who, if anyone, had actually won, and so Robert Burns writes from the point of view of two shepherds who, despite having watched the same series of events, each form a wildly different interpretation of what they have seen.
One of Burns’s speakers believes that ‘The red-coat lads wi’ black cockauds’ routed the rebels, painting a fearful picture of how they ‘hough’d the Clans like nine-pin kyles’. The other is just as convinced that the Jacobites ‘did pursue / The horse-men back to Forth, man’ with the eventual result that ‘… mony a huntit, poor Red-coat / For fear amaist did swarf, man’. A contemporary parallel might be the varying accounts of two opposing football fans on a game they have both just watched.
The song was adapted by Robert Burns from a broadside by John Barclay entitled ‘Dialogue between Will Lick-Ladle and Tom Clean-Cogue’. Burns wrote it around 1790, during or after his tour of the Highlands which inspired his interest in Jacobite history. The manuscript acquired by NLS dates from after the poem’s initial publication in Volume III of the ‘Scots Musical Museum’ in 1790 and shows changes which were made for the 1800 edition of the ‘Works of Robert Burns’ by his editor, James Currie.
The manuscript has been in private hands for many years in Switzerland and the United States, and NLS Director of Collections and Research Cate Newton said: ‘We are delighted to acquire the only known manuscript of ‘The Battle of Sherra-moor’. The poem itself is of interest because of its unusual form and the historical subject matter, and this manuscript includes textual variants from the published versions of the poem. It also throws light on Burns’s views on the Jacobites, an aspect of his life which remains the subject of considerable debate and interest.
Here is the full text of the song:
“O cam ye here the fight to shun,
Or herd the sheep wi’ me, man?
Or were ye at the Sherra-moor,
Or did the battle see, man?”
I saw the battle, sair and teugh,
And reekin-red ran mony a sheugh ;
My heart, for fear, gaed sough for sough,
To hear the thuds, and see the cluds
O’ clans frae woods, in tartan duds,
Wha glaum’d at kingdoms three, man.
But had ye seen the philibegs,The red-coat lads, wi’ black cockauds,
To meet them were na slaw, man;
They rush’d and push’d, and blude outgush’d
And mony a bouk did fa’, man:
The great Argyle led on his files,
I wat they glanc’d for twenty miles;
They hough’d the clans like nine-pin kyles,
They hack’d and hash’d, while braid-swords, clash’d,
And thro’ they dash’d, and hew’d and smash’d,
Till fey men di’d awa, man.
And skyrin tartan trews, man;
When in the teeth they dar’d our Whigs,
And covenant True-blues, man:
In lines extended lang and large,
When baiginets o’erpower’d the targe,
And thousands hasten’d to the charge;
Wi’ Highland wrath they frae the sheath
Drew blades o’ death, till, out o’ breath,
They fled like frighted dows, man!
“O how deil, Tam, can that be true?
The chase gaed frae the north, man;
I saw mysel, they did pursue,
The horsemen back to Forth, man;
And at Dunblane, in my ain sight,
They took the brig wi’ a’ their might,
And straught to Stirling wing’d their flight;
But, cursed lot! the gates were shut;
And mony a huntit poor red-coat,
For fear amaist did swarf, man!”
My sister Kate cam up the gate
Wi’ crowdie unto me, man;
She swoor she saw some rebels run
To Perth and to Dundee, man;
Their left-hand general had nae skill;
The Angus lads had nae gude will
That day their neibors’ blude to spill;
For fear, for foes, that they should lose
Their cogs o’ brose ; they scar’d at blows,
And hameward fast did flee, man.
Amang the Highland clans, man!
I fear my Lord Panmure is slain,
Or fallen in Whiggish hands, man,
Now wad ye sing this double flight,
Some fell for wrang, and some for right;
But mony bade the world gude-night ;
Then ye may tell, how pell and mell,
By red claymores, and muskets knell,
Wi′ dying yell, the Tories fell,
And Whigs to hell did flee, man.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 UK: Scotland License.
National Burns Collection partner Rozelle House Galleries is holding a number of events to celebrate Robert Burns at the Burns an’ a’ that Festival in his home region of Ayrshire.
The festival, running from Wednesday 30 May – Sunday 3 June, is in its 11th year and pays tribute to Scotland’s National Bard over six days with an eclectic range of events held at a clutch of venues around Ayr town centre, including Ayr Town Hall, Wellington Square Gardens and the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway.
Enjoy a wide variety of live music events from traditional Scottish and classical to folk and big-name contemporary artists. The festival programme also includes many literary and poetry events as well as some great food and drink and fascinating exhibitions showcasing Scotland’s talented artists. Some of the famous names that have headlined in the past include Katherine Jenkins, Jools Holland, Frankie Boyle and Status Quo.
Find out more information on the Festival here.
When members of the Dunedin Burns Club and its friends gathered in 1906 to celebrate the 147th birthday of Scotland's national bard, they did so 'with mirth and song and joyous acclamations'. The Club's choir and the Dunedin Pipe Band enlivened the proceedings, offering musical entertainment between the many toasts and speeches that were delivered. The key address of the evening was made by…
Following on from this weeks feature on Broughton House, today’s Friday Gem feature some exquisite etchings of scenes from poems of Robert Burns. Done by the Ayrshire artist Robert Bryden, they have been digitised from a series of signed proof sheets of etchings entitled Some Etchings from Burns. The accompanying texts offer commentary and historical background on the Bryden’s illustrations, and the portrait of Burns after the original by Alexander Nasmyth. These sheets may be proof copies for a limited edition of 50 copies to commemorate the centenary of Burns’s death.
The eve of the festival of All Saints, on the last night of October, which goes under the name of Hallowe’en, is now little observed among us. Still, in some country districts, a few of the old practices are kept up. Nuts are burned, and apples “dookit” for, and mashed potatoes eaten in the hope of securing the ring, the thimble, or the threepenny-bit, which foretell the future. Children, too, wander abroad with masks on their faces to counterfeit bogles, while others go about with turnip-lanterns to scare the bogles away. But the old order which believed in these things is fast giving place to the new, which believes in none of them. It was all the more fortunate, therefore, that Burns embalmed the superstitions as well as the fun and frolie of Hallowe’en, before these had for even been forgotten.
“Some merry, friendly, country-folks
Together did convene
To burn their nits, and pou their stocks,
An’ haud their Hallowe’en.”
The Jolly Beggars
This scene takes us to Mauchline, where Poosie-Nancy kept her famous lodging-house. The poem of course introduces us to very low life indeed, but it is drawn with the utmost fidelity, and, besides, there is an elemnt of Bohemianism in most of us which makes us feel considerably at home even in Poosie-Nancy’s howff. In this wonderful cantata, as Carlyle says, “the blanket of the night is drawn asunder for a moment, and in full, ruddy, flaming light, these rough tatterdemalions are seen i their boisterous revel. Every face is a portrait; the strong pulse of life vindicates its right to gladness even here; and we feel that some other night in new combinations, they will again meet and wring from Fate another hour of wassail and good cheer.” Burns thought so little at the time of this poem that he left only one manuscript copy, but this was luckily preserved.
“Ae nicht at e’en, a merry core
O’ randie, gangrel bodies,
In Poosie-Nancy’s geld the splore,
To drink their orra duddies.”
This scene belongs to Burn’s Tarbolton days. In the Freemasons’ Club of that village, of which Burns was a member, there was enrolled likewise one John Wilson, village teacher, who had taken it upon him to eke out a scanty livelihood by selling a few groceries and drugs, and giving a little medical advice in a quiet way. No harm of course in all this if done judiciously; but, ochainie! Burns and Wilson quarrelled one night and Robin, in his mad way, resolved to hit the dominie off in verse, or, as he said to the Dumfries lads afterwards, “to hing him up in sang like an auld potato bogle.” And the result was this terribly characteristic lampoon on the possibly bumptious, but otherwise decent schoolmaster. John Wilson, we are told, was “a dumpy elderly gentleman,” as here represented.
“Ye ken Jock Hornbook i’ the clachan,
Deil mak’ his king’s-hood in a spleuchan!
He’s grown sae weel acquaint wi’ *Buchan
An’ ither chaps,
The weans haud out their fingers laughin’,
And poul my hips.”
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Tucked away in Kirkcudbright is the hidden treasure of Broughton House. Owned and managed by the National Trust for Scotland, it contains a fantastic collection of art, ceramics, furniture and literature. The magnificent 18th century town house was previously owed by the ‘The Glasgow Boy’ Edward Atkinson Hornel. Also contained within its archive, is a treasure-trove of little known Robert Burns material.
A big part of my project involves bringing together the often myriad of collections relating to Robert Burns around Scotland. The redevelopment of the National Burns Collection website (more news soon!) will play a bit part in this, but raising awareness of collections such as those held by Broughton House also contributes to the uniqueness of the collections held by the NBC. Property Manager Sally Eastgate was kind enough to allow access to these underappreciated collections. Together we picked out a number of exciting items which will hopefully wet the appetite of Burnsians across the world.
The Burns collection held by Broughton House is currently being painstakingly catalogued. Select items from the collection will also be available to view on the online catalogue at burnsscotland.com. If you are interested in finding out more about the Robert Burns items held at Broughton House, then please do get in touch.