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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.”

Dr Hornbook

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.”