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Mary Queen of Scots “From Castle to Palace”

18th February 2019 by Scran | 0 comments

City of Edinburgh, Canongate on the Roy Map, 1747-55

Mary Queen of Scots (1542-87)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This guest post comes from Sally Chalmers, the HES Learning Officer at Edinburgh Castle who has used Scran records to tell the story “From Castle to Palace”.

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Mary, Queen of Scots, finally returned home to Scotland in August 1561. After years of living in France she was used to elaborate celebrations, so the arrival back to a haar and the bustle of Leith docks may have been disappointing. Her unusually fast crossing resulted in a lacklustre welcome.  A few weeks later however, Mary was ready to make her real entrance to Scotland. In September 1561, she led a magnificent procession down the Royal Mile, beginning at Edinburgh Castle she proceeded to her residence at the Palace of Holyroodhouse.

Castell of Edenborrowgh 1649 – features gallows where witches were executed

Today, school visitors to Edinburgh Castle can walk in Mary’s footsteps using a trail developed by HES in partnership with Royal Collections Trust. The trail follows the length of the Royal Mile highlighting sites and landmarks which would have been there in 1561.

We are invited to cast our minds back and imagine walking the route by Mary’s side as she took in her old home and her new country.

 

 

Erected in 1912 following a suggestion by Patrick Geddes

Witches Well at the Royal Mile end of the Esplanade marks the site where over 300 witches and warlocks, mostly women, were victims of burnings from 1479 to 1722. Though it wasn’t there in Mary’s time, her son James took particular interest in witches, even questioning suspects of witchcraft himself during the infamous North Berwick witch trials.

The plaque inscription reads “This fountain, designed by John Duncan, RSA is near the site on which many witches were burned at the stake. The wicked head and the serene head signify that some used their exceptional knowledge for evil purposes, while others were misunderstood and wished their kind nothing but good. The serpent has the dual significance of evil and wisdom. The foxglove spray further emphasise the dual purpose of common objects.”

 

Gladstone’s Land on the Lawnmarket C19th engraving

Gladstone’s Land  now cared for by the National Trust, in Mary’s time this building would have belonged to a wealthy merchant. The merchant and other wealthy tenants would have lived in grand apartments on the upper floors, while the lower floors would be used as a shop and to house smellier residents, pigs! Today, you can still visit a shop but there are no longer any pigs.

 

 

 

 

 

Riddle’s Court

Riddle’s Court was built in the 1590s by merchant, Bailie John McMorran, reputedly the richest merchant of his time. It sits just off the main street away from the noise and smells of the crowded tenements of the Royal Mile. Aristocratic people would rent rooms here and use it as a meeting space. Mary’s son, James VI, attended a lavish banquet here.

It is named after George Riddell, who rebuilt it in 1726.

 

 

 

 

St Giles & the Old Tollbooth

Outside St.Giles’ Cathedral you can find a heart shape on the cobbles. In Mary’s time this was the site of the tollbooth – a court & prison. The heart marks the spot of the cell where prisoners would await execution.

Walking around the right side of the cathedral to the car park you’ll see a plaque in parking spot 23. This marks the grave of John Knox, a famous Scottish minister and one of Mary’s most vocal opponents.

 

The Mercat Cross is associated with state proclamations inc. Darnley 1565

The Mercat Cross showed that Edinburgh had the right to hold a regular market. It was also a site of public executions and formal proclamations (like the announcement of a new Queen). In Mary’s time, the Cross stood a little further down the street. You may be able to spot the cobbles that mark its previous position.

 

 

 

 

 

Luckenbooths were timber fronted, 4 storeyed tenements

Site of the Luckenbooths In Mary’s time, tall tenement buildings stood beside St Giles. They were known as luckenbooths because on the ground level they had locked booths which housed shops. Imagine what sights and smells Mary must have experienced as she travelled past the bustling Luckenbooths.

 

 

Etching of John Knox House & Mowbray House by Frank W Simon c1885

John Knox House is now home to the Scottish Storytelling Centre, the building known as John Knox’s house is one of the oldest houses in Edinburgh. It is believed that John Knox did live there for a while but it was also home to James Mossman, Mary’s goldsmith and keeper of the royal mint. Mary, Knox and Mossman feature on the wooden panels on the front of the house.

 

 

 

 

World’s End Close photographed early 1960s

The World’s End Walking along the mile you may spot a pub called the World’s End. This area was known as World’s End as it separated the Canongate (the lower Royal Mile) from the original city of Edinburgh. In Mary’s time, there would have been a gatehouse here. Sometime the gate here was used to display the heads of executed prisoners, perhaps there were some on display when Mary passed by, not knowing they foreshadowed her own eventual fate…

 

Originally three burgage tenements converted into one house in 1517

Today Huntly House is home the Museum of Edinburgh, it is typical of the type of housing in Mary’s time. It would have originally been made of wood but had to be rebuilt after being damaged during the Rough Wooing.

 

 

 

Murder of David Rizzio painting by Sir William Allan c.1833

Canongate Kirk & David Rizzio’s Grave  To the right of Canongate Kirk, you will find the plaque said to mark David Rizzio’s grave. Rizzio had been secretary to Mary and close confidant but he was brutally murdered in front of Mary, by a band of nobles including Mary’s own husband in 1566.

 

White Horse Close lies to the bottom of the Canongate

White Horse Close was the site of the royal mews or stable, where Mary kept her prized white horse, hence its name. Mary loved sports like riding and hunting, so her horses were important to her. The close became rather decayed and it was restored as modern housing in the 1960s.

 

 

 

 

Engraving by James Gordon 1649

Finally, we arrive at Mary’s destination The Royal Palace of holy rood hous.

This view shows Holyrood as it would have appeared at the time of Mary, Queen of Scots and before the fire during Cromwell’s occupation in 1650 when much of the building was destroyed.

Here we conclude the Castle to Palace trail.

Images © The British Library, Historic Environment Scotland, National Museums Scotland, National Galleries of Scotland,  City of Edinburgh Libraries & Alan Daiches  | Licensor Scran

Up Helly Aa

29th January 2019 by Scran | 0 comments

Up Helly Aa celebrations take place on the last Tuesday of January . They are one of the United Kingdom’s most spectacular winter festivals. The festival, centred in Lerwick on the Shetland Islands, takes a year to plan and spans two days.

Roots

The modern version of Up Helly Aa – meaning “end of holidays” – has its origins around 1815 when young men returned from the Napoleonic war where they had experienced the banging of drums, fires, and guns. Out of such excitement came a desire to create an event which would enliven the long dark winter months. Early activities, particularly tar-barrelling where lit barrels of tar were pulled along the narrow street towards rival gangs, gave way to a more organised festival and by the 1950s the modern Up Helly Aa had evolved.02090271 The Festival is based around both the legends of Norse mythology and the very real links between Shetland and Norway which go back more than 1000 years. In the old Norse calendar Up Helly Aa was the last day of the winter festival and was celebrated on the 24th day following Yule. Shetland’s Up Helly Aa is held on the last Tuesday in January and concludes with the burning of a replica Viking long boat.

Guizers & the Jarl

02102225Each year, a Guizer Jarl or leader is nominated and the whole community work for some considerable time building and naming a new galley. Costumes and 1000 torches are prepared and arrangements are made for a series of parties. The Guizer Jarl (Head Viking) will have nominated himself to the Up Helly Aa committee 15 years in advance. It is therefore a long wait to fulfil the role. Preparation includes the selection of a squad of around 50 men who will form the squad. Direct debits will be set up over 15 years to pay for each costly suit (around £1,000) and other event costs. Being part of the Jarl squad is an honour and men spend long hours preparing their costumes and rehearsing.

 

Blazing Long Ship

02498940On Up Helly Aa morning the Jarl Squad meets, accompanied by the local brass band. All march to the Lerwick Legion where they receive their first dram of the day. Waiting outside are crowds of school children, locals and tourists – and, of course, the new galley, especially named for the day. The Guizer Jarl – wearing traditional Viking apparel – hoists his axe aloft aboard his long ship and calls on his Jarl Squad to begin the Festival. The Squad then processes through the town centre led by the Jarl. They carry banners and weapons as though on a raid.

The Proclamation

At this stage they deliver their “Proclamation” to the town – a light hearted document – which is displayed at the Market Cross in the town centre. Many folk stop to read and have a laugh as they read it. The proclamation (or bill) is erected as a large billboard which has been skilfully painted by local artists. The text includes local political topics and personal jokes. The Jarl squad spend the rest of the day visiting schools, hospitals, houses and the local museum.

The Last Rites

At 7.30pm, the leaders use crimson flares, or maroons, to signal the lighting of the torches and the start of the procession. Torches are wooden stakes, the size of fence posts, dipped in a combustable resin. They resemble giant matches. Lit by torchlight, the procession makes its way along King Erik Street and the Galley makes her last journey to the special burning site. Guizers, the Jarl’s men, wear specially made costumes inspired by mythological creatures such as serpents, double-headed eagles, and dragons. At the “Last Rites”, the procession reaches the burning site. The Galley is positioned as a centrepiece and the glowing torches are thrown into the boat. The flames engulf the galley reminiscent of a Viking leader’s burial. Only then are the feasting halls opened to receive squads. Those not involved in the procession have prepared food and set up parties. As dictated by tradition, the squad tour as many halls as they can. And the festivities last till morning.

For more pictures of Up Helly Aa including some stunning Hulton Getty photographs visit Scran.

Images © The Scotsman Publications Ltd., National Museums Scotland, Newsquest (Herald & Times), Scottish Media Group | Licensor Scran 

Burns Supper

16th January 2019 by Scran | 0 comments

Around January 25th, Burns’ Clubs & other lovers of the poet, arrange Burns Suppers. Burns has always attracted massive support.

01980093This painting, by an unknown artist, depicts the 1844 Burns Festival. The procession, which started in Ayr, is shown passing over the new and old brigs o’ Doon and entering the festival site at the Burns Monument, where Burns’ three surviving sons were guests of honour. The event attracted over 100,000 participants and involved the construction of a banqueting marquee for 1400 invited guests, seen to the right of the picture. A platform was constructed in front of the Monument to enable the guests of honour to be seen by the crowds and to deliver the speeches.

History

01740151

Newton Stewart Burns’ Club dinner, 1904

Greenock enthusiasts founded the earliest Burns’ Club on 21st July 1801 and had their first supper on 29th January 1802; which at that time was mistakenly thought to be the anniversary of his birth. Following close on their heels were clubs at Paisley, Kilmarnock and Dunfermline. Throughout the century more and more clubs sprang up either in Scotland or wherever Scots met. One of the earliest in England was the Bristol Caledonian Society founded in 1820. By 1885 there were so many Burns’ Clubs in existence that an international Federation of clubs was instituted.

Format of Burns’ Supper

Welcome & Grace 00981150 (1)

A few welcoming words start the evening & the meal commences with the Selkirk Grace:

Some hae meat and cannot eat.
Some cannot eat that want it:
But we hae meat and we can eat,
Sae let the Lord be thankit.

Piping in the Haggis – Before the Haggis appears, one should hear the skirl of the bagpipes and the company should stand to receive the haggis. A piper then leads the chef, carrying the haggis to the top table. The guests accompany this with a slow rhythmic hand clap.

06710548Address to the Haggis – The chairman or invited guest then recites Burns’ famous poem To A Haggis. When he reaches the line “an cut you up wi’ ready slight”, he cuts open the haggis with a sharp knife. The company applauds the speaker and then are asked by their host to stand and toast the haggis with a glass of whisky. The meal is then served.

The Immortal Memory – An invited guest is asked to give a short speech on Burns. There are many different types of Immortal Memory speeches, from light-hearted to literary, but the aim is the same – to outline the greatness and relevance of the poet today.

Toast to the Lasses – The main speech is followed by a more light-hearted address to the women in the audience. Originally this was a thank you to the ladies for preparing the food and a time to toast the ‘lasses’ in Burns’ life. The tone should be witty, but never offensive, and should always end on a friendly note.

Response – The turn of the lasses to detail men’s foibles. Again, this should be humorous but not insulting.

Poems & Songs

Once the speeches are complete the evening continues with songs and poems. The evening will culminate with the company standing, linking hands and singing Auld Lang Syne to conclude the programme.

Food Served

06320052The food varies according to custom and locality but, in general, the meal should feature a Haggis. The usual accompaniment is Tatties [potatoes] and Neeps [turnips or swedes]. Other components might include a soup such as Scotch Broth or Cock-a- Leekie and there may be Atholl Brose or cheese and bannocks [oatcakes].

Images © Trustees of Burns Monument & Burns Cottage, National Museums Scotland, Whithorn Photographic Group  & Scottish Life Archive and an Unknown | Licensor Scran

New Year & Hogmanay

28th December 2018 by Scran | 0 comments


06712115The celebration of the New Year is one of the oldest of all holidays. It was first observed in ancient Babylon about 4000 years ago when the beginning of spring was the logical time to start a new year. The Babylonian new year celebration lasted for eleven days.

The Roman senate, in 153 BC, declared January 1 to be the beginning of the new year. But it wasn’t until Julius Caesar, in 46 BC, established what has come to be known as the Julian Calendar that the months became synchronised with the seasons and the sun. The early Catholic Church condemned the festivities as paganism. But as Christianity became more widespread, the early church began aligning its own religious observances with many pagan celebrations. During the Middle Ages, the Church remained opposed to celebrating New Year. However, it remained an important festival linked with mid-winter.

Traditions

05015276Traditions of the season include the making of New Year’s resolutions which dates back to the early Babylonians. Using a baby to signify the new year was begun in Greece around 600 BC. They celebrated their god of wine, Dionysus, by parading a baby in a basket, representing the god’s rebirth as the spirit of fertility. Luck in the New Year – traditionally, it was thought that one could affect luck throughout the coming year. For that reason, it become common to feast and make merry into the first moment of the new year – hence New Year’s Eve. This feast took place with family and friends.

Scotland & New Year

For many English speaking countries, Scotland has come to represent a focus for New Year with its own particular Hogmanay [New Year’s Eve] and New Year’s Day celebrations which weave pagan and winter themes together. In Scotland, for many years, the official winter holiday was New Year’s Day and not Christmas Day. Over the last fifty years, Christmas has become more equalised in regard. There is a particular vocabulary to a Scottish New Year:09053042

Whisky is seen as an important part of the festival where one sips a dram [a measure of whisky] and proposes toasts to the New Year – maintaining the association with wishing a lucky year.

First Footing is very important in Scotland. This is where the first person to set foot in your house, after the midnight bells chime, should bring luck. It is particularly lucky if that visitor happens to be a tall dark-haired man. First Footers have to be treated generously but also should show their own generosity. All-in-all, it’s a great excuse for a party into the wee sma’ hours [early hours of the next morning].

Gifts should be carried by the first footer. Traditionally, they are expected to carry at least aHawf or half bottle of whisky. You may be invited to “have a wee hawf” – to take a glass of whisky with the first footer. In fact, this is expected – and in return, the first footer will drink from your bottle. First Footers used also to carry a lump of coal with them and this would be thrown on the fire with the wish that lang may yer lum reek [long may your chimney smoke]! One should also carry something to eat and, traditionally Black Bun – a rich cake full of currants and perhaps alcohol – was provided.

Good Spirits & Fellow Feeling are expected. All those who meet after the bells are expected to wish each other a Guid New Year; and to shake hands and kiss if they know each other.

First Footing Rulesimgzoom-image-0749-07491417

  • The first footer brings all the luck, good or bad, for the year ahead.
  • They should be male, tall, dark and handsome.
  • They cannot be doctors, ministers or grave-diggers & cannot have eyebrows that meet in the middle!
  • They should come with drinks and food and should be merrily generous.
  • Such a first footer can claim a kiss from every woman. Woe betide the house that does not have such a First Footer – because they are heading for an unlucky year.

 

Auld Lang Syne

Many sing Auld Lang Syne at New Year – probably best sung at parting. At least partially written by Robert Burns in the 1700s, it was first published in 1796 after Burns’s death. It is old Scottish tune and literally means “old long since,” or simply, “the old times.” It mixes the perennial constants of Scotland at New Year – generosity, sentimentality and reminiscence with those you love and remember. Here are the most commonly sung verses:

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,02070078
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne?

CHORUS:
For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne,
We’ll tak a cup of kindness yet,
For auld lang syne!

And there’s a hand my trusty fiere,
And gie’s a hand o thine,
And we’ll tak a right guid-willie waught,
For auld lang syne.

A very Happy New Year to You from Scran

Images © The Scotsman, National Museums Scotland & Scottish Life Archive | Licensor Scran

MacFarlane Lang Biscuits

29th May 2018 by Scran | 0 comments

“Butter Bar Biscuits are really delightful – Try Them!”  Perhaps an unsubtle advertising slogan by today’s standards, but no doubt a success for the Macfarlane Lang & Co Biscuit Factory in Glasgow.

Beginning its life as a bread bakery as far back as the year 1817 in the Gallowgate by Mr James Lang, the premises then consisted of a small shop with bakery attached. Soon after the joining of Mr John Macfarlane, in 1860 the company found the need to move into larger premises in Calton. It was here that Macfarlane was joined by his two sons and it was soon decided to erect premises specially adapted to the trade. Opened in 1880, the large factory ensured the continuing prosperity of the firm. It was in 1885, that they decided to manufacture of biscuits as well.

At its extent, the Victoria Bread & Biscuit Works complex at 30 Wesleyan Street, Bridgeton, Glasgow covered an area of seven thousand square yards. A five-storeyed building plus attic block was built in 1895 to designs by J M Monro, architect. The bread and cake part of the business continued to operate on this site, and by 1967 was owned by the Milanda Bread Co Ltd. That bakery operated until 1974, but has since been demolished.

Meanwhile the Victoria Biscuit Works (Macfarlane Lang & Co Biscuit Factory) at 35 Clydeford Drive, Tollcross, Glasgow was built in the 1920s, to replace their first factory.

This one was laid out horizontally rather than vertically, very much in the style of the era. Behind a rather plain façade was a large area of workshops, housing bakery and finishing facilities. When the works was built the packing was all done manually. Amongst others, this is where the production of Rich Tea, Gypsy Cream and Cream cracker biscuits took place – ready for dispatch to all parts of the  world.

At the same time, owner John W. Macfarlane, purchased Villa ‘Norwood’ in 1920s Bearsden. The Biscuit business must have been booming.

In 1948 Macfarlane Lang & Co merged with McVitie & Price. Macfarlane Lang & Co were the largest of the Glasgow biscuit bakers. They were, by 1967, part of the United Biscuits group, an amalgamation of several firms put together by Canadian entrepreneur Gary Weston. The brand name has not survived.

 

Images © University of Strathclyde, National Library of Scotland, East Dunbartonshire Council, Scottish Motor Museum Trust & Historic Environment Scotland Licensor Scran

 

 

Beltane Festival & May Day

30th April 2018 by Scran | 0 comments

The term Beltane is thought to mean bright fire. The festival’s origins lie in Scotland’s distant past when people lived by herding animals. They marked the seasons with community celebrations. Beltane signified the transition from Spring to Summer.

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Before banks had holidays or even the advent of Christianity, there has been a festival held at the start of May to celebrate the first day of summer. Early agricultural peoples across Europe used seasonal indicators like the flowering hawthorn to mark the start of the summer in northern Europe. For the early farmers, summer was a time of warmth and plenty of food between the winter and before the hard harvest work, a great excuse for a party.

Paganism Plagiarism

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Minister conducting a May Day service, Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh

When the first Christians arrived in Britain to spread their faith, they used many of the existing customs as a foundation. Major Christian festivals like Christmas and Easter fall near important dates on the solar calendar like winter solstice and spring equinox. By incorporating familiar holidays and symbols, Christian missionaries could encourage piety without asking their converts to stop their fun or completely change their society. Even today, services are held at the top of Arthur’s Seat as the sun comes up over Edinburgh on May 1st. Images of the pagan symbol of rebirth and renewal, like the Green Man who is particularly associated with Beltane, have been included in Christian gravestones for centuries.

00999677

Green Man screaming in panic

Bring Back the Best Bits

This basic need for a holiday still holds true today. In our increasingly hectic world, people are becoming more curious about their ancient ancestors and customs. Revivals of pagan celebrations of the seasons are becoming popular, and sometimes spectacular events.

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Green Man in the Great Hall at Edinburgh Castle

In Edinburgh, a contemporary Beltane Fire Festival is held on Calton Hill on the evening before 1st May to mark the beginning of summer. This variant of the Beltane festival was started in 1988 by enthusiasts, with academic support from the School of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh. Since then it has become an immensely popular event in the city’s calendar, drawing on a variety of historical, mythological and literary influences including the Green Man and the May Queen.

Beltane celebrates fertility and the earth’s ripe abundance. Various rites were performed to ensure the fertility of nature and the fires were believed to purify and protect against plague and epidemics. Modern day Beltane festivals are mainly for public entertainment.

The Victorians

06950248

Peebles First Beltane Queen – Friday 23rd June 1899

The Victorians also realised the value of a celebration for the whole community and began ‘reviving’ local customs in towns across Britain, like the Riding of Marches in Peebles to define the town’s boundaries. Here the Beltane originally celebrated the advent of the Summer Solstice in May and in folklore was a Celtic festival devoted to Baal, the God of Fire.

The modern celebration, marking midsummer, is primarily a children’s festival and incorporates the Riding of the Marches. In 1899, the first Beltane Queen was crowned with all due pomp and ceremony, moving the celebration to mid June. The Peebles Beltane Festival continues into the 21st century bringing tourism to the town.

Images © Scottish Media Group, National Museums Scotland,  Beltane Fire Society & Gerry McCann, Historic Environment Scotland, Collection of Bert Robb & Eric Stevenson  Licensor Scran

The Scottish Life Archive on Scran

25th April 2017 by Scran | 0 comments

The Scottish Life Archive, based at the National Museum of Scotland, offers a unique insight into many aspects of Scottish history and heritage. It aims to collect, record and preserve documentary and illustrative evidence of Scotland’s material culture & social history.

8,685 records from this fascinating collection are also available via scran.ac.uk – for example, here you see Adam Cramond & Son’s cab office at Charles Street, Edinburgh, 1912.

This cab office just off George Square was quite a large business at around that time. Broughams were often hired by doctors. They were small closed carriages drawn by one horse. Miss I. M Cramond, who was a child at the beginning of the 20th century and a member of Adam Cramond’s family, remembered that in 1904 doctors used them when they went on their rounds. At the beginning of the 20th century each firm of cab owners had a ‘stance’ where their cabs stood. Cramond’s was at Waterloo Place. The four-in-hand coaches also waited at Waterloo Place, and they would go as far afield as Roslin and the Forth Bridge.

The archive collection dates from the 1880s to the present day, but there is some material dating from 1700. You can discover old manuscripts, letters, trace your family history – the archive offers a unique insight into all aspects of Scottish life. If this interests you, archivist and curator Dorothy Kidd at the National Museum of Scotland is giving a talk all about the Scottish Life Archive and how it can be used for personal research. The event is part of Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology and further details can be found here. Of course, if you are unable to make it along to the live talk, you can continue your browsing or research online with Scran.

Images © National Museum of Scotland Licensor Scran 

Scran contributes to BBC Scotland

20th March 2017 by Scran | 0 comments

Spacehoppers

Glasgow Gorbals 1970 – The Scotsman

Eagle-eyed viewers in Scotland who saw the recent three-part BBC series called “Growing Up in Scotland: A Century of Childhood” may have noticed Scran mentioned in the credits at the end of each episode. Combining still images, film footage and contemporary interviews, the three episodes were a nostalgic look at Scottish childhood, and we were delighted to be asked to supply many images for all three programmes, including one of our all-time favourites, the two Glasgow boys with Spacehoppers.

While the standard Scran licence doesn’t allow commercial reuse of images, we’re happy to grant commercial licences on an ad-hoc basis, and anyone can do this by clicking on the “Buy” button underneath an image. Scran regularly supplies images for commercial re-use to newspapers, magazines, book publishers and film and TV companies, and if you see a TV documentary about Scotland, take a close look at the credits at the end.BBC screenshot

There’s a good chance we’ll have supplied material for the programme. Viewers outside Scotland, and anyone who missed these fascinating documentaries, can catch up on the BBC’s iPlayer service http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episodes/b08gcxb6

Image © The Scotsman Publications Ltd Licensor Scran 

 

Robert Burns

10th January 2017 by Scran | 0 comments


01850104Robert Burns is not only Scotland’s best known poet and songwriter but one of the most widely acclaimed literary figures of all time. He is held in very special affection by millions around the world, with Burns’ suppers taking place on or near his birthday on the 25th January.

Stature

02050042Burns’ stature owes much to the huge range of his songs and poems, some of which are still familiar nearly two hundred and fifty years after his birth. In fact, there would be few English speaking people who do not recognise “Auld Lang Syne” – a staple at New Year celebrations.

His popularity is also linked to his association with a brand of socialism radical for his time and timeless in its understanding of the plight of the common man. Burns would have naturally understood these issues having experienced hardships not untypical for the ordinary man of the eighteenth century.

Birth & Youth

He was born in 1759 in the village of Alloway, in Ayrshire and was the son of a small farmer, Jacobite in sympathies, who had moved from near Stonehaven in Kincardineshire. In Scots rural tradition – which Burns himself recognised in “The Man’s the Gowd for A’ that” – and probably because of his father’s support of education, Burns had a fairly extensive education. He attended several schools and was given lessons from his tutor, John Murdoch, who introduced him to Scots and other literature in the English language. The family was never wealthy, living on and scraping a bare living from poor farming land. When Burns’ father died in 1784, he and his younger brother, Gilbert, tried and failed to make a success of farming at Mossgiel, near Mauchline. Also at this time, Burns began what was to be a stormy relationship with Jean Armour whom he left and betrayed many times.

His intensity, bred of hardships, seems to have caused Burns to produce some of his finest literary achievements. With a formal educational background, supplemented by a desire to read great literature and an admiration for the work of Allan Ramsay the elder, and steeped in Scots traditional ballads and legends, Robert Burns began to create his earliest and some of his best loved poems.

Poetry & Fame

In 1785 and 1786 alone, Burns wrote, amongst other works, ‘The Address to a Mouse‘, ‘Holy Willie’s Prayer‘, ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night‘ and ‘The Twa Dogs‘ and published his later famous Kilmarnock Edition with the intention of emigrating to Jamaica to seek a better existence. However, the popular response to his book of poems attracted him to Edinburgh to receive the adulation of the polite society of the capital, who became fascinated by the ‘ploughman poet’ and dubbed him “Caledonia’s Bard”. 3,000 copies of his Edinburgh Edition of poems were selling well at this time.

In 1787, he first visited Dumfries and was immediately made an honorary burgess. In 1788, unsure of making a living from the pen, he signed a lease on Ellisland Farm on the banks of the Nith and sought employment as an Exciseman. This was a latter day VAT man and Burns used his income to supplement his farm. His health was variable but during that time, he edited – with James Johnson – the second edition of the ‘Scots Musical Museum’. It was published in 1788 and contained 40 of his own songs. The third volume, which appeared in the following year, had 50 more.

01980173Burns asked Captain Francis Grose who was compiling a book on the antiquities of Scotland to include an illustration of Alloway Kirk. Grose agreed provided the poet would contribute a ‘witch story’ to accompany the drawing. The result was ‘Tam O’Shanter’. The poem was written in a single day on the banks of the Nith and is arguably one of his best works.

After two years, Burns gave up the farm and moved to Dumfries as a full-time Exciseman. During this time, Burns had at least one major affair and sired a daughter whom his own wife agreed to raise. Burns led an erratic lifestyle, being alternately drawn to and repelled by the bourgeois lifestyle. He wrote poems in English instead of his vernacular Scots, and flirted with ‘Clarinda’, Agnes McLehose.

00570461In May 1793 the family moved to a better quality house in Mill Street (now Burns Street). Their standard of living was good and they employed a maid servant. He was now writing songs for a new book ‘A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs’ produced by George Thomson. At the same time, some of his most lasting songs like ‘My Luve is like a Red, Red Rose‘ and others set to traditional airs, which revived the words and tales of ballads, were produced.

Ill Health & Death

The war with France was causing food shortages in Britain. In March 1796 there were serious food riots in Dumfries. Gradually, during the year, Burns’ health became poorer and in April he was unable to continue with his Excise duties. His friend Dr Maxwell mistakenly diagnosed his illness as “flying gout” and prescribed sea bathing as a cure. On the morning of Thursday 21st July he became delirious. His children were brought to see him for a last time and shortly afterwards he lapsed into unconsciousness and died. He was 37 years old.

It was the intention of friends that a biography of Burns should be written as soon as possible and the profits used to aid Mrs Burns. Dr James Currie, a Liverpool physician, who came originally from Annan, was chosen as biographer. The biography, published in 1800, was an immediate success and raised £1400. However, when Dorothy and William Wordsworth visited Dumfries in 1803 they had difficulty in even finding Burns’s grave. So, in 1813 subscriptions were sought. One of the subscribers was the Prince Regent, later George IV. On the 19th September 1815 Burns’ body was exhumed and placed in the new mausoleum. In 1823 the cenotaph on the banks of the Doon at Alloway, Burns’ birthplace, was completed at a cost of £3300. In 1844 a huge festival in his honour was held at Alloway, presided over by the Earl of Eglinton. The centenaries of his birth in 1859 and his death in 1896 saw nationwide celebrations.

Reputation

The cult of Burns rapidly rose. As the ‘National Bard’ he assumed spiritual dimensions, becoming all things to all people – admired as poet, nationalist, democrat, republican, conversationalist, womaniser, drinker, naturalist, folklorist, lyricist, Freemason and atheist to name a few. His humble origins, in particular as the ‘heaven taught ploughman’, have added to the idolatry.

Timeline

1759 January 25 Robert Burns born at Alloway
1781 Works as a flax-dresser in Irvine
1782 Returns to Lochlea after the burning of the Irvine shop
1784 Father dies. Robert moves to Mossgiel. Meets Jean Armour
1785 Birth of Elizabeth, daughter by servant Betty Paton. Writes To a Mouse. Affair with Highland Mary Margaret Campbell.
1786 Kilmarnock Poems published. Re-unites for a time with Jean Armour. Plans emigration to Jamaica. Stays in Edinburgh. Jean remains with family in Mauchline.
1787 Edinburgh Edition of Poems
1788 Ellisland Farm, Dumfries. Commissioned as exciseman. Marries Jean Armour. Writes Auld Lang Syne.
1790 Tam o’ Shanter completed
1791 Jean and Robert move to Dumfries
1792 Accused of political disaffection during revolutionary commotion in Dumfries.
1793 Second Edinburgh edition of Poems
1795 Ill with rheumatic fever
1796 July 21 Burns dies at Dumfries
1796 July 25 Son Maxwell born on day of his funeral

 

Images © Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Trustees of Burns Monument & Burns Cottage, Bayley & Ferguson Ltd| Licensor Scran