In­sights on Robert Burns

Dumfries & Galloway Standard - - DISTRICT NEWS -

Stu­art Cochrane, the cu­ra­tor at El­lis­land, was the lat­est speaker at Dum­fries Probus Club.

Stu­art, whose talk was of course about Robert Burns and El­lis­land, came here from Al­loway about 11 years ago.

A Burns quo­ta­tion was dis­played: “There is no such un­cer­tainty as a sure thing.” This was the theme of the talk, try­ing to clear up some of the myths about Burns. When peo­ple are asked for thoughts on Burns, the most likely re­sponses are al­co­hol, sex and po­etry.

Peo­ple know that things writ­ten and pub­lished are likely to be ac­cepted as facts but are they? Stu­art quoted the ex­am­ple of spinach hav­ing the high­est iron con­tent of any veg­etable – to­tally wrong. It came from a dec­i­mal place be­ing put in the wrong place.

The first myth about Burns that Stu­art dis­missed was that he was born into poverty. His fa­ther was a gar­dener, with a two-bed­room house and sev­eral acres of land. Cer­tainly not poor – not wealthy, but not poor. A plough­man poet is also an un­der­es­ti­mate. Burns went to school in Kirkoswald, could speak sev­eral for­eign lan­guages and stud­ied Shake­speare and oth­ers.

His fa­mous por­traits are un­likely to be his most re­al­is­tic. His fa­mous Tam O’ Shanter has left an un­for­tu­nate legacy of Burns be­ing equated with Tam. All sub­se­quent poems were then also felt to be about him. Stu­art thought this was wrong.

The lan­guage of his poems has also been changed. Much of it was writ­ten in English, from his sec­ond verse on. Later ed­i­tors have, in fact, Scot­ti­fied some of his words.

Burns was an at­trac­tive, in­tel­li­gent man, who was of­ten em­bar­rassed by the at­ten­tions paid to him by ladies. He wrote to his sis­ters and other men in the same way he did to women, and names he used in his poems were some­times cho­sen merely to rhyme.

To bring Burns’ drinking and love-life into con­text, Stu­art com­pared the ac­tions of roy­alty. King Ge­orge III ate and drank a lot and had many il­le­git­i­mate chil­dren. Com­pared to that, Burns isn’t too bad – it was a dif­fer­ent world.

At El­lis­land, Burns built “a mod­est man­sion” of five to six rooms, much big­ger than a sim­ple cot­tage. Some ob­jects from his day are still in place, such as ranges and cup­boards. Four fires are still lit ev­ery day, two of them be­ing from Burns’ time. Miss­ing ob­jects are slowly be­ing dis­cov­ered and bought where pos­si­ble. One such ob­ject is a range, orig­i­nally from El­lis­land, which is now in Al­loway.

Some ob­jects, not of Burns’ time have been re­moved. A pork joint hang­ing from the ceil­ing has also been taken down. In Burns’ time, the Church of Scot­land out­lawed the eat­ing of pig.

Burns also bought hand made fur­ni­ture in the Chip­pen­dale style, and dressed ev­ery day at 2pm for din­ner and to re­ceive vis­i­tors.

There is also a big­ger col­lec­tion of books than any­where else in Scot­land as well as orig­i­nals in Burns’ hand.

Fi­nally, Stu­art men­tioned that they are hold­ing func­tions how­ever, fi­nance is in short sup­ply and un­less they can de­velop fur­ther sources, the fu­ture is in doubt. Act­ing chair­man John Shan­non pro­posed the vote of thanks.

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