Insights on Robert Burns
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.