Tag Archives: Robert Burns

Happy Birthday, Robert Burns!

Today marks the 257th birthday of Scottish poet and lyricist Robert Burns (1759-1796). Every year, in Scotland and around the world, admirers of Burns’ work sit down on or around the 25th of January to a celebratory meal of haggis, neeps, and tatties, often accompanied by bagpipes, recitations of Burns’ poetry and a glass of whisky.

A forerunner of the Romantic movement, Robert Burns is is known for his use of the Scots dialect in his poetry. Some of his best-known works include “Auld Lang Syne,” “Tam o’ Shanter,” “A Red, Red Rose,” “A Man’s a Man for A’ That,” “Scots Wha Hae,” and “My Heart’s in the highlands.” In addition to his original compositions, Burns also recorded many traditional Scottish folk songs, sometimes revising them as well.

Although we will not be having a formal Burns Night celebration here in Cardiff University special collections, I have nevertheless taken the opportunity to rummage through the stacks in search of Burns’ poetry in honour of the occasion.

Our oldest piece of Burnsiana is a broadside ballad, published around 1797. It contains words and music to “Gude forgi’e me for liein’,” also published as “Last May a Braw Wooer.”

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A broadside of “Gude forgi’e me for lieini'” published around 1797, not long after Burns’ death.

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were the heyday of ballad printing in Wales. This single sheet is bound into a volume of musical scores and broadsides, one of approximately 700 such volumes collected by Theodore Edward Aylward (1844-1933). In addition to ballads like this one, the Aylward collection includes material on sacred works, songs and singing, dramatic music, orchestral music, solos and studies and music for organ and harmonium, mainly from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

Cardiff University’s other major collection of Welsh ballads, forming part of the Salisbury Library also contains at least four different 19th century Welsh-language editions of Burns’ “Highland Mary.”

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Three of the Welsh-language versions of “Highland Mary” found in the Salisbury Library.

Burns’ writing is characterised by directness and sincerity.  In the preface to Burns’ first published volume of poetry, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, (1786), the poet presented himself as one who lacked “all the advantages of learned art” and who, being “Unacquainted with the necessary requisites for commencing Poet by rule”, instead “sings the sentiments and manners, he felt and saw in himself and his rustic compeers around him, in his and their native language.”

Interestingly though, some of Burns’ poetry was deemed too direct for sensitive 19th century audiences. The editor of one 1858 illustrated edition of Burns’ Poems and Songs felt that only a selection of poems could “with propriety be given in a volume intended for the Drawing-room.”

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Poems and Songs by Robert Burns, published in 1858 by Bell and Daldy.

Although Burns was the son of a tenant farmer, his humble origins haven’t prevented him from being picked up by some very upscale publishers.  The 1902 Essex House edition of “Tam o’ Shanter is printed on vellum and adorned with gold leaf.  The beautifully printed colophon assigns the poem a place “among the great poems of the language.”

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The 1902 Essex House edition of “Tam O’ Shanter” features colourful woodblock initials and a woodcut frontispiece.

In 1925, the Golden Cockerel Press also produced an edition of Songs from Robert Burns, illustrated with woodcuts by Mabel M. Annesley.

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Illustrations from the 1925 Golden Cockerel Press edition of Songs from Robert Burns.

Each of these beautiful editions is a testament to Burns’ continuing popularity. I hope you will join me in raising a glass (safely away from any books, of course) to this well-loved lyricist!

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The colophon from the Golden Cockerel Press edition of “Tam O’ Shanter

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The pointy stick proliferation, or, How to explore the antiquities of Britain as an 18th century gentleman

Pointy stickIn the late 1700s, an interest in the study of British history and other antiquarian pursuits was the mark of a gentleman and a patriot, and many topographical books of the day reflect the increasing public interest in ancient remains. These illustrations all come from Francis Grose’s The antiquities of England and Wales, published between 1772 and 1776 and aimed at the popular market of interested readers who perhaps had neither the means nor the inclination to visit the sites in person.

O horor

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Grose’s topographical engravings are notable not just for the ancient ruins they depict in skillful detail but also for their “staffage”, the little figures invariably included for scale or atmosphere who are shown exploring the site or simply going about their daily business – men fishing in the rivers, scholars chatting by the chapel, and tiny milkmaids chased by angry livestock! But by far the most common figures to be found in these prints are the gentlemen dandies with their ever-present pointy sticks…

Proliferation of pointy sticks

Got milk?

By the end of the 18th century, a rigid cane had replaced the sword as an essential part of the discerning gentleman’s wardrobe. Walking sticks became an ???????????????????????????????important indicator of social status and a way for a gentleman to display his wealth; usually made from rattan, sticks were elaborately and expensively crafted with silver, ivory or jeweled handles. As the highways of the late 1700s still held some dangers for the lone traveller, walking sticks often retained the sword’s function as a defensive weapon, and canes with blades or even pistols hidden in the shaft were common. As these pictures show, however, the most important use of a gentleman’s walking stick was to point out matters of interest to a friend, a lady companion, or even the occasional dog!

One man and a dog

Francis Grose (1731-1791) himself was an interesting character. A soldier by ???????????????????????????????trade, he was far more inclined to his work as an antiquary and spent his summers sketching medieval ruins around the country. The first part of The antiquities of England and Wales was published in 1772 and was followed by three more volumes and a supplement with illustrations by other artists. While touring Scotland to begin work on The antiquities of Scotland, Captain Grose became close friends with Robert Burns and the poet composed Tam O’Shanter to accompany Grose’s drawing of Alloway Kirk when the book was published in 1791.

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Dog