What to see and do
The Trust has a significant material culture collection that relates principally to the life, work, and legacy of Robert Burns, his family and friends, and, specifically, to his time living at Ellisland and in Dumfriesshire (1788 – 1796).
There are approximately 500 items in the collection including an important library and archive, manuscripts in the poet’s hand, items he or his family owned, and artefacts which tell the story of Ellisland before, during and after Burns’s time here.
Here are some highlights selected and described by the research sub-group of Burns Scotland :
Manuscript of ‘On Seeing a Wounded Hare’, 1789
This is a letter that Robert Burns sent to Alexander Cunningham on 4th May 1789 which includes the Poem lately composed of ‘On Seeing a Fellow Wound a Hare with a Shot – April – 1789’
Five stanzas each of four lines are here included as in other letters of Burns including the poem, to Mrs Dunlop of 21st April and Prof. James Gregory of 13th May and the Second Commonplace Book. In this letter to Cunningham Burns wonders if the second last stanza would best be omitted and in a reply to his letter Prof Gregory criticised it, the lines;
Perhaps a mother’s anguish adds its woe,
The playful pair croud fondly by thy side;
Ah, helpless nurslings! Who will now provide
That life a mother only can bestow.
were omitted in the 1793 edition and the poem has thereafter been known in the abbreviated form.
The Manuscript was gifted to Ellisland in 1937 by Arthur Basil Simpson, having been previously been exhibited at the Burns Exhibition of 1896 and at the Observatory Museum, Dumfries.
This wrought-iron stand, made by a local blacksmith, held the core of a rush dipped in oil, which burned with a feeble, flickering light.
The poet read and wrote by it, saying to one of his friends:
And nought but peat reek i’ my head,
How can I write what ye can read?
Nithsdale, by David Octavius Hill
Burns ploughed his fields in the flat carse-land beside the river.
On either side of the Nith are steep hillsides leading to moorland, which Burns crossed on visits to his friends.
He went up and down river valleys on his horse in his work as an exciseman, a local tax collector, measuring the amount of beer brewed and sold, and many other things. It was a hard life, out in all weathers, but it gave him time to form poems and songs as he rode.
Picture of a hummingbird
Hummingbirds – dainty, colourful and exotic – intrigued early Victorians. This hand-coloured print, now somewhat faded with exposure to light, was given to Jean Armour towards the end of her life (1834). Showing a Jamaican Mango Hummingbird (Trochilus mango), it is one of several engraved by WH Lizars of Edinburgh, and is copied from a French publication of 1831.
Before Burns’s time mirrors were found only in the houses of the rich, but then they spread widely. People wanted ‘To see oursels as ithers see us’ – to see that they were tidy and well-dressed – though of course this famous line of Burns’s is about self-awareness!
Statuette of Robert Burns, by Gamley
This small bronze statue of Robert Burns is probably a maquette of the full-scale bronze version sculpted by Henry Snell Gamley RSA (1865-1928) which was erected in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
The most striking feature is the pile of books carried by Burns which reinforces the fact that, despite often being described as an uneducated rustic, he was incredibly well read. From Ellisland he wrote often to an Edinburgh bookseller, Peter Hill.
Gamley completed a plaster model in Rodin’s Paris studio and then promptly passed away on the very day he finished it, 25th October 1928. It was commissioned by Mary Gilchrist, the Ayrshire-born widow of an American cattle rancher. She paid for the design, marble base and casting in full; it was cast in Scotland and unveiled on November 11, 1929.
Gamley was involved in another significant Burns-related sculpture, the memorial to Clarinda in Canongate churchyard, Edinburgh, unveiled in 1922.
Manuscript of ‘Epistle to Robert Graham of Fintry, 1788’
This manuscript has lines 1 – 60 of a draft of “Epistle to Robt Graham Esq: of Fintry on the Election for the Dumfries string of Boroughs, Anno 1790 “ and is the version belonging to Mrs McMurdo, widow of John McMurdo the Chamberlain at Drumlanrig Castle, supposed to have been used by Allan Cunningham and thereafter divided into parts. The second fragment was sold at Sotheby’s on 13th November 1934.
The General Election was held on 12th July 1790 and Burns composed this ballad chronicling the occasion soon after.
It was gifted to Ellisland in 1937 by Arthur Basil Simpson.
This page from Burns’ Excise Book is dated 20th December, and headed ‘2nd Division, Leonard Smith officiating’, and contains entries in his handwriting; it belongs to 1789, the year Burns had joined the Excise that year, when he travelled over 200 miles per week on horseback, on his Excise duties and completing the necessary paperwork during the evenings. Transfer to the Dumfries Third (or Tobacco) Division in 1790 reduced his weekly mileage!
Donated on loan by the late M H McKerrow, once proprietor of the Globe Inn, Dumfries, and President of the Burns Federation 1937-1943.More items may be found in our online database.
Please get in touch if you have any research enquiries or would like to donate an item to the collection. The policies which guide how we manage and use our collections are here:
- Collections Development Policy ELLISLAND MUSEUM
- Collections Care Policy ELLISLAND
- Collections Information Policy ELLISLAND
- Collections Access Policy ELLISLAND
- Collections Loans Policy ELLISLAND