Robert Burns at Ellisland
A beautiful, rewarding, unforgiving family farm
Dorothy and I brought lots of travelers to Scotland every summer (see “about our music and walking tours”), mostly from the U.S., and those travelers were wonderful companions for us and for each other. I think they enjoyed the experience of walking personally through historic and beautiful areas linked closely to the music and stories we heard from great local musicians. Some were tuned into music, some history, some the birds or other flora and fauna, or food, crafts, and culture, and between us, Dorothy and I were able to provide a rewarding experience. A few travelers hearkened from elsewhere, such as on one trip when we enjoyed the company of two sisters, originally from Barra, who had been in the movie Whisky Galore when they were teens, and had returned to Scotland for the 60th reunion of the cast.
For the most part, people used to contact me first about the trips, and because I was able to screen out the more self-centered consumers (such as those unwilling to have a conversation or only interested in price and itinerary), we nearly always had a very interesting group of seven travelers on each trip. On most trips, about half of them were able to play music or sing or dance, so I used to create for them a small booklet of tunes and recordings, with descriptions of how the tunes related to where we were going and who we’d be meeting. (Our last few trips, in summer 2022, were wonderful but did unfortunately include a few unsociable odd ducks — the pandemic seemed to change people, and not always for the better.)
One of our tours, to the Highlands and Skye, was called “Niel Gow’s Scotland,” because the 18th century Gow and his family provided music that is still central to Scotland’s culture today, and because I was permitted to play Gow’s violin for our group when we visited the home of his patron, the Duke of Atholl, at Blair Castle. I always put some Gow tunes in our music booklets.
The trip we’re in the middle of following in this series was one we called the “Burns and Borders” tour. We’ve been to the Borders in our recent posts, and have started to encounter Robert Burns as we visit some of his haunts and approach his home town in the southwest of Scotland. Burns, like Gow, was an important source of Scottish tunes. He didn’t write the music, but did select excellent melodies for his songs, sometimes from unknown traditional composers, and sometimes from contemporaries of his such as Niel Gow and William Marshall. Burns commented that he always liked to have a tune in mind before coming up with words to match. Those who think of Burns as primarily a poet would do well to rethink of him as primarily a songwriter. (Interestingly, this important crossover was acknowledged a few years ago, when the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to songwriter Bob Dylan.)
Robert Burns spent several very productive years at his own family farm, Ellisland, and the place has a special feel. Just seven miles up the River Nith from Dumfries, this was where he and his wife raised their kids when they were young, and where Burns worked hard to make a living on unforgiving soil, before giving his last few years over to better-paying work as an exciseman.
The main house is relatively small, but contains many items used by the Burns family, including his writing desk, a library, and the kitchen with an interesting wood stove range and oven. Outside the house are several outbuildings with displays about life in Burns’s time. The stables, barn, granary, and hayloft, each have farm tools, implements, and machines such as a threshing machine.
Below is a picture of me “hard at work” at Robert Burns’s desk with a quill pen, wearing an (authentic?) vest supplied by Ellisland! At right is Jean Armour’s cook stove and oven.
Burns chose the location because of its beauty, not its capacity as a farm. He obviously worked very hard with livestock and crops, but one of his greatest pleasures there were his walks along the river and through the fields. They are peaceful, and inspired Burns in his writing, perhaps helping to settle his restless mind.
It was along this river walk that Burns composed one of his most famous poems. His neighbor Capt. Riddell had introduced him to Francis Grose, author of Antiquities of Scotland, and Burns asked Grose to include an image of his hometown church, Alloway Kirk, in the upcoming edition. In exchange, Grose asked Burns for a poem to print along with the engraving.
The result was Tam o’ Shanter, an epic poem Burns composed in a single day. It was one of three witch stories Burns submitted to Grose, and told the tale of hapless Tam visiting the kirk late at night, and discovering witches and warlocks dancing as they inducted a young witch as a new recruit.
Below is the engraving of Alloway Kirk that Grose placed in his book along with Burns’s poem. (We’ll visit the real kirk soon!) At the right is one of a series of drawings based on the poem, which are displayed in a hallway at Ellisland; it depicts the witches and warlocks dancing.
At one end of the Ellisland fields, we came across an imposing castle-like manor called Friar’s Carse, which is now a hotel. In Burns’s time, it was the home of his neighbor and friend, Capt Robert Riddell, the man who introduced Burns to Francis Grose and spurred the composition of Tam o’ Shanter. Burns wrote about 50 poems dedicated to Riddell, though eventually, due to some kind of unexplained incident, said to be a drunken one, their friendship ended, and Burns took back his book of Riddell poems!
During one of his visits to his neighbor, Burns noticed that Riddell had captured a fox and chained it to the wall. It distressed Burns to see an intelligent wild creature chained. When, on a later visit, Burns saw that the fox had managed to escape, Burns returned to his farm and wrote a poem decrying the chaining, not only of the fox, but of all who should be free, including enslaved people.
From 1788 to 1791, Burns wrote over 150 poems at Ellisland farm. You might be familiar with some of them, such as “Ae Fond Kiss,” “Auld Lang Syne,” “Sweet Afton,” “Of A’ the Airts the Wind Can Blaw,” “My Love She’s But a Lassie Yet,” “Whistle O’er the Lave o’ It,” “My Heart’s in the Highlands,” “Such a Parcel of Rogues in a Nation,” “MacPherson’s Farewell,” “John Anderson My Jo,” and, not surprisingly, “On the Banks of the Nith.”
I haven’t seen this widely confirmed, but at Ellisland, they indicate that Burns was a competent musician, which makes sense, considering the quality of the melodies he chose to preserve by writing lyrics to them. They say he played violin, so perhaps he actually played the violin that belonged to his dancing master and was kept by his family (more about this instrument, including photos, soon). It is said that harpsichordist Christina Lawrie played with Burns in 1786, and that he also played a wind instrument called the stock ‘n’ horn.
Songs of Robert Burns have been set to compositions by many composers, including Beethoven, Haydn, Weber, and Himmel. In his written works, his sensitivities to human nature and the natural world, to love, dignity, and egalitarian ideals, have resonated with, reflected, and helped shape the Scottish identity, and gained him renown throughout the world.
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