The Fiddle that taught Robert Burns his manners

William Gregg's Fiddle

Contributor: Cameron Morin

Location: Alloway, Ayrshire (Scotland)

Description: This beautiful, good-as-new instrument, made of pine and sporting a flower-like red, green and black design on the back, is displayed in the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, Alloway, as ‘the fiddle of William Gregg’. Born in 1766 in Ayr, Gregg learned to play the vioin at a very young age, eventually becoming what was called a “Dance Tutor” or a “Master of Manners”, based in Tarbolton, Ayrshire. In 1779, he accepted a most peculiar pupil: Robert Burns.

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Fingal’s Cave

Fingal’s Cave in Staffa': engraving by Thomas Major

Contributor: Nigel Leask

Location: National Trust, Isle of Staffa, Inner Hebrides, Scotland; Thomas Pennant, Tour in Scotland and Voyage to the Hebrides in 1772, 2 vols (2nd ed., London 1776), f.p.301. ‘Fingal’s Cave in Staffa’: engraving by Thomas Major, based on a drawing by James Miller.

Description: In the late summer of 1772, just a year or so after his return from exploring the Pacific with Captain Cook, Joseph Banks mounted his own expedition to Iceland via the Hebrides. On 13th August, Banks and his party, including the artist James Miller, explored, measured, and drew Staffa. The account we have is excerpted from Banks’ journal, edited and published in his friend Thomas Pennant’s Tour in Scotland 1772; poor weather had prevented Pennant from landing on the island earlier that summer, so Banks’ account supplied that deficiency. Banks claimed to have discovered ‘a cave, the most magnificent, I suppose, that has ever been described by travellers.’ ‘We asked the name of it,’ writes Banks. ‘Said our guide, “The cave of Fhinn”. “What is Fhinn?” said we. “Fhinn Mac Coul, whom the translator of Ossian’s Works has called Fingal.” How fortunate that in this cave we should meet with the remembrance of that chief, whose existence, as well as that of the whole Epic poem is almost doubted in England.’ To this account may be traced the birth of one of Scotland’s leading tourist destinations in the romantic era.

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Robert Burns’s ‘Kilmarnock’ Edition (1786)

Frontispiece of Burns's Kilmarnock Edition

Contributor: Gerard Carruthers

Location: University of Glasgow Library

Description: John Wilson of Kilmarnock, the printer of Robert Burns’ debut work, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1786), produced only 612 copies, of which this copy is one of the only 84 that survive worldwide. Over half of these are now located in North America (Young & Scott, 2017). This should come as no surprise: an edition of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect appeared in the United States of America as early as 1788 (first in Philadelphia, and then in New York). In contrast, it might be tempting to think that Burns must have had a comparatively limited effect on mainland Europe given that only one surviving copy of this book survives there, in the Fondation Martin Bodmer Library, in Cologny, Switzerland. The provenance of this particular copy is something of a mystery, but the story of Burns and Europe is less obscure than it might suggest.

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