Robert Burns's diamond point engravings
Robert Burns came to know James Cunninghamme, Earl of Glencairn in Edinburgh in 1786 through a 'Letter of Introduction' provided by Dalrymple of Orangefield who was married to Lady Glencairn's sister. The Earl received the poet warmly in his house and introduced him to his friends. One of several gifts from the earl to the poet was a diamond point pen, stylus, or cutter which he used to write upon many windowpanes and glasses, scribing verse, his signature, epigrams, or other writings for posterity. Many of these diamond-point engravings survive, some however are contentious as regards either their authenticity, meaning, or both.
- 1 Burns's diamond point pen
- 2 Diamond point
- 2.1 On windowpanes
- 2.1.1 Kirkliston, Edinburgh
- 2.1.2 Inver Inn, Dunkeld
- 2.1.3 Carron Inn, Falkirk
- 2.1.4 Cross Keys Inn, Falkirk
- 2.1.5 Finlaystone House
- 2.1.6 Drumlanrig Castle and Queensberry estates
- 2.1.7 Queensberry Arms, Sanquhar
- 2.1.8 Friar's Carse Hermitage
- 2.1.9 Globe Tavern, Dumfries
- 2.1.10 King's Arms, Dumfries
- 2.1.11 Gardenstoun Arms, Laurencekirk
- 2.1.12 Black Bull Inn, Moffat
- 2.1.13 St Margaret's Hill, Newmilns
- 2.1.14 Wingate's Inn, Stirling
- 2.1.15 Brownhill Inn, Closeburn
- 2.1.16 Provenance unknown
- 2.2 On drinking glasses
- 2.3 Inscription on a Goblet
- 2.1 On windowpanes
- 3 Contemporary works
- 4 Micro-history
- 5 References
- 6 External links
Burns's diamond point pen
The pen may well survive to this day, made of a cylindrical piece of wood (elder?), and has the diamond inserted at one end in a metal extension. It is held in the collection of the Rozelle House Galleries in South Ayrshire. Its Accession Number is AYRTOS:100346, The Digital Number is SABN001n. The original catalogue record for the object states that it is an "old glass cutting diamond used by Robert Burns". The pen is part of the collections from the former Tam O'Shanter Museum in Ayr, currently under the care of South Ayrshire Council (datum 2012).
This is one of the oldest glass engraving techniques, practiced by the ancient Romans probably using flint and in the mid-sixteenth century in England and Holland using diamond tipped tools and a stipple technique to produce landscapes, portraits, still life, etc. Old glass has a higher lead content than the present day and this generally made scribing easier and more fluid in its execution.
Kirkliston is often given the nickname of "Cheesetown". One theory is that this because of an inscription mentioning cheese inscribed by Burns on a window pane of Castle House, formerly an inn. The window pane in question was put on show in the late 19th century at Broxburn in the Strathbock Inn. No satisfactory explanation has been given for Burns stopping here at the start of his Highland Tour and the poet himself has left no record of the event and the details of the whereabouts of the pane itself has been lost.
Inver Inn, Dunkeld
In 1787 Robert Burns set out from Edinburgh on a Highland Tour. Local tradition has long held that Burns visited Niel Gow at Dunkeld and went with him to the Inver Inn where, on seeing and hearing an irate woman, the poet inscribed an epigram which he wrote then and there on the window with his diamond pen. The lines were not those of the poet, having been published some years before:
Ye gods, ye gave to me a wife, out of your grace and pleasure,
The non-existence of the windowpane with this inscription was explained away in the middle of last century, the glass was said to have been cut out for better preservation and was broken in the act.
Carron Inn, Falkirk
In 1759 Robert Burns attempted to visit the Carron Ironworks at Camelon near Falkirk, however he was refused entry because it was a Sunday and the works were closed. The poet went to the nearby Carron Inn opposite and breakfasted on the second floor where he inscribed on a widowpane the following lines:
We cam here to view your warks,
But when we tirl'd at your door,
William Benson, a clerk at Carron Works (from 1765), saw these lines and copied into an order book. He penned a reply:
If you came here to view our works,
Six days a week to you and all,
These verses were published in the 5 October 1789 edition of the Edinburgh Evening Courant and inscription survived until the window was blown in on a stormy night.
Cross Keys Inn, Falkirk
In 1787 Burns toured the Highlands with Willie Nicol as a companion and visited Falkirk en route where he is said to have inscribed a glass window pane of the Cross Keys Inn with 4 lines beginning – 'Sound be his sleep and blithe his morn'; dated 25th. August 1787.
Sound be his sleep and blythe his morn',
The bard is not known to have acknowledged these lines, however local tradition is strongly supportive of the story. The owners took the glass pane with them to Sydney in Australia. Although it was thought to be lost it is now on display in the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway. A signature, said to be by Robert Burns was uncovered on a glass partition and subsequently purchased for a princely sum, but is now lost.
Burns's signature is said to exist on a windowpane in an upstairs bedroom at Finlaystone, home of James Cunningham, Earl of Glencairn. Mason records that Robert Burns left his initials on a window pane in the library.
Drumlanrig Castle and Queensberry estates
From 1780 to 1797 James McMurdo was the chamberlain to the Duke of Queensberry and was a good friend of Robert Burns, who wrote a poem in tribute to McMurdo. Burns is recorded to have etched a verse from this tribute onto a window pane at McMurdo's dwelling on the estate.
Queensberry Arms, Sanquhar
Burns was a frequent visitor to Sanquhar on account of his excise duties and he often stayed at the now demolished Queensberry Inn on the High Street where he engraved lines on a windowpane in the breakfast room.
Envy, if thy jaundiced eye.
Friar's Carse Hermitage
Amongst the most famous examples of scribing on windowpanes is at the Friars Carse Hermitage, near his then home at Ellisland Farm, which the poet was allowed to use by Robert Riddell as a place of peace and solitude where he could compose and write down his poems and songs.
Burns wrote the following lines on the Hermitage window to the memory of Robert Riddell:
Thou whom chance may hither lead,
Life is but a day at most,
The original windowpane was preserved and is now in the Ellisland Farm museum, having been removed by a new owner of the property and coming up for sale in 1835 it was purchased for five guineas. The restored Hermitage building's window had the same lines inscribed upon it, however they are now in the mansion house and the Hermitage's windows have no inscription. Friars' Carse at one time held the original Burns manuscripts The Whistle and Lines Written in the Hermitage.
The second window of the 1874 building had the following verse inscribed upon it that were written on the original pane by Burns when he visited Friars Carse for the last time, some years after Robert Riddell's death.
To Riddel, much lamented man,
In 1888 the original windowpane was loaned by Thomas Nelson to the 'Scottish National Memorials' section of the Glasgow International Exhibition held in the reconstructed 'Bishop's Castle' in Glasgow.
Globe Tavern, Dumfries
At the Globe Inn, Dumfries, in an upstairs bedroom a number of windowpanes were inscribed, two genuine ones remaining. One pane has a stanza from "Lovely Polly Stewart." whilst the other has a variant on "Comin Thro the Rye."
Gin a body meet a body
Three verses of "Lines Written on Windows of the Globe Tavern" were also present with at least the first stanza of "At the Globe Tavern."
The following stanza is said to have been written on one of the window panes after he was told by the Excise authorities that his duty "was to act, not to think":
In politics if thou would'st mix,
The three missing panes were sold by the pub's owner in the 19th century and a later attempt to buy them back was not successful. Exact replicas of the missing lines have been put back in place in 2011. The original windowpanes are kept at the Burns Birthplace Museum at Alloway who do not wish to give them up.
King's Arms, Dumfries
This inn was used by Burns when he had business in the town and was of a somewhat 'aristocratic' nature. Burns inscribed these words on the window of the King's Arms Tavern, Dumfries, as a reply, or reproof, to some swells who had been witty and disrespectful about excisemen or gaugers:
Ye men of wit and wealth, why all this sneering,
Gardenstoun Arms, Laurencekirk
On 11 Sept 1787 Burns stayed at the Gardenstoun Arms near Laurencekirk, then known as the 'Boars Head' with William Nicol. He is said to have written on a windowpane in his upstairs bedroom – "the lovely Miss Betsy Robinson, Banff, 27th December 1779". The windowpane was removed at some point prior to 1939 and was probably at that point broken into two. The windowpane was in the Meffan Institute for some years and was then taken by the Adam's family, previous owners of the business, to Canada. In 1977 the pane, broken into three, was presented to the Arbroath Public Library by Captain John B. Adam, however it remains the property of the Adam family. The Gardenstoun Arms has been demolished. The date on the inscription is however eight years after Burns's tour.
An Elizabeth Robinson of Banff, was born there on 27 May 1762 and married an Andrew Hay. She was painted by Raeburn. It unclear what connection Robert Burns may have had with her.
Black Bull Inn, Moffat
The Black Bull Inn was first established in 1568. proprietor of Moffat's family-owned Black Bull Inn (est. 1568). The pane of glass bearing the bard's verses are said to have been given to the Grand Duke Nicholas of Russia during a visit to Moffat in 1817. The young duke was on a triumphal tour of Britain as one of the victorious allies who had defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo. A replica of the windowpane now hangs in the 'Robert Burns Room' within the hostelry, placed there in 1996 by the Robert Burns World Federation.
A friend asked the poet why God made Miss Davies so little, and a lady who was with her, so large: before the ladies, who had just passed the window, were out of sight, the following answer was recorded on a pane of glass:
Ask why God made the gem so small, and
St Margaret's Hill, Newmilns
The St Margaret's Hill was the Loudoun manse, home at the time of the Reverend George Lawrie. Robert Burns was a frequent visitor, scribing the message on a bedroom windowpane there that said – "Lovely Mrs Lawrie, she is all charms". At one time the windowpane was in the Dick Institute in Kilmarnock and later in the Barr Castle in Galston. The window sash and pane are now preserved in the modern Loudoun Manse and the inscription is regarded as genuine by handwriting experts.
Wingate's Inn, Stirling
James Macdonald recorded in his journal for 2 June 1796 that he had a dinner with Burns the evening previous at what is now known as the Golden Lion Hotel:
"I arrived here from Dumfries this evening, after a ride of about 30 miles in the most romantic country the mind can conceive. Yesterday Burns the Ayrshire Poet dined with me; and few evenings of my life passed away more to my satisfaction."
He looks consumptive, but was in excellent spirits, and displayed as much wit and humour in 3 hours time as any man I ever knew. He told me that being once in Stirling when we was a young lad, heated with drink, he had nigh got himself into a dreadful scrape by writing the following lines on the pane of a glass window at the inn –
Here Stewarts once in triumph reign'd,
Whence grovelling reptiles take their birth;
These lines were to almost cut short his career in the Excise before it had even started for he records in a letter that a "great person" had visited him and interrogated him "like a child about my matters, and blamed and schooled for my inscription on a Stirling window".
Possibly because of William Nicol's negative comments or the rebuke from a "great person" Burns later added the lines:
Rash mortal, and slanderous Poet! thy name,
Burns was too late in his attempt to remove the evidence as several travellers had copied the lines into their note books and it was widely circulated, in addition one John Maxwell, an eccentric Paisley poet had in 1788 published in the Stirling Times an article entitled "Animadversions on some Poets and Poetasters of the present age" in which he criticises Burns and Lapraik.
In 1828 a story appeared in the Paisley Magazine', edited by William Motherwill, to the effect that the 'Stirling Lines' had been written by William Nicol and that Burns took the blame upon himself to protect his friend. A manuscript in Burns's own hand however includes these lines and is given the title "Wrote by Somebody in an Inn at Stirling". Burns also admitted to Clarinda in 1788 that he had inscribed these lines.
Brownhill Inn, Closeburn
This inn lays a couple of miles north of Ellisland Farm and was a favourite haunt of Burns from 1788 to 1791, even to the extent that he gave his own inscribed horn snuff mill to the landlord, Mr. Bacon. In the Ladies' Own Journal of 3 September 1870, published in Glasgow and Edinburgh, an article was published that claimed that Burns had engraved on some window panes certain verses that even best friends were ashamed of. The article claimed that Sir Charles D. Stuart-Menteith, Bart of Closeburn had these window panes carefully removed and packed away. Following his father's death Sir James is said to have examined these artefacts and was so shocked that he destroyed them in order to preserve Burns's reputation.
- National Museum of Scotland
The National Museum of Scotland holds a broken pane of glass which is said to have been inscribed by Robert Burns with the words:
I do compare her to the Damask Rose,
On drinking glasses
Jessie Lewars was a friend and neighbour of the Burns family in Dumfries who nursed Robert Burns during his last days. When she was briefly ill or indisposed Robert write an epitaph to her on a crystal goblet and asked her to retain it as a keepsake:-
He also wrote a rhymed toast to her on another crystal goblet containing wine and water using his diamond pen. He had been ill and seemingly in slumber, he observed Jessy Lewars moving about the house with a light step lest she should disturb him. He presented the goblet to her.
The 1791 dated poem "Your welcome, Willie Stewart" was scratched on a tumbler or tavern glass by the poet, much to the displeasure of the landlady, who later sold the glass for a shilling. This tumbler was however later acquired by Sir Walter Scott.
The son of an inn keeper, William Stewart (1749–1812), father of 'lovely Polly Stewart' was an acquaintance of Robert Burns who knew him as the factor of the Closeburn Estate of the Rev. James Stuart Menteith. The verses were written in honour of 'Polly Stewart'.
You're welcome, Willie Stewart,
Come, bumpers high, express your joy,
May foes be strang, and friends be slack,
Inscription on a Goblet
Written on a dinner-goblet by Robert Burns. John Syme, annoyed at having his set of crystal goblets defaced, threw the goblet under the fire grate: it was taken however taken by his clerk, and preserved as a curiosity.
The Burns Windows Project was inspired by Robert Burns's habit of scribing verses on windowpanes. The artist Hugh Bryden and David Borthwick, lecturer at the University of Glasgow in Dumfries, came up with the idea of sending clear plastic sheets with a pen to contemporary poets and inviting them to submit their own work for display as window poems. The remit was "to write a poem which spoke of their own time 'in a transparent way."
A landlord of a respectable Dumfries inn had the nickname The Marquis and oddly asked the bard to write on his skin. Burns apparently wrote :
Here lies a mock Marquis whose titles were shamm'd
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