I’ve had a few eureka moments in my career – usually the result of sheer luck or a happy coincidence. In late 2021, I was part of the Editing Burns in the 21st Century team working on a new edition of The Complete Works of Robert Burns at Oxford University Press. I have been given rare access to the collections of Barnbougle Castle on Dalmeny Estate on the River Forth, near Edinburgh.
Many will recognize the castle as the setting of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie starring Maggie Smith. The materials were collected there by the former Prime Minister (1894-1895) and Earl of Rosebery, Archibald Primrose, who was a formidable historian and leading expert on the Scottish bard.
While working on the material at Barnbougle, our team made a number of finds, including at least one new manuscript. More than satisfied with our excellent harvest, we were packing to leave when our hostess, Lady Jane Kaplan, Rosebery’s great-granddaughter, asked if we would like to view one more item. It was an album labeled “Burnsiana” that had been acquired in the 1890s but had not been subject to external scrutiny since then.
When I opened it, I couldn’t believe what I saw: among the contents was page after page of a list of building materials for Burns’ first married couple and farm in Ellisland, Dumfriesshire.
These household items are listed with prices from Burns builder Thomas Boyd. For example, there were details of 500 dozen tiles and their sizes; door; windows with frames and their dimensions; silk cords; items bought for the construction of presses (cabinets) in the bedroom and other places; joists; screws; lintels; floors and so on. The lists also contain quantities of thread, sheet metal, buttons, beer and other articles for the national economy.
Now this detailed book will help historians reconstruct the poet’s beloved farm as it was when he and his family first settled there.
beloved Burns, Ellisland
The spectacularly beautiful scenery on the River Nith immediately inspired the bard upon first viewing, and he decided to build a farm there for his wife Jean Armor and their young family. Burns occupied Ellisland from 1788-91, writing about a quarter of his output there, including his greatest hits Auld Lang Syne and Tam o’ Shanter.
I would understand the importance of these national lists even if I wasn’t the clerk of the Ellisland Board of Trustees as of 2020. However, in this role, I was particularly aware that Burns Farm was donated to the nation in the 1920s, having been in private hands until then.
Undoubtedly, Rosebery himself would understand what he was looking at, but the material is actively taking on the meaning it has, largely because Ellisland became a historic landmark and tourist attraction a century ago.
There has been much speculation over the years as to exactly which parts of several buildings the Burns were directly influenced by, as well as many questions about the interior of the main farmhouse, which has been substantially remodeled since the Burns family took up residence there.
Thanks to the incredible detail contained in this new material, we will be able to recreate the interior of Burns’ country house with much greater accuracy. The new information will not only enable the forensic examination of historic architecture, but also present exciting opportunities in the context of the new XR (augmented reality computer reconstruction) of Ellisland.
The timing of the discovery is also coincidental as the Robert Burns Ellisland Trust has been involved in a number of extensive developments at the site over the last three years and has begun to raise significant funds for the projects.
What better way to celebrate Burns Night this year than with this collection of historical details that opens up Burns’ home life in the country house he loved so much.
This article has been republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
Gerard Carruthers received funding for his work from the AHRC.