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List gives insight into Burn’s home life

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By Fiona Reid
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List gives insight into Burn’s home life

AN astonishing discovery has shed new light on the day-to-day domestic life of Robert Burns and his family.

Academics from the University of Glasgow’s Centre for Robert Burns Studies were invited to Barnbougle Castle near Edinburgh by the Rosebery family to look at a collection of rare Burns manuscripts and books collected by one of their ancestors.

They were also shown an “unexpected bonus” of a book labelled simply Burnsiana, which included letters, memoranda and trades bills.

It has now been loaned to the university to allow for more detailed study and research.

There are building receipts from September 1788 to May 1789, titled “For Materials for a House at Ellisland”. They are from Thomas Boyd, who built the farmhouse and outbuilding, and charters the construction of Ellisland Farm over eight months.

So far, the Glasgow experts, led by Professor Gerard Carruthers, have uncovered a completely new “game changing” set of evidence on the building of Burns’ six apartment farmhouse, as well as bills and receipts which show the domestic economy overseen by Jean Armour at both the farm and his last home in Dumfries.

The handwritten list

Professor Carruthers, a world leading Burns expert, said: “We are so grateful to the Rosebery family for giving us access to this superb collection.

“The book contains a full set of evidence for Burns’ construction of Ellisland, previously unknown, including quantities of nails, floorboards and door frames. Here we have the minutiae of Burns constructing his first family dwelling as an adult, building both a house and a home.”

He added: “But it also paints a fascinating picture of life at Ellisland including bills for shoes, buttons and buckles to clothing materials like corduroy, calico and linen. It shows Jean Armour’s domestic economy, including what foods they were growing at Ellisland with receipts for seeds including cabbage, beans and linseed to quantities of beer and honey consumed.

“This material is a real game changer for our knowledge of Ellisland and its future conservation.”

The Burnsiana is part of the library of the former 19th century Prime Minister, Archibald Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery, 1st Earl of Midlothian, who was an admirer of Scotland’s national poet and did a great deal in his lifetime to protect and celebrate Burns’ legacy.

His great grandson Lord Dalmeny, who is also chairman of Sotheby’s auction house in the UK, said: “My great-grandfather was a Robert Burns enthusiast and admirer who during his lifetime amassed a wonderful collection of Burns materials and artefacts.

“It is very exciting for his family to continue our great grandfather’s work helping ensure that Burns’ legacy is protected for further generations. It is marvellous to see that 226 years after his death, Burns scholars continue to reveal new and fascinating details of the life of Scotland’s national poet.”

And the team at Ellisland Farm near Dumfries are excited to hear about the find, with spokesperson Joan McAlpine saying: “This incredible discovery has come at the perfect time for Ellisland as we prepare to unveil a masterplan to develop it as a world class heritage attraction.

“We want to recreate the domestic setting the newlywed Burns and Jean Armour enjoyed, so finding their shopping lists is wonderful. We plan to replant a kitchen garden just as it looked in the 1780s so knowing which seeds they planted is perfect.”

Dumfries and West, Front

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