The 25th of January will see world-wide festivities commemorating the birthday of South Ayrshire’s most celebrated local hero, Robert Burns (1759-1796). A marble bust of Scotland’s national bard is on display in the local history area of Carnegie Library, Ayr. It was sculpted by Amelia R. Hill (1820-1904), who was born Amelia Robertson Paton in Dunfermline, and whose brothers, Sir Joseph Noel Paton and Walter Hugh Paton, became well-known painters. In 1862 Amelia married the Scottish artist and pioneer photographer David Octavius Hill. She produced many portrait busts, but is best known for her statue of David Livingstone in Edinburgh’s Princes Street Gardens, and as the designer of the Burns statue in Dumfries.
David Octavius Hill died in 1870, and in the following year the widowed Amelia was working on a bust of Robert Burns in her Edinburgh studio when she received a visit from the industrialist James Baird of Cambusdoon. He belonged to a Lanarkshire family of iron and steel magnates, and he had come to Ayrshire in 1844 to oversee the exploitation of the county’s coal and iron ore deposits. He built the mansion of Cambusdoon, near Burns’ birthplace of Alloway, as his residence.
Not long before his visit to Amelia’s studio, James Baird had received a request for a donation from the committee of the subscription-funded Ayr Public Library, set up in 1870. The committee members were no doubt hoping to receive money with which to buy books, but Baird decided that Amelia’s bust of Burns would be an appropriate gift. He purchased the bust, and on 1st November 1871 he presented it to the library, to be placed in its reading room in the MacNeillie Buildings in Newmarket Street.
In 1890 the library committee sought support from another philanthropic industrialist, Andrew Carnegie, who had returned from America to his native Scotland. Carnegie offered to fund the construction of a library building on condition that Ayr Town Council would adopt the Public Libraries Act and establish a free library service. The necessary majority vote in favour by the town’s householders was obtained, and in September 1893 the Carnegie Library was opened. The books and other items belonging to Ayr Public Library were transferred to it from Newmarket Street. They included Amelia Hill’s bust of Burns, and it has remained in the Carnegie ever since. The building also houses the local history collections of South Ayrshire Libraries, including a large Burns reference collection.
Andrew Carnegie was an admirer of the works of Robert Burns, and in offering to fund the construction of a library in the town, he wrote that Ayr had a special place in the hearts of all Scotsmen, as it was so intimately associated with the most beloved Scotsman of all.
(The previous post The history of Carnegie Library, Ayr has more information about the building.)