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Posts Tagged ‘Robert Burns’

1840Shanter.jpg

‘Shanter Farm and Bay, Carrick’ by David Octavius Hill, from the 1840 publication ‘The Land of Burns’.

This image encapsulates the themes of all of the talks at the 2016 South Ayrshire History & Family History Fair at the Walker Halls, Troon on Saturday 4th June.

In one of his illustrations for the 1840 publication ‘The Land of Burns’, the artist and pioneer photographer David Octavius Hill imagined the farmer and smuggler Douglas Graham and his companions about to set off from the coast of Carrick. Their horses carry casks of smuggled brandy. The Fair’s first talk at 10am will be ‘The Smuggling Coast from Stranraer to Girvan’ by Frances Wilkins, a leading authority on this subject.

The scene is located at the ancient standing stone now on the edge of Turnberry Golf Course, with Maidens Bay in the background, and two of the day’s talks are about early human activity – ‘Ayrshire before History’, about the county’s early sites and their archaeology, by Tom Barclay of South Ayrshire Council Libraries at 11am, and ‘A Founder’s Workshop from the Bronze Age? Excavations from the shadow of Hunterston’ by archaeologist Thomas Rees at 3pm.

On foot and speaking with the smugglers is the teenage Robert Burns, taking time off from his school classes at Kirkoswald. (He is unlikely to have been so well-dressed at that time.) It is claimed that he later based his best-known character Tam o’Shanter on Douglas Graham. The 2pm talk is by Professor Chris Whatley and is ‘Men at War: securing Burns’ memory in the West of Scotland c.1859 – c. 1896’, about the race between towns in the region to have a statue of Burns.

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The ancient standing stone overlooking Maidens Bay.

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On 2 September 1892 the Provost of Ayr, Robert Shankland, chaired a meeting of the town’s Carnegie Public Library committee. Construction of the library building funded by a £10,000 gift from Andrew Carnegie was well under way, and Carnegie himself was due to visit the town on 5 October. He was to be given the freedom of the Royal Burgh of Ayr, and Mrs Carnegie was to perform the honours at the laying of a commemorative stone at the library. (Although the library was intended for the benefit of working people, there would be no organised representation from the town’s tradesmen at the ceremony – the Trades Council of Glasgow had called upon them to boycott it due to the bitter and violent industrial dispute then raging at Carnegie’s steel works in Pittsburgh.)

The platform party at the laying of a memorial stone (not currently visible) at the partially-completed Ayr Carnegie Library on 5 October 1892. Andrew Carnegie stands between the only two ladies on the platform. On the right is his wife Louise (Whitfield) who performed the ceremony. On the left is Mrs Shankland (Marion McTurk, third wife of the provost.) Provost Robert Shankland is the bearded gentleman standing behind Mrs Carnegie – he opened the building on 2 September 1893.

The platform party at the laying of a memorial stone (not currently visible) at the partially-completed Ayr Carnegie Library on 5 October 1892. Andrew Carnegie stands between the only two ladies on the platform. On the right is his wife Louise (Whitfield) who performed the ceremony. On the left is Mrs Shankland (Marion McTurk, third wife of the provost.) Provost Robert Shankland is the bearded gentleman standing behind Mrs Carnegie – he opened the building on 2 September 1893.

Carnegie’s enthusiasm for the works of Robert Burns was well known – in his first letter of the correspondence which led to his financing of the library, he had written that Ayr had a special place in the hearts of Scotsmen, because it was so intimately associated with the most beloved Scotsman of all. The library committee at their 2 September meeting must therefore have been especially pleased to note among the latest donations a signed Burns manuscript addressed to a Mr James Watson of Ayr. It was a version of the song beginning ‘The gloomy night is gath’ring fast’ which Burns composed in 1786 while intending to emigrate to Jamaica. The Edinburgh manuscript collector and dealer James Mackenzie had sent it via an Ayr customer, solicitor Robert Goudie, to be presented to the library.

The decoration above the main entrance of Ayr Carnegie Library includes the carved heads of Robert Burns (left) and the engineer James Watt (right).

The decoration above the main entrance of Ayr Carnegie Library includes the carved heads of Robert Burns (left) and the engineer James Watt (right).

Concerns were soon being voiced, however, regarding the donated manuscript’s authenticity – during the previous year it had been proved that several similar items from Mackenzie’s collection were definitely not the work of the Bard.  His donation to Ayr was sent to the National Museum of Antiquities in Edinburgh and to the British Library for examination, and both replies expressed grave reservations as to its alleged attribution to Burns. Over the past few years a large number of manuscripts purporting to have been written by a wide range of famous literary and historical figures had been appearing for sale in Edinburgh. Their claims to authenticity seldom survived expert scrutiny, and this was beginning to attract the attention of the press. Letters accompanying some of the items in question were reproduced, and the handwriting was recognised as that of a certain Alexander Howland Smith. Smith was arrested in December 1892, and the full story began to emerge.

‘Antique’ Smith’s forgery of a signed Burns song, donated to Ayr Carnegie Library as a supposedly original manuscript by James Mackenzie.

‘Antique’ Smith’s forgery of a signed Burns song, donated to Ayr Carnegie Library as a supposedly original manuscript by James Mackenzie.

Another example of ‘Antique’ Smith’s forgery of a signed Burns song, donated to Ayr Carnegie Library as a supposedly original manuscript by James Mackenzie.

Another example of ‘Antique’ Smith’s forgery of a signed Burns song, donated to Ayr Carnegie Library as a supposedly original manuscript by James Mackenzie.

While working as a clerk in an Edinburgh lawyer’s office, Smith had been instructed to dispose of a quantity of old documents. Many turned out to be of historical interest, and he made a tidy sum selling them to dealers. When he ran out of originals, he set about faking more on a large scale, buying up old books and removing their blank end papers for writing material. The completed forgeries were ‘aged’ by staining them with tea. ‘Antique’ Smith, as he became known, was found guilty of obtaining money by deceit, and sentenced to twelve months’ imprisonment. Dealers like Mackenzie, who had sold the documents on, claimed to have been acting in good faith and escaped prosecution.

The local collection of South Ayrshire Libraries, housed in Ayr Carnegie Library, still has its example (with accompanying correspondence) of the work of one of the 19th Century’s most prolific forgers of historical manuscripts.

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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.

Amelia R. Hill’s marble bust of Robert Burns in Ayr’s Carnegie Library.

Amelia R. Hill’s marble bust of Robert Burns in Ayr’s Carnegie Library.

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.

From 1870 until 1893, Ayr Public Library rented space in Ayr Town Council’s MacNeillie Buildings, Newmarket Street (named after John MacNeillie, provost of Ayr 1864-1873). Above the doorway are carved representations of the religious reformer John Knox (centre), flanked by the Scottish warrior heroes Sir William Wallace (left) and King Robert the Bruce (right).

From 1870 until 1893, Ayr Public Library rented space in Ayr Town Council’s MacNeillie Buildings, Newmarket Street (named after John MacNeillie, provost of Ayr 1864-1873). Above the doorway are carved representations of the religious reformer John Knox (centre), flanked by the Scottish warrior heroes Sir William Wallace (left) and King Robert the Bruce (right).

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.

A small selection from the extensive Burns reference collection in the local history area of Ayr Carnegie Library.

A small selection from the extensive Burns reference collection in the local history area of Ayr Carnegie Library.

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.)

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