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The Scottish American History Club Newsletter
January 2011

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The Statues of Poet Robert Burns

By some accounts the United States has 13 statues of Robert Burns. In our January History Club meeting we looked at six of these statues: New York City; Albany, New York; Barre,  Vermont; Denver, Colorado; Chicago, Illinois and San Francisco, California. The oldest is in Central Park in New York City, which was unveiled October 3, 1880. The Chicago statue is located in Garfield Park and was unveiled on August 25, 1906. The full story can be found in The Scots of Chicago beginning on page 56.

America does not have the honor of being first to erect a statue and perhaps neither does Scotland. That honor may go to Australia. Robert Burns had a friend by the name of Peter Taylor who lived in Edinburgh and painted houses and coaches. Apparently, Burns did sit for him and Taylor painted his portrait. This happened in 1786. If we accept Taylor as a portrait painter then this may be the best image we have of Burns.

The image we most often see is the one painted by Alexander Nasmyth in 1787. It hangs in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.  Robert Burns was 28 at the time. Nasmyth was actually a landscape painter and we don’t know how good he was at painting portraits. Some believe that the painting by Peter Taylor “may be the closest likeness.” I am sure there are others who believe that Nasmyth is more accurate.

John Greenshields (1792-1835) was a sculptor who began as an apprentice stone mason and worked as a quarrier, hewer and builder before working with the mason and sculptor, Robert Forrest in 1822. His studio was at Broomhill, Clydeside Scotland. He designed the first public monument to Sir Walter Scott in George Square, but died before its final completion.

Sir Walter Scott knew Greenshields and had on several occasions visited his studio. In 1831, he saw a statue of Robert Burns and wrote: “in a sitting posture, which, all the circumstances considered, must be allowed to be a very wonderful performance.” Scott became “an important patron and admirer of Greenshields.” The statue carved by Greenshields may be the only one based on the portrait by Peter Taylor. All others are based on the likeness drawn by Alexander Nasmyth.

The statue seen by Scott on his visit to the studio of John Greenshields is thought to be the oldest one of Robert Burns that has survived. According to the British Geological Survey web site, the statue was commissioned by William Taylor of Leith between 1826 and 1830. William Taylor’s son Peter emigrated to Australia in 1876 and had the statue shipped in 1882. They indicate that it was “the only painting created when Burns was actually present.”

The citation on the statue reads:  “Burns, from an original painting by his friend, Peter Taylor, Edinburgh 1786. By John Greenshields, sculptor, Edinburgh, 1830. Presented to the public park by W. A. Taylor, Esq. Camperdown, 1883.”

Peter Taylor donated the statue to the town of Camperdown before his death. For 150 years it has occupied a small corner in the botanical gardens where it has been vandalized. “The nose is broken off, the eye socket damaged and parts of the hat brim missing.” The statue and the story were recently discovered by Gordon Ashley an Australian writer and historian. He is now fighting to save the statue. It has been removed from the gardens to a protected area and he would like the statue brought back to Scotland for repairs.

Apparently neither government has the money to ship the statue back to Scotland, so a search was started to find matching stone in Scotland. The British Geological Survey did some “stone-type fingerprinting and decided that the quarry Drumhead near Denny, Scotland “still contains exposures of rock which is of good quality and suitable for repairs.

In my Blog of November 22, 2010, I made comments about this story from a BBC news article. Of course, I had no idea where the Drumhead Quarry was located, so I asked for help. In less than 24 hours the owner, Tish Graham, contacted me through the Internet. She and her husband own the Quarry! They are donating the stone and by now it should be on its way to Australia. If you would like to follow this story, they have a Facebook page for Drumhead Quarry. I am a follower and enjoy the information.

Picture 1: Robert Burns by Nasmyth
Picture 2: Robert Burns by Taylor

A Gift of Burns to Abraham Lincoln

This article appeared in the Chicago Daily Tribune on January 10, 1880.

It seems that Mr. Thomas Bayley Potter, M.P. had prepared a two volume gift of the writings of Robert Burns. as a personal gift to Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States. The book covers were “of a fine and beautifully polished straw-colored fancy wood, known as the wood of Mocklin from Dumfriesshire, Scotland. On the outside of each volume was an engraving of Pitnacree, a picturesque spot in the Highlands where Mr. Potter had a residence some fourteen or fifteen years ago.”

Inside there was an engraved portrait of General Garibaldi, who was for many years a personal friend of Mr. Potter. The two volumes were contained in a velvet-lined box made of the same fancy Mocklin wood. On the top of the box was another picture of Pitnacree. (Pitnacree is not far from Pitlochry where my wife and I once saw an outdoor play - a festival theater as I remember.)

On the fly leaf of Vol. 1 Mr. Potter wrote the following: “I intended to present these volumes to Abraham Lincoln, President of the Republic of the United States, in the spring of the year 1865, but his untimely death interrupted. It was my wish to send him a small token of my intense respect and admiration for his character and my devotion to the cause which he upheld - the cause of freedom and popular government. I now present the book to Robert T. Lincoln, the worthy son of the great President, as a mark of my esteem and regard for him and his family, and I would also add as a mark of the sincere gratitude which I feel for the kind reception which Mrs. Potter and I have recently met with in the United States, and of my aspirations for the prosperity of the Union. May it always be one and indivisible, maintaining liberty and advancing progress.”

When Mr. & Mrs. Potter visited Chicago they were introduced to Robert T. Lincoln and it was then that a decision was made to present the two volumes. “It was not in reference to any special knowledge of President Lincoln’s literary taste that Mr. Potter selected Burns for the purpose of this gift in preference to any other author, but Mir. Robert Lincoln informed Mr. Potter that his father’s favorite poets were Burns and Milton.

We know that Mr. Lincoln often read the writings of Robert Burns and could quote many of them, even with an accent. I didn’t know about Milton. Wonder if that could be a misquote or perhaps Robert knew something we don’t?

I could also find no information as to Mocklin wood. Does anyone know? I also wonder what happened to the velvet box and the two volumes. I will enquire on my next visit to the Abraham Lincoln Library in Springfield, Illinois.

Pictured 1:  Thomas Bayley Potter, M.P.
Pictured 2:  Robert Todd Lincoln

Cast of Robert Burns’ Skull

Did you know there was a cast made of Robert Burns skull in 1834 and that it can now be seen in the new Robert Burns Museum in Alloway, Scotland? Here is one story written in 1895. Thomas Fowler was obviously not happy that the grave was opened. He even opposed the new mausoleum believing that Burns would have preferred a simpler grave.

“When the new structure was completed, on the 19th of September 1815, his grave was opened, and men for a moment gazed with awe on the form of Burns, seemingly as entire as on the day when first it was laid in the grave. But as they began to raise it, the whole body crumbled to dust, leaving only the head and bones. These relics they bore to the mausoleum which had been prepared for their reception. But not even yet was the poet’s dust to be allowed to rest in peace. When his widow died in March 1834, the mausoleum was opened, that she might be laid by her husband’s side. Some Craniologists of Dumfries were then permitted, in the name of so-called science, to desecrate his dust with their human outrage. At the dead of night, between the 31st of March and the 1st of April, these men laid their profane fingers on the skull of Burns, tried their hats upon it, and found them all too little; applied their compasses, registered the size of the so-called organ and satisfied themselves that Burns had capacity enough to compose Tam o’ Shanter, The Cotter’s Saturday Night and To Mary in Heaven. This done, they laid the head once again in the hallowed ground, where, let us hope, it will be disturbed no more.”1

Permission to examine the skull of Robert Burns was given by “the consent of relatives” and the editor of The Dumfries Courier accompanied the several gentlemen to the cemetery. The cast was made by phrenologists who believed that much could be told by a study of the skull including the size and shape. “Having completed our intention, the skull, securely enclosed in a leaden case, was again committed to the earth precisely where we found it.”2

Pictured: Burns Mausoleum

1Robert Burns: Also Locke & Bunyan, By J. C. Sharp. Thomas Fowler, J. A. Froude, Arkell Weekly Company 1895

2George Combe wrote a complete report on their findings which can be found on the Internet.

From the Editor

On January 1, 2010, we launched the web site for the Scottish American History Club. Here you can find a body of information that included the “Scottish Name List” and the Scottish American Newsletters. You can also keep up to date on the History Club meetings and activities.

Google Analytics has been keeping track of the profile and they report 5,351 visits with 10,260 pages viewed. The most visits came from the United States, of course, with 3,993. The United Kingdom 516 visits; Canada 228 visits; and Australia with 152 visits. The name lists had the most visits with 1,461 followed by the Newsletter with 478.

At the same time, I began a Blog which you can find on the left side of the web site. I posted 168 stories for the year 2010. The Blog had 2,030 visits with 1,529 coming from the United States; 296 from the United Kingdom and 53 visit from Canada. Other visits came from Argentina, Croatia, Vietnam, Tajikistan and Austria.

My thanks to Elaine Moore who has volunteered her time to build the web site and keep it current.

Coming Events

February 5, 2011 - Join us on a trip to Nova Scotia compliments of Mr. & Mrs. William G. MacLeod of Brookfield, IL. The MacLeod’s were in Nova Scotia for 2 weeks and  they have a great presentation of their trip.

March 5 - We are pleased to have Caroline Goldthorpe as our speaker. Thanks to the generosity of Nike Whitcombe. Ms. Goldthorpe , BA, AMA, FRSA, is British with wide museum experience from England and the United States. She trained and worked at the Victoria and Albert Museum, was Curator of a provincial museum in Southern England and the Deputy Head of the Costume Dept. At the Museum of London. In New York, she was Curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for six years, producing the exhibition (and book) From Queen to Empress; Victoria Dress 1837-1877. She presently teaches a course at Northwestern.

April 2 - TBA

May 14 - Please note the change in date as a courtesy to the Scottish Home.

June 4 - TBA

July 16 - Annual History Tour

Wayne Rethford, President Emeritus
Illinois Saint Andrew Society
Scottish-American History Club
2800 Des Plaines Avenue
North Riverside, IL 60546