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24 Jan 2023

Homecoming exhibition now open at Robert Burns Birthplace Museum

Homecoming: The Blavatnik Honresfield Collection


2 speakers: Sarah Beattie (SB), Chris Waddell (CW)

SB: Hi, my name is Sarah Beattie and I'm the National Trust for Scotland curator for the South West.
Today, we're at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway and we're here to look at the Homecoming exhibition of recently acquired material from the Blavatnik Honresfield Collection.

The Blavatnik Honresfield Collection was a collection that was put together in the late 19th or early 20th century by William Law, who was a Lancashire-based industrialist and self-made man.
It is one of the finest literary collections, possibly ever. It includes really big names such as, of course, Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, the Bronte sisters, Jane Austen, and many, many more literary figures that you will have heard of and known as significant in British literary history.

About 18 months ago, the collection was due to be sold at Sotheby's. The Friends of the National Libraries, which is a UK-based charity which supports literary organisations, raised the £15 million required to prevent the sale, and then distributed the items within the collection -- there’s about 500 -- to over 70 organisations throughout the UK. And what we see today here is the 12 items that we acquired, along with the First Commonplace Book, which was gifted to ourselves and the National Library of Scotland.

The items are actually in incredible condition considering how old they are. We did little minor bits of conservation, just to stabilise where there might be any tears or just to give them a little bit of a clean, but they're actually in really good condition. So what we've done today for them to go on display is we've had them mounted by a paper conservator and framed so that they're much more accessible.

One of the most significant pieces is the First Commonplace Book, which Burns wrote between 1783 and 1785. At that point, he's still a relatively young man; he's still living on his family farm in Ayrshire and he's not a published poet yet. So, it's very much a kind of working draft. It's poems and songs, but it's also his ambitions for life and his outlook on the things and the people round about him. It's really quite a brave document because it's setting himself up for where he wants to go in the future. We know that he's managed to achieve all that, but when he's writing it, it's still all very unknown and a bit scary for him too.

CW: My name is Chris Waddell. I’m the Learning Manager here at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway.

There’s a couple of highlights there for me, alongside the First Commonplace Book.
There's a letter to James Johnson, who Burns collaborated with in compiling the Scots Musical Museum. That was a series of volumes released between 1787 and 1803. And it's just nice to hear some of the chit chat between these two men. They were genuine friends. There’s a real sense of comradeship, there's a sense of chummy bonhomie in there. We get a few jokes in there from Burns.

There's also a letter to a gentleman called John Edgar, who was one of his superiors in the Excise Service. It seems that Burns had incurred some censure -- that’s his very own words from the letter -- about not submitting some wine accounts on time. And basically what Burns does in this letter is to blame another gentleman, a Mr Graham, for not getting them to Burns quickly enough, so Burns couldn't send them on.
It’s a very ordinary workaday document. It’s a letter from a man to his boss -- it’s the equivalent of one of our emails -- but it’s in the hand of Robert Burns, the greatest man of letters that Scotland ever produced.
So, that makes it a wee bit more special, obviously!

SB: What's so important about these items coming back and being on display now is that they've been in a private collection for over 100 years, so they've not been publicly accessible for all that time. And what's really important is that these items are all written in Burns’s hand.
So, it's not that finished, published version of a poem or a song; it’s his working draft. You can see the processes behind what he's doing and how he gets to that finished version.

The exhibition is open until 12 March. It's a rare opportunity to see these works on public display. They haven't been seen in the public for over 100 years. It's quite a short exhibition timeframe, just because of the nature of the works. We have to balance public access and condition of the works. We want them to be there for future generations, so you really only have a couple of months to come down and see this exhibition as it is.

Entry to the exhibition is free. The museum is open 7 days a week from 10am.
If you want to see other items by Burns that are referenced in the exhibition as well, the permanent collection can be viewed by paying or through your National Trust for Scotland membership, where you get free entry.

The Homecoming exhibition of recently acquired material from the Blavatnik Honresfield collection is now open and runs until Sunday 12 March.

In this short film, Curator Sarah Beattie and Learning Manager Chris Waddell talk about some of the highlights from our exciting new exhibition at Robert Burns Birthplace Museum.

The manuscripts in the Homecoming exhibition were donated to the National Trust for Scotland from the Blavatnik Honresfield Library by the Friends of the National Libraries in 2022, the result of a successful campaign to raise funds to secure the collection. Alongside other partners from across the heritage and culture sector in the UK, the National Trust for Scotland contributed towards the appeal, thanks to support received from our charity’s members and donors.

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