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15 Oct 2018

Of bards and banknotes

Written by Siân Yates, Bank of Scotland archivist
A replica bust of Burns is accepting contactless donations at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum
As the Tap the Past partnership gets underway, Bank of Scotland archivist Siân Yates sheds light on some on the links between the Bard and the bank.

The National Trust of Scotland has launched a new partnership with Bank of Scotland and Visa: ‘Tap the Past to Preserve the Future’. This exciting initiative, for the first time, allows our supporters to make contactless donations. Re-creations of two unique Scottish artefacts – unveiled at Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway and Fyvie Castle in Aberdeenshire – are acting as contactless donation points.

To celebrate this innovative new partnership, we asked Siân Yates, archivist at Bank of Scotland, to tell us about some slightly more historical links between Robert Burns and Scotland’s oldest bank.

“Did you know … Scotland’s national bard once wrote a poem - quite literally - on a banknote?”
Siân Yates, archivist at Bank of Scotland

In 1786, Burns scrawled the following lines on the back of a Bank of Scotland guinea note:

Wae worth thy pow’r, thou cursed leaf!
Fell source o’ a’ my woe and grief!
For lake o’ thee I’ve lost my lass!
For lake o’ thee I scrimp my glass!
I see the children of Affliction
Unaided, thro’ thy curst restriction:
I've seen the Oppressor’s cruel smile
Amid his hapless victim’s spoil;
And for thy potence vainly wish’d,
To crush the Villain in the dust:
For lake o’ thee I leave this much-lov’d shore,
Never perhaps, to greet old Scotland more!

The banknote, with the original verse penned in Burns’s hand, is in the collection today at the National Trust of Scotland’s Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway.

The poem was written in 1786
The poem was written in 1786
It was penned on a guinea note
It was penned on a guinea note

Lines Written on a Banknote was drafted at a difficult time in the poet’s life. Still a young man and yet to prove himself as a writer, Burns was in financial doldrums. The farm he and his brother Gilbert leased was failing. Plans to marry his sweetheart, Jean Armour, had been thwarted by his penurious state.

Oh ‘cursed leaf’ indeed. In despair, Burns was planning to leave ‘this much-lov’d shore’ to seek his fortune in Jamaica.

But within a few months everything had changed. Burns’s first collection, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, was published in Kilmarnock – and was a huge success. Rather than voyaging to the West Indies, Burns travelled to Edinburgh, where he was welcomed by the capital’s literati. The rest, as they say, is history.

Apart from writing a poem on one of its notes, what further links did Robert Burns have with Bank of Scotland?

Robert Burns had planned to leave Scotland
Robert Burns had planned to leave Scotland

He certainly had personal connections with several officials of the Bank in various capacities. For a number of years in the late 1780s, Burns leased a farm at Ellisland near Dumfries from Patrick Miller of Dalswinton. Miller was a director of the Bank, and later Deputy Governor. Though Burns’s tenure at Ellisland was not a very fruitful one (he gave it up in 1790), his friendship with Miller endured.

After leaving Ellisland, Burns moved to the town of Dumfries itself. Here he befriended David Staig, the town’s Provost and agent (manager) of the Bank of Scotland branch there. A number of letters between Burns and Staig survive. And after Burns’s death in 1796, Staig played a prominent role in raising funds for the Dumfries Burns Mausoleum. He was also a founder member of the Dumfries Burns Club.

Was Burns a customer of the Dumfries branch? It is a tantalising possibility, but unfortunately we cannot say for certain. Ledgers for the period 1788–95 have not survived. But later records do show that Burns’s brother, Gilbert, had an account there, as well as the long-suffering Jean Armour – identified as ‘Mrs Robert Burns’.

Examples of Bank of Scotland notes stretching back to 1716, and displays about notable customers (including Mrs Burns), can be found at Museum on the Mound located at Bank of Scotland’s head office in Edinburgh.

The ‘Tap the Past to Preserve the Future’ partnership will raise vital funds to support our valuable work protecting Scotland’s heritage for future generations, at a time when the volume of traditional cash donations is falling. Visitors can tap the contactless logo on each object to donate a fixed amount of £2.

More information can be found at