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19 Jan 2024

Rare Burns family needlework comes home to Scotland

Written by Sarah Burnett
National Trust for Scotland curator with framed needlework
Senior Curator Sarah Beattie with newly acquired Burns samplers
Two samplers embroidered by the mother and sister of Robert Burns have been returned to the poet's Alloway birthplace.

Two rare needlework samplers thought to have been embroidered by Robert Burns’s sister and mother have been returned to the poet’s birthplace, with the support of a National Trust for Scotland donor based in the USA.

The two samplers, one attributed to the poet’s mother, Agnes Broun and the other to his youngest sister, Isabella Burns (later Isabella Begg), had been held in a private collection in the south of England for many decades. Thanks to the support of American collector and philanthropist Leslie B. Durst, our charity has been able to bring the samplers, featuring intricate embroidery of the alphabet, coronets, and floral and animal motifs, back to the poet’s birthplace in Alloway to conserve them for the nation.

National Trust for Scotland senior curator with framed needlework
The smaller sampler (left) is attributed to Isabella Burns, the poet's sister, and the larger one (right) to his mother Agnes Broun

Sarah Beattie, Senior Curator, said: ‘We don’t know of any other samplers embroidered by Agnes Broun or Isabella Burns, so these two works are very special additions to our charity’s collections and to Scotland’s Burns heritage.

‘Samplers are an important part of Scotland’s social history, giving us insights into the lives, education, interests and talents of the girls and young women who created them. It’s wonderful to get new insight into the lives of Burns’s closest female relatives through the lens of these samplers: most striking is the repetition of the stylised floral motif that appears towards the bottom of the larger sampler and on the left side of the small square sampler. The occurrence of this design across both textiles supports the provenance to mother and daughter, and it’s easy to imagine the young Isabella Burns unrolling her mother’s sampler and diligently copying the familiar patterns.’

Close-up detail of faded embroidery
Details from Agnes Broun's sampler

The frames of the samplers also tell an interesting story, with handwritten labels providing insights into how the samplers passed from the Burns family into the ownership of the MacNaughton family in Dumfries.

Close-up detail of faded handwritten labels on backs of the embroidery frames
Original labels on the frames give insights into the samplers' history

Sarah Beattie continues: ‘The labels suggest they were given to Mrs MacNaughton, the wife of the Reverend George MacNaughton, by Isabella Burns Begg, the poet’s niece. Isabella died in 1886 so they were probably passed on in the early 1880s, after the MacNaughtons were married but before Isabella’s death. Whether this was a gift or purchase is sadly unknown, but it is interesting to see how Burns’s descendants contributed to the memorialisation of his life, work and legacy in the decades that followed his death.

‘Also fascinating is the later history of the samplers, for they then became part of the fabric of Scotland’s wider history. Both featured in the grand ‘Palace of History’ at the ‘Scottish Exhibition’ in Glasgow in 1911, which showcased historic and cultural items from public and private collections across Scotland; Agnes Broun’s sampler still has the original early 20th century frame and both have the labels from that exhibition, showing that they were loaned by Reverend MacNaughton.

‘Through such details and their histories, these samplers enrich our Burns collections and allow us to explore new areas of social history and women’s history through the life of Burns and his family, and we look forward to conserving them and sharing them with visitors and supporters.’

When the samplers were auctioned by Charterhouse Auctioneers & Valuers on 3 November 2023, they were described as ‘two 18th century samplers, sewn by the youngest sister of Robert Burns’. However closer examination of both the labels on the samplers and the 1911 ‘Scottish Exhibition’ catalogue suggests that the larger sampler is attributed to Agnes Broun, the poet’s mother, and the smaller sampler to his sister, Isabella Burns, later Begg. This attribution is supported by the inscription attached to the mount of the larger sampler and written to Mrs MacNaughton by Isabella Burns Begg, the poet’s niece and daughter of Isabella Burns, which reads ‘the dear sampler was my Grandmother's the Poet’s Mother … I B B’.

Following the acquisition of the two samplers, our conservators are currently working with specialist textile conservators to assess the condition of the two samplers, before finalising plans for treatment and framing so that they can be safely displayed and shared with the public.

“We’re very grateful to collector and philanthropist Leslie B. Durst, who made it possible to secure two unique samplers for Scotland’s cultural heritage, in support of our charity’s vision of nature, beauty and heritage for everyone.”
Ali MacLeod
Head of Fundraising

Ali MacLeod, Head of Fundraising said: ‘It’s a great privilege to care for the place where Scotland’s National Bard and his family were born and lived and to share their histories, collections and cultural legacy with visitors of all ages, and these two samplers offer our visitors and supporters another fascinating glimpse into the lives of Burns and his family. At a time of year when people all over the world are celebrating Burns, I hope that many a toast will be raised to these important acquisitions, and to the exquisite work of Burns’ mother and sisters, as well as the legacy of the poet himself.’

Exterior of white cottage with red shutters and door
Our ongoing conservation activity includes a project to protect the Bachelors' Club, co-founded by Burns

Ali Macleod continued: ‘The generosity of National Trust for Scotland members and donors also makes it possible for our charity to undertake vital ongoing conservation and engagement activity on all our Burns collections and properties, including a new project to restore the thatched roof of the Tarbolton Bachelors’ Club, co-founded by Burns. Here the young Burns not only honed his poetic craft, but also learned to dance and established one of Scotland earliest rural debating societies, so it’s a captivating part of Burns history and we’re grateful to all those who are contributing to this project to protect it from the Scottish climate, through our current Bachelors’ Club appeal.’

Re-thatching Bachelors’ Club

Please help us restore Robert Burns’s Bachelors’ Club.

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