Saturday 8 July 2023

Wood Notes Wild - Robert Burns' Seal

Within Greenock’s Custom House is the Exhibition and Archive of Greenock Burns Club, the oldest Burns Club in the world and often referred to as the Mother Club.  It is open in summer on Saturdays from 12 till 2 and when large cruise ships visit Greenock.  Check the Greenock Burns Club website for opening times.  Robert Burns (1759-1796) is Scotland's national poet.

This wooden plaque, on the north-east wall of the Burns Exhibition and Archive in the Custom House, Greenock, shows what appears on Robert Burns’ personal seal.  Robert Burns did not matriculate his arms with the Lord Lyon, but had a great interest in what should appear on his seal.

In March 1793 Robert Burns wrote to his friend Alexander Cunningham, a lawyer in Edinburgh who later went into business as a jeweller with an uncle: -

There is one commission that I must trouble you with.  I lately lost a valuable seal, a present from a departed friend, which vexes me much.

He then goes on to describe what he would like on the seal -

I have gotten one of your Highland pebbles, which I fancy would make a very decent one; and I want to cut my armorial bearing on it; will you be so obliging as enquire what will be the expense of such a business?  I do not know that my name is matriculated, as the heralds call it, at all; but I have invented arms for myself, so you know I shall be chief of the name; and, by courtesy of Scotland, will likewise be entitled to supporters.  These, however, I do not intend having on my seal.  I am a bit of a herald, and shall give you, secundum artem, my arms.  On a field, azure, a holly-bush, seeded, proper, in base; a shepherd’s pipe and crook, saltier-wise, also proper in chief.  On a wreath of the colours, a wood-lark perching a sprig of bay-tree, proper, for crest.  Two mottos; round the top of the crest, Wood notes wild; at the bottom of the shield, in the usual place, Better a wee bush than nae bield.  By the shepherd’s pipe and crook I do not mean the nonsense of painters of Arcadia, but a stock and horn, and a club, such as you see at the head of Allan Ramsay, in Allan’s quarto edition of the Gentle Shepherd.

The "Highland pebble" referred to by Burns was a topaz given to him by Maria Riddell (1772-1808) who, in a letter to Dr James Currie (biographer of Burns) on 6 December 1797 writes:-

The seal I mentioned and which you propose engraving in the title page (of his first edition of Burns’ work) I fancy Gilbert Burns or the widow will have got in their custody.  I gave Burns the stone, and we arranged the devise between us.  I do firmly believe in despite and violation of all rules of Heraldry; a holly bush with a shepherd’s pipe suspended, crest a wood-lark, with the motto from Milton’s Allegro, “native wood notes wild” – it is all appropriate enough, and you must not omit to give the Poet’s chosen blazon”.

Maria Riddell  Source

Burns obviously put a lot of thought into the symbolism of his seal.  "Wood notes wild", at the top is a quote from L'Allegro by John Milton (1608-1674) (lines 131-134):- Then to the well-trod stage anon, If Jonson’s learned sock be on.  Oh sweetest Shakespear, fancie’s childe.  Warble his native Wood-notes wilde.”  The phrase also invokes bird song and Burns used it to describe his wife, Jean Armour having read "a book of “Scot’s poems which she has perused very devoutly; and all the ballads in the country, as she has … the finest “wood note wild” I ever heard."

Just under the phrase wood notes wild is a woodlark - a beautiful songbird.  Burns wrote Address to the Woodlark in 1795.

The bird is standing on a sprig of bay.  Bay or bay laurel is an aromatic evergreen plant symbolising victory or triumph.  A laurel wreath worn by heroes in Greek mythology and associated with the god Apollo (god of poetry).  Interestingly the title poet laureate also derives from the laurel.

Under the bird is a shied bearing a shepherd's pipe and crook.  The shepherd’s pipe, or stock and horn, is described in great detail by Burns who managed to acquire one, part of which which is now in the National Museum of Scotland : -

have at last gotten one; but it is a very rude instrument.  It is composed of three parts – the stock, which is the hinder thigh bone of a sheep, such as you see in a mutton-ham; the horn, which is a common Highland cow’s horn, cut off at the smaller end until the aperture be large enough to admit the ‘stock’ to be pushed up through the horn, until it be held by the thicker end of hip-end of the thigh bone; and lastly, an oaten reed, exactly cut and notched like that which you see every shepherd boy have when the corn stems are green and full grown.  The reed is not made fast in the bone, but is held by the lips and Plays loose in the smaller end of the ‘stock’ while the ‘stock’ and horn, hanging on its larger end, is held by the hands in playing.  The ‘stock’ has six or seven ventiges on the upper side and one back-ventige, like the common flute.  This of mine was made by a man from the braes of Athole, and is exactly what the shepherds were wont to use in that country”.

Scottish poet Allan Ramsay (1684-1758) mentions the stock horn in his work The Gentle Shepherd published in 1725:- “When I begin to tune my stock and horn, Wi’ a’ her face she shaws a caulrife scorn,”.  Burns mentions Ramsay in his letter to Alexander Cunningham (see above).  Both the shepherd's pipe and crook are probably references to Burns' life on the land.

Under the shield is a holly bush.  In The Vision, Burns describes being visited by his native Muse, Coila, and describes her:-

Green, slender, leaf-clad holly-boughs
I took her for some Scottish Muse, By that same token:
An’ come to stop those reckless vows, would soon be broken.
Were twisted, graceful’, round her brows.

Later he describes her as addressing him:-

"All hail! my own inspired bard!
In me thy native Muse regard;
Nor longer mourn thy fate is hard, Thus poorly low;
I come to give thee such reward, As we bestow!

She then winds holly around his head:- 

"And wear thou this"-she solemn said,
And bound the holly round my head:
The polish'd leaves and berries red Did rustling play;
And, like a passing thought, she fled In light away.

Burns was very insistent that it be a depiction of a holly bush rather than a tree and that could be because of the final part of his seal - Better a wee bush than nae bield” – an expression meaning better a small bush than no shelter.  Quite an interesting choice of symbols for his arms.  

Burns did not matriculate his arms.  After his death the seal was used by his eldest son, Robert Burns (1786-1857). He worked at the Stamp Office in London. He married Ann Sherwood in 1809 and had a daughter Eliza (1812-1878) who went to India with her uncle, James Glencairn Burns (1794-1865).  In 1836 Eliza married Dr Bartholomew Jones Everitt (died 1840) of the East India Company at Bangalore and had a daughter Martha Burns Everitt (1839-1906) known as Patty.  The seal was left by Robert Burns to his daughter Eliza, who passed it to her daughter Martha.  In 1889 Martha Burns Everitt married Matthew Thomas and lived at Martinstown, Killinick, County Wexford.  In 1896 James B Morison of Greenock Burns Club wrote to Martha asking for an impression of the seal in wax, which she sent to the Club, beautifully mounted and with an inscription "to Greenock Burns Club with Mrs Burns Thomas's compliments, 2nd October 1896"

Martha Burns (Everitt) Thomas bequeathed the seal to her cousin.  In 1907 the seal was put up for sale at Christies where it was purchased for £200 by William Hamilton Dunlop of Doonside for Burns Museum Trustees.  Dunlop was Secretary of the Burns Monument.

The seal can now be seen at the Burns Birthplace Museum, Alloway. 

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