In 2006 the Directors of Irvine Burns Club agreed on a programme of visits by local Primary schools to Wellwood, the club’s home since 1962. Initially, only the fourteen Irvine schools were invited to take part but in 2012 the programme was opened to all primary schools in North Ayrshire (fifty five).
To date some 4,500 visitors have taken part in the programme so we hope to welcome our 5,000th visitor during the programme of 2014. Each visit takes place from 9.30am until 12 noon and is divided in four sections, with a break at around 10.50am. The programme starts each year in early January and lasts until late February. Materials are sent to the schools to help prepare the classes for the visits and will soon be available to download from our web site. We also arrange for an evening session with teachers, this year in mid-November. Before starting the pupils are each given a clipboard, pencil and paper for them to take notes, to help them work with the materials back at school. climbing the stairs to the Music Room.
9.30 -10.00: Presentation in the Music Room
This presentation (PowerPoint with sound) is designed to be flexible, to allow our presenters to adapt it to their audiences, as children’s questions often lead in unexpected directions. The presenters are Directors and Curators of the club and this session takes them from Robert’s birth in Alloway to his homes at Mount Oliphant farm and at Lochlie farm near Tarbolton.
10.00 - 10.25 Burns' time in Irvine – in the Burns Room (below) heckling flax - a demonstration
Robert’s nine months or so in Irvine is well represented in the Odlings’ murals on three walls of the Burns’ Room. The various scenes are spot-lit in turn and the commentary, adapted for younger visitors, is synchronised with the lighting. Among the scenes represented are his attempts to learn the trade of Flax Dressing, his discovery of the works of Fergusson, his illness when in Irvine and his friendship with Captain Richard Brown, who encouraged Robert to have his poetry published.The children also enjoy a short demonstration of the process of Flax dressing by curator Graham Hyslop.
10.25-10.50: Visit to Directors’ Room
The impressive frieze, with the names of the twelve founder members and the presidents of the Club since 1826, is the first point of interest. Questions are asked about a small number of presidents who each served for more than two years. Events such as Two World Wars, Cholera Epidemics and the death of Queen Victoria are left for the children to do further research back at school! We then move to some of the Club’s interesting artefacts.
“The Glasgow Mercury” newspaper of January 1783, with its reference to an award of a £3 premium paid to “Robert Burns – Lochlee*, Tarbolton”, is an appropriate starter. This newspaper also refers to Surgeon Fleeming of Irvine, which leads on to the surgeon’s day book. Found in the loft of his house by Charles Balcombe, a pharmacist and manager of Boots the Chemist in the town (1955?), the book’s importance became clear-it records Fleeming’s five visits in eight days to attend to Burns during his illness. (*one of three different spellings of the name of this farm)
(left) children with our Kilmarnock edition
Our emphasis on the need to handle such old artefacts, wearing special gloves, usually stimulates an interesting question/answer session. We then move to a facsimile edition of the “Kilmarnock Edition” before showing the children the real thing. We also show them our Edinburgh edition, before an examination of one of our six original manuscripts for the “Kilmarnock Edition”. The children and staff are more than a little excited to inspect this wonderful material and there is much discussion about quill pens, writing by candlelight and just how beautiful the script is. Where time allows, we refer to some of our paintings, such as CM Hardie’s painting of Burns among the “literati” in Edinburgh. This part of the visit follows closely the presentations given by the late David Smith, the Club curator for many years.
During this time the children have their “play piece” with bottled water supplied by the club. This takes place in the Clement Wilson Room. They are able to inspect another Odling mural on the life of Burns, which was displayed at Alloway before the recent refurbishment at the Cottage. Also available to the children is a search among the letters of our honorary members, which are displayed in cases round the room. They are asked to find the acceptance of honorary membership from the Ayrshire man who made a discovery, which was developed to save millions of lives. Sir Alexander Fleming’s letter is among many on display from our collection of over 300 letters from honorary members elected since 1827. We also feature the Club’s beautiful bronze (sculpted by Allan Herriot) of Burns’ imaginary meeting with Wallace, on the middle landing of the stairway-it excites the children every bit as much as it does our members!
11.15-12.00: Continuation of the presentation in the Music Room
We continue with the life and work of the Bard, from Mossgiel (Mauchline) to Edinburgh, his tours and then on to Ellisland and Dumfries. A good proportion of this last session is spent on Robert’s collection of old songs, his own song writing and his collaboration with Thomson and Johnson in the publication of these works. We ask the children to “find the missing third verse” of “Up in the Morning Early”. As with a number of the songs featured in this section, we feature a recording of this to help the children to get into the mood.
Robert’s life with Jean Armour is obviously of great interest and the children seem to enjoy tales of their “marriage of attestation” and Robert’s three spells on the cutty stool at Mauchline Kirk. Time is spent on other aspects of Robert’s story, such as his work as an excise man, his health problems and of course his most famous poem, “Tam o’ Shanter”, which many class groups study around the time of their visits. We usually spend some light hearted time on the strong belief in witches and how they were “found guilty” of witchcraft. Curator Ian Wight plays a pivotal role in this. We have lots of questions from the children and over the last few years they have become quite searching. Usually we have enough directors/curators around to give the answers but “What team did Robert support?” stumped us all (although the Kilmarnock Supporters’ Club is very strong in Mauchline!)