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Welcome to Wellwood

  [update] [Robert Burns Index]

By JOAN BIGGAR Ayrshire Writer   joanbiggar@ayrshireroots.com 

The article first appeared in the Scots Magazine in January 1979

 

The Saltire was fluttering above the Burns Museum at Wellwood in Irvine’s Eglinton Street when I called. But any illusions that it might be in my honour faded when I remembered that the date was November 3oth, the day dedicated to Scotland’s patron saint.  

Wellwood is the headquarters of Irvine Bums Club, and an Aladdin’s cave of treasures, all in the capable charge of steward Mr David Smith and his charming wife Madge. It was she who welcomed me warmly and showed me round the place, which is a source of endless interest not only to Burns lovers-but to students of Scottish life and literature ; and of graphology too, for reasons which soon became apparent.  

“ We are open to the public every Saturday between 2.30 and 5 p.m., and at other times by appointment,” Madge told me. “ We often get visits from Burns clubs, school parties and foreign delegations, and various local clubs and societies meet here in the  evenings. Yet strangely enough, I sometimes suspect more people would visit us if there was an admission charge. People tend to appreciate things they have to pay for.” 

The entrance to the Burns Club and Museum. The lamp-post is a reminder that this was formerly the house of a provost of the town.

Although admission to Wellwood is free, the Museum Fund donation box, strategically placed in the entrance hall, bears a gentle reminder that all contributions will be gratefully received. “ Wha does the utmost that he can will whiles dae mair,” coaxes the slogan.  

Irvine Burns Club was formed in 1826, and of the twelve founder members, some had been personal friends of the poet.

The first president was Dr John McKenzie, near whose Mauchline residence Robert and Jean first set up house as man and wife in a single room which, nevertheless, was big enough to contain a magnificent, red-curtained, mahogany bed. In that bed, on a mattress filled with seabirds’ down, Jean was delivered of twins with Dr McKenzie’s help, and during my visit to Wellwood, Madge showed me a small wooden box the treen ware for which Mauchline is well known, made from the bedstock of the famed four-poster.  

David Sillar, a well-loved crony of Burns, and a man after his own heart, was vice-president. Referred to by the poet as “ dainty Davie ” and “ ace o hearts,” David Sillar, too, wrote verse and published two volumes of it. He was also a fine fiddler, and Burns envied this musical talent, as his own attempts to master the violin were unsuccessful.  

From the small group who celebrated their first Burns supper at the Crown Hotel, Irvine, on January 25, 1827, the club has grown and now has some 500 members, and many literally priceless possessions. “ It may not be the oldest Burns club,” Madge said, “ but it is certainly the one with the longest continuous records.”  

Although the fact that she is English means she has to take some teasing, Madge could riot be more proud of the Irvine Burns Club and Museum if she was an Ayrshire lassie born and bred. The first thing that impressed me about Wellwood was its light, bright atmosphere. The house was a bequest from Messrs Robert and J. Graham Paterson, and thanks to other bequests the Irvine Burns Club had funds to form the museum and have a steward’s house built behind it. Far from being fusty, dusty or musty, the entrance hall of Wellwood is decorated in white and Wedgwood blue which forms the perfect background for the fresh, lively paintings of Glasgow artist Angus Scott, depicting scenes from Tam 0’ Shanter. 

 “ My husband says I posed for that one,” smiled Madge, indicating Tam’s wife, “ nursing her wrath to keep it warm, ” as she waited for her husband’s return to Shanter Farm

The tasteful decor of the hall is continued in the cosy reference librarv, which invites study and 2000 books, only a tenth of which are directly concerned with Burns and his work. There is a collection of old Scottish chapbooks, and sections devoted entirely to three other famous writers with Ayrshire connections : John Gait, Edgar Allan Poe and James Montgomery, known in his time as “ the Christian poet.”

Still more books are treasure-trove for the student of Scottish life at the time of Burns. All of the books were donated to the club over the past century and a half, by friends at home and abroad, including a Japanese ambassador. Two recent donations came from the late Russian poet David Marshak, and the very much alive Scots one, Maurice Lindsay.

The reference library is contained in the Hogg Room, named after an Irvine family closely connected with the Burns club. Provost Hogg, the president of 1905, donated many volumes, as did other past presidents, A. F. McJanett and J. N. Hall. It was thanks to these three that the main part of the library was established, and I could have browsed there happily all day, dipping into The Sots Reader, an anthology of prose and verse by Scats writers compiled by Alex Macmillan, a former rector of Irvine Academy. Commissioned bv the Burns Federation, this is a a recent addition to the library. But there are a great many other attractions in Wellwood, and Madge had no difficulty in luring me away to the main room.

The side of the door facing the hall was painted like the others in bright blue, but on the reverse it resembled a door of the late eighteenth century. On stepping over the threshold I found myself back in 1781, the year Burns came to Irvine seeking his fortune as a flax dresser.

Murals entirely covering the walls depicted the important events of the poet’s life while in the town, and had a three-dimensional effect which made the scenes and characters spring to life. It was an eventful period for the young man, during which he made many friends, including Willie Templeton, an Irvine bookseller, who gave the then budding poet the freedom of his shop. But the work of heckling flax took its toll of Burns’ health, and by- his own admission, the only emotion he felt on seeing his business premises go up in flames after a New Year party to welcome in 1782, was relief. 

It was easy to realise how dreary and distasteful the tedious task of raking tow must have been when I examined the heckling gear displayed in the room. The rough flax fibres, appropriately called “ the weary pun o’ tow,” had to be drawn again and again through beds of nails resembling giant pincushions until the flax was rendered fine as silk. The murals include a picture of the poet at work. The paintings are the inspired creations of Mr and Mrs H. E. Odling, a husband and wife team of artists, and I fancied I could see the whiskers of a mouse in the corner twitching, so lifelike are the scenes. “ When we have children in the museum I sometimes ask one of them to pass me the key,” said Madge, referring to the large iron key which appeared to hang by the fireplace but is, in fact, painted on the wall. “ They are enchanted by the paintings, and can hardly believe some of the objects - like the books on the table there - aren’t the real thing !”  

The hearth itself is real enough, and the kind at which bonnie, bustling Jean Armour Burns must have busied herself. Here the visitor can see all the labour-saving devices of years gone by. The swee bar with adjustable hooks on which a trio of pots can be suspended so that the contents cook at different temperatures, as though on the rings of a modern cooker ; the device for toasting bannocks : the iron, heated by sliding open a hollow with hot coals, and the goffering iron. Jean could use the latter to crispen her husband’s ruffled shirts and to curl her own hair - at the risk of burning her fingers. By the hearth stands a spinning-wheel, and also a baby’s cradle ; something never emptv “for long in the Burns home during Robert’s lifetime ! 

When I returned to the 20th century I was glad to have the opportunity of studying other attractions, in a tranquil room where the only sounds were the ticking of a grandfather clock and the rustle of turning pages.

Amongst the greatest treasures of Wellwood are the original manuscripts of poems submitted to the printer for Burns’ Kilmarnock edition of 1786. The manuscripts include that of The Cotter’s Saturday Night, which in 1953 was loaned to the British Council for display at ” Le Livre Anglais ” exhibition in Paris and insured for £20,000. The idea of that very Scottish work being regarded as an example of “ the English Book ” might have amused Burns  -or would it? 

Looking at the Bard’s handwriting I reflected that a graphologist would probably see the poet’s idealism in the soaring, upward strokes and the fact that ranting, roving Robin had a good conceit of himself in the elaborate capitals he formed with “ old Stumpie ” as he called his quill. The signatures of the many world famous honorarv members of Irvine Burns Club might also disclose some secrets. 

The practice of offering honorary membership to a chosen few began with the founders and the first men selected were two writers who were natives of Ayrshire, namely John Galt and James Montgomery. Their letters of delighted acceptance were preserved, and followed by many more, resulting in a truly amazing collection of holograph letters spanning a century and a half.

Everyone in the news was soon also in the Irvine Burns Club. Poets such as Bridges, Browning, Tennyson, Masefield and Longfellow ; Dickens, Hardy, Thackeray, Compton Mackenzie, A. Conan Doyle, S. R. Crockett and all the other popular novelists whose books were best sellers ; playwrights including George Bernard Shaw ; servicemen

and war heroes ranging from Douglas Haig to Douglas Bader, and not only British ones like Montgomery, Mountbatten and Jellicoe, but Marshall Foch, Garibaldi and General Eisenhower, later to become president.

Many other presidents and Prime Ministers are here, too, including Churchill, Chamberlain, Home, Macmillan, Wilson, Lloyd George, and Roosevelt. The Ayrshire discoverer of penicillin, Alexander Fleming, has not been forgotten, nor have explorers like Hunt and Hillary, and there are also the signatures of famous actors and musicians.

The letters gave the distinct impression that however successful a man appeared to be, he hadn’t really made it to the top until he was an honorary member of Irvine Burns Club. Amongst more recent acceptances are those from Willy Brandt, James Callaghan and Henry Kissinger. 

It must be admitted that supporters of Women’s Lib and sex equality would see strong evidence of male chauvinism in the holograph letters. They would seek for the names of women in vain, whether distinguished writers like the Brontes, war heroines such as Edith Cavell, or anyone who made political historv like Christabel Pankhurst. The sole ladv honorary member is the late Miss Margaret Hogg, a benefactor of the club and for many years custodian of its treasures. 

While I was perusing the letters, Madge placed two volumes of Burns’ poems on the big mahogany table. One of these was richly bound in scarlet leather and inlaid with gold. The other was a facsimile of the Kilmarnock Edition as it first appeared, in paperback, in 1786. 

“ The gold embellished copy came from America and cost £4,000,” Madge told me. “ The other was priced at three shillings, which was a vast amount in 1786. The greatest proof of Burns’ popularity in Ayrshire is that people clubbed together to buy a copy.” 

It certainly was, for in 1786 many folk had to bring up young families on a wage of five shillings a week ; and this was considered sufficient with cod at a penny a pound, beef fourpence a pound, and chickens sixpence a pair. But a book was a luxury beyond most pockets. How many readers of today would spend the best part of a week’s wages on a paperback? Especially when the poems it contained were by a hitherto unpublished writer. 

The name of Robert Burns had already appeared in print though. During the year 1783 The Glasgow Mercury carried amongst columns of small type the names of those who had paid a premium for flax raising and the fact that “ Robert Burns, Lochlie ” was amongst them has made the newspaper a collector’s item which the museum considered a bargain buy at £150. 

Another place in which his name was entered was Dr Fleming’s daybook. While Burns was in Irvine he visited the local surgeon four times in one week, which shows how bad he must have been feeling. The medicines prescribed were the usual stock mixtures of the time, and provide no clue as to the exact nature of the bard’s illness, consisting of aloes, tincture of rhubarb, which in 1781 had something of the mystique ascribed to ginseng, and Peruvian bark today. Probably the poet found a trip to Templeton’s book shop more of a tonic than any of these remedies. 

Darkness was falling by the time I left Wellwood to call on a local Burns enthusiast, Mr Andrew Hood. A plumbing contractor to trade, Andrew was the last burgess of Irvine in 1977, and also the secretary of the Burns Club. By a strange coincidence the president that year was Alexander Rubie, the last Provost of the burgh of Irvine, so Alex and Andrew are likely to go down in history.

“ One of the things which keeps the club thriving,” Andrew told me, “ is the interest it holds for Irvine children. During the Marymass week in August there are three evenings when prize-winners of competitions organised by all the local schools entertain the public at concerts held in Wellwood. Admission to these events is entirely free and everyone is welcome.” 

The schools’ projects in preparation for Marymass are not confined to the works of Burns, but cover creative writing by the pupils, and Scots songs and poems “The book Bairnsangs is a popular source,” Andrew told me. “We used to find we were getting half a dozen classes reciting extracts from Tam 0’ Shanter, but now the scope has widened greatly. Greenwood Academy in particular show a keenness for creative writing by the pupils. 

No doubt the youngsters will follow their parents into the Irvine Burns Club and its feminine spin-off, “ The Lassies,” who meet regularly at Wellwood. For this is a town in which traditions never die. On the contrary, they strengthen and the Marymass fair of the Middle Ages has developed into a ten-day carnival with not only the crowning of the Marymass queen and horse racing on the moors above the town, but a welter of events ranging from dog shows and discos to the whammy diddling championship, something unique to Irvine.  

If you visit the town during the third week of August you’ll be able to join in the fun, and by no means the least of it could be a visit to Wellwood for a fascinating look back at Scotland’s past and the life and times of one of her most famous sons. 

Update

Wellwood still has free admission and is open from Easter to September on Mon. Wed. Fri. Sat. from 2.30 till 4.30 and in winter months on Saturday 2.30 till 4.30. There is a most enjoyable audio video presentation on the time Burns spent in Irvine, an expanded museum area and a small concert hall as well as the areas described here.  What was Madge's accommodation is now also part of the Museum. David Smith or Norman Smith are there to guide you around the various rooms and exhibits.

See also the website for the Irvine Burns Museum

 

 

 

   

 

 

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