Introduction to the Web Resources

The AHRC Beyond Text project, ‘Robert Burns: Inventing Tradition and Securing Memory, 1796-1909’ seeks to provide a detailed online catalogue of Burns’ statues and major public memorials, and also to establish a taxonomy of Burns-related objects from its period of study, chosen as representative dates (the poet’s death and the 150th anniversary of his birth) of the great age of public and private commemoration, which went into decline from 1914 onwards. Recorded within the database of public memorials are the major life-sized and heroic statues and monuments erected worldwide in Burns’s honour between 1796 and 1909. There were many hundreds more public memorials erected in memory of Burns during this period, but some of these have been destroyed or lost, and in some cases information on these memorials has not been located.  In terms of the smaller commemorative artefacts, there are so many objects that to list them all would be impossible: the creation of a taxonomy is designed to foreground the major kinds of objects produced in memory of Burns in the nineteenth century, the major markets at which they were aimed, and-most importantly-their contribution to the public or popular memory of Robert Burns.

The ways in which people remember are very important for personal history, and also the history of events (such as Dunkirk and the Blitz), groups and writers. In recent years, it has been increasingly recognized that oral history, which forms such a key part of the historical record in the last hundred years, and which is obviously closely linked to memory, can be unreliable. This unreliability manifests itself in different ways from the unreliability of traditional documentary evidence, and one of the key ways it does so is through a process which has been identified as ‘composure’ (v. Summerfield (2004), Alistair Thomson and others). Composure is the means by which memory is composed under the pressure of personal desire, group dynamics (‘we all saw this, don’t you remember seeing it too?’) or by the representation of experience which reinforces certain kinds of memories, or creates them in those who never experienced them. The myth of the Blitz, which focuses on social solidarity rather than stealing or looting in its representation of wartime London is one example, and it can be argued that the heavy degree of attention paid to representation of the Second World War through anniversaries and other collective solidarities, as well as through education and cultural representation, is designed to compose memory of the conflict in a certain way. Composure is most closely associated with the rise of the electronic media, and the role these have played in representing reality in a manner which can sometimes serve to alter recollections of experienced events. One of the research questions of this project was ‘can composure be extended to the world of the nineteenth century, before the rise of the electronic media, and if this is the case, did objects and memorials exercise as potent a seductive force on the authenticity of memory then as their electronic successors do now ?’

This approach faced a number of challenges. First and foremost, there is very little surviving oral history from the period before 1914, due to a lack of recording equipment. Written reminiscences lack the immediacy of an oral record, and are themselves mediated by experience and genre. At the same time, it seems very likely that certain forms of composure took place, because of the importance of public representation to statements of social value. To take only one early study of public memory, in The Revolutionary Festival, Mona Ozouf  (1976) identified the use of statues as a means of colonizing public space in the interest of projecting collective values in the French Revolutionary era, and their use in the nineteenth century was no less telling, as Christine MacLeod outlines in Heroes of Invention (2007). Indeed, MacLeod describes how hero-worship of public figures, such as poets, writers, and inventors, saw Britain go ‘statue mad’ in the Victorian period, resulting in a veritable explosion of public statuary and monuments being erected in urban green spaces, formal gardens and parks in tribute to, and in memory of, these (mostly male) figures.

It is clear that public memory, a term used here to indicate memories of events and individuals which compose the past to support an understanding of the present, is available across societies, has establishment sanction and promotes collective solidarities, was composed in this kind of way: how would Nelson be remembered without Nelson’s column for instance? At the same time, private and associational collective memories were also composed into what may be termed popular memory. A classic example of popular memory is to be found in what may be termed ethnographic romanticism: the idea that songs collected by antiquarian enthusiasts, ballad collectors or even academic fieldworkers, are the products of an oral tradition, passed on over centuries by tradition bearers, inoculated against the rise of print, one widely enunciated by those who do not work in the field, and the subject of mass market nostalgia, such as David Kerr Cameron’s The Ballad and the Plough (1978). Here a gulf still separates early modern historians and literary experts, who are well aware that most songs circulated through print media even in isolated communities as early as 1550-1700, and a persistent romancing strain that can still be found in more old fashioned ethnology, as well as among enthusiasts. Many tales and songs which seem the vehicles for personal and community identities are in fact rooted in mass-produced broadsides. Murray Pittock’s forthcoming edition of the Scottish Musical Museum in the Oxford Collected Burns under the general editorship of Gerry Carruthers will pursue this point in more detail.

So the task for this project was twofold: how was the public memory of Burns promoted through the many statues put up in his memory, the opening of which often drew large crowds; and how was his popular memory developed by both these and by the commemorative objects which helped the general public to a slice of the poet’s reputation and achievement through a multiplicity of souvenirs? Sometimes the objects drew on the statues, which-together with the Nasmyth painting-became iconic means of representing and remembering Burns through space and time under certain themes, which form the basis for the taxonomy.

Both the questions in the above paragraph are addressed in detail in the outputs arising from this project, including Christopher Whatley’s article on the ‘Memory and Material Culture in Focus’ area of this website. Among the most interesting findings of the project are those related to the composure of memory in respect of Highland Mary, Tam o’ Shanter, alcohol and nationality, to which, as the nineteenth century progressed, the written biographies and accounts of Burns increasingly responded, either by opposition or acquiescence. At the same time, a Burns canon formed which to some extent was the creation both of the texts chosen for public displays and private souvenirs of the poet.

The database of public memorials contains the following details on each public memorial;

  • The dates (where available) when the memorial was first mooted and then erected.
  • A description of the location of each memorial.
  • Details of the individual(s)/groups who instigated, planned and funded its erection.
  • Description of the memorial including the size, materials used in construction, and where relevant, information on additional carvings. Also recorded are any relocation/re-carving of the public memorials.
  • Information relating to the public response towards the statuary and monuments erected in Burns’s memory.
  • Biographies relating to the sculptors and architects who designed the public memorials to Robert Burns, recorded in the database.

The taxonomy adopts the following classifications (these are cross-referenced where appropriate):

  • Relics and relicware: usually ‘made from the wood’ associated with Burns’ life or events in it
  • Children
  • Conviviality, including smoking, drinking in a group
  • Cutting: chiefly the razor hone, strongly associated with the memorialization of Burns’ masculinity through ‘Tam o’ Shanter’.
  • Domestic: including sewing, smoking
  • Drinking
  • Gendered as ‘male’ in terms of its nineteenth-century market
  • Gendered as ‘female’ likewise
  • Highland Mary
  • National
  • Sexuality
  • Smoking
  • ‘Tam o’ Shanter’
  • Tourism

The 110 or so items annotated within the taxonomy represent a very large portion of the range of kinds of objects produced in connexion with Burns between the poet’s death 1796 and the 150th anniversary of his birth in 1909. As the visitor to this site reads through the list and studies the annotations two things become clear: first, that Burns was remembered in a relatively limited number of ways; and secondly, that those are principally the ways in which he is still remembered in popular memory, albeit that some of the themes, such as Highland Mary, resonated more with a Victorian audience than they do in our own day.

The 58 memorials listed here broadly represent the range of life- and heroic-sized statuary and public monuments erected in memory of Robert Burns between his death in 1796 and the 150th anniversary of his birth in 1909. Through studying the different types of memorials and the different representations of Burns, users of this site will become aware not only of the variety of ways Burns was presented in bronze and stone. In the final third of the period under review what amounted to an unofficial search for a ‘fitting memorial’ to Burns was in process, although just what this meant could depend upon the priorities of the commissioning committees, sculptors, art critics and indeed the public reception of memorials and statues. Visitors to this site will also become aware of the recurrent use of a relatively small number of Burns’s works, whether in the forms of engraved panels or other motifs. Illustrations of scenes from poems such as ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ and ‘The Cotter’s Saturday Night’ were particularly prevalent, but interesting questions arise as to how far there may have been a dichotomy or dichotomies between what was represented in this way and how Burns was received and understood by those who attended unveiling ceremonies or what they meant to those who later visited and observed Burns memorials and statues and reflected on their meaning.

The project team in Glasgow has examined hundreds if not thousands of Burns items, and the team from Dundee has studied numerous public memorials to Robert Burns, visiting, within the UK, a number of different private collections, repositories, archives and museums, in order to collate images and source material relating to these memorials. Accordingly the project teams are especially grateful to Albany Institute of Art & History, Albany, N.Y.; Angus Council Archives; East Ayrshire Council; South Ayrshire Archives; Burns House Museum; Carnegie Library, Dunfermline (Murison Collection); Dundee Burns Club; Dundee Local History Library; University of Dundee Archives Department; Ewart Library, Dumfries; Fredericton Society of St. Andrew; Glasgow Museums; The Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow; Liverpool City Council; Thomas Keith; McLean Museum and Art Gallery, Greenock;  Colin and Douglas Hunter McQueen; The Mitchell Library, Glasgow; National Library of Australia; National Library of Scotland; National Museums Scotland; NTS Robert Burns Birthplace Museum; Newcastle City Council; Gary Nisbet (Glasgow – City of Sculpture); Dr. Derek Patrick, University of Dundee; Perth Museum and Art Gallery; Perth & Kinross Council Archives; Frank R. Shaw F.S.A. Scot; The Robert Burns Club of Milwaukee; Tullie House Museum, Carlisle; Professor Michael Vance (University of Saint Mary, Halifax, Nova Scotia),State Library Victoria, Australia; The Dean and Chapter of Westminster Cathedral;  Alex Wilson. Our thanks go to the foregoing for granting access to their collections, taking images of memorials on the project’s behalf and for supplying the project with images, granting their permission to use these images within this site. Thanks also go to Chris McGlashan (Hatii, University of Glasgow) for IT support during the design of the web bases.



Christine MacLeod, Heroes of Invention. Cambridge, 2007.

Mona Ozouf, La Fête révolutionnaire, 1789-1799, Paris, 1976.

Penny Summerfield, ‘Culture and Composure: Creating Narratives of the Gendered Self in Oral History Interviews’, Cultural and Social History 1:1 (2004), 65-93.