Windows For Burns Night Back

Between 1791 and 1796, shortly before his early death, Robert Burns etched a series of verses on five panes of an upstairs window in the Globe Inn, Dumfries. Alterations in graphology, subject and form suggest he inscribed the verses on various different occasions, when carousing lead to a night in the inn rather than a stumble home. In the nineteenth century, when the Burns memorial industry was flourishing, the Globe’s hard-up landlord removed and sold three of the five panes. The local Burns Howff [haunt] Club, established in 1889, tried to buy them back in 1903, to no avail. Recently, these five panes have been a source of renewed interest and controversy. In 2011 the displaced panes took up a permanent position in the newly established Robert Burn’s Birthplace Museum in Alloway. The Burn Howff club wanted them back in Dumfries; The Burn’s Birthplace Museum considered themselves a more secure home. A compromise was reached: in October 2011, facsimiles of the three removed panes were replaced into their original positions.

This narrative will be familiar to anyone interested in literary tourism and heritage. As soon as an object associated with a revered author is removed from the original setting which cements its connection with the dead author, whether for money, conservation, or both, the worth of the setting becomes as contested as it is valued. How is such an object best preserved? In the place it is associated with, in the same constant danger it has been in for a hundred years, or in the protected environment of a technologically advanced museum? In The Great Museum (1984), Donald Horne gives a depressing vision of the latter situation, in which the exhibit is treated ‘like a patient in an intensive care ward […] its temperature and humidity being tested several times during the day as if it were still near death.’ (p. 17) As Patrick Wright argues in On Living in an Old Country (1985), ‘given an entropic view of history, it is axiomatic that ‘heritage’ should be in danger […] the struggle to ‘save’ it can only be a losing battle.’ (p.73) This is a notion heritage and tourism centres continue to struggle with, and scholars continue to question.

My research on Dove Cottage and the Wordsworth Trust has shown me how contemporary creativity can act as a powerful counterbalance to this conception that what matters in our literary heritage is inevitably, and irrevocably, passing from us. The Windows For Burns Night project provides an excellent example of this in practice. The project was conceived by Dumfrieshire artist-poet Hugh Bryden of Roncadora Press, and Scottish/Contemporary Literature scholar Dave Borthwick of Glasgow University, after the replacing of the panes in 2011. The idea was simple: to offer contemporary poets the chance to inscribe their own verses on the windows of Dumfries. The aim was to show poetry and Burns heritage were both alive and well in Dumfries and beyond.

In January 2012 over 90 poems were displayed in the windows of the Globe Inn, the Coach and Horses Inn, and the Stove arts centre in Dumfries. They included poems in Scots and English, by internationally renowned poets and local school children. The poems had been handwritten in permanent marker by the poets on Melanex sheets cut to the correct sizes for the window panes. This limited their length and form in interesting ways. The process fore-fronted the handwritten, handcrafted nature of poetry, as revealed through the painstaking and sometimes barely legible Burns originals. After a public vote of Globe Inn customers, Paisley poet Kris Haddow’s ‘On Times Austere’ was chosen to be added to the infrastructure of the Globe: etched on a pane to be installed in its own window. In this way the creativity of the past is here directly and actively inspiring the creativity of the present and future, and leaving its own somewhat more legible record.

The most apt of the 2012 poems were chosen to be included in a pamphlet published by Roncadora in January 2013, reproducing the handwritten format. The pamphlet brings the project to a wider audience, as well as supporting its own future: it is otherwise unfunded. The poems in the pamphlet were chosen for their aptness to context. Some deal explicitly with their famous precursors, such as Andrew Greig’s succinct:
      I am the clear glass
      And the scratch that remains
      When you are gone
Others are more oblique, such as Helen Mort’s fragment from ‘Desire’, opening, ‘Suppose desire’s a kind of windowpane/unwashed for years’. Some quote or speak back to some of Burns’ better-known lyrics, such as Stephanie Green’s ‘My Luve’, which opens ‘O, my luve is like a sleekit beastie’. Some deal explicitly with ideas of Scottish literary heritage and literary tourism, such as Paula Jenning’s ‘The poet is in there somewhere’ which asks ‘What do the shortbread pedlars know?’ Through the poems, the placement of them, and the pamphlet, a conversation is opened up about the role of Scotland’s literary heritage, and the role of poetry in community, locality, and daily life.

The project has run again in 2013, with some variations. Costs were cut by having the poets email in scans of their handwritten poems, which were then printed onto Melanex sheets. Condensation problems in some of the windows lead to some of the printed transparencies dripping letters, giving the impression to some that Rabbie’s ghost, purported to frequent the Globe still, had been playing with the verses as with fridge poetry. This glitch was resolved, but highlights the combination of old and new technologies, and digital and hand-craft at play in this project. As with the original etchings, and similar markings elsewhere, the window poems can be hard to read. I visited on a rare sunny Saturday, and read the poems through reflections of Dumfries street-scenes, swatches of sky, and my own image. Squint and this was flipped, as I tried to pick out dark lettering against the light and dark interiors of the pubs. Again, it struck me that the historical and the contemporary were combined remarkably neatly in this reading experience: the traditional red-standstone buildings blurring into scuttling Saturday shoppers with bags and pushchairs in the glass.

In etching the pub windows in the 1790s, Rabbie was placing himself in a long tradition of vandalistic poets, and no doubt encouraging many more (not least Tony Harrison’s scrawled autograph on Dove Cottage’s upstairs window). Not that many contemporary poets carry diamond styluses however, nor would many pubs or landlords allow them back after the first offense. This project allows a sanctioned way to partake of this tradition, for readers and writers. As a Romanticist, a literary tourism scholar, and a poet, I can’t help but be delighted by this project, and its sometimes uneven results. It combines intertextuality, Romantic legacies, literary heritage, and contemporary writing in an exciting, innovative and practical way. Importantly, it brings together writers and the community they are sometimes invisible within. The technical difficulties that result in some poems being hard to read in certain lights or under certain atmospheric conditions only make it more interesting to me, though I can see how others might find the illegibility or inaccessibility of some of the poems (particularly from the street) frustrating. For me it only adds to the interconnections. I wished I could have spent some lazy hours sitting in the Globe or Coach and Horses with a guid drink, and experiencing the poems as regulars would: as just marks on the window, that happened to be words in a particular order. To me, that is living with poetry in the best and most useful way: when it is not exceptional, but part of the everyday fabric of things, the background noise of living history.