Making his Mark: The Hand-Engravings of Robert Burns

Whilst Robert Burns may have left his mark in the many poems and sonnets he wrote in his time, he left a more literal impression behind that many are unaware of. In the 224 years since the Bard’s death, over 24 inscriptions have been found throughout Scotland, carefully etched on glass windowpanes, tankards, pewter plates and more. A most traditional graffiti artist, his work is a lasting reminder of his brilliance, penmanship and cheeky attitude that grew his status across the world.

Burns was born in 1759 in Alloway, a few miles south of Ayr. Whilst the beginnings of his life saw him home schooled by his farmer father William, his quick wit and talent with words became evident when he crafted his first poem at 15 to a local love interest. By the time Burns was exploring the wider world of Edinburgh at 27 years of age, he had written almost 100 poems, had one child (with two on the way) and amassed an army of loyal fans with the success of his first collection of work, “Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect” becoming a huge success.

It was in the same year of 1786 that Burns was introduced to James Cunninghame, the Earl of Glencairn via the Earl’s brother-in-law Dalrymple of Orangefield. The two immediately hit it off, with the Earl gifting Burns a diamond point pen; a stylus or cutter used to fashion engravings into glass. Burns’ career as an artist of a different kind began. 

A similar “pen” used today by the hand-engravers at Hamilton & Inches.

The first example of Burns’ poetry of a different nature was at The Inn at Inverary in June 1787. It seems the trip was not to his satisfaction. The recipient of his visit – the Duke of Argyll – was occupied, so Rabbie decided to spend the remaining time of his trip enjoying his most favourite pastime, downing ale in a nearby pub. Unfortunately, it seemed the Innkeeper, too, had other more pressing concerns as Burns waited and waited to be served. The result was a permanent review, etched on the window of the Inn:

"Whoe'er he be that sojourns here,
I pity much his case.
Unless he comes to wait upon
The lord their god, His Grace.

There's naething here but Highland pride,
And Highland scab and hunger;
If Providence has sent me here,
'Twas surely in an anger."

It was that same summer that Robert found himself in the small village of Kirkliston; an ancient area home to the first parliament in Scottish history, the camping ground of Edward Longshanks on his way to fight William Wallace and Burns’ next work of window art.

 

“The ants about their clod employ their care,
And think the business of the world is theirs;
Lo: Waxen combs seem palaces to bees.
And mites conceive the world to be a cheese.”

Little is known about his visit to the village or where the windowpane of Castle House’s remains is today, but the area is still known as Cheesetown; perhaps incorrectly attributed to the making of the Forth Bridge workers’ sandwiches.

And so Burns went on, engraving his way across Falkirk, Dunkeld, Port Glasgow, Dumfries and beyond. He offered regular scathing personal opinions on leadership, love and disobedience at being told his duty “was to act, not to think”. His response?

 

In politics if thou would'st mix,
And mean thy fortunes be;
Bear this in mind, be deaf and blind, 
Let great folks hear and see.”

Whilst his inscriptions would not have garnered such quick international attention as Banksy may do today, they were a symbol of rebellion - an 18th century tweet or social media post to be consumed by many ordinary folks. His non-conventional way of mass-communicating may seem familiar to us now, but in that time was seen as a stamp of defiance.

Of course, not all his etchings were quite so public as in the window of an Inn. On one occasion, he hand-engraved a verse onto a pewter plate, simply thanking his host for a good meal.

 

My blessings on ye, honest wife!
I ne’er was here before;
Ye’ve wealth o’ gear for spoon and knife-
Heart could not wish for more.
Heav’n keep you clear o’ sturt and strife,
Till far ayont fourscore,
And while I toddle on thro’ life,
I’ll ne’er gae by your door!

And so, it seems, the tradition of hand-engraving on quaichs, cups and plates began, particularly when it comes to items used in yearly Burns’ Suppers. Whether you are looking to engrave an item for use or to keep on proud display, our hand-engravers, drawing inspiration from Burns, can work with you to capture the brilliance of his words and pioneering wit that have stood the test of time.

Many of the techniques and tools used by Burns are still commonplace by hand-engravers today. A unique set of skills that allows a moment in time to be marked, or, in the case of Burns, a meal to be celebrated. Find out more about our hand-engraving services.

 

An inscription etched into a glass pane at The Cross Keys Inn in Falkirk.