Remembering Robert Burns, national poet of Scotland, with windowpanes of words

BY Lorna Baldwin  January 24, 2014 at 2:06 PM EST
In snowy Dumfries, Scotland, people gather around a statue of the national poet, Robert Burns, on January 25, the anniversary of his birth. Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

In snowy Dumfries, Scotland, people gather around a statue of the national poet, Robert Burns, on Jan 25, 2013, the anniversary of his birth. Photo by Jeff J. Mitchell/ Getty Images

The most widely recognized portrait of Robert Burns by Alexander Nasmyth.

The most widely recognized portrait of Robert Burns by Alexander Nasmyth, part of the collection of the National Galleries of Scotland.

Walk around the market town of Dumfries, Scotland, and at first glance you’ll see what looks like a kind of graffiti in the windowpanes — faint etchings in some, and in others verses written boldly in thick black pen. A few are the surviving work of Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns, etched into the glass centuries ago when he stayed at the Globe Inn. Others are the work of contemporary poets, writing to pay him tribute.

January 25th marks the 255th anniversary of Burns’ birth, and around the world, Scots and devotees of the poet alike will gather to commemorate the event with Burns Suppers — eating haggis, raising a wee dram of whisky (whiskey to us Americans), and most importantly, reading his poetry aloud. Burns was only 37 years old when he died, but was a prolific writer, giving the world “Auld Lang Syne,” “A Red, Red Rose” and “To a Mouse,” among others.


Listen to Scotsman and English professor Jonathan Sharp recite Burn’s “Address to a Haggis,” read at Burns Suppers as the haggis is cut open. (Full disclosure: Sharp is my cousin.)


In Dumfries, in addition to the Burns Night celebrations, the town has put on a display of new poems in the windowpanes of several of Burns’ old stomping grounds — The Globe Inn, The Coach and Horses Inn and the Robert Burns House Museum.

From left to right: a window display as part of the Burns Windows Project, the Burns House Museum and the Coach and Horses Inn. Photos by Hugh Bryden/Burns Windows Project

From left to right: poems displayed in a window, the Robert Burns House Museum and The Coach and Horses Inn. Photos by Hugh Bryden/Burns Windows Project

An etching about "lovely Polly Stewart" by Robert Burns in the window of the Globe Inn, Dumfries, Scotland. Photo by Peter Hughes

An etching about “lovely Polly Stewart” by Robert Burns in the window of the Globe Inn, Dumfries, Scotland. Photo by Peter Hughes

The Burns Windows Project started three years ago, and in that time has garnered submissions by poets from Scotland, England, Ireland, Scandinavia, Europe and the United States. The curators, artist Hugh Bryden and Glasgow University English literature lecturer David Borthwick, were inspired by Burns’ own window musings. Using a diamond stylus or possibly even a diamond ring, Burns would engrave his poetry or sometimes just his name in the windows of the places he stayed.

Bryden says they wondered what modern-day poets would write in the windows of a pub if given the chance. So in the first year they mailed out transparency sheets and permanent pens to poets near and far asking them to emulate Burns’ example but with a modern twist.

Photos by Hugh Bryden/Burns Windows Project

Fifty-six poems, like those displayed above, were submitted this year, written on transparency sheets, and displayed in Dumfries windows. Photo by Hugh Bryden/Burns Windows Project

The subject matter of the poetry they get back each year is varied — from dogs to trees to the tennis great Roger Federer. Bryden says, “We only accepted poems which were the poets own work, written in their own handwriting and signed.” Now, because of rising postage costs, poets are asked to mail their work in or submit it electronically. Bryden says it’s the individual handwriting that helps makes the project so special. This year’s poems will remain on display around Dumfries until mid-February.