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A Highlander and his Books
Burns Illustrated

A Book Review By Frank R. Shaw, FSA SCOT, Atlanta, GA, USA, email: 

A Short Study of Selected Illustrations

The Poems and Songs of Robert Burns


Robert Hay Carnie

 Written in the year 2000, this scarce book is one every Burns scholar, collector, and enthusiast should have in his or her library if they are lucky enough to find a copy! The book is the twenty-fifth anniversary project of the Calgary Burns Club, and I am not exaggerating when I tell you that it is a very special publication. One of the reasons I admire the Calgary club is they do not simply “meet to eat” but they put their money behind great projects that benefit their community and the Burns and Scottish population at large. This book is a fine example of their philanthropic involvement.

I did not have the honor of meeting the author before his death last year, but since studying his book and talking with people who knew Bob Carnie, I feel as if I had known him a long time. The loss is certainly mine.

This is a book of and about illustrations, one hundred of them, black and white with text.  Halfway through the book you will find 16 pages of color photos.  Beautiful.  Fascinating. A treasure! The oldest of the black and white illustrations date back to 1796 and the latest is dated 1925.  In each illustration the author has combined the works of “a good pictorial artist and our great verbal artist,” Robert Burns.  Carnie calls this “a form of artistic partnership between author and artist” even though the artist is working at a much later date than the author. The work of the artist becomes a “pictorial comment” of a scene or a passage of Robert Burns. Carnie had a fondness of highly illustrated books and enjoyed a wide collection in his own personal library. From his collection sprang the idea to compile and write BURNS ILLUSTRATED.  I have a few of these illustrated books about Burns, and it is evident that the publishers employed artists or designers to decorate the book covers to appeal to the eye of the purchaser.  After all, the idea was to sell the book!  What we have here are illustrations of the poems and songs, Scottish and non-Scottish, written or rewritten by Burns.

There is no way we can go through the entire collection in this review, but to illustrate let us turn to one particular Burns masterpiece, John Anderson, My Jo, long identified by me as my favorite Burns song.  It is a song on aging, of a couple growing old together. It is the wife who is “indulging in that favourite occupation of older couples, nostalgic reminiscences of earlier times”.  She remembers her husband’s appearance as a younger man with locks of black hair like a raven and mentions his current loss of hair and “frosty pow” (head) as an old man.  She actually says to John, “Your locks are like the snaw”.  In the second stanza she talks of the many happy times they had climbing hills together and of overcoming the difficulties experienced in life together. Carnie acknowledges that “togetherness” is the key to their happy and successful marriage.  Together they shared many things.  Each spouse always knew the other offered a hand to hold and a heart to understand and forgive.  Call it the gift of love!

With reference to the song, the author states, “The last four lines deal with that necessary acceptance of mortality which is required for a couple to grow old peacefully and to have faith that at the end they will sleep together.”

                                  Now we maun totter down, John,                   (must)
And hand in hand we’ll go,
                                        And sleep thegither at the foot,                      (together)
John Anderson my jo!

The illustration Carnie chose for these verses is by the talented artist George Hay (1831-1912) who “specialised in pictures of Scottish life”. The revelation of the illustration is indeed remarkable. Holding hands, the pair is looking into each other’s eyes.  She is sitting on a small stool, and he is on a chair.  They are dressed simply but well.  (I’m reminded here of Sir Walter’s Scott’s description of Burns when the young Scott met Burns on his first trip to Edinburgh.) The room displays a spinning wheel (hers) and on the table is an open book (his). It may be John’s bible. A pitcher hangs on the wall as does a picture and a basket sits on the floor. While the room seems sparsely furnished, the items appear adequate. Are they rich? No! Are they happy? Yes! Look at their faces. They have discovered the true meaning of love having lived together so long.

The one missing fact that would add a little more to the song is the wife’s name. For some reason she remains anonymous. I’ve never heard anyone mention why she is not identified. In addition, and ironically, there is no mention of children or grandchildren. While Burns knew about the former, he knew nothing of the latter. Dying at the age of 37, we must remember that Burns did not have the luxury of living to an old age and drawing on a full life of experiences that include grandchildren. But, he is more than able to draw on the love he depicted between John Anderson and his wife. To me the greatest word in the song is “jo”. A favorite meaning to some is “sweetheart” but among other meanings is joy, darling, lover or dear. The interpretation I prefer is “love”. No wonder it is used over and over by John’s wife. She is simply saying, “John Anderson, my love”! After growing old together, could anything be sweeter?  And might I add:

“Grow old along with me!
The Best is yet to be,
The last of life,
For which the first was made.
(Robert Browning)

BURNS ILLUSTRATED has become one of my favorite books. It is a book full of golden nuggets about Robert Burns. It is a book the average Burnsian will go back to time after time for more insight or personal edification. This is particularly true if like me you are a Burns speaker or writer. While the subject may be based on another era in Scottish history, the messages and interpretations are as fresh as fallen snow. If you really want to give someone you love a meaningful gift, look no further. BURNS ILLUSTRATED is just the present for you. Keep this book in mind for that special gift – birthday, anniversary and don’t forget Christmas is coming. Just email Jim Osborne, Proprietor of The Scottish Shoppe in Calgary, at The book sells for $175 Canadian plus 5% GST (in Canada) and $20 postage. You can pay by Visa, MasterCard, or Canadian bank draft.

Or you can order the book at this address:

The Scottish Shoppe
1206-17th Avenue S.W.
Calgary AB T2T 0B8

(FRS: 10.30.08)

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