Burns: The Belfast Connection

Belfast's Linen Hall Library celebrates the famed Scots poet Robert Burns ahead of Burns Night on January 25

In musical terms, the Three B’s are, of course, Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. At one time in Ireland, however, the Three B’s were actually the Bible, Burns and Belfast.

So great was the popularity of the writing of Robert Burns, the Scottish Bard, in the 19th century that in many Irish homes, especially in Belfast, the only two books a family might own was a Bible and The Collected Works of Robert Burns.

This legacy is celebrated this January in Belfast's Linen Hall Library with an exhibition featuring extensive archive Burns-related materials from the Library’s Gibson Collection. The exhibition runs until January 31, with other events scheduled to take place on Burns Night on January 25.

Robert Burns (1759-1796) is celebrated across the world on Burns Night, on the anniversary of his birthday. The tradition of the 'Burns Supper' includes readings from his works, a Scottish piper and haggis, with toasts and replies.

In Canada and Russia, Burns is viewed as a kind of de facto patron poet, and in America, interest in his work and life is kept alive by Burns Societies across the country. He has been commemorated in musical theatre, and singers and instrumentalists still record his songs.

The Gibson Collection contains some 2,000 items and as such is the largest collection of Burns material outside of Scotland. Andrew Gibson (1841-1931) was a governor of the Linen Hall Library and privately collected material relating to the life and work of Robert Burns. It consists mainly of books and other papers, but also some portraits, prints and ephemera.

The collection was given to the library in 1901, paid for by public subscription. Patrons raised £1,000 – the equivalent of almost £86,000 today. Other items, including ceramic, pewter and glass artefacts, have been added across the years to the library’s store of Burns material, some as recently as the last few months.

These are included in the exhibition, along with a reproduction of a stained glass panel depicting Burns, which is one of a number in the library commemorating writers of significance, commissioned in 1892 for the current Donegall Square North library premises. Shakespeare and Thomas Moore also have stained glass window panels there.

A journey through the exhibitions begins at the top of the stairs of the Linen Hall Library’s Fountain Street entrance, with information screens featuring texts by the Ulster Scots Community networks that set the scene, and begin to convey the importance of Burns, his legacy and universal appeal.

Burns transcended the religious divisions in Ireland and his use of language resonated strongly with many. 'Even in well-thumbed old copies, the glossary at the back will generally be untouched, since many of the Scots words were common in Ulster and needed no explanation,' says John Killen, chief librarian.

The rest of the exhibition is housed in a series of cabinets across two floors of the library, and each year examples of the Burns material are chosen for their historic, scholarly and aesthetic appeal. The second edition of the Collected Poems of Burns is in the Gibson collection, published in Edinburgh in 1787, as well as the pirated ‘Belfast’ edition, taken from that Edinburgh edition. (Copyright restrictions didn’t apply in those days, as they would today).

The library has re-printed a facsimile edition of that book, which is also accessible from the LHL website as a turn-page book, identified as one of its 'e-treasures'. There are also books of poems by other writers, produced to commemorate anniversaries of Burns’ birth, notably the 100th. One such book was produced for the 111th anniversary of his birthday, celebrated in Delmonico’s Hotel, New York City, in 1870.

Some of the items on view in the exhibition came from Burns’ own library. A volume of pamphlets shows a dedication page indicating that he passed it to his granddaughter.

Another group of small books celebrate the writings of other poets, with 'RB' engraved on the cover, though according to Killen, those initials were added by someone other than Burns as a means of underscoring the identity of their former owner. Some of the most evocative pages are found in the shape of facsimile texts in Burns’ own handwriting.


To Killen, the intrinsic value of the exhibition and collection is in the 'potential for significant research on Burns and his writings, as well as the cult of Burns that grew during his lifetime and after.' For example, a volume of Burns’ poetry translated into German, published in Leipzig in 1893, might inspire research into the continental printing of Burns.

A menu for a Burns commemorative supper held n the Metropolitan Hotel gives a glimpse into the ways in which the Burns legacy manifested itself in pseudo-Scots cookery. There are other commemorative items: texts of speeches given at memorial events, examples of correspondence with some of Burns’ descendents and also commemorative stamps.

Some of the extensive number of the collection’s Scottish music books are also part of the exhibition, with beautiful illustrations typical of volumes produced in the early days of commercial printing. These books, in terms of their number and quantity, align themselves with the Linen Hall Library’s Bunting Collection of Irish Music.

The spines and covers of many of the other books on display are fantastically ornate; evocative of another world and providing a glimpse of the glory-days of book binding.

As much as anything, the beauty of the books is indicative of the popularity and eminence of Burns as a writer, songsmith and poet. And the conservation, cataloguing and display of the Gibson Collection ensure that his legacy in Ulster is preserved for generations to come.

Burns: The Belfast Connection continues in the Linen Hall Library, Befast until January 31. Visit the Linen Hall Library website for information on other Burns Night events.