Monday, January 26, 2015

Monday Exposure: Burns Monument

Yesterday was Burns Night here in Scotland. Generally held on Robert Burns' birthday (Jan. 25) — though it can be held on any night of the year — a Burns Night celebrates the poetry and life of Scotland's greatest poet. It often includes, among other things, a haggis brought in to the playing of a bagpipe, a recitation of Burns' famous poem Address to a Haggis, a whisky toast to the haggis, a haggis supper, songs and speeches, poetry recitations, and finally a rousing singalong to Auld Lang Syne.

Scotland has many statues and monuments to Burns. The best one, sited in Alloway where Burns was born and raised, was the first major monument to Burns after his untimely death in 1796. Completed in 1823, the monument was built with funds (£3,247) raised from 700 members of the (upper class) public to commemorate Scotland's own "Bard."

Robert Burns Monument in Alloway, Scotland
The Robert Burns Monument in Alloway, Scotland, where Burns was born.
The monument is actually a small neo-Greek temple, intermixed with some Masonic elements. It rises 70 feet into the air, supported by a triangular base. Within the base are a few statues depicting a scene from Burns' most famous poem, the bawdy Tam o'Shanter. Nine Corinthian pillars, representing the nine Greek Muses, rest atop a circle and a pentagon. A tripod surmounts the dome.

Tam O'Shanter statues by James Thom
Tam O'Shanter statues by James Thom.
Its architect, Thomas Hamilton, based his Burns temple specifically on the ancient Lysicrates Monument in Athens. He was part of a widespread Greek revival movement in Britain, inspired in large part by a 1762 book, The Antiquities of Athens and Other Monuments of Greece, by authors James "Athenian" Stuart and Nicholas Revett.

Lysicrates Monument depicted in The Antiquities of Athens
Lysicrates Monument in The Antiquities of Athens
Built more than 2,300 years ago, the Lysicrates Monument commemorated a winning Greek chorus in a drama competition, whose job was to chant and sing the poetry for the play. The monument contains a frieze dedicated to Dionysus, the god of wine, which is a fitting counterpoint to the bacchanalian drinking and lusting in Burns' Tam O'Shanter.

Hamilton made use of the Lysicrates Monument and his own Burns Monument just a few years later when building a second Burns monument in Edinburgh. That second monument was so similar to this Alloway monument that Hamilton did not even charge the patrons for the design. The monument in Edinburgh was completed in 1831.

Soffit of the Burns Monument dome
The soffit of the Burns Monument dome has decorative carvings and panels, as well as the elaborately carved Corinthian capitals atop the pillars.
In Alloway, the Burns Monument now stands amidst ornamental gardens adjacent to the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum. It overlooks the cottage where Burns was born. Moreover, the monument rises above the River Doon and its famous bridge, the Brig o' Doon, and stands in line with the auld Alloway Kirk. Both the Brig o' Doon and the auld Alloway Kirk figure prominently in Tam o'Shanter, with drunk Tam stumbling upon the Devil and a coven of witches dancing in the ruined kirk (church) and then fleeing the hellish legion over the bridge to safety.

View of the Burns Monument from the Brig o' Doon
View from the Brig o' Doon of the Burns Monument.


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