A student post by Fraser Caldwell, Hunterian Placement Student (Memorialising Scottish Culture and Literature).
Since his death in 1796, Robert Burns has been memorialised in a wide variety of medals across the centuries, with the earliest dated to 1801.i During the late 19th century, ‘several medals were struck to celebrate the unveiling of statues of Burns’ii in four cities across Scotland: Glasgow (1877), Dundee (1880), Dumfries (1882), and Irvine (1896). Of these medals, The Hunterian has examples of three, missing only the Dumfries medal, thus it is the remaining three which form the focus of this blog.
Struck by the Gillespie Brothers of Buchanan Street in 1877,iii the white metal Glasgow medal (GLAHM 18268) celebrates the inauguration of George Ewing’s statue to Burns in Glasgow. The obverse shows a left-facing bust of Robert Burns, based perhaps on Alexander Reid’s Miniature of 1795/6, and is inscribed ‘ROBERT BURNS | BORN 25TH JANY 1759 DIED 21ST JULY 1796.’ At the base of the bust in minute lettering is the medallist: ‘GILLESPIE BROS, GLASGOW.’ On the reverse is an image of Burns’ Cottage encircled by a wreath of thistles and roses, topped with a plough. Inscribed around the cottage are the words ‘INAUGURATION OF THE BURNS STATUE, GEORGE SQUARE, GLASGOW, 25TH JANY 1877.’
The bronze Dundee medal of 1880 (GLAHM 16119), commemorating Sir John Steel’s statue of Burns, is unassuming at only 1mm in thickness and 27mm in diameter. The obverse has a half-left facing bust of Burns – a poor reproduction of the famous 1787 Alexander Nasmyth portrait of Burns – and is inscribed around the edge with the text: ‘BORN NEAR AYR 25TH JANY 1759 ∙ DIED AT ELLISLAND 21ST JULY 1796.’ The reverse features only an inscription: ‘IN COMMEMORATION OF THE UNVEILING OF THE ROBERT BURNS STATUE IN DUNDEE 18TH OCTB 1880.’ This is labelled a rare medal due to its inaccurate accounting of Burns’ death; the poet instead died in Dumfries having left Ellisland five years prior.iv
The largest and finest example of the three is also – perhaps surprisingly – the only medal to contain an image of the statue itself: the bronze Irvine medal of 1896 (GLAHM 16623). James Pittendrigh MacGillivray’s statue of Burns takes precedence on the obverse of this medal, flanked by the poet’s dates 1759 and 1796 with the words ‘ROBERT BURNS’ inscribed around the top. The sculptor, MacGillivray, has his name inscribed around the bottom right of this face. The reverse features a half-right facing bust of John Speirs – by whom the statue was donated – and an inscription which is surrounded by a wreath of thistles emerging from a decorative scroll depicting two clasped hands. The inscription reads: ‘IN COMMEMORATION OF THE UNVEILING OF A STATUE OF THE POET BURNS PRESENTED BY JOHN SPEIRS ESQRE TO THE BURGH OF IRVINE INAUGURATED BY ALFRED AUSTIN ESQRE THE POET LAUREATE 18TH JULY 1896.’
From a memorialising perspective, it is the purpose of these medals, and the way in which they entered the public domain which present an intriguing comparison. Both the Glasgow and Dundee medals are holed for personal use with either ribbon or chain, whereas the Irvine medal was instead to be ‘cherished as interesting memento.’v The Glasgow medal seems to have been sold for one shilling, as contemporary adverts from the Greenock Telegraph and Clyde Shipping Gazette attest to.vi The Irvine medal instead was given as a souvenir to local schoolchildren who partook in the procession celebrating the statue’s unveiling.vii The Dundee medal is rather harder to place, as though some medals were sold at the event, some were also given out freely:
The Plasterers had about 60 representatives, a number of whom were engaged in a lorry decorated with evergreens and flowers casting medallions of Burns and distributing them amongst the crowd.viii
It is my belief that the small size, poor quality and inscription error of the Dundee medal make it more likely to be the one distributed by the Plasterers.
Further to my research, it would be interesting to see an exhibition relating to the sheer scale of these inauguration events, including processions, statues, and memorabilia from the occasion, and it would also provide a perfect opportunity to further showcase these fascinating medals.
i James Mackay, ‘Medals Honouring Rabbie Burns’, in Coins & Medal News (April 1989), p. 35
ii Ibid, p. 36
iii Greenock Telegraph and Clyde Shipping Gazette (Saturday 20 January 1877)
iv Mackay, Burnsiana (Ayr: Alloway Publishing, 1988), p. 122
v Ardrossan and Saltcoats Herald (Friday 24 July 1896)
vi Greenock Telegraph and Clyde Shipping Gazette (Saturday 20/Monday 22/Wednesday 24 January 1877). The advert reads: “All hail! My own inspired Bard, There’s monie waur been o’ the race.” SCOTLAND’S INAUGURATION OF BURNS STATUE IN GLASGOW, 25th INST. COMMEMORATION MEDAL, Designed and Struck for Procession on the occasion, bearing an elegant Bust of the Poet, with View of Burns’ Cottage, and appropriate Devices and Inscription. Price, 1s each. NOVELTY DEPOT, 26 West Blackhall Street.
vii Ardrossan and Saltcoats Herald (Friday 24 July 1896)
viii Dundee Courier (Tuesday 19 October 1880)