Blog by Laura Brown, Social Media Manager.
As the celebrations for Burns Night approached, we decided to delve into our archives and see what we could find on our land and property registers about Scotland’s national bard.
This may seem like a random task for us at the Registers of Scotland (RoS) to be ticking off during the work day… You might think we only focus on things like registration and house prices, but our organisation actually boasts over 400 years of history! In 2017 we celebrated the anniversary of the world’s oldest land register — the General Register of Sasines — and you can find out how we marked the occasion on our website.
So, with this historic inspiration, myself and my colleague Innes began searching for leftovers of the life of Robert Burns in our archives so that we could share a snippet with you folks! Here’s what we found.
Using our online services to discover Scotland’s history
Did you know that ScotLIS — Scotland’s land and information service — allows you to access the mass of publicly available data on the Land Register of Scotland, the General Register of Sasines? If you fancy doing this yourself you can log in using your Registers Direct credentials (if you’re already an online services customer) or you can sign up using our request form.
Our mission? To discover the oldest online record that made reference to Burns Cottage. This is the house where Robert Burns was born back in 1759 in Alloway, Ayrshire. Innes and I weren’t entirely sure that there would even be any record on either the Land or Sasine Register. Sometimes, when a building is passed down through generations of family members and then onto the ‘Scottish Ministers’ (i.e. Historic Environment Scotland) or a charity like the National Trust for Scotland, it doesn’t make that much of a mark on the registers… Which means it’s harder to trace its history.
We got lucky: there was a mention of Burns Cottage on the General Register of Sasines dating from 2008. Not quite as old as I was hoping, but it sent us on the right path. In 2008, there was a transfer from the Burns Monument Trust to the ‘National Trust for Scotland for places of historic interest [and] natural beauty’. And although dating from less than a decade ago, this search sheet pointed us in the right direction. To discover more about Burns, we’d have to delve deeper into the ‘First Series’ of the Sasine Register.
Exploring Scotland’s oldest land registry documents
Being pointed towards the First Series search sheets was like gold dust; we knew we were onto something really old. For the next stage of our search, Innes opened the Back Office Production System (BOPS) which houses historical information from the General Register of Sasines. And guess what? After following the footprints the Second Series search sheets had left us, Innes found a reference to Burns Cottage. Take a look at a snapshot of the search sheet below:
You’ll see that this search sheet dates from 1881, where it reads:
1881 May 28. Disp. by the Deacon and other members of the Incorporation of Shoemakers… for behalf of the subscribers to the monument erected to the memory of Robert Burns the Ayrshire Poet at Alloway, near Ayr. Dated 24, 25 & 26 1881.
Basically what this shows is the Incorporation of Shoemakers selling Burns Cottage to the trustees of Burns Monument Trust. This was exciting to find, though not quite as exciting as linking the property with Rabbie himself… But that was to come. This selling of the property directly relates to the written history you can discover on UndiscoveredScotland, where it describes how Burns’ father William leased the cottage to the Shoemakers (who used it as an alehouse).
And then we looked closer.
About a week after we’d done that recce of the Sasine Register‘s oldest documents, I reopened the screenshot to schedule in some social media coverage of what we found. But I noticed something:
On the very left hand side of the search sheet, in the smallest scrawl you could dream up, there was a date. 1756. I looked closer, straining my eyes on the computer screen:
Feu. William Burns, 25 June 1756. Disp. by … to Shoemakers Incorp 8 Sept. 1781.
How had I not noticed before? This was history right in front of me and finally, an actual mention of a Burns! This search sheet chronology was proof of William, Robert’s father, purchasing (‘feu’) the land that Burns Cottage was subsequently built on back in the 1750s. Then, a few years later, one of Scotland’s most famous sons was born.
Fancy visiting Burns Cottage?
If the romance and intrigue of Burns’ poetry – and the historical ties to the places he lived, especially in Alloway and Dumfriesshire – are piquing your interest enough to pay a visit, find out more about Burns Cottage on the official website.
And finally, have a read at the main search sheet description of Burns Cottage where the Bard lived for the first seven years of his life:
The subjects consisting of Burns Cottage, and lands adjoining, with the houses thereon described as 18 … of ground, bounded on the south east by the road from S… to Bridge of Doon and on the south west by a new made road from Alloway along the Sergeant’s B…. in Barony of Alloway.
P.S. Did you know that Robert Burns was also a land surveyor? Have a look at this intriguing article on the RICS website.
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