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RICS 150

29 APR 2016

Robert Burns: Celebrating a poet and land surveyor

Congratulations to renowned poet Robert Burns, who we've recognised for his fantastic work as a land surveyor.

We awarded the Bard with the title Honorary Chartered Surveyor on 20 November 2012 at our Governing Council dinner in Edinburgh.

The only posthumous membership so far granted, the award was presented to Derek Mackay MSP, Minister for Local Government and Planning, who kindly received the accolade on behalf of the nation. The award will be housed at the National Trust for Scotland’s award-winning new Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway.

Although celebrated the world over for his poetry and song, Burns never made a living from his literary works. A tenant farmer by birth and background, the only professional training he ever received was as a land surveyor.

Determined that her son should not toil on the land, Burns' mother had the young Robert sent off to the Ayrshire village of Kirkoswald. There, he studied land surveying and geometry under the parochial teacher, Hugh Rodger, a man celebrated at the time as a great land surveyor and geometrician.

"It is a pleasure to receive this award in honour of Robert Burns. While his contribution to Scotland and Scottish culture is widely recognised, his work as a surveyor is less well known.

Like Burns, the work of the surveying profession is a vital part of modern Scottish life, and it has been a pleasure to hear more about the work of the profession, and its association with the Bard" - Derek Mackay, Local Government and Planning Minister

The existence of a number of surveying chains from his days an excise man testifies to Burns' work as a land surveyor. The Writer's Museum, Edinburgh, holds four links of a surveying chain, used by Robert Burns while working as an Excise Officer in Dumfries.

The links are framed with a letter from Robert, the eldest son of the Poet, which states "This is a link of the Chain/ used by the Scottish Bard for/ Land Surveying when he was/ an Excise Officer. Both he/ and his friend John Lewars/ were professional Land Surveyors./ Dumfries Dec 21st 1853./ Robert Burns Eldest son of the Bard". The links were presented to Alexander McLagan by Robert Burns, eldest son of the Poet, 1853, and donated to Edinburgh by Lady Cranston in 1924.

East Ayrshire Council Museum Service has two similar links from another of Burns' original surveying chains whilst Burns' own account of his land surveying training is described in The Land of Burns - A series of Landscapes and Portraits, Illustrative of the Life and Writings of the Scottish Poet, published only 34 years after Burns' death.

The surveying chain’s handle is held in the collection of the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway, along with manuscripts dedicated to Burns’ fellow surveyor, John Lewars, and his daughter Jessie – who was the inspiration for the poet’s last great love song, O wert Thou in the Cauld Blast.

"As a 17-year-old son of an Ayrshire tenant farmer, Robert Burns was trained in ‘Mensuration, Surveying, Dialling etc.’ at Kirkoswald, and read widely in the contemporary literature on the subject.

He would have been required to draw field plans and estate maps, and be familiar with surveying tools. In the era of agricultural improvement, this was expected of an ambitious ‘improving’ farmer, his training was absolutely standard for the period" - Professor Nigel Leask, Regius Professor of English Language and Literature, University of Glasgow