Important acquisitions

Four views of the skull of Robert Burns : taken from a cast moulded at Dumfries, the 31st day of March 1834.

Author George Combe
Title Four views of the skull of Robert Burns : taken from a cast moulded at Dumfries, the 31st day of March 1834.
Imprint Edinburgh : W. & A.K. Johnston
Date of Publication 1834
Language English
Notes This rare pamphlet, only one other copy is recorded, bears witness to the extraordinary hold that the pseudo-science of phrenology had on popular and medical opinion in the first half of the 19th-century. On 26 March 1834 Robert Burns's widow, Jean Armour died, her funeral on 1 April attracting, according to the Dumfries Courier, an "immense crowd of spectators". Her body was interred in the family mausoleum in St Michael's churchyard, Dumfries, which had been built in 1815 after a public subscription had produced sufficient funds for its construction. The opening of the family mausoleum to accommodate her coffin also finally enabled phrenologists and the merely curious to gain access to the prize specimen of the poet's skull. Their hopes of doing so in September 1815, when Burns's body had been exhumed from its modest resting place and moved to the impressive Grecian-style construction at the other end of the cemetery, had been thwarted. The moving of the body had been done privately, before sunrise, to attract as little attention as possible from the public, so only those carrying out the move had had the privilege of seeing Burns's corpse. In 1834, however, the phrenologists were not to be denied. Having obtained consent from surviving members of the Burns family, the night before Mrs Burns's funeral a party of men, including John McDiarmid, editor of The Dumfries Courier, the surgeon, Archibald Blacklock, and James Bogie, who had assisted in the move of the poet's coffin in 1815, entered the mausoleum. The skull was located, cleaned and a plaster cast taken. It was deemed to be of an extraordinary size as none of the hats of those present fitted over it. The skull was then placed in a lead casket and replaced where it had been found. With a suitably melodramatic flourish The Caledonian Mercury's account of the exhumation of the skull, abridged from the Dumfries Courier, records that at the end of their work, just as the men were about to go their separate ways, the clock struck one. The existence of a plaster cast of Burns's skull gave the phrenologists, who had previously had to make do with an imaginary cast based on a portrait of the poet, all the material they needed to formulate theories on Burns's character. This particular pamphlet contains remarks by the leading British phrenologist of the time, Edinburgh lawyer George Combe (1788-1858), whose manuscripts and collection of phrenology books are now held in NLS. Combe's observations on Burns's character and cerebral development also appeared in The Phrenological Journal in September 1834, but this appears to have been a separately published pamphlet, illustrated with engravings taken from drawings of four views of the skull done by the Scottish artist George Harvey (1806-1876). Combe argues that Burns's skull "indicates the combination of strong animal passions, with equally powerful moral emotions" and that "Burns must have walked the earth with a consciousness of great superiority over his associates in the station in which he was placed". Combe's conclusions are tinged with class superiority and presumably influenced by the popular view of the poet as a man with a weakness for alcohol. He regrets that circumstances conspired to prevent Burns, the farmer, flax-dresser and excise man, entering the "higher ranks of life", and that his lowly birth denied him a liberal education and the chance to be employed in pursuits "corresponding to his powers" so that "the inferior portion of his nature would have lost part of its energy".
Shelfmark AP.3.213.08
Acquired on 01/06/12
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