Robert Burns, horseman

On the 25th January, all over the world people celebrate the life and work of Scotland’s famous poet, Robert Burns. Over 200 years after his death in his 37th year, Burns has a mighty and devoted following. At Burns Night suppers, whisky will be drunk and the “Great Chieftain o’ the puddin’-race”, the haggis, will be addressed and subsequently devoured. There will be more toasts, recitation and songs. Poet, exciseman, lover of the lassies and drinking with his cronies, ploughman, toast of Edinburgh, politician, social commentator, creator of scurrilous jibes, observer of nature and animals, mocker of the haughty, collector and writer of songs; this goes a small way towards describing Robert Burns. Every aspect of his life is still open to dispute and discussion.

Of one thing I’m certain, though: Robert Burns was a horseman.

“His grey mare, Meg”

Horses are the subjects of several of his poems and they were a significant part of his life. To take Tam o’Shanter as a starting point for this theme, where would the poem be without Tam’s grey mare Maggie? The poem opens with Tam enjoying an evening’s drinking in Ayr, whilst the weather worsens

The storm without might rair and rustle,
Tam did na mind the storm a whistle..

It’s time he left for home, but the company is good and so are the ales. Tam will drink along with anyone, the miller, his bosom buddy Souter (Cobbler) Johnnie, or the blacksmith, with whom on market days he matches a drink for every shoe:

That every naig was ca’d a shoe on,
The smith and thee gat roaring fou on.

But, finally, reluctantly, Tam has to leave. He goes out into a night of violent storm:

Weel mounted on his gray mare, Meg–
A better never lifted leg–
Tam skelpit on thro’ dub and mire;
Despisin’ wind and rain and fire.

When they pass Alloway Church, Maggie, like her rider, is astonished to see blazing lights and hear the sounds of a riotous party going on:

But Maggie stood, right sair astonish’d,
Till, by the heel and hand admonish’d,
She ventured forward on the light;
And, vow! Tam saw an unco sight…

"But Maggie stood, right sair astonish'd, Till, by the heel and hand admonish'd, She ventured forward on the light; And, vow! Tam saw an unco sight..." Tam and Maggie as imagined by Abraham Cooper

The church is full of witches and warlocks having a dance. “Nae cotillion brent-new frae France,” comments Burns dryly, “But hornpipes, jigs, strathspeys, and reels, put life and mettle in their heels.” When the witches strip down to their shifts, both Tam and the Devil (Deil), who is of course presiding over events, are most impressed by one of them, young Nannie. That’s Tam’s undoing. Full of whisky courage, he bawls out “Weel done, Cutty-sark!” as she dances about in a very short shift indeed.

Remember Tam’s mare!

Luckily, his mare Maggie has some sense (and witches aside, the incidence of people getting home safely because of the intelligence of their horses is a regular theme in fact as well as in fiction and poetry). She takes off as though hell is at her heels, which it is, very shortly afterwards:

So Maggie runs, the witches follow,
Wi’ mony an eldritch skriech and hollo.

"For Nannie, far before the rest, Hard upon noble Maggie prest"; as imagined by John Joseph Barker

Maggie and Tam are running for their lives towards a stream, which they both know no witch will cross. And with a last desperate bound, Maggie is just carrying her master to safety when the witch Nannie grabs at her tail and:

For Nannie, far before the rest,
Hard upon noble Maggie prest,
And flew at Tam wi’ furious ettle;
But little wist she Maggie’s mettle –
Ae spring brought off her master hale,
But left behind her ain gray tail;
The carlin claught her by the rump,
And left poor Maggie scarce a stump..

So, suggests Burns, the next time you’re distracted by whisky, ale or short shifts: “Think! ye may buy joys o’er dear – Remember Tam o’ Shanter’s mare.

Burns was lauded in his own lifetime but financially he was constantly struggling. When working as an exciseman, for instance, he wrote to a close friend:

I know not how the word exciseman, or still more opprobrious, gauger, will sound in your ears. I too have seen the day when my auditory nerves would have felt very delicately on this subject; but a wife and children are things which have a wonderful power in blunting these kind of sensations. Fifty pounds a year for life, and a provision for widows and orphans, you will allow is no bad settlement for a poet.

Poor jaded Pegasus

It was whilst working as an exciseman that Burns rode many a mile throughout south west Scotland, finding himself in the middle of a cold winter at remote Wanlockhead with his horse in need of calkins to improve the grip on the frosty road. When the local smith would not come out to shoe Burns’ horse, which was his favourite, Pegasus, Burns hastily penned a poem to be presented to a local worthy who arranged to have the work done. The use of classical imagery is of course quite usual, but it’s possible there’s some deeper message in it:

With Pegasus upon a day
Apollo, weary flying,
(Thro’ frosty hills the journey lay)
On foot the way was plying.

Poor, slipshod, giddy Pegasus
Was, but a sorry walker,
To Vulcan then Apollo gaes,
To get a frosty calker.

Obliging Vulcan fell to wark,
Threw by his coat and bonnet;
And did Sol’s business in a crack,
Sol pay’d him with a sonnet.

Ye Vulcan’s Sons of Wanlockhead,
Pity my sad disaster;
My Pegasus is poorly shod,
I’ll pay you like my Master.

One another occasion, Burns and Pegasus were settled at “the only tolerable inn”, Bailie Whigham’s in Sanquhar whilst a “grim evening and howling wind were ushering in a night of snow and drift,” as Burns wrote to a friend. In this letter it’s clear how much he relates to the horse as a comrade, not just a convenience for carrying out his work:

My horse and I were much both fatigued by the labors of the day, and just as my friend the Bailie and I were bidding defiance over a smoking bowl, in wheels the funeral pageantry of the late great Mrs Oswald and poor I am forced to brave all the horrors of the tempestuous night, and jade my horse, my young favorite horse, whom I had just christened Pegasus, twelve miles further on, through the wildest moors and hills of Ayrshire, to New Cumnock…

Burns penned a bitter ode to the unpopular old woman whose corpse had caused him leave the comfortable inn and to “jade” his horse.

The Ploughman Poet

Much capital was – and is – made of Burns as the “Ploughman Poet”. For many, this conjures up the classic image of the ploughman with his team, working the land steadily with, perhaps a flock of birds following on behind feasting on the worms turned up by the ploughshare. The reality was rather different.

Firstly, the literati of Edinburgh (and beyond) were fond of creating romantic images around creative talents coming from a rural background – as with James Hogg, “The Ettrick Shepherd”. Hogg was a shepherd and Burns was a ploughman, but the use of these terms as a convenient marketing tag has to be separated from the reality of the sheer hard labour involved. During Burns’ lifetime, there were major developments taking place in both agricultural equipment and methods. Scotland was at the forefront of these changes and the new two-horse plough was – apologies – cutting edge technology.

Whilst some Mediaeval and Renaissance images, particularly from Europe, show ploughs being drawn by a pair of horses, this still wasn’t the norm in Britain. Ploughing using the “primitive plough” was mostly done by oxen – this continued in some very rural parts late into the 19th century – and it took four or more oxen, sometimes augmented by horses, to drag the plough through the earth. Sometimes four horses would be used instead of oxen. It was also a communal effort, requiring a family or a ploughman and several labourers. Stones and weeds had to be cleared as it went along and it usually took two men at least to manage the plough, one to hold the hilts, or stilts (handles) and the other to apply weight so it cut through the ground. Someone had to lead or goad the team as well.

All that changed when James Small designed a new type of plough in the second half of the 18th century. That, along with the development of the Clydesdale in Scotland and the Shire in England, resulted in a revolution in ploughing that would lead to the heavy horse becoming the centre of farming life – but that’s a whole story on its own. What Burns understood by ploughing was the old form, not the new that was coming into being. Alistair Moffat, in his excellent book The Borders, writes:

The most famous ploughman who ever lived, Robert Burns, owned a copy of James Small’s treatise, but he never made use of it. Working alone in an outbye field with only his horses for company was not a prospect Burns ever relished. For him, the body warmth, the crack and the shared experience was a necessary part of the hard, hard work of farming.”

The life of a ploughman

As I was a-wand’ring ae morning in spring,
I heard a young ploughman sae sweetly to sing;
And as he was singin’, thir words he did say,—
There’s nae life like the ploughman’s in the month o’ sweet May.

The lav’rock in the morning she’ll rise frae her nest,
And mount i’ the air wi’ the dew on her breast,
And wi’ the merry ploughman she’ll whistle and sing,
And at night she’ll return to her nest back again.

Robert BurnsThe Ploughman’s Life

Salutations to old mare Maggie

For me the best example of Burns as a horseman comes from a lesser known poem, The Auld Farmer’s New-Year Morning Salutation to His Auld Mare Maggie, on Giving Her the Accustomed Ripp of Corn to Hansel in the New Year. A “hansel” is a payment, a gift, or hand grip, often used in betrothal. Here it’s an agreement between the old farmer and his mare, now very old. As he gives her a New Year gift of corn, he reminisces about their lives together, how he inherited her from his father twenty-nine years earlier. Her coat is now white with age but he remembers her when she was young and beautifully dappled:

Tho’ now thou’s dowie, stiff, an’ crazy,
An’ thy auld hide as white’s a daisy, I’ve seen thee dappl’t, sleek and glaizie,
A bonny gray…

His mare brought home his young bride on her back:

That day ye pranc’d wi’ muckle pride,
When ye bure hame my bonnie bride:
An’ sweet an’ gracefu’ she did ride,
Wi’ maiden air!

And Maggie has born him ten foals, some of which are in his plough team whilst others he has sold. In the poem, all his past, all his life is read in her and through her like a book. They have grown old together. Finally he assures her that she will always have a place with him and even of his last bundle of corn, she’d always have a portion, a “heapit stimpart” a generous quarter of a peck:

And think na, my auld, trusty servan’,
That now perhaps thou’s less deservin,
An’ thy auld days may end in starvin,
For my last fow,
A heapit stimpart,
I’ll reserve ane Laid by for you.

He promises to tether her out on a grassy ridge where she can “nobly rax her leather” – stretch her old body out – and rest. “Flit”, which has amongst its meanings “to tether” can also mean to die, to pass over. The sense, the feeling, that I draw from this is that even in death her body will be nobly buried, not cast aside. If you want to read the whole poem, try the Gutenberg Project where you will find the complete version and, indeed, all Burns’ works.

So, as you celebrate Burns Night remember Robert Burns the horseman too. Here’s to you, Rabbie! Cheers!

Seeing how they run: horses in early photography and film

Being a historian – and that is anyone with an interest in history – is like being a time traveller. It’s possible to go anywhere you’d like to go in the past and still be back in time for tea. Then you can go off on another journey, to the same place or a different one; and even the same place can be a new destination if you read a number of different interpretations of the past. It’s astonishing how much diversity there is in historical writing and interesting to see how specialist historians choose to focus on different aspects of people, places and activities.

One thing recurs, though; and that is, just how ubiquitous horses, ponies and mules  were before the arrival of the train and the car. That’s obviously the major theme of historyonhorseback, but even I am surprised sometimes when I stumble on an unexpected connection to the horse in an area that I hadn’t previously considered researching.

The start of this journey was a feature in Amateur Photographer, written by David Clark, about the man who formulated the first photographic process: Joseph Nicéphore Niépce.

The oldest photograph in existence – includes a horse!

I had never heard of this man but then I’d never claim to be an expert on the history of photography. I certainly knew about Eadweard Muybridge and his contribution to photography and film and the role horses had played in that – which I’ll discuss shortly. But Niépce? Who was he? As I turned the page, an image of a man leading a horse caught my eye. I read the caption: “Niépce’s image of an engraving, depicting a man leading a horse, made in 1825…”

The oldest photograph still in existence: an image of a 17th engraving of horse and man

Yes, that’s right – the earliest photograph still in existence is of a man leading a horse. The reproduction of the engraving, in the pages of AP, showed a warm yellowy-pink background with a faded looking image of horse and man. The man is looking anxiously up at the horse and is holding it tightly on a lead rope with his hand close to its jaw, whilst the horse shows its anxiety by throwing its head up and opening its mouth. Its back is tense and the hindlegs almost crouched in appearance. It looks as though it is jibbing, refusing to go on, possibly even about to rear up. The man is barefoot and gives the impression of being one of the many who hung about inns and houses in the hope of holding someone’s horse for them in return for a tip. He looks as though he’s taken on more than he expected here. Or is he leading up the horse at a horse fair? Or stealing it?

Equestrians will also note that one of the bare feet of the man is very close to the hoof of the horse. Has he perhaps been trodden on, yelped and surprised the horse? It’s a scenario that most of us will have experienced at some point, though not with bare feet, perhaps.

It isn’t a photograph of  a real horse of course, it’s an image of an image, a 17th century engraving. It would be years before photography was capable of capturing motion successfully and so there would never have been any question of Niépce trying out his new invention on a moving animal. This is one of the earliest photographic images ever made and in retrospect perhaps it’s not surprising and also quite touching that it should include a horse.

A golden generation

Joseph Niépce was a remarkable character.  Born in Chalon-sur-Saone in France in 1765, he later adopted the name Nicéphore after a Byzantine bishop and saint, Nicephorus. Niépce was one of a remarkable generation; the revolutionary and post-revolutionary Napoleonic generation that produced so many original scientific thinkers whose legacy still touches our lives on a daily basis, although we may not always be conscious of it.

Niépce began his experiments in producing fixed images using the existing technology of the camera obscura. It was quite usual to trace the images cast by this interesting invention, but Niépce wanted to find a way to fix the images in some sort of permanent medium in a way that didn’t involve tracing. He experimented with silver nitrate but struggled to produce something that didn’t fade until he did further experiments with bitumen and lavender oil.

His first known successes date from the late 18th century although these images deteriorated quickly and nothing remains of them. I do find it fascinating to think that if he had succeeded at this early date, we might have had photographs of Napoleon’s 1798 expedition to Egypt and the “savants” who took part in the world’s first multi-disciplinary scientific investigation. This date also marks the start of the study of ancient Egypt as a separate discipline which is also known as Egyptology. And there is, perhaps, a curious link to Egypt, or at least to the ancient world, in the name Niépce gave his process, which was “Heliography”, or “sun writing”, in recognition of the need for light exposure to produce the image. Helios is of course the name of  a sun deity – often visualised as driving a chariot through the sky – and the ancient Egyptians had numerous forms and expressions for worshipping the manifestations of their own sun god.

In contrast to Niépce, the life of Eadweard Muybridge is generally better known and more widely documented. His life began and ended in Kingston-on-Thames in the UK, but in between those events, it was one hell of a hair-raising ride.

An old mystery resolved

Muybridge was born Edward James Muggeridge in 1830 and so into a world where photography was recently established, growing and evolving. He moved to the USA where he changed his name several times. A stagecoach accident caused him to return to the UK for a while and it was here that he studied photography.  On recovery, he returned to America and worked as a successful photographer, using the name “Helios” for his business and the signature on his prints.

It’s hard to tell how long the discussion about animal motion had been going on. It might have been for centuries. Certainly in the ancient world it was standard practice, when producing images of galloping animals such as horses, to show them in a strange pose called “the flying gallop”: the front and back legs are stretched out somewhat like those of a rocking horse. This strange and inaccurate portrayal persisted right up until the 19th century, arguably reaching its height in the 17th century AD. Attempts to show other paces were slightly more successful, although in some of the ancient images of walking horses, the horses’ feet appear to be stuck to the floor; not one hoof is raised although the legs are bent as though in motion. The correct leg sequence of each of the paces of a horse was strangely hard to portray although it could clearly be felt by any equestrian. And it was the new invention of photography that would finally resolve some very ancient issues regarding movement.

In 1877, Muybridge became involved in the debate when the Californian Governor, Stanford, argued that when a horse was trotting, a two-beat pace where the legs are on the diagonal (that is, the foreleg and hindleg on the same side are alternately together and apart) there was a moment of suspension when all four legs were off the ground. Previously, this had been impossible to prove one way or another.

A horse in the air: but not in the flying gallop (Source: Wikipedia.)

Muybridge managed to get a single photographic shot showing that there was indeed a moment of suspension and this led on to further investigations. He ingeniously came up with ways of recording a sequence of movements, firstly by using threads that triggered photographic shots as the horse broke through each one; these could then be copied and turned rapidly in sequence on a machine called the zoopraxiscope, to recreate the impression of movement. Then, secondly, he developed a more reliable clockwork version to replace the thread process. He was able to demonstrate that in gallop, there is also a point when all four legs are off the ground; this occurs when the legs are drawn together at their closest and the idea of the flying gallop was finally dispelled, in horses at least, although the debate was still alive and well in the 1930s with regard to other animals. The sequence, of one of Stanford’s horses, entitled: “Sally Gardner at a gallop” is still breathtaking to watch.

Fortune’s wheel

It would seem as though Muybridge was destined for fame as the founding father of cinematography with these very early versions of movies; and indeed, he did have a successful career as a lecturer and creator of moving and sequential images. His publication “Animal Location”, with photographic sequences of both human and animal subjects in motion, is still a useful reference for artists, amongst others.

However, as with Niépce, who also had personal and financial issues to drain him, Muybridge’s personal and professional life collapsed into ruin. Eventually he fell into dispute and litigation with Stanford – and lost – but prior to that there was a far greater scandal and tragedy. Muybridge’s wife was having an affair  with an army major, Harry Larkyns and in 1874 Muybridge approached him, spoke briefly to him and then shot him dead. Muybridge was acquitted on the basis of “justifiable homicide” rather than insanity as a result of his earlier head injury, a legal decision that does seem somewhat extraordinary nearly 150 years later.

Niépce and Muybridge; two totally diverse pioneers whose contributions to photography and, in the case of Muybridge, cinematography, are outstanding.  And where those pioneers were, so too were horses.

Amateur Photographer, 24 – 31 December 2011, Icons of Photography: View from the Window at Le Gras pp 50 – 52. Feature by David Clark.

Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 56, No 2 June 1936, pp 178 – 188, Two Notes on the Flying Gallop by William F. Edgerton.

For more about Muybridge:

For more about Niepce, there is a museum devoted to his work: