Burns, thou art a diamant skellum

Posted by fitheach on Sat 06 January 2018

While researching the archaic and current usage of the words: thou, thee, thine, thy and ye, I was diverted into an equally fascinating tangent to do with 18th century ad-hoc engravings by Robert Burns.

Thou in English is a second person singular pronoun but its usage now is almost extinct, replaced by the word you. Likewise, the words thee, thine and thy are confined to some specialist uses and reproductions of archaic texts. Strangely, I'm sure I have come across the reflexive pronoun thyself being used in a modern context, but it might have been used in an ironic sense.

The beginning of the end for thou and the other "T" words was with the introduction of T-V distinction into the English language, following the Norman conquest. In essence, TVd meant that when addressing your social superiors you would use the plural form (ye or you) to show respect, the singular form (thou) would be restricted to intimate or familiar acquaintances. Over time showing respect became the most important aspect and people refrained from using thou in case they caused offence[1].

Diamond pen or engraver owned by Robert Burns

Diamond pen, or engraver, owned by Robert Burns

The consolidation of the various "T" words into the one word you, means English has lost an exactitude that exists in other languages. Not only can the "T" words convey more meaning, they often sound better too, which is probably why poets and other writers continued with their use into much later centuries.

The "T" words have also had a longer life in Scots if the writings of Robert Burns and Walter Scott are a true reflection of the times. Although Scott's novels were (mainly) written in the early 19th century they were typically set in the previous hundred years ("Tis Sixty Years Since" as Scott described the Waverly novels). Modern day Scots maintains singular, plural, first person and second person distinctions although the words are mostly different. My particular favourites in Scots are: "youse" (second person plural) and "oor" (possesive plural). Robert Burns, who was born twelve years before Scott, made extensive use of the "T" words in both poetry and song[3].

You're welcome, Willie Stewart,
You're welcome, Willie Stewart,
There's ne'er a flower that blooms in May,
That's half sae welcome's thou art!
You're Welcome, Willie Stewart
Robert Burns, 1791

Burns etched the words of You're welcome, Willie Stewart onto a glass tumbler in the Brownhill Inn, near Thornhill. The landlady of the Brownhill Inn was the sister of the Mr. Stewart in question, and Burns was a regular at the howff, when he lived nearby at Ellisland. Examples of the bard's engravings can be found all over Scotland, and not just on drinking glasses but also on window panes.

Detail from Alexander Naysmith portrait of Robert Burns

Detail from Alexander Naysmith portrait of Robert Burns

I have read accounts of Burns using a diamond ring to make the engravings but that always struck me as unlikely, or at least a very cumbersome way to etch lines of text. A much more plausible, and entertaining, account follows. Burns was given a letter of introduction to James Cunningham (Earl of Glencairn) and when the Earl met the poet he was so impressed he gave him several gifts, including a diamond tipped pen. The diamond pen is now in the collection of Rozelle House Galleries and is shown in the photograph above.

It seems Burns then went on a spree, engraving many drinking glasses and window panes although, perhaps not surprising, the owners of the items didn't always appreciate[4] the bard's handiwork. The bard's engravings certainly appeal to my sense of fun and I like the idea of him sneaking out the diamond pen to secretly record his thoughts. I do wonder if Burns habitually carried the diamond pen and then took advantage of opportune moments or did he have premeditated engraving excursions.

However, his engravings are more important than just arbitrary defacements. Burns' published works depended on achieving the neccessary funds and the agreement of printers and publishers, so it is possible that he avoided, or had to avoid[5], some particularly controversial topics. What makes Burns' poetry still relevant and fascinating today is that he had important things to say about the human condition and he stated them with elegance and conciseness. That said, Burns was a driven man with things to say, so he found outlets in his letters and engravings. Even those restricted outlets were too dangerous for some topics, but I will leave it as an excercise for the reader to research the Merry Muses of Caledonia.

Engraving something on someone else's property already carried some risk so expressing something dangerous, doubled the potential jeopardy. The following lines were inscribed onto a pane of glass at the, now, famous Globe Inn, Dumfries:

I MURDER hate by field or flood,
Tho' glory's name may screen us;
In wars at home I'll spend my blood,
Life-giving wars of Venus:/
The deities that I adore
Are social Peace and Plenty;
I'm better pleased to make one more,
Than be the death of twenty
Robert Burns
circa 1790

The lines might still be controversial today, in 1790 they were considered heretical and possibly seditious. They weren't empty words by the bard, as it was in the same establishment that he had an affair with the barmaid Anna Park which resulted in a daughter Elizabeth Park Burns.

It is time that the "T" words were rehabilitated back into English and I'm going to make a start by including them in some future blogs during 2018. I won't consider doing any engravings as aside from lacking Burns' wit, wisdom and way with words, I don't have a rich patron who might gift me a diamond pen.


  1. Oddly, religious texts took the exact opposite approach and specifically used thou, thee, thine and thy at a time when their usage was already declining in every day language. In the present day, for example, The King James' Bible (original completed in 1611) is probably one of the few texts where people will come across these alternatives to the word you.

  2. The Diamond Pen image courtesy of The Future Museum (South Ayrshire Council).

  3. The last stanza of Burns' The Lovely Lass O' Inverness contains thou, thine and thee:

    Now wae to thee, thou cruel lord, A bluidy man I trow thou be; For mony a heart thou has made sair, That ne'er did wrang to thine or thee! Robert Burns, 1794

  4. John Syme was so enraged by Burns' handiwork that he threw the inscribed goblet into the fireplace. However, this incident didn't affect the lasting friendship between Burns and Syme. The goblet was retrieved by one of Syme's servants and, as a nice piece of symmetry for the article, eventually was procured by Walter Scott. The goblet is now part of the collection at Abbotsford House.

  5. The late 18th century was a time of great social and political upheaval including the American Declaration of Independence and the French Revolution. Just expressing ideas was a dangerous occupation as can be seen by the treatment of the Scottish Martyrs including, most famously, Thomas Muir of Huntershill.

  6. I used skellum in the title to mean something similar to the English words rogue or scamp. Burns used the word in Tam o' Shanter where Kate describes Tam as a useless fellow and rhymes it with "drunken blellum".