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Needlework samplers created by family of Robert Burns returned to his birthplace

Two rare needlework samplers thought to have been embroidered by the mother and sister of Robert Burns have been returned to the poet’s birthplace, with support from a philanthropist in the US.

The two samplers, one attributed to the poet’s mother Agnes Broun and the other to his youngest sister, Isabella Burns (later Isabella Begg), had been held in a private collection in the south of England for many decades.

However with the support of American collector and philanthropist Leslie B Durst, conservation charity the National Trust for Scotland (NTS) has been able to bring them back to the poet’s birthplace in Alloway, South Ayrshire, to conserve them for the nation.

The samplers feature intricate embroidery of the alphabet, coronets, and floral and animal motifs, while their frames also tell a story, with handwritten labels providing insights into how the samplers passed from the Burns family into the ownership of the MacNaughtons in Dumfries.

Sampler
The sampler created by Robert Burns’s youngest sister Isabella Burns (Peter Devlin/National Trust for Scotland/PA)

Sarah Beattie, senior curator at NTS, which runs the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway, said: “We don’t know of any other samplers embroidered by Agnes Broun or Isabella Burns, so these two works are very special additions to our charity’s collections and to Scotland’s Burns heritage.

“Samplers are an important part of Scotland’s social history, giving us insights into the lives, education, interests and talents of the girls and young women who created them.

“It’s wonderful to get new insight into the lives of Burns’s closest female relatives through the lens of these samplers.

“Most striking is the repetition of the stylised floral motif that appears towards the bottom of the larger sampler and on the left side of the small square sampler.

“The occurrence of this design across both textiles supports the provenance to mother and daughter, and it’s easy to imagine the young Isabella Burns unrolling her mother’s sampler and diligently copying the familiar patterns.”

NTS conservators are now working with textile specialists to assess the condition of the two pieces of needlework, before finalising plans for treatment and framing so they can be safely displayed and shared with the public.

Burns Cottage
Burns Cottage in Alloway, the birthplace of the poet (PA)

The news comes as enthusiasts around the world prepare to celebrate Burns Night on January 25.

Ms Beattie said the labels on the samplers suggest they were given to Mrs MacNaughton, the wife of the Reverend George MacNaughton, by Isabella Burns Begg, the poet’s niece.

Isabella died in 1886 so they were probably passed on in the early 1880s, after the MacNaughtons were married, although it is not known whether this was a gift or a purchase.

Both samplers featured in the grand Palace of History at the Scottish Exhibition in Glasgow in 1911, which showcased historic and cultural items from public and private collections across Scotland.

Ali MacLeod, NTS head of fundraising, said: “We’re very grateful to collector and philanthropist Leslie B Durst, who made it possible to secure two unique samplers for Scotland’s cultural heritage, in support of our charity’s vision of nature, beauty and heritage for everyone.

“It’s a great privilege to care for the place where Scotland’s national bard and his family were born and lived and to share their histories, collections and cultural legacy with visitors of all ages, and these two samplers offer our visitors and supporters another fascinating glimpse into the lives of Burns and his family.

“At a time of year when people all over the world are celebrating Burns, I hope that many a toast will be raised to these important acquisitions, and to the exquisite work of Burns’ mother and sisters, as well as the legacy of the poet himself.”