The Mausoleum

Syme felt that Burnsí grave, marked with a plain stone slab was an insufficient memorial to the poet. When Dorothy and William Wordsworth visited Dumfries in 1803 they had difficulty in even finding the grave. In 1813 Syme circulated a letter to the most prominent citizens in the town. Eighteen people attended a meeting and a committee was formed which decided to launch an appeal to build a mausoleum. One of the subscribers was the Prince Regent, later George IV. After a public advertisement, 50 designs were received and the plans of T F Hunt, a London architect and Peter Turnerelli, a sculptor, were eventually approved.
Photograph of plans Drawing of Burns Mausoleum
Plans of Burns Mausoleum Burns Mausoleum

On the 19th September 1815 Burnsí body was exhumed and placed in the new mausoleum. John McDairmid, later editor of the Dumfries Courier, wrote:

"As a report had been spread that the ... coffin was made of oak, a hope was entertained that it would be possible to transport it from the north to the east corner of St Michaelís without opening it or disturbing the sacred deposit it contained. But this hope proved fallacious; on testing the coffin, it was found to be composed of the ordinary materials, and ready to yield to the slightest pressure, and the lid removed, a spectacle was unfolded, which considering the fame of the mighty dead, has rarely been witnessed by a single human being.

There were the remains of the great poet, to all appearance nearly entire, and retaining various traces of vitality, or rather exhibitioning the feature of one who had newly sunk into the sleep of death - the lordly forehead, arched and high - the scalp still covered with hair, and the teeth perfectly firm and white.

The scene was so imposing, that some of the workmen stood bare and uncovered ... and at the same time felt their frames thrilling with some indefinable emotion, as they gazed on the ashes of him whose fame is as wide as the world itself.

But the effect was momentary, for when they proceeded to insert a shell or case below the coffin, the head separated from the trunk and the whole body with the exception of the bones, crumbled into dust. Phrenology at that time had not become fashionable ... and as no such opportunity can occur again, it is perhaps to be regretted that no cast was taken of the head ..." Mrs Burns continued to live in the small house where her husband died. Her modest manner and amiable character made her a popular figure in Dumfries. When she died in 1834 and her remains were added to the vault the opportunity was taken to make a cast of Burnsí skull.

Photograph of cast Drawing of Dumfries Museum
Cast of Burns'Skull Dumfries Museum, The Observatory

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