Stamp collecting guide: The call for British stamps to honour Scottish poet Robert Burns

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Screen-Shot-2015-11-30-at-15.11.25-76345.png Issued 4d Robert Burns stamp
Despite honouring William Shakespeare in 1964, calls for a stamp to mark the 200th anniversary of Scottish poet Robert Burns initially fell on deaf ears. Paul Brittain recalls the initial fight for a stamp to honour Scotland’s bard

Robert Burns lived from 25 January, 1759, to 21 July, 1796. It is perhaps not surprising that over the years there had been many suggestions for stamps in his honour.

Between 1955 and 1964 there were no fewer than seventeen questions asked in the House of Commons on the matter, with pressure strongest in the months before the 200th anniversary of his birth. The reply was always that the Post Office was very reluctant to commemorate individuals, and anniversaries other than those of a royal or postal nature.

The anniversary passed, but the matter was not forgotten, especially after William Shakespeare was honoured in 1964, under the guise of celebrating an event (Shakespeare Festival) rather than the man.

The appointment later that year of Tony Benn as Postmaster General, and his announcement that he was reviewing the stamp-issuing policy, led to renewed requests for a Burns stamp. On 12 February, 1965 Benn announced a stamp would be issued in January 1966.

No fewer than eight Scottish artists were invited to submit ideas, resulting in forty designs being received by the Post Office. Interestingly, the artists were advised that they could submit ‘non-traditional’ designs, it being stated that this was with the Queen’s consent. By ‘non-traditional’ was meant designs without the Royal portrait, using the words ‘UK Postage’, the Crown or Royal cypher instead.

In fact, on seeing the submitted designs, the Stamp Advisory Committee made its first choice two stamps by Jock Kinneir showing Burns’ signature.

Its second choice was two designs by Gordon F Huntley featuring portraits of Burns. However, in submitting its recommendations to the Queen, the Committee decided that Huntley’s designs be first choice, concerned that postmarks might spoil the Kinneir concept.

Benn added a further design, one by AB Imrie, which featured the portrait of Burns, his signature and a plough – and the cypher in place of the Queen’s portrait. The Queen approved the Huntley designs.

The two designs, issued on 25 January, depicted an adaptation of the Skiving chalk drawing of around 1798 of Burns, with the Saltaire cross of St Andrew (4d), and the Naysmith portrait superimposed on a background of abstract symbols of his life: the plough, a scroll and quill, the rose, a stook of barley, the thistle and the gable-end of Mossgiel farmhouse (1s 3d).

There were six ‘first day of issue’ handstamps available, at Alloway, Ayr, Dumfries, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Kilmarnock.

(Rejected design image courtesy BPMA, copyright Royal Mail)

Read the full article and discover the many 1960s covers and stationery dedicated to Robert Burns, in the January 2016 issue of Stamp & Coin Mart.

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