Robert Burns used stale beer to make his ink

In researching the ingredients Scottish poet Robert Burns used to make his inks, scientists have discovered that beer was a key component.

A team from the University of Glasgow have been studying the composition of the inks used by the famous bard in order to identify in future whether manuscripts were written by Burns himself or are among the many forgeries in circulation.

They found Burns, who was known to make his own ink, used stale beer, carbonised elephant tusk, lard and sulphuric acid as the main ingredients in an ink known as “Ivory Black’, although the quality of the various components shifted slightly over time as his fortunes rose and then declined.

Most inks are made using water but beer, wine or vinegar was often used in the past as it was thought they were purer substances and less likely to be contaminated by lead, calcium and other deposits from pipes and cisterns.

Alcohol may also have been used to help prevent the ink from freezing and glycerol in the alcohol may have helped the extraction of tannins needed to create darker inks and tannins in wine may have served the same purpose.

Alcohol also reduces the surface tension of the solution helping it to soak into paper fibres and it may also have a preservative effect, stopping the development of mold.

As reported by The Times, senior research fellow Dr Karl Burgess said: “Through this technique we now know things about Burns that we never knew before.

“Ivory black was made with treacle, lard, sulphuric acid, vinegar, ivory and a pint of stale beer. These were all ingredients that Burns would have had access to.

“We’re particularly excited that we now have a new way of providing more evidence for a fake or a real manuscript if one turns up.”

Burns is revered as Scotland’s greatest poet and in the 1890s a forger called Alexander Smith created many fake manuscripts purporting to be original works.

The team managed to identify 16 key differences between the inks used by Burns in his original works and those used by Smith and other forgers which will hopefully allow for greater accuracy when identifying fakes in the future.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to our newsletters