The Twelve Days of Christmas – The Special Collections Edition

We are feeling festive here at Special Collections – Christmas presents are being made and wrapped, cards with too much glitter are brightening our desks and the sweetie tin is always full of goodies. So in the festive spirit we have challenged ourselves to find images in the collection to make up our own version of the traditional song “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. Now we know that technically this should start on the 25th, and we’ll be tweeting the images on the correct days, but we thought we’d post it up here early as a festive treat.

On the first day of Christmas my true love sent to me… a partridge in a pear tree.

Caspian Snow Partridge Little Redbilled Partridge

No pear trees here but I think we’ve made up for it with an abundance of very lovely looking partridges from John Gould’s Birds of Asia. Between Gould and John James Audubon the Special Collections Centre has some stunning images of birds from all over the world.

On the second day of Christmas my true love sent to me… t
wo turtle doves. 

Turtle Doves - Aberdeen Bestiary

A familiar sight to many of you who followed our activities for the Gilded Beasts exhibition over the summer, these two turtle doves are from the beautiful Aberdeen Bestiary. Our Bestiary states that the turtle dove is “so called from the sound it makes, turtur” and is “a shy bird, and stays all the time on mountain summits and in deserted, lonely places.”. To read more about the Bestiary and the animals in it visit the Aberdeen Bestiary webpage.

On the third day of Christmas my true love sent to me… three French Hens.

Bird song - Gregory collection

I’m afraid we couldn’t find three French ones, but there are a number of chickens on this page from Musurgia Universalis (1650) by Athanasius Kircher which sets out Kircher’s views on music. The birds on this page have their songs written out in musical notation beside their pictures. The book is from the Gregory Collection which was based upon the library of  John Gregory (1724-73) and added to by other members of the family.

On the fourth day of Christmas my true love sent to me… four calling birds.

According to our research “four calling birds” actually used to be “four colly birds”. Since “colly” comes from the word “colliery” (coalmine) it means “black like coal” and probably refers to blackbirds.

Paper Zoo - Blackbird

This gives us the opportunity to show off some of the fantastic work of one of our Paper Zoo Summer School participants. This particular blackbird was drawn by Zachary and features in our very own version of the Aberdeen Bestiary. According to Zachary’s research the black bird’s main predators are “cats, crows, sparrow hawks and magpies”.

Family Fun blackbird mask

And here is another blackbird, or a Family Fun participant wearing a blackbird mask. Nadav was also a Summer School participant and he applied his learning from the Natural History Centre to create this mask during one of our Gilded Beasts Family Fun events.

On the fifth day of Christmas my true love sent to me… five gold rings!

The line everyone knows best I’m sure you’ll agree. No drawings of golden jewellery could be found in our search of our digitised collections however there is plenty of gold leaf applied to many of the books in our collection including the Bestiary and the Burnet Psalter.

Burnet Psalter - Mary Magdalene Burnet Psalter - Close up Mary Magdalene Burnet Psalter


The beautiful illustrations and gold leaf of the medieval Burnet Psalter illuminate religious text including: a calendar, devotions (prayers and hymns) for personal use, the Psalter itself (the Book of Psalms), and liturgies (forms of worship) for personal use. Many of the characters which appear in the book are surrounded by golden halos, like Mary Magdalene and the nun in the images above.

On the sixth day of Christmas my true love sent to me… six geese a-laying.

Hortus Sanitatis - birds  Hortus Sanitatis - birds. Close up cockerel Hortus Sanitatis - birds. Close up goose

The chapter on birds in the Hortus Sanitatis has some lovely woodcut illustrations of geese and many other types of birds, including the characterful cockerel above. To read more about this late medieval herbal have a look at our Collections Highlight interview with Keith O’Sullivan, our Senior Rare Books Librarian.

On the seventh day of Christmas my true love sent to me… seven swans a-swimming.

Paper Zoo - Swan by Robert Dingwall  Paper Zoo - Swan by Hagar Libman

Here’s another two entries from our Paper Zoo Summer School participants.This time our artists are Robert and Hagar. The two artists’ styles are very different, with Robert’s swan a-swimming on a golden background while Hagar’s swan is in a blue pond. Hagar has also included a close up view of the swan’s beak and an aerial view, which comes in handy for any bird spotters out there.

On the eighth day of Christmas my true love sent to me… eight maids a-milking.

A Collection of New Songs. ‘Garlands’ Vol.8

A solitary maid a-milking is featured on a page from a song book in our collection: A Collection of New Songs. ‘Garlands’ printed between 1813 and 1825. We have many volumes which include song titles such as: “Ah! no, my love, no.”; “Sally in our alley.” and “Love and Whiskey”. This particular woodcut illustrates a song called “The pretty Maid milking her Cow.”, a traditional 18th century Irish ballad.

On the ninth day of Christmas my true love sent to me… nine ladies dancing.

An illustration by George Cruikshank for Charles Dickens’ Sketches by Boz provides us with our ladies (and men) dancing.

George Cruickshank - Greenwich Fair

Sketches by Boz, written in the 1830’s, is a collection of short pieces by Dickens accompanied by illustrations from Cruikshank. This particular image illustrates a piece called Greenwich Fair. It looks like there has been a bit of a clothes swap at the fair, with a man wearing and ladies bonnet and a lady wearing her dance partner’s top hat. They all look as though they are having a merry time at the fair!

On the tenth day of Christmas my true love sent to me… ten lords a-leaping.

There is only one of him and he’s certainly not a lord, but he is leaping and we couldn’t leave him out.

10th day of xmas

Oor Wullie, the Scottish comic strip character, is leaping for joy on this pin badge in our Anti Poll tax archive. He’s saying “Ah Huvnae Pyed” (I haven’t paid), referring to the poll tax, a tax introduced to Scotland in 1989. Visit the 20th Century Radicalism Collections Highlight to learn more about this area of the collection.

On the eleventh day of Christmas my true love sent to me… eleven pipers piping.

Thomas Bewick

There was a surprising lack of images of bagpipers in the collection so we have settled for this charming engraving by Thomas Bewick of four boys playing in a graveyard. The boys are riding the gravestones like horses and the one leading the charge appears to be blowing a horn. As it has little to do with birds you may be surprised to learn that this illustration was included in Bewick’s History of British birds (1797-1804). However it was common for Bewick to include vignettes in between the encyclopaedia entries to add some light relief. Bewick called them Tail-Pieces or Tale-Pieces because they often had a story.

On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love sent to me… twelve drummers drumming.

12th day of xmas

Drummers close up

And finally, the drums. The image above is from The history of the coronation of James II and of his royal consort Queen Mary by Francis Sandford. It is one of a series of illustrations depicting the procession of King James II and Queen Mary to their Coronation at Westminster Abbey, 23 April 1685. This particular image has the King’s Herbwoman and her 6 maids strewing the way with sweet herbs and flowers: the Deans Beadle of Westminster; the high Constable of Westminster; a Fife; 4 Drums; and the Drum Major. Subsequent illustrations see bishops, dukes, the crown and the King himself all making their way to Westminster. As well as the procession the book also includes illustrations of the coronation itself as well as seating charts showing where the King, Queen, Nobility and Others sat at the Coronation dinner.

From all here at the Special Collections Centre have a lovely Christmas and we look forward to seeing you in the New Year.

Posted by: Lynsey

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