In the latest in our series of legendary Scots, Mark Nicholls sets off on the trail of Scotland’s national bard, Robert Burns
His memory is celebrated every year on Burns Night. On the eve of 25 January, suppers, toasts and recitations mark the occasion of the birth of Robert Burns, Scotland’s national bard.
Robert Burns was born in 1759 in Alloway, close to the town of Ayr in 1759 on Scotland’s south west coast. However, it is not only in Scotland that such ritual takes place. Across the world Scots pause to honour one of their most famous sons.
We also bring in each New Year with a rousing rendition of perhaps Burns’ most famous work, Auld Lang Syne. Yet in his 37 years, he wrote so much more‚ Tam O’Shanter, The Brigs of Ayr, and quantities of love songs‚ before he died in 1796 in Dumfries, where he spent the last years of his adult life.
It is in Alloway and Dumfries, in southern Lowland Scotland, where you can learn virtually all you need to know more about Scotland’s most famous poet.
Robert Burns was born in the village of Alloway in a thatched cottage built by his father, William, a small farmer. The area is rich with places linked to the poet and his birthplace is a logical starting point in a region that has become known as the‚ “Land o’ Burns”.
The Burns National Heritage Park has been established, centred on the family cottage which is affectionately known as Auld Clay Biggin, and has been restored to much the same condition that it was in when the poet was alive.
Heritage Park manager Caroline Glenn said: “Burns is extremely important to this area, and visitors from all over the world come to Alloway to see his birthplace. We also have manuscripts, artefacts and paintings, the museum, monument gardens, gift shop and restaurant.” There is also the Tam O’Shanter Experience, where laser disc technology and theatrical effects bring Burns’ best-loved tale to life in an audiovisual presentation.
Within the village is Kirk Alloway where Burns’ father and sister Isabella are buried. Not far away is the Brig O ‘Doon which features in Tam O’Shanter, a poem said to have been written in a single day as Burns lazed on the banks of the River Nith near Dumfries.
Farms where Burns worked, Mount Oliphant, Lochlea and Mossgiel, are also in the area. Mossgiel is where he composed many of his famous poems including To a Mouse and The Cotter’s Saturday Night.
Some 18 miles from Alloway is Irvine where, in 1781, Burns went to learn the trade of flax dressing. The town has a Burns Club with its own museum which features a number of rare manuscripts.
Mauchline too has many Burns connections, and the Burns House and Museum in Back Causeway has been refurbished. It was the home in 1788 of Burns and his wife, Mauchline-born Jean Armour, prior to them leaving Ayrshire for Ellisland Farm near Dumfries.
The street in which the poet’s house stands has changed little since those days. Adjacent is Mauchline Churchyard, where four of Burns’ young children are buried, together with his wife’s parents.
The work of Burns is characterised by references to the places in which he grew up. It was largely the Ayrshire landscape that he celebrated in song: “Behind yon hills where Stinchar flows, Mang moors an’ mosses many-o’ and paths along that very river take walkers through the peaceful valley.”
In 1780 Burns established a Debating Society in a building in the nearby village of Tarbolton, which is now referred to as the Bachelors’ Club and also incorporates a small Burns museum. The property is owned by the National Trust for Scotland, as is Souter Johnnie’s Cottage at Kirkoswald with yet another Burns-associated museum.
It was at Tarbolton that Burns became a Mason, and a visit to the Museum of Lodge Tarbolton (Kilwinning) sheds light on his Masonic associations. Willie’s Mill, on the outskirts of the village, was the home of the poet’s friend William Muir, and where Jean was confined during her second pregnancy, prior to moving to Mauchline.
The region of Dumfries and Galloway, being where he wrote a large proportion of his most memorable work, is an equally important location in his life. In 1789, plagued with financial worries, he became an exciseman (tax collector), and spent the remainder of his adult life in and around Dumfries, dying there aged 37.
In Dumfries and Galloway, therefore, there are many places to visit today which celebrate historical connections with him‚ his home, his farm and his favourite inn.
The Robert Burns Centre is in the town’s 18th century watermill on the west bank of the River Nith and tells the story of his latter years. The exhibition contains many original manuscripts and items belonging to the poet.
The Burns Trail around Dumfries is a marvellous way to walk in his footsteps. It takes in his statue, funded by public subscription in 1882; his favourite hostelries such as the Hole I’ The Wa’ Inn, and the Globe Inn and Close; Midsteeple where in July 1796 his body lay in state; the Burns House on Burns Street where he lived from May 1793 until his death on July 21, 1796; and his grave at St Michael’s Kirkyard.
Just north of Dumfries is Ellisland Farm, where he lived towards the end of his short life, and which he described as “the poet’s choice” of the farms he was offered by his landlord Patrick Miller.
Some of his best-loved nature poems were inspired by this setting, which is now a museum and visitor attraction, and provides an insight into agricultural life 200 years ago.
Today, visitors can inspect the farmhouse, stables, the byre (with its display of dairying), the cart store and granary, or stroll along the idyllic Burns Walk beside the River Nith.
Burns signed the lease of the farm at Whitsun 1788, but was unable to make it pay, despite switching from arable to dairy farming. In November 1791 the family moved to Dumfries, six miles away.
Les Byers, Curator of the Robert Burns Centre in Mill Road said: “Burns lived here for three and a half years, and this is where he wrote Auld Lang Syne and Tam O’Shanter.”
What people can see is two rooms: the kitchen and the parlour where he did a lot of his writing. There are also outbuildings with displays, and walks alongside the river where some of his work was composed. One of the great advantages for visitors with a passion for Burns is that there is so much to see in this small and accessible corner of Scotland.
A visit to Ayrshire and Dumfries not only offers the chance to see his work and the places where he lived, it also enables us to experience the landscape and communities which inspired Scotland’s national bard.
READ MORE: Great Scottish castles