Burns Country, Ayrshire and ArranRobert Burns was one of Scotland’s most charismatic cultural heroes. Poet, writer, drinker, exciseman, freemason, womaniser – Burns was all of these and more. He was the Caledonian Marlboro man, armed with a wit that could cut diamonds.
Sporting sideburns like herbaceous borders, he was a bon viveur from humble origins. Born in the unassuming Ayshire town of Alloway , his imagination was altogether more grand. From his Ayshire roots to his latter years in Dumfries Burns spread his prose and charms liberally. To follow in his footsteps is to reprise a life that enriched Scotland’s culture, visiting verse and traditions upon the Scottish people who still celebrate them to this day in Burns Suppers, recitals, and the Burns An’ A That Festival that takes place in Ayshire each year.
Burns Country extends from Ayshire, south-west of Glasgow , all the way down to the Scottish Borders . But retracing Burns’ steps will also take you to Edinburgh , where he positioned himself at the forefront of the capital’s literary community. 18th Century Edinburgh was sunning itself in the Age of Enlightenment – where better a place for Burns to share ideas amongst this thriving sect of upwardly mobile intellectuals? His move to Edinburgh came on the back of his rising reputation as the poet whose inspired verse crackled with the working man’s esprit, transcending his earlier toils on the farm. ‘The Ploughboy Poet’, as he became known, was graciously received in Edinburgh , and subsequently all plans to move to Jamaica were jettisoned.
Edinburgh’s setting makes it an excellent place to kick off any journey into Burns’ life and times. The atmosphere, its sense of history, the depth and vibrancy of its culture – Burns was in his pomp in the city. It was there where he sat for Alexander Nasmyth’s iconic portrait in 1787. But Edinburgh was not where Burns was made: Ayshire is the true heart and soul of Burns Country.
With an abundance of accommodation in Ayrshire, ranging from bed and breakfasts, self-catering lodges and guest houses, to luxury hotels, planning a sojourn to Burns Country is easy. Scotland’s south-west gets its share of rainfall so definitely bring the waterproofs, but evergreen pastoral vistas are a generous recompense for the odd day spent sheltering from the elements, brolly up and cagoule on.
Burns’ home town of Alloway is a quiet suburb of Ayr, and its tribute to Scotland’s national poet, Burns Cottage, is an excellent first stop for those on the trail of Burns the man. It has a cornucopia of his works, some handwritten, and plenty of information to bring the man to life. The nearby Alloway Kirk (or Auld Kirk as the natives call it) was the Cromwell-funded church that inspired the nocturnal deeds of ‘Tam O’ Shanter’. Ayr itself is a little more lively than Alloway; a traditional seaside town, windswept and interesting, the town is steeped in history. The Tam O’ Shanter Inn on High Street is a fine place to consolidate your Burns appreciation for the day, perhaps over a whisky or two – go on, Burns would have approved. Ayr was made a Royal Burgh in 1205, and Ayrshire was the stronghold of the Bruce Clan. In 1315, Robert the Bruce established the first Scottish Parliament in Saint John The Baptist’s Kirk. By the 17th Century, the Reformation’s hand was guiding affairs. The aforementioned Auld Kirk was built with Oliver Cromwell’s purse, while Saint John’s tower and the city’s walls were built by Cromwell in 1652 when he had taken the town in the tumult that accompanied the country’s political and religious upheaval.
It was in a post-Cromwell, 18th Century Scotland that Burns was born to – a morally austere nation, not ready for Burns, surely. But Burns, with his roving eye for the ladies indeed flourished. After his father’s death, Burns had moved to Mauchline. It was there he rented a farm with his brother, and in 1790 to Mauchline he returned, with his wife of two years, Jean Armour. Burns the married man seemed at odds with his spirit, so emancipated from societal conventions of the time. Ten years before his marriage, Burns could be found in the Bachelor Club, Sandgate Street, Tarbolton. This Bachelor Club tended for the young, free and single men of Tarbolton. There he would attend dancing lessons and form a debating society. Drafting the rules for the club, this was where Burns’ induction into the Freemasons took place in 1781. Owned by the National Trust of Scotland, you don’t have to be a bachelor to visit it these days – open from March to September each year, it is now open to all.
A Burns pilgrimage should also take you to Souter Johnnie’s Cottage in Kirkoswald, Ayrshire. Home to the souter, or shoemaker, John Davidson – he of Tam O’ Shanter fame. Davidson’s thatched cottage has been faithfully restored, crammed full of Burns ephemera, it is a window into 18th Century life, and the appreciation that Burns had of his surroundings as he constructed his lyrical protagonists from the tales of ordinary people in Ayrshire.
The journey from Ayrshire to Dumfries is a pleasant drive which takes in the endless succession of dairy farms and picturesque meadows that are stitched together with some craggy coastline to form Dumfries and Galloway . Unspoiled, unhurried, and in many instances, rural enough for some mobile phones to lose their signal, Dumfries and Galloway seems a fitting place for Burns to have spent his last days. Burns died in Dumfries of rheumatic fever on the 21st July 1796, and the town’s Burns Centre is a magnificent multi-media tribute to the man, his work, and his time spent in the red sandstone bricked town known as ‘The Queen Of The South’.
When Burns stayed in Dumfries, the town was home to some 5600 people. This was the time of Burns the exciseman, the family man. He moved into what is now known as Bank Street – back then it went by the less-than-flattering name of the Stinking Vennel. Uninspiring surely, just like his job. But on the contrary, this was a prolific time for Burns’ writing. Working for the government would have its rewards: his extra free time was more than productive, with 50 of his songs making the fourth edition of the Scots Musical Museum.
While the perception of Burns the maverick, the man who would never settle down, endures to this day, it is conceivable that Dumfries was where he found himself most at home. He made many friends there. He led a contented family life, consumed in reading and his own writing, and letting his hair down in the Globe on High Street. The Burns family moved to Mill Street in 1793. Burns’ stock was considerable by this time, and he lived accordingly on a diet of fresh game and seafood. He toured Dumfries and Galloway on the back of a Highland pony, talking in Castle Douglas , Crossmichael, Loch Ken, Gatehouse and Kirkcudbright before returning home. Rumour has it that he’d highly recommend it. If some of his latter works like A Man’s A Man For A’ That and My Luve Is Like A Red Red Rose are to believed; he found it most inspiring.
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