Burns Night: Ode to the Scottish bard
Follow the 'ploughman poet' Robert Burns on a pilgrimage around south-west Scotland
Saturday 25 January 2014
Tomorrow is the day when Scots around the globe spout poetry over a sheep's stomach stuffed with offal. Burns Night is the annual whisky-fuelled knees-up in honour of the Scottish bard's birthday. After the ceremonial piping in of the dish, a hush falls for the "Address to the Haggis": the poem Burns penned in praise of the "Great chieftain o the puddin'-race" in 1786 after pitching up in the Scottish capital.
The story starts, however, far from the hop-infused medieval alleys and tenements of Edinburgh. Robert Burns, the "ploughman poet", was born in 1759 in the softly rolling countryside and muddy fields of Ayrshire on the south-west coast. Today, there are several sites in his honour that you can visit.
Begin at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway, at that time a tiny village on the River Doon, now a picturesque suburb of the town of Ayr. This sprawling 10-acre site is a cornucopia of landmarks and places connected to the poet's life and works – with a strikingly modern museum building, all curved lines, wood-cladding and turf-topped roof, housing an important collection of manuscripts and memorabilia. The Poet's Path, a sculpture-scattered walkway, links the museum with the rustic whitewashed cottage or "auld clay biggin" built by Burns's tenant farmer father, and where he was born.
After mooching around the low-slung thatched cottage, visitors can stroll the short distance to the Alloway Auld Kirk and Brig O'Doon, whose starring roles in one of his best-loved poems, "Tam O'Shanter", make them prime pilgrimage spots: "Kirk-Alloway was drawing nigh/Whare ghaists and houlets nightly cry."
Robert Burns Birthplace Museum In 1789, Burns was asked to write a witches' tale to accompany a picture of the old kirk in Alloway for a book on Scottish antiquities. The result was "Tam O'Shanter", a madcap romp about a drunken farmer stumbling upon a bevvy of cackling crones dancing with the devil in the kirk. It's easy to picture the scene as you explore the ruins of the tumbledown stone church and grassy graveyard and stand on the arched "brig", or bridge, across the river which saved Tam from the witches' grasp as "a running stream they dare na cross".
Ayrshire is awash with sites, including the home of Tam's friend, Souter Johnnie – in real life, John Davidson – a thatched cottage decked out with period furniture and reconstructed souter's – or shoemaker's workshop in the little village of Kirkoswald. In fact, every house he called home, and a fair few connected to his life, now seems to be a tourist attraction.
In Tarbolton, where the family moved in 1777, the two-storey 17th-century meeting house where he learnt country dancing, became a Freemason and, in 1780, founded the Bachelor's Club debating society to discuss the issues of the day, has been restored and turned into a museum by the National Trust for Scotland and the Burns Federation. The Burns House Museum, meanwhile, where he lived from 1784-88 is in the cobbled streets of Mauchline.
You can hardly blame the region for capitalising on its star asset. Robert Burns was voted the Greatest Ever Scot in a television poll in 2009, there are Burns Societies around the world, New Year's Eve wouldn't be the same without Auld Langs Syne – and it was his song "Is there for Honest Poverty" a social narrative on society's inequalities that was chosen to open the new Scottish Parliament. Not a bad roll call for someone who died at the relatively young age of 37.
The trail doesn't end in Ayrshire. Burns might have been born here but it was in another bucolic corner of south-west Scotland, Dumfries and Galloway, where he ended his days. Aged 29, he moved to Ellisland Farm, a low-slung white farmstead, which curls around a cobbled courtyard, with his wife, Jean, and his young son Robert. He spent the next three years here trying to eke out a living as a farmer, but the ground was rough and barren. It was, as he put it though, the poet's choice. The other farms that he had looked at lacked soul, but here the countryside inspired him.
Walking along the bank of the River Nith, gazing out over the water to the Cairn Valley and hills beyond, he soaked up the scenery, composing his verses in the Hermitage, a tiny stone cottage along the riverside path. The lines that he scribbled on the pane of glass are now in the museum, but a reproduction can be seen in the cottage.
Burns gave up farming in 1791 and moved to Dumfries, six miles away, to work as an Excise Man. He lived here until his death in 1796. This country town on the River Nith also makes the most of its Burns heritage: you can follow the Burns Trail around town, visit his final home, Robert Burns House on the cannily named Burns Street, and see St Michael's Church, where Rabbie and Jean are buried in the mausoleum.
Then, after paying your respects, head to The Globe Inn, his favourite "howff", a tavern dating back to 1610, to take a dram in his honour. Bear in mind, though, that the story goes that if you sit in his chair you have to recite a line of his poetry or buy all of the other customers a drink.
Robert Burns Birthplace Museum Travel essentials
Trains connect Edinburgh, Ayr and Dumfries; 08457 48 49 50; nationalrail.co.uk
Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, Alloway (0844 493 2601; burnsmuseum.org.uk).
Souter Johnnie's Cottage, Ayr (0844 493 2147; nts.org.uk).
Bachelor's Club, Tarbolton (0844 493 2146; nts.org.uk).
Burns House Museum, Mauchline (01290 550045; museumsgalleriesscotland.org.uk).
Ellisland Farm, Auldgirth (01387 740426; ellislandfarm.co.uk).
Burns Walk, Dumfries (walkhighlands.co.uk).
Robert Burns House, Dumfries (01387 255 297; dumgal.gov.uk).
St Michael's Church, Dumfries (stmichaelschurchdumfries.org).
The Globe Inn, Dumfries (01387 252 335; globeinndumfries.co.uk).
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