I THINK it’s very cool that Scotland’s favourite son is a poet. In a land with thousands of years of history, and a place that’s produced many patriots, warrior royals and folk heroes, the locals decided in 2009 that humble wordsmith Robert Burns was the greatest Scot of all time.
Burns, the son of a poor farmer who decided his children needed some education, was born in a cottage in the pretty Ayrshire hamlet of Alloway in 1759 and while he tried to make a living from the land it was the poetry he wrote that made him famous.
Scottish Blue Badge guide Ken Hanley, who has an app on his iPhone featuring every Burns poem, says it was the poet’s ability to reach everyone that made him so popular when he was alive and ensured his continuing charm.
“His appeal was that he could touch the ordinary people but also reach the intelligentsia,” Ken explained during my visit to Burns Country in Scotland’s tranquil southwest.
“He could take ordinary conversations or situations and write about them − like in the poem To A Mouse which he wrote after disturbing a nest of mice in a field he was harvesting − and he was a philosopher but he could put the ordinary into the written word.”
Burns Cottage, the rustic white structure with two rooms and a barn under a neatly thatched roof the poet was born in, now forms part of the new Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, which opened in Alloway earlier this year.
Burns was born in a boxbed in the kitchen, which was the main living and sleeping area for the growing family. It was also where he would sit by the fire and listen to the spooky stories his father and tutor John Murdoch told that went on to stir his imagination.
As well as exploring the cottage, which has inventive audio and visual displays that put Burns’s early years into perspective, visitors can stroll the Poet’s Path − a trail linking the town’s two main sites decorated with sculpture illustrating the words that came from Burn’s imagination − to the museum.
Burns enthusiasts began collecting memorabilia not long after the bard of Ayrshire died in 1796, and today the new museum that stands just a stone’s throw from the River Doon and the historic Burns Monument features more than 5500 treasures.
The museum is arranged thematically so there’s no order to follow, and visitors are encouraged to dive in to the displays that deal with his relationships and identity, and the things that inspired him.
There’s the desk he sat at to write, a collection of portraits that show the many faces of the poet as represented by different artists, the writing set he carried with him as he travelled the country, a handwritten copy of Tam o’ Shanter, two pistols engraved with his initials, and a diagram of his tangled family tree.
Many of his works were written in the Scots language, so the museum curator has put translation disks on the exhibits with the hope that visitors will not only get a better understanding of the verses but pick up a few words of the local dialect to enrich the experience.
Burns spent the first two decades of his life in and around Alloway.
His father moved the family 15km north to Tarbolton when he was 18, and the poet settled at Ellisland Farm in Dumfries when he was in his late 20s. The sleepy settlement went on to feature in many of his works.
While Burns wrote A Red, Red Rose and Auld Lang Syne, and even Scots Wha Hae, which served as the country’s unofficial anthem for a while, he’s most famous for the Tam o’ Shanter poem, which follows one man’s adventure from Ayr to Alloway and the bridge across the River Doon.
While the themes of overindulgence and superstition are at the heart of the eight-minute work, it now serves as a travelogue for those visiting Alloway. Many of the town’s locations, which can be seen during a stroll around the settlement, feature in the poem.
There’s the Brig O’Doon − the ancient stone bridge that arches over the rippling water of the River Doon − where Tam and his horse Meg lost the witches who were chasing him, and the Auld Kirk where he looked through the church window on a dark and stormy night to see the devil playing the bagpipes.
Today there’s a keystone in the central arch of the bridge that celebrates Tam’s escape from the hags and wandering through the church ground, the place “where ghaists and houlets nightly cry”, you can see Burns’ father’s grave, which also features the names of his mother Agnes and some siblings.
Hanley and I finished our visit by climbing the stairs to the top of the Burns Monument, a Grecian structure built by Burns aficionados in the early 1800s to let visitors enjoy an elevated view of the land that inspired the poet. From the top we looked across the pretty village structures to the frostbitten fields on the other side of the Doon.
THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE DAILY TELEGRAPH ON THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 22, 2011