I visited the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum for the first time last week. Situated in Alloway, a village in the suburbs of Ayr, and run by the National Trust for Scotland, it comprises a new Visitor Centre with Museum, Café and Shop as well as the Cottage in which he was born, (reached by walking the new Poet’s Path), the Auld Kirk where his father is buried, the Brig o’Doon bridge and the Burns Monument. Your entrance fee provides admission to all the venues and ensures you have enough to see and do for a whole day. The Museum holds the world’s largest collection of artefacts including over 5,500 manuscripts, books, personal artefacts and artworks relating to Robert Burns and his legacy.
Robert Burns was born at the Cottage in Alloway in 1759 and died at the young age of 37 in Dumfries where he is buried. Known as one of the leading Romantic poets, he is regarded as the national poet of Scotland and his work is celebrated worldwide. Some of his most famous works include Auld Lang Syne, Scots Wha Hae, To A Mouse, Ae Fond Kiss and A Red Red Rose.
We began our visit with coffee and cake in the Café (it’s a requirement), which has beautiful floor to ceiling windows through which to view the surrounding parkland, following which we headed off outside along Poet’s Path which takes you to Burns’ Cottage where the poet lived for the first seven years of his life. There are some lovely sculptures along the path by different artists representing poems by Burns but we particularly liked the Monument to a Mouse, by the sculptor Kenny Hunter, which was inspired by a real mouse which his own cat brought in. It perfectly captures the ‘wee, sleekit, cowran, tim’rous beastie’ and you can see a video of its installation here.
The Cottage has four rooms, two of which were given over to a barn and a byre for the animals, and when we looked at the plan of the Cottage it appeared as though the animals had more space than the family. The other two rooms are the parlour and kitchen, both of which have been recreated to represent how they would have looked in the 1760s. The guidebook told us that when Robert was growing up, the relationship between man and animal was interdependent and they were important for their milk, eggs, wool and strength in the field and only slaughtered occasionally. Burns’ own respect and compassion for animals is evident in his poetry but I don’t know how suitable those characteristics would have been for a farmer!
We then walked back down the path to the main road and walked along to the Auld Kirk, which appears in Burns’ poem Tam O’Shanter. It was built in the sixteenth century and used as a church and a school but was a ruin by the mid eighteenth century, which is how Burns knew it. His father died in Tarbolton, where the family were now living, but his body was brought back to Alloway to be buried in the Auld Kirk and the epitaph on the gravestone was penned by his son.
Further along from the Auld Kirk is the Brig o’Doon, a single span stone bridge dating from the fifteenth century. This romantic monument has inspired many artists and writers and it also appears in Tam O’Shanter as Tam and his horse Meg flee for their lives. They manage to escape the witches who are pursuing them as the witches cannot cross water. In these modern times it is full of couples taking selfies – true story.
Opposite the Brig o’Doon is the Burns Monument, set in beautifully tended gardens, which opened to the public in 1823 and was designed by the architect Thomas Hamilton. The structure embodies a classical style and is filled with Masonic symbols including many references to the number three – see how many you can find. A lovely guide, based at the Monument, gave us its history and explained how they were fundraising to provide all the renovations required. You can climb to the top, which we did, where you are rewarded with a breathtaking view of the surrounding countryside. This was no mean feat for someone like me who has vertigo!
We then returned to the Museum and Visitor Centre for lunch and headed off into the Museum for a tour, which was provided by the Museum’s Curator, Sean McGlashan. The Museum does not follow a timeline but is split into themes and contains some fantastic memorabilia including Burns’ desk and chair as well as many of his original writings. Every hour the lights dim and screens above and around you burst into life with Burns’ poetry and accompanying images. The lowering of the lights is an ingenious idea as most people stop what they are doing to watch and listen to the poetry and stories. A family tree and timelines provide an insight into the poet’s life and in particular we discovered that his family name was Burnes (pronounced Burness) but, as everyone pronounced it as Burns, Robert changed the spelling.
The highlights of the collection for me included a Victorian painting depicting Burns and his great love, Highland Mary; nineteenth century wooden carvings depicting four key scenes from Tam O’Shanter; a fragment of Auld Lang Syne written by Burns in 1788; and a 3D recreation of the head of Robert Burns by the University of Dundee.
The building also houses regular contemporary art exhibitions centred round the work of the poet, has function rooms for conferences and weddings, and has a shop that many a museum would be proud of. There was so much to see here that we have promised a return visit in the very near future. This museum operates both for newcomers to the work of Burns as well as aficionados and the ability to visit places which appear in his poetry is a real bonus.
Inspired by the visit to Alloway and the Museum I made an effort to reread Burns and it was interesting to see that his work today appears as relevant as ever …
And man, whose heav’n-erected face
The smiles of love adorn,
Man’s inhumanity to man
Makes countless thousands mourn!
Man Was Made To Mourn 1784 Robert Burns
The Robert Burns Birthplace Museum and complex of buildings is highly recommended and for more details on the museum and Robert Burns click here
Monument to a Mouse sculpture by Kenny Hunter on the Poet’s Path
Burns’ handwritten notes on Auld Lang Syne