Take the high road to Alloway

19th January 1996 at 00:00
Jonathan Croall looks forward to the bi-centenary of Burns's death next Thursday. No writer in Scotland has left quite such a plethora of reminders of his life than the country's much-loved national poet and author of the world-famous "Auld Lang Syne", Robert Burns.

Travel around south-west Scotland, especially in Ayrshire and Dumfries and Galloway, and you hit an apparently endless succession of Burns museums, monuments and statues, pubs in which he drank with his cronies, and farms on which the celebrated "ploughman-poet" spent so much of his short but abundantly creative life producing verses such as "My Love is Like A Red, Red Rose, " "Ye Banks and Braes o' Bonnie Doon" and "Green Grow the Rashes, O".

But of all these landmarks, the most significant and valuable to visit are his birthplace in Alloway, and the house in Dumfries in which he spent the final years before his death at the age of 37.

Of the two, the "auld clay big gin" where he was born in 1759 is the more evocative. The long, low stone-and-clay cottage, two miles outside Ayr, was built on a small-holding with his own hands by Burns's father William, then a market-gardener. Recently restored, it consists of three small rooms - a stablebyre, a sitting room and a kitchen, furnished as they were at the time.

The poet-to-be, the first of seven children, was born in the last. Here was a place not just for cooking and spinning by the hearth, but also for the story-telling by his mother Agnes which captured the young boy's imagination.

In the sitting room he would listen to his father reading from the Bible, and question him about it; in the byre he would help with the animals, and assist his mother in making cheese and butter, getting an early taste of the farming life to come.

The adjacent museum has an extensive collection of books and manuscripts, and personal memorabilia - including his writing equipment, and the pocket book he took round the Highlands. It also reveals much about Burns's song-collecting, and his writing methods - that, for example, he liked to produce the middle of a poem first, or that he often composed while ploughing.

Ten minutes' walk from the cottage are the Burns Monument, the lovely old Brig o'Doon, and the Auld Kirk that features in "Tam O'Shanter"-all now part of the Burns National Heritage Park. The visitor centre includes "The Tam O'Shanter Experience" which, despite its ghastly name, is a compelling split-screen presentation of Burns's narrative poem.

In his excellent recent biography, James Mackay argues that accounts of Burns's life are "riddled with half-truths, contradictions and myths". One of these myths is that he died a pauper; in fact, as is clear from his house in Dumfries, he ended his life reasonably well off - even able to afford a maid.

Standing in what is now Burns Street, the house is modest, but certainly more substantial than the Ayrshire cottage. A two-storey red sandstone building in the centre of the town, it had sufficient space for Burns to have a small study off the upstairs bedroom (where he scratched his name in the window).

Here he lived with his wife Jean Armour and five children (another was born the day he died). Describing their time there, she wrote of Burns always having a book beside him at mealtimes, or how, writing or reading in the evenings, he was never disturbed by the children playing around him.

His job as an excise man was a strenuous one, involving up to 200 miles a week on horseback in all weathers. Yet he still managed to write more than 100 poems, compose lyrics for traditional Scots melodies, and make a record of many folk songs - for all of which he asked no payment.

Two rooms of his house are now a museum; the rest are furnished as they might have been during his time there. One arresting object among the memorabilia is Burns's well-worn leather masonic apron; another is the gun he carried with him as he carried out his excise duties round the ports and Solway towns. Several other items are in the writers' Museum in Edinburgh.

Just down the road is St Michael's Church, its graveyard bursting with awesome monumental sculptures. Burns was buried initially in a modest grave in one corner; but 20 years after his death, his body was moved to a more grand mausoleum nearby (the workmen were amazed to find his hair intact).

Also in the town centre is the Theatre Royal, which Burns was involved in founding, and where he got into trouble for supposedly refusing to stand for the national anthem, pressing for the French revolutionary song.

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