On Good Friday, my wife Claire, son Jamie and I made our way to Alloway in the south of Ayrshire to visit the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum (www.burnsmuseum.org.uk). I had previously spoken in the village on several occasions at the Alloway and South Ayrshire Family History Society, which sadly ceased to operate last year, but had never ‘gone for a dander’ around the place, so this was a much needed correction to my life experience!
I grew up in the east of County Antrim, Northern Ireland, which is often noted for being more Scottish than Scotland itself, and true to form, the area where I was raised had its own Burns dinners and all the rest of the cult trappings for the national bard that had put me off studying him for years (it might be the Presbyterian in me, but I’m not a great one for the cult of celebrity!). The museum in Alloway, however, is a real jewel in the crown for Scotland, in that it tells the story of the man, not the ‘bardology’ based myths surrounding his legacy. Here we learned about Burns the republican, Burns the exciseman, Burns the canny politician, Burns who almost ran away to work on a slave plantation in Jamaica, Burns the serial adulterer, Burns the family man, and of course, Burns the poet.
There are some great touches in the museum. The panels telling of his life story are all written in Scots, not in English – proving that the Scots language has more uses than just for quotes from Burns’ poems. The majority of the exhibits are real items of direct connection to the poet, including contemporary letters to and by him, furniture owned, his family history, a description of contemporary society, and so much more. The exhibition of course deals with his legacy, and the cult surrounding him, but this forms the final part of the display, and by no means dominates it. Visit the museum and you will get to learn about Burns the man, understand where he came from, and by this then come to understand from where his poetry derived.
On the back of my visit, I finally found a respect for the man that was long overdue, because of who he was, and not because of how others have sought to portray him. In the museum shop I bought Robert Crawford’s biography The Bard, a collection of his poems (which I am now ploughing through), and a copy of Eddi Reader’s album, The Songs of Robert Burns. Her version of Auld Lang Syne, (not sung to the traditional tune that we all know and belt out at New Year annually!), is absolutely superb, allowing you to actually engage with the lyrics in a completely different context.
After leaving the museum we also visited the auld kirk at Alloway (as noted in Tam o’ Shanter), where Burns’ father’s grave stands, the Brig o’ Doon, and the actual cottage where Robert was born.
The kirk and the bridge are superb locations – but the cottage unfortunately appears to have anything that once made it seem like his home removed, with little by way of exhibits (perhaps relocated to the museum?) – just copious quotes in Scots plastered across the whitewashed walls. I’m sorry, but graffiti does not a visitor attraction make! The presence of a mad hatter’s tea party as well (as an Easter treat for kids) was also very out of place, adding very little. Nevertheless, putting the disappointment of that aside, I’d thoroughly encourage anyone planning a visit to Scotland to certainly visit Alloway for a truly great afternoon out – and I’d recommend the Brig o’ Doon House Hotel.
Incidentally, a handy wee publication with charts showing Burns’ family and their descendants is ‘Genealogical Charts of the family of Robert Burns and Descending Families; Also the families of Gilbert Burns and Isabella Burns’, researched by Lawrence R. Burness, and edited and compiled by Peter J. Westwood (1997, Burns Federation).