Robert Burns – the remarkable Ploughman Poet

The poet's desk and chair - they would not let me sit down

“Don’t you dare!”

I swivelled guilty when I heard the voice, as its tone carried not an ounce of understanding. The Scotsman, a security guard, was right to be angry.

I was in the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in the Ayrshire village of Alloway and had spied an exhibit – the desk and chair once used by the great poet.

Burns was a man of letters. If I sat at his desk, I thought, perhaps something would rub off. It was not to be, as the guard prevented it.

The poet's desk and chair - they would not let me sit down
The great man’s cutthroat razor (courtesy Lyon & Turnbull)

At first angry, the Scotsman then smiled. “Have a look over there instead,” he said with a mischievous grin, indicating a half-darkened cabinet to one corner. “Burns’ cut-throat razor and shaving mirror. He was hot on personal grooming.”

For a moment I wondered why me, but then felt my chin. Three days of stubble made me look feral. The guard had spotted it instantly. I took the few steps to the cabinet and inspected the blunt cut-throat and now functionless mirror, while rubbing my sandpaper chin as I pondered.

Robert (“Rabbie”) Burns, the Ploughman Poet, was born in 1759, in the tiniest of double beds, in a cottage not far from where I was standing.

He took the world by storm when he was aged only 27 years, with the publication of his Kilmarnock edition of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. For its day it was a best seller when it sold 612 copies.

The tiny bed where Burns was born

“What do you think?” asked the guard, who had also taken the few steps to join me. We looked at the display together.

“I need a shave,” I replied, still chin-rubbing gently.

“I mean the sideburns,” said the guard.

Robert Burns and his sideburns. Surely, he was their creator? (courtesy TC and EC Jack, Edinburgh, 1896)

“Of course!” I exclaimed, realising what the Scotsman meant. Just about all portraits of the poet showed them. “Side…Burns…sideburns. The Americans must have it wrong.” I remembered the claim that General Burnside, a Union Army commander from the American Civil War a hundred years after Rabbie Burns, was the origin of the sideburn.

“They have,” said the guard proudly. “Scotsmen may have invented the bicycle, pneumatic tyre, telephone and found penicillin, but I’ll wager our nation’s poet created the sideburn.”

I shook the man’s hand, nodded in agreement, and headed for the short, 15-minute walk along the Poet’s Path. This simple footway connects Birthplace Museum and Burns Cottage, where the great man was born. His father, William, was a self-educated local farmer. His mother, Agnes, had her work cut out with seven children. Rabbie was number one.

The cottage highlights something remarkable, as had my earlier, tortuous drive along the winding Ayrshire roads to reach Alloway.

How I thought, does a youngster make it to such global fame from these basic beginnings? Yet he did.

The Burns Cottage

Alloway, beside Ayr, is on the west coast of Scotland. It gazes out to sea towards glorious sunsets, the Isle of Arran, occasionally even Ireland, from an award-winning beach. Burns succeeded in no time, now with 60 statues worldwide, including Manhattan, more than 250 clubs, a Federation, and an annual supper, traditionally held on 25 January throughout the planet. Rabbie was remarkable, and not one to openly fault, especially in Scotland. After all, his words for A Man’s a Man for A’ That, were sung in 1999 at the opening of the Scottish Parliament.

Tae a Moose - like the poet on occasion, the beastie looks depressed

Yet Rabbie had problems, too. He enjoyed a drink, whisky being his favoured choice. Indeed, when he died from rheumatic heart disease at the age of 37 years, it is said to have developed after a heavy bout of drinking. He fathered at least 12 children from several ladies, and he was a depressive.

On the Poet’s Path stands the statue of a mouse, representing the ballad of  Tae A Moose. The animal does not look happy, which I sense is how Rabbie felt for much of his short life.

Had I been able, all those years ago, to meet the great man, I would have asked what he felt was his best work. I wager he would have said Tam o’ Shanter. He published this lengthy poem in 1790, the mythical story of Tam the farmer who was riding home drunk on his horse Meg, late one night. As he passed the local haunted church, now the Alloway Auld Kirk, he saw witches dancing. The witches gave chase and all but caught horse and rider before the pair dashed for safety over a nearby bridge, the Brig o’ Doon. They say that if you read Tam ‘o Shanter enough times, you stop thinking it is imaginary.

Tam o' Shanter - the poet's remarkable poem and possibly his best work (courtesy spookyscotland.net)

What is true, to me quite certain, is that the Ploughman Poet was remarkable with his pen, and the undoubted creator of the sideburn.


Getting there

The Robert Burns Birthplace Museum (National Trust Scotland)

Murdoch’s Lane
Alloway
Ayr
KA7 4PQ
Tel.: 01292 443700
Email: burns@nts.org.uk
Web: https://www.nts.org.uk/visit/places/robert-burns-birthplace-museum

Parking
At the museum this is free, including accessible parking. The Poet’s Path connects museum and cottage. The walk takes all of 15 minutes on surfaced path, and you could make it by wheelchair, too. On busy days there is an electric shuttle along the path. Alloway Auld Kirk, the Burns Monument, and Brig O’Doon are all close to the museum. They would be harder, although not impossible, by wheelchair with helper.

Distances
London (422 miles), Manchester (222 miles), Glasgow (39 miles), Edinburgh (85 miles), Newcastle (159 miles).

Rail
Scotrail goes to Ayr, which is the nearest station to Alloway (3.3 kilometres). See https://moovitapp.com/index/en-gb/public_transportation-Alloway-Scotland-site_35473513-402.

Bus
Alloway is on bus routes 361 and 97. Bus stations are Doonholm Road, Alloway (180 metres) or Woodland Road, Ayr (625 metres). See https://moovitapp.com/index/en-gb/public_transportation-Alloway-Scotland-site_35473513-402. The journey between Ayr and Alloway takes approximately 10 minutes.

Taxi
From Ayr to Alloway, a taxi would cost £9-11 (see https://www.rome2rio.com/s/Ayr/Alloway).

Accessibility
There are accessible loos in the museum and next to the cottage. The Poet’s Path is negotiable by wheelchair, but I would suggest a helper.

Places to stay

Places to eat

Other things to see

Burns Monument, Gardens, Alloway Auld Kirk and Brig o’Doon
Be sure you see these sights, which are near the museum but in the opposite direction to the cottage, so are easily missed or forgotten:

  • Alloway Auld Kirk: the site of the dancing witches in Robert Burns’ Tam o’Shanter poem and also where his father, William Burns, is buried.
  • Brig o’Doon: A mediaeval arch bridge across the River Doon, which features in the final verse of Tam o’Shanter
  • Burns Monument – its gold top looks incongruous, but it is surrounded by glorious gardens

Walk on Ayr beach
Mainly sand and thought by many to be one of the best beaches in Scotland.
Web: https://www.visitscotland.com/info/towns-villages/ayr-beach-p727241

Visit Culzean Castle
Now owned by the National Trust for Scotland, the castle is known as a cliff-top masterpiece with a 260-hectare estate. Remember, the pronunciation is Kull-ane.
Address: Maybole, KA19 8LE
Tel.: 01655 884455
Web: https://www.nts.org.uk/visit/places/culzean

More information: Visit Scotland
https://www.visitscotland.com/see-do/tours/driving-road-trips/routes/planner/attractions/alloway

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Richard Villar

Travel writer, doctor & international mountain leader

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