I’m humming Happy Birthday to You as I make my way to the birthplace of the man who has the biggest and best-known birthday party in the world – every year. Annual Burns’ Suppers are held around the world on January 25th to celebrate Robert Burns’ birthday. Scotland’s national poet penned, among many other songs and poems, Auld Lang Syne .
Robert Burns’ Cottage
He was born in 1759 in a small, thatched cottage built by his father and which now stands on the main road through the village of Alloway. I almost have to stoop to enter and I stand for a moment to allow my eyes become accustomed to the gloom. I follow the sound of children’s chatter into the byre, the part of the cottage where the cow, a horse and chickens were kept. A gaggle of schoolchildren, neatly dressed in their school sweatshirts and clutching clipboards, are lifting the lids of milk churns, examining harnesses and bits and gripping the handles of an old plow.
I move on with the children into what is obviously the best room in the cottage: the “spence,” the guide tells us it’s called. She adds that this was where the young Robert Burns received his lessons from a tutor and practised his reading using the family Bible. The window doesn’t let in much light and even with candles, it must have been a strain to read. Patiently, the guide explains to the children that no, there were no TVs or games consoles or computers in Burns’ time, nor was there electricity or running water or flush toilets.
Mulling this over, we move on to the kitchen, which is obviously the heart of cottage life. The first thing that strikes me is that not only is there a bed squeezed into a recess, but that the bed is tiny, almost child size. Burns’ parents apparently slept in it while the children shared the trundle bed which the guide wheels out from underneath. It was in this kitchen that Burns listened to songs and folk tales from his mother and her cousin Betty who also lived here. I look around the room with its open fire for cooking and the rough chairs and table and wonder where on earth she slept.
In Your Bucket Because…
- You can’t come to Scotland and not learn about Burns!
- Even if you don’t like poetry, there’s plenty of other interesting aspects of Burns to focus on.
- Good for: Burns aficionados, history buffs, families with children who like hands-on experiences.
The Poem Tam o’ Shanter
I leave the cottage, and the children making notes on their clipboards, and saunter along the Poet’s Path. It takes me a while to walk as I stop at the weather vanes that stand along the route and tell the story of one of Burns’ most famous poems, Tam o’ Shanter.
Tam was drunk one night, and making his unsteady way home on his mare, Meg, when he reached the old haunted kirk (church) in Alloway. He saw a light gleaming from it so he went to investigate. In the church, the devil was playing the bagpipes while, all around him, witches were dancing. A very comely young witch, wearing a very short skirt, caught Tam’s eye and he roared out his approval. The witches turned on Tam and chased him out of the churchyard. Urging Meg as fast as she could go, Tam headed for the River Doon and the bridge across it, for witches cannot cross water. But just as he reached the keystone of the bridge, the young witch lunged forward and seizing the horse’s tail, pulled it right off.
My walk takes me past the old haunted Kirk (it’s still standing 200 years later) and I follow Tam’s route down to the Brig o’ Doon and stand at the keystone. I can almost hear the clatter of Meg’s hooves as she desperately gallops across.
Robert Burns Heritage Museum
At the end of the Poet’s Path, I enter the museum devoted to various aspects of Burns’ life. Again it’s dark and again, a group of schoolchildren are busily trying out question and answer games and peering at the exhibits. The dark forces you to focus on what’s in front of you rather than being dazzled by the wealth of exhibits on display.
There’s a section dealing with Burns’ family life, another on his loves (he had many illegitimate children as well as eight legitimate ones) his politics and his fame. The last one amazes me. His work has been translated into Polish, Japanese, Russian, Estonian, German, Czech. Posters advertising Burns’ suppers from around the world are here along with his actual manuscripts and the first edition of his poems that brought him fame.
Suddenly, music streams through the building and a disembodied soprano voice sings one of his best known songs, My Love is Like a Red, Red Rose.
The children fall silent. It’s still a beautiful song, still able to move me despite being written so long ago.
And I will love thee still, my dear
Till all the seas gang dry.
I swallow the lump in my throat and take my leave. On my way back, I find myself humming the tune. Robert Burns’ work touched hearts and minds of people from many countries around the world. No wonder we all celebrate your birthday, Rab!
- Getting there; driving is the best option though it is possible by public transport.
- It’s all very accessible for disabled visitors. The Poets’ Path walk is short and flat.
- One ticket covers the cottage and the museum and all points of interest in-between.