One beautiful sunny Sunday recently I made my first visit to the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in the Ayrshire village of Alloway. As National Poetry Day is fast approaching, it seemed a perfect time to learn more about the life and work of Scotland’s most famous poet.
The Museum is made up of several buildings, including the thatched cottage where Robert Burns was born, a handsome stone monument, a huge exhibition building (whose entrance is shown above) and a Poet’s Path dotted with outdoor sculpture. The map below is given to visitors so they can find their way around:
We started in the modern green-roofed building which holds the main exhibition about Robert Burns and his very eventful and productive life. The building was designed by Simpson and Brown Architects and is made of locally-sourced natural materials (Douglas fir timber and a dry stone wall at the entrance). The space inside is light and airy, with a shop, education room and cafe:
The exhibition itself is in a huge open-plan area kept very dark in order to preserve the original artefacts (as ink on paper fades very quickly in natural light). There are many hand-penned poems and letters, furniture, clothing and even pistols owned by Robert Burns. (He needed to be armed when he worked as a tax collector!)
The exhibition is full of information about the poet who was born in 1759 in a tiny farmhouse in Alloway. Although he only lived to be 37 years old, he wrote hundreds of poems and song lyrics and fathered 13 children! He also worked as a farmer, a collector of folk music and an Excise officer (collecting taxes for the government). He is best known for writing in the Scots language, and his poems are full of great character and richness because of this.
My favourite Burns poem is “To a Mouse” which he wrote after disturbing a little mouse’s nest with his plough. (If you click on that link above you can read the poem and hear it performed by actor Brian Cox.) In honour of the “wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie” of that poem, a giant bronze mouse sculpture stands at the entrance to the Poet’s Path:
It stands over two metres high and looks quite confident, so visitors look more like the cowering beasties in comparison! Another animal sculpture stands at the end of the path; it is a fox representing liberty cast in iron by Hargreaves Foundry based on a model by Kenny Hunter:
At the end of the path we arrive at the 18th-century cottage where Robert Burns and his brother Gilbert and two sisters Agnes and Anabella were born. The cottage is a long, low building which housed not only the Burnes family (the original spelling of their surname). Also under the same roof was a byre where the cows, horse and chickens were kept!
Robert’s mother sold milk from the family cows, and grew vegetables like kale, carrots, onions and potatoes in the garden. The family of six lived in two small rooms, and the house was heated by one hearth in the kitchen:
Opposite the fire was the box bed where all four children were born. Their names and birth dates are embroidered on little white nightdresses suspended over the bed:
Snippets of Burns poems are painted on the cottage walls and these give a flavour of his work and the language he spoke with his family:
Some of the words are quite surprising, and often they are very expressive:
Wandering around this impressive collection of buildings in Alloway gives a real sense of Robert Burns the poet and the man. This National Trust for Scotland site is a great place to discover Scotland’s most famous poet.