Places to Visit in Scotland
- Burns Country, Ayrshire
Ayrshire - just a short drive south west of Glasgow - is a great place to get out of the city and enjoy pure fresh air and sea breezes. Take time out to tour around its miles of sandy beaches, quaint seaside towns, rural villages, over to the Isle of Arran, visit Culzean Castle - and everywhere a rich sense of history and heritage. The county is renowned for world-class golf courses at Turnberry and Royal Troon, horseracing and as the birthplace of Robert Burns, Scotland's national bard.
Touring Burns' Country around Ayrshire offers a fine cultural journey. Burns National Heritage Park in Alloway and the National Trust for Scotland preserve the cottages, townhouses, monuments and museums associated with the writer and provide information for visitors. Today you can visit his childhood cottage, the Bachelors' Club which he founded, Poosie Nansie's alehouse, Old Kirk Alloway, the Brig o' Doon and Soutar Johnnie's house as well as other historic places linked with his life and poetry. Read on for further details of an illuminating tour following in the footsteps of Robert Burns.
Burns National Heritage Park
The starting point is the Burns National Heritage Park, Alloway, from where you can set off on a well signposted walking trail to experience the famous local sites. Burns Cottage - now a museum - is where he was born and enjoyed a happy young childhood. The traditional "But and Ben" thatched clay cottage has been carefully renovated with a documentary film to show visitors what life must have been like for the family.
One single room served for all the family for living, cooking, eating, working and sleeping with an alcove box bed and pull-out cots on the floor at night. Next door was the byre for the livestock. It was a poor hand-to-mouth existence but Robert's parents ensured their children received a sound education, learning to enjoy reading, folklore and music.
Today an annex to the cottage houses the museum with a fine collection of manuscripts, letters and artefacts. Long before it became a "visitor attraction", the romantic poets, John Keats and William Wordsworth visited the cottage as the first tourists to pay homage to the poet. Since then thousands of visitors have made their way to the famous white washed cottage where Burns was born.
Open every day all year round except Christmas and New Year holidays.
Bachelors' Club, Tarbolton
The Burns family moved to the village of Tarbolton in 1777 where life revolved around farming, the Kirk (the Church) and John Richard's Alehouse. The upstairs room of the pub, accessed by an external staircase, was a popular place for social gatherings and dances. It was here in 1780 that Robert and six friends decided to create a debating society and as they were all young men and unmarried, the most appropriate name was The Bachelors Club. The aim was to promote friendship, to improve their minds and forget cares and labour. They met on the fourth Monday of each month to discuss suitable topics for young men such as literary, cultural, social, financial and current affairs.
Although the 17th century thatched house was almost demolished in 1938, it was thankfully saved for the nation by the National Trust for Scotland. Period furnishings, original memorabilia and books now offer an insight into this gentleman's debating Club. The spirit of the original Bachelors' Club continues to this day. Four times a year there is a dinner for society members, Burns' experts and enthusiasts with music, recitations and talks. Each January there's a special Burns Supper for specially invited guests and academics - even US Ambassadors. Indeed, great interest in the Club has come from the United States with one devoted Burns fan raising funds for the upkeep of the building.
Open April to September, Friday to Tuesday 1-5pm. Morning group visits by appointment. See also National Trust - Bachelors' Club.
Souter Johnnie's Cottage
The home of John Davidson, the village souter - shoemaker - who was the original Souter Johnnie in Robert Burns' epic tale, Tam o' Shanter. The vividly imaginative poem relates how local farmer Tam is riding home after a long night in the alehouse, only to see a coven of witches and warlocks dancing around the devil in Alloway's kirkyard. Davidson lived here from 1785 until his death in 1806 and today it is completely refurbished in period style with souter's workshop and comical statues of the Tam o' Shanter characters.
Main Road, Kirkoswald, South Ayrshire. Open April to September Friday-Tuesday, 11.30-5pm. See also National Trust - Souter Johnnie's Cottage
Auld Kirk, Alloway
"Kirk Alloway was drawing night,
Where ghaists and houlets nightly cry"
The allegedly haunted old Medieval Kirk, hardly changed since Burns day, is one of the most magical sites around Burns National Heritage Park. His father is buried here and it was the inspiration for Tam o' Shanter. Wander round the kirkyard to find some fascinating ancient tombstones, many of which are Burns' family and friends.
Brig o' Doon, Alloway
"Now do thy speedy utmost, Meg,
And win the key-stane of the brig;
There at them thou thy tail may toss,
A running stream they dare na cross!"
This fine old humped back bridge over the River Doon is the setting for the comic climax of Tam o' Shanter where Tam was fleeing for his life riding his mare, Meg, and is a popular destination for visitors on the Burns tour. The Brig o'Doon hotel on the riverbank is recommended place for a pitstop and also a romantic venue for weddings with many a bridal photograph taken with the bridge as a backdrop.
The Burns Monument, Alloway
In March 1914, Alexander Boswell, son of James Boswell first mooted plans to create a monument to Robert Burns. Eventually in 1823 the 70 foot monument opened. The location of this classic Grecian temple was selected for superb views of Burns Cottage, Kirk Alloway and the Brig o' Doon. From its roof, visitors can see the River Doon and the Carrick hills.
Monument and gardens open year round.
Tam o' Shanter Experience, Alloway
A modern visitor centre is at the centre of the Burns Heritage Park. The Tam o' Shanter Experience is an entertaining film presentation depicting the famous poem. Also gift shop, licensed air-conditioned restaurant, serving homemade meals and with an acre of gardens. A programme of special events and family activities runs throughout the year.
Open all year, 10am -5pm. See also Tam o' Shanter Experience Web site.
Other Robert Burns Visitor Attractions
Travelling around Ayrshire, there are numerous other haunts and places to visit connected with Burns. The Burns Statue and the Tam o' Shanter pub in Ayr. Visit the old Poosie Nansie alehouse in Mauchline to quench your "drouth" as Burns would have done.
Burns lived in Mauchline for four years, being the childhood home of his sweetheart, later wife, Jean Armour. Burns House Museum is the very house where he lived. As well as artefacts belonging to the poet, there is a collection of Mauchline box ware for which the town was famous in the 19th century. A number of Burns' contemporaries including Holy Willie, Gavin Hamilton and Poosie Nansie are buried in Mauchline Kirkyard opposite the museum.
Other Ayrshire Visitor Attractions and Useful Links
- Crossraguel Abbey, Ayrshire> - Not far from Culzean Castle.
- Culzean Castle and Country Park> - The most popular properties of the National Trust for Scotland.
- Dean Castle and Country Park, Kilmarnock> - A well preserved 14th century keep in a country park.
- Dundonald Castle, Ayrshire> - Built by the Stewart family in the 13th century.
- Dunure Castle - ancient seat of the Kennedys of Carrick
- Kelburn Castle and Country Park, Ayrshire> - A historic castle in a lovely country park.
- Ayrshire and Arran Tourist Board - Lots of information about the area.
- VisitScotland The Scottish national tourist agency.
Getting to Burns Country
Visitors from overseas can easily reach Ayrshire with flights to Prestwick International Airport a few miles north of Ayr. Direct flights with Ryanair from London and many European cities. Aer Arann from Donegal.
© Vivien Devlin, April, 2005
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