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Robert Burns Museum.

The Robert Burns Museum in Alloway, Ayr, is a must see in Scotland. Great insight into poet’s life. Plus a good cafe that serves really tasty haggis!

Robert Burns Museum

The Robert Burns Museum is correctly the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, or so it says on the fine stone wall of the entrance area of the fine museum in Alloway, run by the National Trust for Scotland.

For first-time visitors to the Robert Burns Museum, perhaps with an image of Burns Cottage in their minds, the slickness of it all may be a surprise. We Scots have a word 'couthy' - meaning cosy, home-spun, friendly and unassuming. (Burns himself used the word in his poetry and it's probably related to both 'kith' as in 'kith and kin' and English 'uncouth', all from Old English cunnan 'to know'. OK, that's enough etymology - Ed.) Basically, the Robert Burns Museum is the opposite of couthy (except for the friendly element). It's high-tech, modern, clever and illuminating. But, within walking distance along the road, Burns Cottage remains a bit couthy - just as it has done since it became a place of pilgrimage after the poet's death in 1796.

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(I think the trio pictured here were on their way to a wedding in the church nearby. Please note. You don't have to wear a kilt to get into the museum.) Love the kilt on the wee guy in the middle.)

The other surprising part for first time visitors – at least it has always made me smile – is that the image of Burns as the romantic ploughman poet, set essentially in a rural landscape, is now so much at odds with the setting of the Burns locations in Alloway today. No struggling, marginal farming operation here – the little fields have long gone.

The topography of the Auld Kirk, the Brig o’ Doon (pictured below) and his birthplace cottage is set amongst well-to-do suburbia, with leafy gardens, large and shiny cars in driveways and a very contented air about the place. What would Burns have made of it all, especially the very notion of having a 21st-century Robert Burns Museum in what was once a field he would have known in childhood?

The Brig o Doon, Alloway, where Tam escaped the witches in the ‘Tam o’ Shanter' poem.

The Brig o Doon, Alloway, where Tam escaped the witches in the ‘Tam o’ Shanter' poem.

(Pictured here) A few minutes from the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, this is the actual bridge over which Tam o’ Shanter rode to escape the witches. Yes, really. Read the comic narrative poem for yourself. Great fun.

Haggis as they serve it at the Robert Burns Museum. Yum.

Haggis as they serve it at the Robert Burns Museum. Yum.

Let’s be practical. If you’re planning to do the Robert Burns thing in Alloway, then start at the museum. As there is an excellent café, if you want to get into the spirit of it all then have lunch here and try the beginners’ haggis – I did – and it was very tasty.

And I only call it beginners’ haggis because of how it was served – a haggis convenience portion with layered neeps and tatties, plus a whisky sauce if you find it a bit dry. Clever stuff. Yes, really. I’d eat it again. Maybe I should call it ‘harmless or non-intimidating haggis’. (And the afternoon tea selection of cakes was very tempting as well.)

The Burns Birthplace Museum Experience

After the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum Café, immerse yourself in the wealth of artefacts on display in the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum itself. Lighting is low, presumably to protect the priceless writings, and you’ll soon find yourself able to recognise Burns’ hand-writing from some distance away! Snatches of music play, and the area is set in thematic sections. It’s almost overwhelming. Like the National Trust for Scotland’s Culloden visitor centre, there is plenty to study. And the whole experience starts off with the arresting quotation from another Scottish poet, Hugh Macdiarmid: “Mair nonsense has been uttered in his name – Than in ony’s barrin liberty and Christ.” (mair – more; ony – any).

By the time you leave, you should have some idea of Burns the man but also some sense of his achievement – born into a life of endless work trying to earn a living off the land, yet rising to fame and the attention of the literati of Scotland and beyond. Within years of his death he had achieved a unique place in literature as a poet of the common man, still celebrated with enthusiasm the world over – wherever the Scots gather. Ironically, many who attend Burns Suppers on the 25th January probably care to hear no other poetry, except on that day. There’s more here on the life of Robert Burns.

A Walk to Burns Cottage

Then, still topped up with haggis and/or cakes, it’s time to foot it across to Burns Cottage. The ‘Poet’s Path’ with its statuary (ho-hum) leads from the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum past – in a slightly surreal sort of way – some all-weather hockey pitches, busy – on a Saturday, at least – with solid-looking female players. (Inevitably, I couldn’t help thinking of those lines from Tam o’ Shanter that go ‘Now Tam, O Tam! had thae been queans, / A’ plump and strapping in their teens,‘ as these words certainly applied to the goalkeepers. Crikey. I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to tangle in the penalty area with any of  them.)

Burns Cottage, on the left, now slightly incongruous in suburbia.

Burns Cottage, on the left, now slightly incongruous in suburbia.

Then suddenly you pop out beside a shop, lots of parked cars and some houses on quite a busy road. Aha, wait a minute, the cottage is that unassuming low building opposite. (Burns Cottage pictured here – it’s the wee hoose on the left.)This is the actual place where his earliest memories were formed and where his father made financial sacrifices to give Robert Burns and his brother Gilbert an education. And in their day you couldn’t nip across the road for a cappuccino.

Inevitably, the cottage experience is sanitised and scrubbed to a state of lifelessness, with not so much as a scrawny hen pecking about. But it’s fascinating for all that – especially when you realise that, under the thatched roof, the area for the animals was bigger than the area for the human occupants. And if there’s no sharn, straw or realistic smells, at least there’s a kailyard out the back, with real kale (or kail)! See the picture here. (Sharn is Scots for what you have to avoid stepping in, in farmyards. Blame the cattle.)

Oooh, look. Genuine kail in a real kailyard at Burns Cottage.

Other Robert Burns Landmarks nearby

Genuine kail in a real kailyard at Burns Cottage

Genuine kail in a real kailyard at Burns Cottage

After that, stroll down to the roofless Alloway Auld Kirk. Burns’ father lies here ‘in everlasting slumber’. Then make your way to the bridge of the River Doon for a view of the old Brig o’ Doon – that’s the one that Tam o’ Shanter (Shanter being a farm name) had to race for on his ‘guid grey mare’ Meg, pursued by the witches he had disturbed at their coven in the kirk. (It’s all in the great narrative poem!)

You can visit the Memorial Gardens as well, though by now, you may feel you have enough of a handle on the Burns cult. But the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum is a Scotland must see – and not just for the haggis. (OK, you don’t have to have the haggis, there’s lots more on the café menu.)

After we went to the museum here, we continued to Galloway. Worth adding to your itinerary in the South of Scotland. Find out where Galloway is on that link.