One of the blessings of friends in international places is being their guide to Scotland. A while back, a group of friends I knew from my Howard Days were visiting, and naturally enquired as to where are the best places to go and see in my homeland. Since they were literary folk, one of the must-visit locations was Burns Country.
Ayrshire is a wonderful place. It isn’t too different from Inverclyde, especially Gourock: the foundations of the land are similar enough, we share a Brythonic-Gaelic heritage as part of the ancient Kingdom of Alt Clut, and we’re both picturesque locales on the shores of the Firth of Clyde. We also share Burns heritage: Inverclyde through the sad tale of Highland Mary, and Ayr for the birthplace of Burns himself, as well as several historic markers.
One of the first things you see on the trail to the Burns Cottage is this brilliant sculpture, clearly depicting Tam O’Shanter and Meg in desperate flight from the Auld Kirk. Hopefully nobody decides to stuff any god-fearing unfortunates into The Wicker Tam.
The Burns Cottage is a beautifully maintained replica of the house Burns was born and raised in, furnished with all the equipment, furniture, and household items that he and his family would have used 200 years ago. The walls were also marked with information: Scots words, Biblical quotations, biographical notes. It’s a really excellent blend of museum and reconstruction.
Not too far away was the Auld Kirk, famous as the inspiration for the tale of Tam O’Shanter. Even in bright daylight, there’s something sombre and bleak about the place.
The Museum was excellent, full of great material. Of particular interest to me was the “Burning Issues” panel, which purported to present Burns’ conflicting views on various subjects. You’ll note “Devolution” is there – not “Independence,” or even “Nationalism” – where Burns’ enlistment in the Royal Dumfries Volunteers is listed as a counterpoint to his many salient criticisms of the Union. I suppose, politically speaking, it’s a decent enough attempt. At least they didn’t go the whole hog.
One of the best things about the museum is the presence of the Scots language: here it is presented alongside English as a language in its own right, allowing visitors from all over the world to compare and contrast with English. In all the talk about Gaelic road signs, it would be good to see more of this, especially in museums dedicated to writers who used the Scots language.
There were many other places on the Burns Heritage Trail. Though the Burns Monument was closed for renovations, the gardens were open, with flowers in full bloom and the grass green and sweet: afterwards, we walked the Poet’s Path, and crossed the Brig o’ Doon. It was a full and rewarding day out, and I’m very glad to play host (along with my Mammy and the Weird Sisters, of course) to my friends from afar.
One particularly special memory was a request: for me to recite a piece of Burns that meant a great deal to my friend. I could hardly refuse, and so I read part of “To A Louse” outside the Burns Cottage, just a few feet from where the Bard himself was raised.
I’ll let the much lovelier Dawn Steele read us out. Happy Burns Nicht!