Traces of Rabbie Burns

The bard’s footprints in Ayrshire

David Milloy

What can we say about Rabbie Burns that’s not already been said? To people in Ayrshire, he’s a local lad made good, but to the world he’s a genius whose words continue to reverberate across the globe more than two hundred years after his death.

So to celebrate his 265th birthday, we’re going to tell the story of his time in Ayrshire by choosing an artefact which links him to each of the places in his home county which are of most significance to his life and works.

Alloway and Mount Oliphant
As everyone knows, Robert Burns was born in Alloway on 25th January 1759. He lived there until he was seven, when his family moved to Mount Oliphant farm, around a mile from the Alloway of today.

Rabbie’s life and legacy is celebrated at several locations in Alloway and Ayr – Burns Cottage, the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, Burns Monument, Burns Statue Square, and the Tam O’Shanter Inn. But our chosen Rabbie-related artefact in the locality is Alloway’s Auld Kirk, for not only is its graveyard the last resting place of his father and younger sister, but the kirk itself is the place where his fictional hero Tam O’Shanter encounters the devil and his acolytes before beating a very sharp retreat.

A ruin even in Rabbie’s day, the Auld Kirk positively exudes atmosphere, and on a dark night it’s not hard to imagine it as the sort of place where you might bump into witches, warlocks, and even Auld Nick himself.

Kirkoswald

Rabbie spent a summer in Kirkoswald when he was 16 and went to the local school for a few months. Members of his mother’s family (she was from nearby Maybole) are buried in the village, but perhaps the most important part that it plays in his life is that it was the home of Douglas Graham, John Davidson and Jean Kennedy, fictionalised versions of whom (Tam O’Shanter, Souter Johnnie and Kirkton Jean) appear in probably the greatest of all of Rabbie’s works. All three are buried in the local kirk’s graveyard but our choice of artefact for the village is Souter Johnnie’s Cottage, now owned by the National Trust for Scotland and preserved as a museum to Rabbie and “his ancient, trusty, drouthy crony.”

Tarbolton


After a decade of struggling to meet ends meet at Mount Oliphant, Rabbie’s family moved to a larger farm, Lochlea, near Tarbolton. Rabbie, who was 18 when he moved to Lochlea, helped his father on the farm whilst also finding the time to join a country dancing school and, with his brother Gilbert and others, found the Bachelors’ Club in Tarbolton in 1780. The Bachelors’ Club wasn’t, however, an 18th century equivalent of Tinder but a debating society, housed in the same building in which Rabbie had attended country dancing lessons.

Remarkably, that very building is still in existence, having been saved from demolition in 1937. Now owned by the National Trust for Scotland, its role in the life of the young Rabbie makes it our choice of artefact for Tarbolton.

Irvine

In 1781, Rabbie, somewhat downcast after a rejected proposal of marriage, moved to Irvine to learn flax dressing. He took lodgings in Glasgow Vennel and befriended a ship’s captain, Richard Brown. Rabbie enjoyed visiting the town’s bookshop and would often take strolls in Eglinton Woods. The close, dusty atmosphere of the Heckling Shop in which he worked affected his health and he was also seized by bouts of depression. Indeed, he might have been lost to the literary world had it not been for the encouragement given to him by Richard Brown.

There are several buildings in Irvine in which Rabbie would have spent time. However, our artefact of choice for Irvine is a song by a band formed in the town, the wonderfully named Trashcan Sinatras. Entitled ‘I Hung My Harp Upon the Willows’, the song dates from 2009 and tells of Rabbie’s time in ‘Irvine town, by the sea’.

Mauchline

Rabbie returned to Lochlea in 1782, after the Heckling Shop burned down on Hogmanay 1781. After their father died in 1784, Rabbie and Gilbert kept on the farm at Lochlea for a short time but took on the tenancy of Mossgiel Farm near Mauchline later that year. Rabbie’s time in Mauchline was eventful to say the least, given that he fathered children to two different women, incurred the wrath of the father of one of said women (Jean Armour), transferred his property to his brother, effectively went into hiding, became a published poet, and finally married Jean Armour and moved with her into a room in a house in the village in 1788, prior to his departure for Dumfries.

It was also here that he wrote several of his most famous works, one of which (‘Love and Liberty’ also known as ‘The Jolly Beggars’) was set in what was probably the wildest inn in the village. That inn, Poosie Nansies, not only still stands but continues to operate as a pub today. It’s rather less wild, however, than it seems to have been in Rabbie’s time. But wild or quiet, it’s our choice for Mauchline’s Burns artefact.

Kilmarnock

In 1786, whilst living in Mauchline, Rabbie’s first collection of poems, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, was published by John Wilson of Kilmarnock. It was a seminal moment in his life, as it was the first big stepping stone on his path to the pantheon of literary greats.

An impressive monument to Rabbie was erected in the town’s Kay Park in 1879 but was allowed to fall into disrepair. A fire claimed part of it in 2004, although it was later partially restored and now forms part of the Burns Monument Centre.

An original edition of the Kilmarnock Edition of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect is rare (only 612 copies were printed) and expensive. However, as it inexorably links Rabbie to Kilmarnock, it’s our chosen artefact for the town.

Rabbie left Ayrshire in 1788 and moved to Dumfriesshire, where he spent the remainder of his all too brief life. It’s fair to say, though, that Ayrshire very much remained in his heart and, indeed, that he occupies a special place in the heart of his home county.