Arts

Robert Burns: Searching for Scotland’s bard

River Nith

River Nith in full flow

A trip to Dumfries a few weeks ago turned into an unexpected pilgrimage in search of one of Scotland’s legendary poets.

The town was once home to Robert Burns, writer, poet and cultural icon – and his legacy is apparent everywhere you go.

We arrived in Dumfries after a relaxing weekend on the wild and wonderful Solway Firth – and thought we’d check out the town’s heritage and literary associations.

Dumfries is known as ‘the Queen of the South’ and has a bloody history of border wars and conflict between the English and Scots.

But it’s Burns that attracts the most interest from visitors so we thought we’d try out the town’s circular walk that takes in its literary landmarks.

In Robert Burns’ footsteps

Start your walk at the White Sands car park next to the River Nith, one of Burns’ favourite strolls in the town during the 1790s.

Walk along the waterfront until you get to the impressive Old Bridge. The current stone bridge dates from around 1430 and is built on the site of an earlier wooden structure.

Look out for interesting wildlife on the river including mergansers and great-crested grebes.

Walk over the bridge and take a left turn where you’ll find a small museum called the Old Bridge House built in 1660 which has several period rooms.

Sadly, being winter and a Sunday, this was shut which was a bit irritating, but that’s tourism in the Scottish winter!

Carry on walking along the river and you’ll come to the Robert Burns Centre, which has many relics and documents relating to the bard.

Burns Centre

Burns Centre – sadly shut even though it was advertised as open

Again, this was also closed (despite saying ‘open all year’) so I can’t tell you much about its social history collection or the archaeological displays.

This ‘closed on Sunday in winter’ malarkey was now starting to get annoying so we moved swiftly on through the riverside park which has an old enclosure for fallow deer although there were none to be seen. Perhaps it was deer closing day too?

Then turn left over the suspension bridge which has fine views down the River Nith… and take a left up the hill towards St Michael’s Church which is on the right side of the main road.

River bridge

River bridge

Celebrating the bard

St Mary’s Church, an impressive sandstone church, is where Robert Burns is buried.

It’s a Gothic-looking cemetery which is really atmospheric and creepy on a dark night. Many of Burns’ friends and compatriots are buried here and it’s interesting to read their histories on the grave stones.

The poet’s funeral on 25 July 1796 was a grand affair attended by 10,000 mourners and overseen by a military escort.

Mausoleum

Burns’ Mausoleum

In 1815 Burns’ coffin was moved to a new home in an impressive domed mausoleum with ornate pillars and statuary where it still lies today.

It’s interesting to peer inside the dome to see the final resting place of one of Scotland’s greatest writers.

There are quotes from some of Burns’ poems around the small enclosed garden area. I was amazed how many I knew from my school days.

Burns poem

Burns’ poems carved in stone

Head over to the main church building and venture inside to see a brass plaque which indicates the pew where Burns once sat.

Go back through the churchyard and cross over the main road.

Opposite the church there’s a statue to Robert Burns’ wife, Jean Armour, slightly incongruously placed next to a housing estate and main road.

Jean Armour

Jean Armour

Immediately, I wanted to know more about this woman who married the womanising poet who had just fathered a child to a maid servant. Burns went on to become a dad several times more with various servants and bar maids.

The words ‘long-suffering wife’ come to mind; poor Jean also bore Burns a large brood of children, only three of which survived childhood.

Follow the signs to the Burns’ House where the poet spent the final years of his life in Dumfries after leaving his farm.

Burns and his wife Jean moved to the house in 1793 when he was 34 years-old. Apparently she was one of the first women in Dumfries to have a dress of gingham, an expensive material in the late 18th Century!

I’ve never considered gingham to be a posh fabric so goodness what poorer women of Dumfries wore for frocks!

Burns House

Burns House in the bleak mid winter

By 1796 the poet was seriously ill and his doctors advised him to take a  trip to the hamlet of Brow on the Solway Firth in the hope that the seaside village would improve his health.

You can still see Burns’ Well, which lies in very pretty countryside, if you drive out along the Caerlaverock road from Dumfries.

Sadly, the Solway trip made Burns’ condition worse and he died back at his home in Dumfries later that year at the tragically young age of 37.

His youngest son was born on the day of his funeral and his wife missed the wake because she was in labour.

After his death, his wife Jean continued to live in the Burns House until 1834.

The house is now a small Burns’ museum and archive centre, also closed on Sundays!  In fact, this has the weirdest opening times of anywhere I’ve been recently so it’s probably best to ring them before making a special trip.

Although a little underwhelming, it gives a sense of what Dumfries was like in the 18th Century.

Burns garden

Burns garden – roses abound (summer only)

Next door to the house there’s a small garden planted with roses commemorating Burns and his work which made me think of his well-known poem:

O my Luve’s like a red, red rose, 
That’s newly sprung in June: 
O my Luve’s like the melodie,

Drinking at The Globe

From the Burns House take the steps down and follow the road back to the shopping centre and turn right into the high street where you’ll come to a small alleyway on your right leading to the Globe Inn.

Globe Inn

Globe Inn – Burns’ drinking haunt

Burns liked to have a wee dram or six (he was a heavy drinker) so it’s no surprise to find that the Globe Inn (down a passage way off the main high street) was his local pub.

A number of Burns mementoes are kept in the old pub including his favourite chair… and it’s hard not to think of this Burns’ drinking ditty…

Here’s, a bottle and an honest friend!
What wad ye wish for mair, man?

Once you’ve seen Burns’ favourite pub and drunk to his health, retrace your steps back through the historic close to the high street and carry on walking to your right towards Midsteeple.

Midsteeple

Midsteeple

This strange, castellated building dating from 1707 sits in the middle of the shopping thoroughfare and has some intriguing features including ornamental tiled lists of distances to other towns.

This was once the town’s courtroom, prison and town offices.

Burns’ body lay in state here before the funeral procession to St Michael’s kirk yard in 1796.

Opposite Midsteeple, pop across the road into the Prince Charlie’s Room in the County Hotel where the Young Pretender stayed for three days in 1745.

Then, carry on to Greyfriars Church where you can’t miss the large statue of Robert Burns which dominates a grassy roundabout.

The church is also worth a look inside. It was here that Robert the Bruce killed Sir Edward Comyn, representative of England’s King Edward 1, sparking off the War of Independence.

Burns statue

Burns’ statue 

Turn back on yourself and turn right back to the car park at White Sands.

As you finish the tour look back over the road towards Bank Street where Burns once had a small tenement flat (now a private house), once known as the Wee or Stinking Vennel which conjures up images of the putrid smells and squalor of the time.

A lovely parting thought!

Neverland and beyond

Fast-forward nearly 100 years and another illustrious Scottish author has a strong Dumfries connection.

J.M. Barrie was born not far away and was educated in the town. It was in Dumfries that he thought up the characters for Peter Pan at Moat Brae, a late Georgian villa, which he used as a leisure playground.

The villa and its gardens were the inspiration for Neverland, the magical kingdom where Peter Pan and Tinkerbell battled against Captain Hook.

Now Moat Brae is to be restored and transformed into a national centre for children’s literature, starting next month, which is great news. It’s hoped that public will be able to enjoy a walk back in time to Neverland when the house reopens in 2015.

It will hopefully give Dumfries the tourism boost that it needs to build its fortunes as a cultural centre.

Dumfries is a town that I like but there’s also the feeling that it could make much more of itself. Parts of the town are rundown and shabby – and you can see the impact of the recession on its high street with lots of vacant shops and buildings that have seen better times.

Its heritage could also be better celebrated and promoted. You have to dig deep to get inside some of the interesting historic stories about the town and it doesn’t help that most of its heritage attractions are shut in winter.

But if you’re in the vicinity, it’s worth a trip to Dumfries to raise a toast to Rabbie Burns at the Globe Inn.

If not, think of Scotland’s finest poet, balladeer and lyricist when you sing his most famous creation, Auld Lang Syne this forthcoming New Year… happy Hogmanay!

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And auld lang syne!

Chorus – For auld land syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne,
We’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.

Tammy’s top tips – Dumfries 

Midsteeple

Midsteeple

Check museum opening times in Dumfries – some are closed in winter!

Dumfries is also a good base for exploring the Solway Firth and there are several interesting castles and heritage sites nearby including Caerlaverock and Threave.

Other Robert Burns heritage sites worth visiting include the excellent Robert Burns birthplace museum in Alloway, Ayr (Scotland) which  includes the Burns Cottage where the poet was born as well as a museum and visitor centre.  There is also a Burns Park and heritage trail in Alloway.

Ellisland Farm north west of Dumfries is the place where Burns ran a farm and this is also a visitor attraction (closed December).

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