In the footsteps of Scotland's greatest poet

Gavin Bell
Robert Burns is famed for shaping romantic verses and lyricism that melted the heart and fired the spirit - © Feldman_1

To celebrate Burns Night, Gavin Bell reveals a selection of the Scottish bard’s famous haunts

It’s just an old cobblestone bridge spanning a pretty stream, but every year thousands of visitors come to see Ayrshire’s Brig o’ Doon, imagining a terror-stricken farmer and his horse fleeing across it, pursued by screaming banshees.

This wondrous vision was conjured by another Scottish farmer who went on to become the country’s greatest bard, famed for shaping romantic verses and lyricism that melted the heart and fired the spirit.

Robert Burns was the ploughman poet whose passion, humanity and scorn for repressive social conventions made him an icon and an inspiration to the founders of liberalism and socialism – although his ghostly tale of Tam o’ Shanter was just a bit of fun.

With his feet in the soil and his head in the clouds, Burns was a man of the people. Today, on his 261st birthday, he will be celebrated by Scots throughout the world, and arguably nowhere more so than in the border town of Dumfries where he spent the last years of his life.

Here, an 11-day “Big Burns Supper” is already in full swing (until Feb 2) with music and other events taking place in bars, art galleries and museums. For those looking for a quieter contemplation of the man’s life and work, his homes and old haunts are preserved in a trail that runs through the pastoral landscapes of his native Ayrshire and on to Dumfries (visitscotland.com). Here are some of the highlights.

Alloway, Ayr

The best place to begin is the village of Alloway, where the bard was born in 1759, the eldest of seven children of a tenant farmer. The Robert Burns Birthplace Museum is run by the National Trust for Scotland and has more than 5,000 artefacts. In true Burns tradition, the café serves haggis, neeps and tatties. Nearby is the humble thatched cottage where Burns was born and lived until the age of seven – it remains much as it was when Rabbie shared a tiny box bed with three of his siblings.

Also worth a visit are the ruins of the Auld Kirk, a 16th-century church “where ghaists and houlets nightly cry”; where Tam o’ Shanter disturbed the witches and warlocks who came howling after him. The gravestone of Burns’s father stands here, bearing an inscription penned by the bard himself. Follow poor Tam’s flight through the museum’s landscaped gardens to the banks of the River Doon, where, according to legend, the Auld Brig o’ Doon offered escape from the banshees who were unable to cross water. Bring the escapade to life by reading the poem on the grassy banks – but perhaps not after dark.

The Robert Burns Birthplace Museum is open daily 10am-5pm. Adults £10.50, concessions £7.50, members free. The cottage is also open daily 11am-5pm (01292 443700; nts.org.uk).

Ayrshire’s Brig o’ Doon Credit: ALAMY

Burns House Museum, Mauchline

One of the most creative periods of Burns’s life was spent on a farm called Mossgiel, where he composed many of his best-loved poems. It was here, on a crisp November day, that 26-year-old Burns turned up a mouse’s nest in a field with a wooden plough, inspiring a poem: “Wee, sleekit, cow’rin’ tim’rous beastie, O, what a panic’s in thy breastie…”

While making the farm ready, he and his wife, Jean Armour, lodged in a room in what is now a museum that contains manuscripts and other items interpreting his time in the area and his relations with local characters.

Open Tue-Sat (01290 550045; eastayrshireleisure.com).

The ploughman poet Credit: GETTY

The Bachelors’ Club, Tarbolton

In the village of Tarbolton, a curious 17th-century thatched house with red shutters is where Burns co-founded this club with a men-only debating society. Now a National Trust for Scotland property, it was here that Rabbie learnt to dance and became a Freemason – all before his first collection of poems was published. Look out for the “10 rules of membership” written by Burns.

Open Fri-Tues, April 4-Sep 27; free entry (01292 541940; nts.org.uk).

Ellisland Museum and Farm, Dumfries

Another prolific font of inspiration for Burns was the idyllic setting of a farm he built on the banks of the River Nith, where he lived for three years. He farmed 170 acres with an orchard, cows and sheep, and wrote 130 (about a quarter) of his poems and songs, including Tam o’ Shanter and his version of Auld Lang Syne. The museum has an extensive collection of memorabilia and manuscripts.

Opening hours vary, see website for details. Adults £5, children free (01387 740426; ellislandfarm.co.uk). On Feb 1, the museum is staging a Burns anniversary dinner (£25; dgboxoffice.co.uk).

The Globe Inn, Dumfries

Burns was fond of a dram and this old pub was his favourite haunt during the last eight years of his life. Three tiny rooms are a shrine to the bard’s life and times. During his work as a part-time excise officer in the town, Rabbie spent many evenings in the company of friends in the back room discussing poetry, songs and politics. While having a brief affair with the landlady’s niece, he inscribed verses on window panes with a diamond-dipped stylus, which can be seen here.

The Globe Inn, Dumfries (01387 323010; globeinndumfries.co.uk).

Robert Burns House, Dumfries

Visit this 18th-century sandstone house where Burns lived with his growing family for the last three years of his life – until his untimely death of rheumatic fever and heart disease in 1796 at the tender age of 37. Personal items on display include a portrait of the bard that belonged to his wife. Across the street (now named after him) is a garden with murals depicting scenes from his most popular works.

Open hours vary, see website for details; free entry (01387 255297; dumgal.gov.uk).

A group re-enact the first ever Burns Supper Credit: GETTY

St Michael’s Kirkyard, Dumfries

Burns was buried in St Michael’s Kirkyard cemetery, initially beneath a plain stone slab. A flood of people, including Wordsworth and Keats, had difficulty finding the grave in order to pay their respects. As a result, a public appeal for funds produced a sandstone mausoleum in the form of a classical rotunda with ionic columns completed in 1817. Burns’s widow and several of their children lie with him. Today, the Dumfries Burns Club will lay a wreath at the mausoleum, as it has done every year for two centuries.

More information: visitscotland.com/about/famous-scots/robert-burns