The Complete Guide to Scotland by Robert Burns

Brig o’Doon in Alloway Ayrshire. Scotland made famous by Robert Burns’ poem Tam O Shanter – Ian Goodrick / Alamy Stock Photo

There’s something about Robert Burns. More monuments have been erected to the Scottish national poet around the world than any other literary figure, and he wrote arguably the most famous song in the world – the worldwide New Year’s anthem and the bell Auld Lang Syne. Not bad for a man born into poverty in Ayr in 1759.

But perhaps because Burns was a dreamer who fought for everything he never got. He was also a prolific womanizer (he fathered at least a dozen children), a devoted drunkard, and an ardent advocate of Scottish independence. But most of all, he was an idealistic internationalist whose firm belief that “A Man’s a Man for A’ That” was evident in his works, both in English and in his native Scots.

Portrait of Robert Burns painted by Alexander Nasmyth - Alamy Stock Photo

Portrait of Robert Burns painted by Alexander Nasmyth – Alamy Stock Photo

There’s only one place to start a deeper dive into a bard’s life: the simple thatched cottage where he was born on January 25, 1759 in the small Ayrshire village of Alloway, now a museum. Much of the village is dedicated to Burns; it is a kind of literary warp of time carved in stone. The National Trust for Scotland umbrella site brings all the attractions together; conveniently all can be easily reached on foot.

The “Poet’s Path” – brought to life by sculptures and characters from Burns’ poems – leads from Burns Cottage to the brilliantly crafted and sparkling modern Burns Museum.

All main screens are written in Scots, with English translations available; the preeminence of Scots led visitors to think of Scots as a separate language in a way that Burns would no doubt be delighted with. Don’t miss the cafe, where visitors can enjoy Burns’ dinner while would-be young poets can entertain themselves outside in a replica of Burns Cottage.

Garden view of Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway, Ayrshire, Scotland - Alamy Stock Image

Garden view of Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway, Ayrshire, Scotland – Alamy Stock Image

Nearby is the 21-foot Burns Monument, which overlooks a well-maintained rose garden (Burns’ favorite flower). Designed by Sir Thomas Hamilton Junior in the 1820s, the monument’s nine pillars represent the Muses of Greek mythology; a nod to how Burns drew inspiration from the classics as much as he did from Mother Nature.

Following in the footsteps of Tam o’Shanter (the title character of one of his greatest poems), he leads visitors to the ruined Alloway Auld Kirk and on to the original Brig o’Doon. This stone arch bridge has been saved from demolition many times and hasn’t changed much since Burns used to drive over it every day with his dad on his way to work. Walking on its cobblestones is literally following in the footsteps of a poet.

Burns fans looking for even more local attractions can visit Souter Johnnie’s home in Kirkoswald, the workshop of the 18th-century cobbler immortalized in Tam o’Shanter.

Other Burns attractions in Ayrshire include the Bachelors’ Club in Tarbolton, where Burns reportedly learned to “dance and debate” – his “10 Rules for Membership” were created by Burns. There is also the Burns House museum in Mauchline where Robert Burns lived and worked from 1784-1788.

Kelso Abbey, Scotland, in the middle of winter, frost or frost - David Kilpatrick / Alamy Stock Photo

Kelso Abbey, Scotland, in the middle of winter, frost or frost – David Kilpatrick / Alamy Stock Image

With his legacy written all over the south of Scotland, crafting an itinerary can be almost as difficult as trying to translate his Scots into English without losing a whirlwind romance.

Fortunately, a new 187km Burns Trail has just been announced, taking travelers on a six-day adventure from Eyemouth on the east coast, through the Borders area to Dumfries in the west. This tour is inspired by a tour of southern Scotland Burns made in 1787 and visits three romantically ruined abbeys at Kelso, Jedburgh and Melrose that sparked his imagination before heading west to Dumfries and Galloway.

Ayrshire will always be Burns’ country, but the historic market town of Dumfries was where he spent his later years. After years of struggling to become the self-taught sharecropper he dreamed of at Ellisland Farm (open to the public as a modest museum north of Dumfries) and praised in his writings, he retired to Dumfries, and the town is now as important as for Burns fans as Allowoway.

Burns House, where he lived from 1791 until his death in 1796, is a must see. In this simple brownstone townhouse you can admire the famous Kilmarnock and Edinburgh editions of his works, and see the simple study where he wrote some of his best-loved poems.

exterior of Robert Burns' house in Dumfries & Galloway - Rolf Richardson / Alamy Stock Photo

outside of Robert Burns’ house in Dumfries & Galloway – Rolf Richardson / Alamy Stock Image

Another notable feature is The Globe Inn – it may have been recently refurbished, but Burns’ verses are still carved into the windows, and the tradition continues that if a guest cannot recite Burns in his old chair, he pays for the round. Either way, there’s no better place to bring a little drama to the man himself.

From the Globe Inn, the Robert Burns trail meanders around the market town of Dumfries, crossing the River Nith just as Burns himself would have done when he worked as an exciseman. The trail passes his statue in the pedestrianized heart of the city before delving back into his history at the Robert Burns Centre, a popular cinema with an exhibition of Burns.

The natural end of the walk is St Michael’s Kirkyard, where the poet was buried after dying of rheumatic fever at the age of 37. He now rests in the specially commissioned Burns Mausoleum with his widow Jean Armor and their five children. This was not always the case: before it was moved in 1817, it was originally buried under a plain, unassuming stone – an incongruous tribute that Burns devotees and pilgrims William and Dorothy Wordsworth were horrified to see when they visited.

Deacon Brodie's Tavern, Edinburgh - Clearview / Alamy Stock Photo

Deacon Brodie’s Tavern, Edinburgh – Clearview / Alamy Stock Photo

A Burns-inspired pilgrimage to Edinburgh is also planned. Not that the Scottish capital always includes a man: the city capital upper world of the time were often too appalled by his radical nationalism and womanizing ways to fully appreciate his talent during his lifetime. But it has certainly made its mark on the city – live with drama at the White Hart Inn, on the cobbled Grassmarket, where Burns used to hold courts overlooking the city’s gallows, or head to another of his places, Deacon Brodie’s Tavern on the King’s Mile. The Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour alternates between Burns stories with stops at some of the city’s most famous watering holes.

Meanwhile, the Writers’ Museum is home to a respected collection of Robert Burns’ work, manuscripts and personal items, as well as portraits and a desk from his home in Dumfries. But perhaps the most famous of all his likenesses hangs in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, brilliantly captured by his friend and radical colleague Alexander Nasmyth. It’s a riveting, dramatic portrayal that Burns himself would no doubt raise a glass to – for Auld Lang Syne, of course.

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