Articles - Scotland's National Bard
The road from Kilmarnock to Dumfries is often busy with trucks, coaches, caravans and cars. Yet, if you turn down a side road, some six miles west of Dumfries, where a signpost points to Ellisland Farm, you can leave the traffic and most of the rackety 21st century behind, for a while at least.
In the quiet, you might even be tempted to try your hand at writing poetry. Robert Burns did. He had travelled the same route a few times, on horseback, from the family farm of Mossgiel, near Mauchline, in Ayrshire, before taking up the tenancy of Ellisland Farm in 1788.
When he finally flitted, he took the best part of four days. Burns could only travel at the speed of his few cows. With a horse pulling a cart stuffed with farm implements, household goods and cooped chickens, he might even have walked much of the way.
The actual farmhouse we see today wasn’t yet ready for him, so he had to stay with the outgoing tenant couple about half a mile away. It seems Robert wasn’t impressed.
‘This hovel that I shelter in is pervious to every blast that blows, and every shower that falls, and I am only preserved from being chilled to death by being suffocated with smoke,’ he wrote.
Eventually he moved into the single story L- shaped farmhouse. Many of his possessions are still there. Adding to the ambience, ‘smoked hams’ hang from the meat hooks fixed in the ceiling above the kitchen range where Robert’s wife, Jean Armour would have cooked numerous meals.
From his front door, Robbie need walk only a few steps to be on the banks of the River Nith. Thickly tree-lined and sweet-smelling with wild flowers, he found its nearness and beauty inspiring. This was the poet’s reason for choosing this particular farm and not either of the others on offer. Let’s stroll there in Rabbie’s footsteps.
The caretaker of Ellisland has created a grass pathway now named Tam O’ Shanter Walk. It runs parallel to the river alongside an old, stone wall. The story goes that hereabouts, Jean Armour Burns heard her husband talking excitedly to himself as he made his way homewards of an evening. It seems he was absorbed in the process of composing his famous narrative poem, Tam O’ Shanter, a tale of drink being taken, ghosts, a certain ‘winsome wench’ and advice ignored.
“O Tam, had’st thou but been sae wise,
As taen thy ain wife Kate’s advice!
She tauld thee weel thou was a skellum,
A blethering, blustering, drunken blellum…”
At the end of the path, a barred gate allows wide views down the River Nith and across the field where the poet was moved to compose his famous poem, ‘On seeing a wounded hare limp by which a fellow had just shot.’ Here’s the last verse,
“Oft as by winding Nith I musing, wait
The sober eve, or hail the cheerful dawn,
I’ll miss thee sporting o’er the dewy lawn,
And curse the ruffian’s aim, and mourn thy hapless fate”.
Robert Burns struggled here as a farmer, sold up, and moved with his family to a rented, first floor flat in a tenement in Bank Street, Dumfries. They were still close to the River Nith but their surroundings were far less picturesque. The cow that was brought along with their other possessions from Ellisland Farm had to be sold since there was nowhere for the beast to graze.
A plaque high up on the wall of the building states, ‘here in the Sanghoose o’ Scotland between November 1791 and May 1793, Robert Burns completed over sixty songs including, Ae fond Kiss, Bonnie Wee Thing, The Lea Rig, Duncan Gray and The Dei’ls Awa Wi’ the Excise Man.’
I wonder what he would have made of the present day businesses at street level that make use of his name - a café, a newsagents and a barber shop.
It’s no distance to Burns’ favourite howff, The Globe Inn, up a narrow alley off the High Street. Farmers would gather there for refreshment, but also to do business, so it was natural for Burns to call in on market days from his farm at Ellisland. His move into Dumfries, to a job as an exciseman, meant even more opportunities for convivial nights.
The hitching posts for visitors’ horses are long gone and other properties have since been built round about, yet the Globe Inn, a three-storey building, is still pretty much as it was in Burns’ day. The ‘howff’ proper, the room the poet mostly frequented, is a little snuggery on the ground floor. Let’s go in through the dining room. The poet’s favourite chair is still there. Could you resist a chance to sit in it? Well, be warned. Should you get comfortably settled and be unable to recite a Burns’ poem or sing one of his songs when asked, you’ll be expected to pay for a round of drinks for the company.
Upstairs, visitors can look around a small bedroom with a fireplace and writing desk. On two of the window - panes there are poems Burns scratched on the glass using a diamond tipped pen, not a diamond ring as is sometimes thought. One of the poems – no surprise there - praises a young lady.
‘O lovely Polly Stewart
O charming Polly Stewart
There’s not a flower that blooms in May
That’s half so fair as thou art.’
Like locals and visiting Burns enthusiasts from all over the world, I felt it would be remiss to leave The Globe without sampling haggis, praised by the poet, as the ‘great chieftain o’ the puddin-race’. With neeps and tatties, the dish was well worthy, as the great man said, ‘of a grace as lang’s my arm.’
In May 1793, Burns flitted for the last time to Millbrae Vennel. He would still recognise the house today. In one of the upstairs rooms you can see his writing desk. The box bed looks very small.
An opening at the side of the house leads to the entrance of an adult learning centre. There is a small garden off to the side. This would have been Mrs Jean Armour Burns’s plot. Seemingly she grew all sorts of unusual plants. Not far away, the River Nith flows past Dock Park, so-called since the time when sailing ships reached there to tie up. Jean Armour would walk down to the riverside to meet returning sailors who brought her plant seeds from distant lands.
A few years ago a statue was erected to her about midway between the Burns’ house and St Michael’s Church where the family came to worship. Some people think this commemoration to Jean Armour Burns was long overdue after her trials and tribulations of life with Robert.
In the south – east corner of the cemetery in St. Michael’s churchyard stands the elaborate Burns mausoleum, erected by public subscription 18 years after the poet’s death. His remains were taken from the original grave in another corner of the graveyard and re-interred in the mausoleum with great ceremony. The inscription on the gravestone from his first grave reads, “In memory of Robert Burns, who died the 21st July, 1796 in the 37th year of his age.”
Scotland’s National Bard is remembered throughout the world as a man of exceptional abilities as well as everyday human failings. He penned works of genius, but I also like to think of him deliberating over another of his verses,
‘To make a happy fireside clime
To weans and wife
That’s the true pathos and sublime
of human life’. First published in The People’s Friend