Articles - Robert Burns
As I waited for the traffic lights to change before crossing the road outside Dundee’s newly refurbished railway station, a friendly woman engaged me in conversation. “Braw, isn’t it” she said, answering her own question.
We were gazing at the tall masts of the R.R.S. (Royal Research Ship) Discovery berthed in its dock by the River Tay. The ship was built hereabouts beginning March 1900 for the National Antarctic Expedition to be led by Captain Robert Falcon Scott. His quest the following year was to be first ever to reach the South Pole. Scott described the ship as, “a splendidly strong and well-fortified structure and the machinery is in all respects equal to the hull.” At 172 feet long and 32 feet broad it seems small for what was then an adventure into the unknown. But he was right. The ship survived two years imprisonment in the crushing, vice-like grip of Antarctic pack ice.
At Discovery Point Centre, in comfort, visitors can learn something of that Antarctic experience before boarding R.R.S. Discovery to see the crew’s actual living quarters.
From there, a few steps will take you to the front door of Dundee’s newest attraction – the futuristic V&A Museum of Design – the only outpost of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. The fantastic building designed by Japanese architectural practice Kenzo Kuma & Associates opened on the 15th September 2018.You’ll find the permanent display dedicated to Scottish design including a Charles Rennie MacIntosh tearoom. A succession of international exhibitions will feature throughout the coming years.
To reach the newly paved waterfront walkway behind the V&A, find the tunnel-like space which leads through the building. From there views across the river are extensive to the shores of Fife.
As you head eastwards, pause for a moment at the memorial slab commemorating the opening of the Tay Road Bridge in 1966, at the time the longest in Britain. The bridge appears graceful from a distance but close up the dull concrete is severely strong and functional.
Past the bridge, the river becomes ever wider and deeper - safe for docking ships and oil rigs.
A sign for the Frigate Unicorn points along a street heading away from the waterside. This was a busy place when ships from India unloaded tons of jute for Dundee’s now defunct jute industry.
The long- empty warehouses have now been converted into riverside apartments. Behind the apartment blocks, lies Victoria Dock. One sad-looking boat, the North Carr, appears to be held together with a coverall coating of red paint and rust. Once it was manned, a working lightship that signalled safe passage for ships negotiating the River Tay estuary. Now, when lightships have been replaced with fixed buoys this is the only survivor in Scotland.
Further along Victoria Dock, the Frigate Unicorn, the oldest British-built wooden ship afloat was built for the Royal Navy in 1824. Visitors can wander amongst the cannons and historical fittings to get a feeling for times when Britannia ruled the waves.
Crossing a new bridge to the north side of Victoria Dock leads to an avenue of new shops and business premises. This refurbishment, renamed City Quay, is part of a long overdue plan to make more of Dundee’s superb riverside location.
Leave the harbour by the wide gates that open onto streets constructed originally for transporting goods quickly from ships to shore markets. Appropriately named Commercial Street was designed to give speedy access to the town centre and continues across the High Street to the McManus Art Gallery and Museum in the surrounds of Albert Square.
The galleries show a collection of Victorian and 20th century Scottish paintings including landscapes by the ever-popular Dundee artist, the late James McIntosh Patrick. The museum houses displays of local history. A stained glass window in the museum cafe commemorates Mary Slessor who worked as a child in a Dundee weaving shed and later became Scotland’s most famous woman missionary to Africa. This is the same woman whose portrait graces present day bank notes. At the rear of the museum, a statue of Queen Victoria appears to approve.
It’s worth taking a turn round the ancient stones of the Howff cemetery, diagonally opposite the statue of Robert Burns on Albert Square. The cemetery was granted to the town by Mary Queen of Scots in 1564. Many of the ancient stone grave markers have a carved symbol denoting the trade of the deceased.
From the graveyard there’s a good view of the red stone building opposite known locally as the Courier Building. This was the historic home of D.C.Thomson, publishers of newspapers, magazines and comics such as The Dandy and The Beano. Cartoon characters in these two esteemed publications were inspirational for the artists who created the life size sculptures of Desperate Dan and Minnie the Minx, complete with loaded catapult, which stand on a pavement near the end of Reform Street.
Ahead, the City Square is enclosed on the south side by the imposing bulk of the Caird Hall, a popular venue for a diverse range of concerts and other gatherings.
West along the Nethergate, St. Mary’s Church was founded in 1190. A guided tour to the top of the adjoining Auld Steeple (232 steps) will give further insights into the City’s mediaeval history and great views. In contrast, immediately behind, all glass front, stainless steel and polished wood is the Overgate Shopping Centre.
It was not so far away, unmarked by any monument, that a different sort of retail outlet probably had a much greater impact on the world. A Belgian immigrant, Edward de Gernier, in the late 1870s, opened what he claimed to be “the first chip potatoes, peas and vinegar stall in Britain.” Today, throughout the land, fast food fanciers have reason to thank M. de Gernier.
Before crossing the road to find the plaque commemorating Winston Churchill’ s time as an M.P. for Dundee, look for the replica of a unicorn on top of a stone column which stands on the pavement in front of the Auld Steeple. This is Dundee’s 16th century Mercat (market) Cross. Like others in Scottish towns and cities, it marked a place where merchants would gather and as it was granted by the monarchy, it gave merchants the right to hold a market.
Further along Nethergate, on the left, hardly noticeable, a small plaque on a tenement wall commemorates Fanny Wright (1795-1852) an early feminist and proponent of women’s rights. In the same house lived Dr. Thomas Maclagan, also a pioneer in his field. His research into salicin, an extract from the bark of white willow trees led to further research abroad. What millions of people are grateful for, and know today as aspirin, was the outcome.
The Nethergate merges with Perth Road and on passing St. Andrew’s Catholic Cathedral you reach the cultural quarter, the bohemian West End. Dundee Contemporary Arts building houses galleries, cinemas and a café/ bar. In the restaurant, large windows give a good view over the Science Centre. There is a choice of other art galleries and eating establishments nearby, including a restaurant in the Repertory Theatre though a “peh” (meat pie) or “ingin bridie” culinary specialities of Dundee might be hard to find here.
Still on the Nethergate, past the University and across the road from Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, the street known as Roseangle leads down to the river. Near its end, on the left, is a well - used children’s play area. Passing trains and small aircraft that leave and return to Dundee’s nearby riverside airport add extra interest.
Before leaving Roseangle, stroll at least as far as the bandstand on Magdalen Green, Dundee’s oldest park. The bandstand is used for concerts in summertime.
Retrace your steps to Roseangle and Riverside Approach, which ends almost below a span of the Tay Railway Bridge (1887). From here, panoramic views extend across to Fife and up the river towards Perth. Seals are often seen on sandbanks near the bridge supports when the water level is low.
Stumps on the east side of the old railway bridge are still visible in the water. These are remnants from the calamity since known as the Tay Bridge Disaster, when, in high winds on the 28th December 1879, the evening train from Edinburgh to Dundee - engine, six carriages and all the passengers, plunged into the icy waters of the River Tay. No one survived. A hundred yards or so to the west, on the walkway, there is a memorial to those who lost their lives in the disaster.
Continuing eastwards, Riverside Drive leads back to the railway station, to Discovery point, the V&A and the centre of town. As you leave the rail bridge behind, you might take a few minutes to read William Topaz McGonagall’s poem carved into the walkway – though you’ll have to find the start and walk back towards the bridge.
Beautiful Railway Bridge by the Silv’ry Tay!
Alas! I am sorry to say...
Views of both bridges spanning a huge expanse of water, Fife, green on the opposite bank, are splendid.
First published in The Glasgow Herald
Further information: There is a choice of cafes and restaurants along this walk including at Discovery Point, the V&A and the McManus Art Gallery and Museum.
www.brightdundeetours for a guided tour of the exterior of the McManus Art Gallery and Museum
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