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On the Trail of the Bard

The work of Robert Burns is characterised by its references to the places in which he grew up and the people who surrounded him. He was to remain attached to the rural environment into which he was born and shunned the bright lights of fashionable Edinburgh to live close to the land.

Hamish Burns follows in the footsteps of his namesake, from his childhood on the farm to the wild nights and romantic encounters of his early adult life.


When Scotland’s national bard set off to meet his Edinburgh publisher for the first time, he had the opportunity to leave behind the setting for a childhood which began in humble circumstances.

The life of the land was hard, and Robert Burns had spent his first seven years in a small cottage where the kitchen doubled as a bedroom and living room for a whole family.

Yet although his relatively brief life would bring him fame, if not fortune, he chose to live closer to his father’s farming background and the haunts of his youth than to the cultural elite of the big cities which were at that time thriving in the midst of cultural and philosophical enlightenment.

The room in which Burns was born remains more or less the same as it was in 1759. Later occupants may be forgiven for making home improvements- who were they to guess that their scullery would turn out to be the birthplace of one of Scotland’s favourite sons?- but the ``auld clay biggin’’ retains its essential structure.

Burns’ beginnings were far from privileged: his father William Burnes struggled to eke out a living from his seven acre market garden and the family income was supplemented by selling the soft cheese which was made by his mother, Agnes Brown.

But his father and several neighbouring tenants were able to scrape together enough money to employ a teacher, John Murdoch, without whom Burns is unlikely to have achieved his potential.

The old barn was soon to become a form of living room and extra sleeping space when Burns’ father added a byre and a new barn to the structure. The young Burns would have helped out in the new barn with the threshing of grain from hay by chasing away hungry ducks and chickens.

Burns and his brother Gilbert would have slept in the loft space of the kitchen, directly above the box bed where they were born. Over their heads were the beams and the thatched roof, home to various scurrying rodents.

In The Vision, Burns wrote,
``There, lanely by the ingle-cheek
I sat an ayed the spewing reek,
That fill’d, wi hoast-provoking smeek,
The auld clay biggin;
Asn heard the restless rattons squeak
About the riggin.’’

It was in the warm and smoky at atmosphere of the kitchen that Burns would have learned from another of the people who influenced his poetry. While his father read to him tales from the holy bible, Betty Davidson, a friend of Burns’ mother, horrified and intrigued the nascent poet with her tales of the supernatural.

Kelpies, goblins and witches filled Burns’ head during these fireside sessions at the cottage in Alloway, and were later to emerge in the form of the dancing harpies in Tam O’Shanter.

The tale of Tam O’Shanter, probably Burns’ most famous poem, is played out only a few hundred yards from the cottage itself. Burns’ mother and father were buried right in front of the Kirk, and the visitor can stand, as the bard himself might have done, at the graveside.

In a churchyard, crowded with crumbling, moss covered tombstones, you can still peer through the Kirk windows through which Tam is said to have watched the witches and warlocks dance their ``hornpipes, jigs, Strathspeys and reels.’’ The Kirk is now derelict and roofless, but lights up at night from the inside to give it an eerie appearance.

A short distance down the road is the Auld Brig O’Doon, whose craggy form spans the river in the shadow of the Burns Monument. Its rough cobbles would prove treacherous even to the surest of foot on a wet, stormy night.

The nearby village of Tarbolton could never be described as a hot bed of social activity. Amidst a jumble of buildings are the handful of pubs which provide the younger generation with their only source of night life.

But for the 20 year old Burns, whose family had by now moved to the nearby Lochlie farm, Tarbolton was to open up new possibilities which would both plague and inspire him for the rest of his life.

It was here that he was to court a member of the opposite sex, and be jilted, for the first time. In an attempt to improve his chances, or ``give my manners a brush’’, Burns took dancing lessons in the village and broadened his reading to include the works of Robert Fergusson, who also wrote in the Scots tongue.

It was also in Tarbolton that he and his brother Gilbert, at this time aged 17, were to found the Bachelors Club in a two storey thatched building whose upkeep is now maintained by the National Trust for Scotland.

The criteria for membership of the club, principally a debating society, were that one must have ``a frank, honest, open heart; above anything dirty or mean; and must be a professed lover of one or more of the female sex.’’

At that time Burns had yet to experience a successful encounter with one, never mind more than one, member of the opposite sex, but the flight of fancy was to set the tone for much of his adult life.




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