Scotlands 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.
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.
although his relatively brief life would bring him fame, if not
fortune, he chose to live closer to his fathers 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.
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 Scotlands favourite sons?- but the
``auld clay biggin retains its essential structure.
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.
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.
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 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
The Vision, Burns wrote,
``There, lanely by the ingle-cheek
I sat an ayed the spewing reek,
That filld, wi hoast-provoking smeek,
The auld clay biggin;
Asn heard the restless rattons squeak
About the riggin.
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.
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 OShanter.
The tale of Tam OShanter, 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.
short distance down the road is the Auld Brig ODoon, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.