On the trail of Robert Burns in Dumfries
About Robert Burns
Robert Burns was born on the 25th January 1759 in a small cottage in Alloway, Ayrshire to farmer parents. His father ensured he received a good education despite his social status and being an enthusiastic and well-read student helped to elevate his own creative writing.
However, despite his growing fame as a talented wordsmith, he continued farming for much of his life, leading to him being named the Ploughman Poet. Often described as a complex character, he frequently voiced radical views and was notorious for drinking and womanising.
Despite his flaws, it is hard to deny his talent as a poet and songwriter. Although he was only 37 years old when he died, he produced a huge amount of highly regarded written work during his short lifetime and every year on the date of his birth, his life and legacy are celebrated during Burns Night.
Considered Scotland's national bard, Robert Burns died on 21st July 1796 but he lives on through his words and the many places connected to him.
Places connected to Robert Burns in Dumfries
If you want to find out more about the life of Robert Burns or are a fan of Scotland's national bard, there are two areas of Scotland you will want to visit. The region of Ayrshire where he was born and grew up, and the neighbouring region of Dumfriesshire where he spent the latter part of his life and died at the young age of 37.
This blog post concentrates on the places connected to Burns in and around Dumfries. If you only have one day to spare, you can visit many of the places mentioned that lie within the town of Dumfries, but I recommend setting aside two days or more if you plan to visit all the stops I've listed.
Robert Burns House
When Robert Burns first moved to the town of Dumfries he lived in a small flat in Bank Street, or what was then known as the Wee or Stinking Vennel - sounds delightful! In May 1793, Burns and his family moved up the property ladder to a pretty sandstone house in Mill Street, now renamed Burns Street. Their new home was classed as a good standard for the time, with two bedrooms, a parlour, a kitchen and a small study - they even employed a maid servant.
This is where Burns lived until his death on 21st July 1796 and his wife Jean Armour continued living in the house until her death in 1834. Today it is cared for by the local council and open to the public. The interior has been designed to give an idea of how the Burns family lived and the small study still contains the poet's desk and chair.
There is Burns memorabilia throughout the house and a guide is on hand to answer any questions you might have. There isn't a huge amount to see, however visiting the home where the poet spent the latter years of his life has unsurprisingly become a vital part of the Burns pilgrimage trail. It is free to visit (although donations are appreciated) and still makes for an interesting stop even if you only have a passing interest in Scotland's national bard.
Robert Burns Centre
Another free attraction, this is the best place to find out more about the poet's time in Dumfries. A small exhibition with information boards and artefacts connected to Burns, document his move from Ayrshire to Ellisland Farm in Dumfriesshire, his subsequent move to the town of Dumfries, his final years, and his funeral.
There is information on his occupation as a local exciseman, his character, and his beliefs, which build a picture of a complex personality and respected local figure. By the end of your visit to the Robert Burns Centre, you will undoubtedly feel like you know Rabbie a bit better than when you arrived.
For me, a highlight was a model of what Dumfries would have looked like during Burns time as I could digitally navigate some of the historic buildings and find out a bit more about their background before looking out for them on my afternoon wanders around the town.
The final resting place of Robert Burns can be found in the kirkyard of St Michael's and South Parish Church (see below). just a short walk from Robert Burns House. The ornate white structure in which he is now buried along with his wife and two of his sons stands out in an area otherwise populated with red-hued headstones.
When Burns was first interred, his plain stone slab blended in among the others in the kirkyard but many felt this was not a fitting memorial to the poet. In 1813 some prominent citizens of Dumfries launched an appeal to build a mausoleum with a design by London architect, T F Hunt, and Italian sculptor, Peter Turnerelli, being approved.
Turnerelli's original marble sculpture featuring Burns being apprehended at the plough by Coila, his spirit muse, was widely criticised for inaccurate details. The finished sculpture you see today was adapted by Joseph Hermon Cawthra in 1936 to more accurately depict features like Burns' clothing and his type of plough.
Although the monument to Burns is the main focus, there is also a blue plaque trail marking the graves of his friends and associates. If like me, you love wandering around graveyards and reading the stories of the people of the past, this is a fascinating place to do it and one of the most interesting burial grounds I've visited in Scotland. You can't help but get a sense of how important Dumfries once was given the status of many of those who lived there.
St Michael's and South Parish Church
Either before or after you visit the mausoleum, I recommend visiting St Michael's and South Parish Church, the oldest church in Dumfries. This is where Burns and his family worshipped and there is a plaque on a pillar marking the site of the pew they sat at. There are several other memorials to Burns including a white marble bust of the poet and two small stained glass windows depicting Robert Burns and his wife, Jean Armour.
The building you see today is actually the third church to stand on the site, with the earliest written records dating back to the 12th century, although it is believed that a Christian church has stood here for over 1300 years. Even prior to that there is evidence that St Ninian established a sanctuary here in the 4th century.
It is a fascinating place to visit as there is a lot of other history to discover and if you're lucky you might even get a tour by one of the volunteers.
The Globe Inn
You could enjoy a meal at The Globe Inn or sip on a dram in the snug, but booking a behind the scenes tour is the only way you will get to see the rooms frequented by Burns and even earn yourself the chance to sit in the poet's chair.
I have to admit that taking a Burns tour at The Globe Inn has long been on my bucket-list and I wasn't disappointed as it turned out to be one of my favourite things to do in Dumfries. The poet described it as his favourite howff and part of the building now acts as a shrine to its most famous regular.
There is a charge for the tours which take place at 4pm Wednesday to Saturday and must be booked in advance. Some of the highlights include the authentically preserved kitchen, the bedchamber where Burns frequently slept over and carried out his affair with Anna Park, the landlady's niece who later had his child, diamond etchings he made on the window and of course, the very chair and table that Burns used to sit at when meeting up with his drinking chums.
You can test out the bard's chair for yourself, but tradition dictates that if you sit in it, you are obliged to recite his poetry or buy the entire inn a drink. I suggest brushing up on your Burns before you go!
Did you know there are well over 60 statues dedicated to Robert Burns around the world? Christopher Columbus and Queen Victoria are the only other non-religious figures that can claim more statues than the poet which is quite incredible.
Unveiled in 1882 and restored in 2005, the likeness of Burns sitting on a tree-stump with his dog and hat at his feet towers over Dumfries town centre. It is perhaps one of the more fitting statues given this is the location of his closing chapters of life and premature death.
Commissioned by Dumfries town council in 1877, it was designed by Amelia Paton Hill and carved in Carrara marble. Although it has been moved several times as road layouts have changed, it remains an iconic and well visited local landmark.
Jean Armour Statue
A more recent landmark in the town is a statue of Robert Burns' wife, Jean Armour, which was erected in 2004. For me, Robert Burns and Jean Armour come as a package so it seems only right that her vital part in Burns' story is recognised. She carried on living in their Dumfries home until she died 38 years after her husband and was a respected local figure in her own right.
If I had a time machine I would love to go back and ask her why she stayed with Burns despite his numerous affairs and regular absences. Their on-off relationship was described as complicated and I'm always tempted to call her 'his long-suffering wife' but maybe she didn't see herself that way and this is just my own judgement. Whatever her reasons, she remained with Burns until the end through the good and bad.
They married in 1788 after Jean had fallen pregnant to Rabbie twice, she bore 9 of his 12 confirmed children but only three survived infancy. She also took in his illegitimate child born to Anna Parks and raised the girl as her own after his death. Between the loss of so many children and her husband's many declarations of love for other women often immortalised in his poetry, life can't have been easy for her. However Burns always returned to his wife 'The lassie I lo've best' and she always took him back. For that alone she deserves a statue!
Before moving into the heart of the town, Burns lived at Ellisland Farm, about a 10 minute drive north of Dumfries. Built by the poet in 1788, the farmhouse was designed as a family home for his new bride, Jean Armour, and their son, Bobby. Recent investigations have revealed that he also likely built some of the outbuildings you see today.
The family lived there until 1791 and the tranquil surroundings next to the River Nith inspired Burns to pen some of his finest work including 'Tam O'Shanter' and 'Auld Lang Syne'.
The interior is open to the public and remains much the same as it did in Burns' time. Many of the poet's personal possessions are on display including his writing desk and a mirror. I was a bit obsessed looking in the vintage glass and thinking about Burns checking his own reflection in the very same mirror, perhaps before he went off for another night on the town.
After visiting the interior, you can follow in the bard's footsteps on a meander along the river.
When Robert Burns' health began to deteriorate in 1796, his doctor prescribed a visit the Brow Well, a natural spring about 10 miles outside Dumfries. The water is naturally rich in iron-salt and when Burns was living in the town, residents believed the spring could cure a multitude of ailments.
His doctor advised he drink water from the spring followed by a walk down to the shore to bathe in the Solway as sea-bathing was also believed to have healing qualities. On the 4th July 1796 the poet made the journey to Brow but sadly for Burns, the 'cure' didn't work and he died at home just over two weeks later.
The well has now been transformed into a memorial to Scotland's national bard, with lines from his poem 'A Prayer, in the Prospect of Death' carved in the surrounding stone. From the Brow Well, there is still a path down to the foreshore where Burns went bathing.
The waters are not safe to drink today but the site is popular as part of the Burns pilgrimage. For me, this was one of the most unassuming locations connected to the poet, yet it felt the most poignant, a place where he must have clung on to a last shred of hope in the face of death.
Other Dumfries locations connected to Robert Burns
There are a few more places you might want to include on your Burns tour of Dumfries
Midsteeple - The 18th-century building is hard to miss as it sits in the middle of the town centre shopping precinct. After his death, the body of Robert Burns lay in the courtroom of the Midsteeple until his funeral on July 25th. A procession ran from Midsteeple to St Michael's Church.
Theatre Royal - The poet was involved in the construction of the theatre and wrote several pieces for performance. Tours of the theatre can be booked in advance.
Hole I' The Wa' Inn - One of the oldest public houses in Dumfries and another favourite tavern of Robert Burns
A HANDY MAP OF ALL THE LOCATIONS MENTIONED
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