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The Robert Burns Museum is correctly the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, or so it says on the fine stone wall of the entrance area of the fine museum in Alloway, run by the National Trust for Scotland.
(I think the trio pictured right were on their way to a wedding in the church nearby. You don't have to wear a kilt to get into the museum.) For first-time visitors to the Robert Burns Museum, perhaps with an image of Burns Cottage in their minds, the slickness of it all may be a surprise. We Scots have a word 'couthy' - meaning cosy, home-spun, friendly and unassuming. (Burns himself used the word in his poetry and it's probably related to both 'kith' as in 'kith and kin' and English 'uncouth', all from Old English cunnan 'to know'. OK, that's enough etymology - Ed.) Basically, the Robert Burns Museum is the opposite of couthy (except for the friendly element). It's high-tech, modern, clever and illuminating. But, within walking distance along the road, Burns Cottage remains a bit couthy - just as it has done since it became a place of pilgrimage after the poet's death in 1796.
The other surprising part for first time visitors - at least it has always made me smile - is that the image of Burns as the romantic ploughman poet, set essentially in a rural landscape, is now so much at odds with the setting of the Burns locations in Alloway. No struggling, marginal farming operation here - the little fields have long gone. The topography of the Auld Kirk, the Brig o' Doon (pictured below) and his birthplace cottage is set amongst well-to-do suburbia, with leafy gardens, large and shiny cars in driveways and a very contented air about the place. What would Burns have made of it all, especially the very notion of having a 21st-century Robert Burns Museum in what was once a field he would have known in childhood?
(Above) This is the actual bridge over which Tam o' Shanter rode to escape the witches. Yes, really. Read the comic narrative poem or yourself. Great fun.
Let's be practical. If you're planning to visit the Robert Burns Museum, then start at the new centre. As there is an excellent café, if you want to get into the spirit of it all then have lunch here and try the beginners' haggis - I did - and it was very tasty. And I only call it beginners' haggis because of how it was served - a haggis convenience portion with layered neeps and tatties, plus a whisky sauce if you find it a bit dry. Clever stuff. Yes, really. I'd eat it again. Maybe I should call it 'harmless or non-intimidating haggis'. (And the afternoon tea selection of cakes was very tempting as well.)
After the Robert Burns Museum Café, immerse yourself in the wealth of artefacts on display in the Robert Burns Museum itself. Lighting is low, presumably to protect the priceless writings, and you'll soon find yourself able to recognise Burns' hand-writing from some distance away! Snatches of music play, and the area is set in thematic sections. It's almost overwhelming. Like the National Trust for Scotland's Culloden visitor centre, there is plenty to study. And the whole experience starts off with the arresting quotation from another Scottish poet, Hugh Macdiarmid: "Mair nonsense has been uttered in his name - Than in ony's barrin liberty and Christ." (mair - more; ony - any).
By the time you leave, you should have some idea of Burns the man but also some sense of his achievement - born into a life of endless work trying to earn a living of the land, yet rising to fame and the attention of the literati of Scotland and beyond. Within years of his death he had achieved a unique place in literature as a poet of the common man, still celebrated with enthusiasm the world over - wherever the Scots gather. Ironically, many who attend Burns Suppers on the 25th January probably care to hear no other poetry, except on that day. There's more here on the Robert Burns Museum and Burns the man.
Then, still topped up with haggis and cakes, it's time to foot it across to Burns Cottage. The 'Poet's Path' with its statuary (ho-hum) leads from the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum past some all-weather hockey pitches, busy - on a Saturday, at least - with solid-looking female players. (Inevitably, I couldn't help thinking of those lines from Tam o' Shanter that go 'Now Tam, O Tam! had thae been queans, / A' plump and strapping in their teens,' as these words certainly applied to the goalkeepers. Crikey.)
Then suddenly you pop out beside a shop, lots of parked cars and some houses on quite a busy road. Aha, wait a minute, the cottage is that unassuming low building opposite. (Burns Cottage pictured above - it's the wee hoose on the left.)This is the actual place where his earliest memories were formed and where his father made financial sacrifices to give Robert Burns and his brother Gilbert an education. And in their day you couldn't nip across the road for a cappuccino. Inevitably, the cottage experience is sanitised and scrubbed to a state of lifelessness, with not so much as a scrawny hen pecking about. But it's fascinating for all that - especially when you realise that, under the thatched roof, the area for the animals was bigger than the area for the human occupants. And if there's no sharn, straw or realistic smells, at least there's a kailyard out the back, with real kale (or kail)! See the picture below. (Sharn is Scots for what you have to avoid stepping in, in farmyards. Blame the cattle.)
After that, stroll down to the roofless Alloway Auld Kirk. Burns' father lies here 'in everlasting slumber'. Then make your way to the bridge of the River Doon for a view of the old Brig o' Doon - that's the one that Tam o' Shanter (Shanter being a farm name) had to race for on his 'guid grey mare' Meg, pursued by the witches he had disturbed at their coven in the kirk. (It's all in the great narrative poem!) You can visit the Memorial Gardens as well, though by now, you may feel you have enough of a handle on the Burns cult. But the Robert Burns Museum is a Scotland must see - and not just for the haggis. (OK, you don't have to have the haggis, there's lots more on the café menu.)
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Scotland in Three Days