A Stroll through Robert Burns’s Birthplace
In November 2021, NTSUSA Executive Director Kirstin Bridier paid a special visit to the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum. Now, she warmly invites us to stroll with her through the highlights of her visit and the new ways NTS is telling the story of the bard’s life, work, and legacy.
In January, our thoughts turn to Robert Burns. We ring out the old year with Auld Lang Syne, and less than a month later, we celebrate Scottish Bard with poetry and song, fueled by a bit of whisky and a lot of haggis. (Or is it the other way around?) I am grateful that Robert Burns’s birthday falls when it does – when the excitement of the festive season is over, and the long winter stretches ahead. Burns Night evokes the warmth, friendship, and laughter that are essential at this time of year.
I was fortunate to visit the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum on my whistle-stop tour of National Trust for Scotland sites – my first in over two years – last November. I’ll be sharing updates from my trip in the coming weeks, but I thought I might start with this property, beloved by lovers of literature, history, and philosophy around the world, as we all prepare for our Burns Suppers.
If you’ve not been to Alloway, I can only describe the experience as literally and figuratively walking into Robert Burns’s world. Look left, and there is the thatched byre dwelling in which the poet was born. Look right, and there are contemporary sculptures of a giant mouse, a shackled fox, and yes, a haggis that has sprung from the poet’s mind. In one direction is the Auld Kirk where Tam O’Shanter saw the Devil playing his bagpipes; in the other, the Brig O’ Doon over which Tam flees from witches on his horse, Meg.
The National Trust for Scotland Foundation USA has supported numerous projects at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum over the past twenty years. I was there to check on the progress of two recent installations: the smallholding landscape behind the Burns Cottage and a new sculpture called The Twa Dogs that was commissioned in 2019 in honor of NTSUSA Chair Helen E.R. Sayles.
Although it wasn’t planned, the smallholding installation has made a tremendous difference to the RBBM team during the pandemic. Inspired by William Burnes (Robert’s father), who hoped to start a seven-acre farm adjacent to his cottage in Alloway, the smallholding includes an orchard, wildlife pond, woodland walk, outdoor classroom, and raised beds where local primary school students can help with planting. Two larger-than-life willow sculptures by local artist David Powell were recently installed: one depicts Tam O’ Shanter riding Meg and the other, the poet himself walking and reading. (A wildflower meadow will eventually surround the 16-foot-tall figure of Burns.) Chris Waddell, RBBM’s learning manager, shared with me how he is using this new landscape to connect visitors to Burns’s love of nature via the landscape in which he was born.
Essential conservation to Burns Cottage had taken place since my last visit, with the historic byre completely rethatched and vital repairs to the chimneys, internal plaster, external harling, and limewash undertaken. The cottage looks lovely – lovely enough to have recently hosted its first visit by the National Trust for Scotland’s Patron, HRH The Prince Charles, Duke of Rothesay, and Her Royal Highness The Duchess of Rothesay.
And halfway along the Poet’s Path between the Burns Cottage and the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum we found Sally Matthews’ bronze sculpture The Twa Dogs. Her installation was inspired by the opening poem in Burns’s first published collection, an imagined conversation between the poet’s faithful border collie Luath and Caesar, a collared gentleman’s dog.
The figures are wonderfully tactile with tiny details that surprise and delight – I have no doubt that this sculpture, installed in Helen’s honor, will become a favorite resting spot and photo opportunity for visitors to RBBM.
It was exciting to hear from the RBBM team about their plans for the complex. Believe it or not, it has been more than a decade since the museum itself opened to the public – and with the newly successful joint acquisition of the Honresfield Library, there are more Burns stories than ever to be told. I look forward to watching these plans develop and coalesce over the coming years – and of course, to learning how we at NTSUSA can help.
In the meantime, I know you will join me in raising a glass in honor of Robbie Burns – and in honor of the team at the National Trust for Scotland and the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum who keep his legacy alive and relevant.
– Kirstin Bridier, January 2022