Alloway, Ayrshire, and Robert Burns


The 'Auld Clay Biggin' built by Robert Burns's father stands beside the B2074 road from Ayr to Alloway, about 2 miles south of Ayr steeple. On the way from Ayr one passes various points associated with the wild ride of Tam o' Shanter. About a mile from the steeple, the Alloway road crosses the Slaphouse Burn about 200 yards east of:

'the ford
Where In the snaw the chapman smoor'd,'

and a short distance beyond the ford in the garden of a wayside cottage may befound the:

'meikle stane
Whare drunken Charle's brak's neck-bane.'

A little farther on an ash-tree surrounded by a paling marks:

'the cairn
Whare hunters fend the murder'd bairn.'

Burns's Birthplace is a low thatched cottage abutting on to the pavement and with little external suggestion of its value and importance in the world of literature. In recent years it has been rather obviously restored, but the inner rooms contain various articles of simple furniture, and there is a 'set-in' bed like unto that in which Burns was born in 1759 and which is described in 'The Cottar's Saturday Night'. Adjoining the birthplace is a museum of manuscripts, letters and other relics of the poet, and the gardens are pleasantly laid out.

Robert Burns was born at Alloway on 25 January 1759, and died at Dumfries on 21 July 1796. The first seven years of his life were spent here; in 1766 the family moved to Mount Oliphant, 2 miles from Alloway. His father was a peasant farmer who gave his son the best available education, and this education inclined to the literary side. His youth was spent working on the farm, with a brief interlude in Irvine, where he tried his fortunes as a flax-dresser.

When William Burns died in 1784, Robert and his brother took on the farm at Mossgiel and shouldered the maintenance of the widow and several younger children. It was, however, an unfortunate venture, and Robert's interest in the farm was lessened by his affair with Jean Armour; an affair which so incensed the Armour family that Burns thought it best to seek his fortunes abroad. Meanwhile, Jean Armour and he parted with some show of recrimination, and Burns turned to 'Highland Mary' - Mary Campbell a dairymaid at Montgomery Castle near Mossgiel - who, however, died shortly afterwards. Burns decided to go to Jamaica, and had indeed composed his farewell song ('The Gloomy Night is Gathering Feat') when the success of his first book of poems introduced him to literary circles in Edinburgh, and brought in a sum of money that was welcome, if small, and sufficed to banish ideas of emigration.

After a tour of the Border, he returned to Mossgiel, this time to be received with open arms by the Armours - a welcome not without embarrassment, one imagines, for by now the correspondence with Clarinda (Mrs. Maclehose) was flourishing. However, in 1788 he rented the farm of Ellisland near Dumfries and married his Jean.

Farming was no more prosperous at Ellisland than at Mossgiel, and before long he applied for the post of Excise Officer, which brought him in an additional £50 per annum. Once again, too, farming was subjugated to other interests, and in 1791 he sold the farm, moved to a small house in Dumfries, and turned from poems to political squibs which, as the work of an Excise Officer, were looked at askance by some of his strictly loyal and carefully-spoken superiors. Then came that almost quixotic period when, notwithstanding his poverty and that of his family, he refused to accept payment for the grand series of songs he contributed to Thomson's Collection; refused too, an annuity of £50 offered in page for poetical articles for the Morning Chronicle.

Burns's later literary output consisted almost entirely of songs, both original compositions and adaptations of traditional Scottish ballads and folk songs. He contributed some 200 songs to Scots Musical Museum (in 6 volumes, 1783-1803), a project initiated by the engraver and music publisher James Johnson (1750?-1811). Beginning in 1792, Burns wrote about 100 songs and some humorous verse for Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs, compiled by George Thomson (1757-1851). Among his songs in this collection are such favorites as 'Auld Lang Syne', 'Comin' Thro' the Rye', 'Scots Wha Hae', 'A Red, Red Rose', 'The Banks o' Doon' and 'John Anderson, My Jo'.

After the outbreak of the French Revolution, Burns became an outspoken champion of the Republican cause. This is well evinced in 'Scots Wa hae', an evocation of the spirit of William Wallace. Burns's enthusiasm for liberty and social justice dismayed many of his admirers; some shunned or reviled him. After Franco-British relations began to deteriorate, he curbed his radical sympathies, and in 1794, for patriotic reasons, he joined the Dumfriesshire Volunteers. Burns died in Dumfries on 21 July 1796.

Scotland has been much blamed for the poverty of Burn's final days, but the blame can hardly go undivided.

Following the main road southward from Burns's Birthplace for less than a mile, one comes on the right to the old Church of Alloway, where Tam o' Shanter:

'saw an unco sight
Warlocks and witches in a dance . . .'

and from the winnock-bunker in the east wall:

'Auld Nick
Screwed the pipes and gart them skirl
Till roof and rafters a' did dirl.'

Another side of the poet's genius is displayed in the inscription on his father's tombstone:

'0 ye whose cheek the tear of pity stains.'

Across the road from the Church is the Burns Monument - a Grecian temple copied from the monument of Lysicrates at Athens. It contains various relics, including Jean Armour's wedding ring, and two Bibles said to have been exchanged between Burns and 'Highland Mary'. Many admirers of Burns will consider that a more fitting memorial than the Grecian temple is the summerhouse in the garden containing Thom's clever sculptures, representing Tam o' Shanter and Souter Johnnie. The gardens are pretty and give nice views of the Auld Brig o' Doon, and the riverside grounds of the adjoining Burns Monument Hotel are also open for a small fee.

The farm of Mount Oliphant, to which the Burns family removed in 1766, is on rising ground about a mile east of the Auld Brig. It was here that Burns composed his first song, 'My Handsome Nell'.

The road crossing the New Brig o' Doon climbs to give good views eastward and in about 5 miles reaches Maybole, a sleepy old town with a reputation for the manufacture of boots and shoes, and of interest to Burn students as the place where the poet's father and mother first met.


Description and Travel

Alloway lies on the B 7024 road running south out of Ayr to Maybole. It can be reached by car or by bus from the town centre.

Alloway was created as a quoad sacra parish within the original Ayr parish in the late 19th century.

Burns' Cottage is open to the public. Nearby are to be found the Burns Monument referred to above and the 'Land o' Burns' Centre, a major tourist attraction.