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Robert Burns

Published on January 24th, 2022

Image showing a portrait of Robert Burns (1759-1796)Scotland's 'national poet' Robert Burns was born at Alloway near Ayr in Ayrshire on 25th January 1759 and died at the early age of thirty-seven in Dumfries. His verses are famous the world over, and his lyrics are a vivid mixture of the personal and the political, the heart and soul. He was a social and political animal and an ardent republican, and many of his poems reflect the keen sense of outrage he felt at the hypocrisies of the age. He also collected folk songs from around Scotland, although he often revised or adapted them, such as Auld Lang Syne. He is regarded as a pioneer of the Romantic movement and a cultural icon of Scotland.


Image showing Statue Of Robert Burns in 1900The life and works of Robert Burns are celebrated in Scotland on Burns Night, 25th January (the anniversary of his birthday), with a special Burns Supper when traditional dishes are eaten, especially haggis, Scotland's most famous dish. Haggis is rather like a large, oval-shaped sausage, made from a sheep's stomach stuffed with oatmeal and the minced or chopped parts of an animal which might otherwise be discarded, such as the heart, lungs and liver (the finest haggis uses liver from a deer, rather than a sheep). At Burns Suppers the haggis is brought in to the accompaniment of a piper, and placed ceremoniously before the chief guest. To a Haggis by Robert Burns is then recited ('Fair fa' your honest sonsie face, great chieftain o' the puddin' race!'), and the haggis is toasted with drams of whisky before being eaten.

We bring you a special selection of photographs from The Francis Frith Collection that trace places connected with the celebrated poet's life and work. Happy Burns Night!



Robert Burns was born in this humble thatched clay cottage at Alloway near Ayr on 25th January 1759 and lived there until the age of seven. The two-room 'but and ben' cottage was built by his father, a gardener from Kincardineshire. It later became an inn. In 1881 the cottage was purchased by the trustees of the Burns Monument and opened as a museum. The pleasant village of Alloway is now the centre of pilgrimage for lovers of Burns’s poetry. When Robert Burns was seven his father took on the tenancy of Mount Oliphant Farm near Ayr and moved the family there. The farm was unproductive and it was a hard life for young Robert who grew up in poverty and hardship, and the heavy manual labour of his work on the farm left him with a weakened constitution for the rest of his life. He had little regular schooling and got much of his early education from his father, who taught his children reading, writing, arithmetic, geography and history. It was whilst living at Mount Oliphant during his teenage years that he was first inspired to write poetry.

Photo: Alloway, Birthplace Of Robert Burns (1759-1796) 1897.


Robert Burns played in this churchyard as a boy, and the popular legends about hauntings and the ghostly atmosphere of the roofless ruin affected him deeply. He used the Auld Kirk and the Auld Brig O' Doon nearby as scenes for his celebrated narrative poem Tam O' Shanter, which first appeared in the Edinburgh Review in 1791. Burns's father, who had repaired the kirk wall to keep the sheep at bay, is buried in the churchyard.

Photo: Alloway, The Old Kirk 1897.


'Auld Ayr, wham ne'er a town surpasses

For honest men and bonie lasses.'

Ayr is famous for its links with Robert Burns, who immortalised many places around the town in his work, notably in his mock-epic poem Tam O' Shanter, published in 1791. This work was based on real people Burns knew who drank at what is now the Tam O' Shanter Inn in Ayr's High Street, Douglas Graham of Shanter Farm ('Tam') and his crony John Davidson of Kirkoswald ('Souter Johnnie'). In the poem, Tam spends far too long enjoying himself at the inn before making what becomes a terrifyingly eventful journey home to face his wife, tellingly described by Burns as his 'sulky, sullen dame' who is 'gathering her brows like gathering storm, nursing her wrath to keep it warm.' This photograph of the Tam O' Shanter Inn at Ayr was taken by a Frith photographer in 1900 and, as written above the window on the left-hand side, is 'the house where Tam O' Shanter & Souter Johnnie held their meetings'.

Photo: Ayr, The Tam O' Shanter Inn 1900.


This bridge is used as the setting for the final verse of Robert Burns's poem Tam O' Shanter which describes Tam's homeward journey on horseback after enjoying a long evening drinking with his friend Souter Johnnie in what is now the Tam O' Shanter Inn in Ayr’s High Street. Along the way he witnesses some terrible visions and comes across a coven of witches, warlocks and the Devil congregated at the ruined Auld Kirk at Alloway. As the terrified Tam gallops away on his grey mare, Meg, he is chased by Nannie the witch. Knowing that witches can't cross water, he heads for the Brig O' Doon and is just able to escape the witch by crossing the bridge over the running stream, narrowly avoiding her attack as she is only able to grab the horse's tail, which comes away in her hands 'and left poor Maggie scarce a stump'. The bridge remains a place of pilgrimage for fans of Robert Burns.

Photo: Alloway, The Auld Brig O'doon 1897.


These statues of Tam O' Shanter and his drinking crony Souter Johnnie were photographed by a Frith photographer in 1897 and are part of a series of life-size sandstone statues of characters from the works of Robert Burns by the sculptor James Thom. They stand in the Statue House in the Memorial Gardens surrounding the Burns Monument in his birthplace of Alloway, near Ayr.

Photo: Alloway, Statues Of Tam O'shanter And Souter Johnnie 1897.


The Burns Monument at Alloway was built between 1820 and 1823 as a 70ft high temple in Grecian style. The Monument and the Memorial Gardens surrounding it come under the aegis of the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum and are operated by the National Trust for Scotland.

Photo: Alloway, Burns Monument 1897.


From 1784 to 1788, whilst in his twenties, Robert Burns was a tenant farmer at Mossgiel Farm, close to the town of Mauchline in East Ayrshire. This was probably his most creative and productive period as a writer, and it was during this period of his life that he composed many of his best-loved poems. In January 1786 the first edition of his poetry was published, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect, commonly known as the Kilmarnock Edition, which was printed and issued by John Wilson of Kilmarnock. It was an immediate success, catapulting Burns into national fame. In 1896, to mark the centenary of the death of Robert Burns and commemorate his connection with the area, the National Burns Memorial was built at Mauchline after a national appeal was organised to raise £5,000 for the building costs of the grandiose tower in Scots Baronial style.

Photo: Mauchline, The Burns Memorial Tower c.1950.


The success of Robert Burns’s Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect led to him moving to Edinburgh, where he was feted as 'the Heaven-taught Ploughman' by the great and the good of Scotland's capital city. More poetry followed, but the splendour and pomp of Edinburgh palled and the countryman in Burns reasserted itself. He returned to Ayrshire, to Mauchline, with his devoted (if occasionally sorely tried) wife, Jean Armour. But Burns failed to settle there, and he and Jean and their young son moved next to Ellisland Farm beside the River Nith near Auldgirth, just north of Dumfries, where from 1788 to 1791 Burns tried unsuccessfully to make a go of life as a tenant farmer. During the time Burns lived at Ellisland he wrote many of his finest songs and poems, including Tam O' Shanter, To Mary in Heaven, The Address to the Wounded Hare and Auld Lang Syne. The farmhouse that Robert Burns built for his family is seen in a poor state of repair in this photograph from the 1950s, but it is now restored to how it was when they lived there as the Ellisland Museum and Farm, which houses a unique collection of Robert Burns's books, manuscripts, artefacts and other memorabilia.

Photo: Auldgirth, Ellisland Farm c.1955.


With a growing family to support, and to supplement his farming and writing income, in 1789 Robert Burns got a job with the Excise Service in Dumfries where he lodged at his favourite hostelry, the Globe Inn in the High Street, prior to setting up home in the town with his family - you can still see two verses of poetry there that he inscribed on the window panes of his bedroom with his diamond ring. Burns was a regular visitor in many of the pubs or howffs in Dumfries. There were plenty to choose from: in his time there were around 80 pubs in the town, discounting the many unlicensed drinking dens that also existed. As well as the Globe Inn, other pubs still in business in Dumfries with connections to the poet are the Coach and Horses on the Whitesands, and the Hole I' The Wa' Inn in the High Street.

Photo: Dumfries, The Old And New Bridges c.1880.


By the end of 1791 Robert Burns's career in the Excise Service had become established, although the job sometimes sat uneasily with his radical instincts, and he quit Ellisland Farm and moved permanently with his family to Dumfries. They lived first in a three-room tenement flat in the Wee or 'Stinking' Vennel, which is now called Bank Street. There, in the 'Songhouse of Scotland' as it became known, he composed songs like Ae Fond Kiss, The Lea Rig and The Deil's Awa wi' the Exciseman. In 1793 Burns and his family moved to a two-storey sandstone house on Mill Vennel (or Mill Hole Brae), now known as Burns Street. It was there that he wrote his world-famous song A Man's a Man for A' That, in which he endorsed equality in a nation and railed against social injustices. Robert Burns suffered from poor health and a weak heart, probably as a result of contracting rheumatic fever in his youth, and he died at this house in 1796, aged just 37, on the same day that his son Maxwell was born. The property is now preserved as a museum to the poet.

Photo: Dumfries, Robert Burns House, Burns Street (Previously Mill Vennel) 2004.


After his death in 1796 Robert Burns was buried in St Michael's graveyard in Dumfries, though his body was later re-interred in this specially built baroque mausoleum in another corner of the churchyard, which was completed in 1817.

Photo: Dumfries, Robert Burns Mausoleum 2004.


Inside the Robert Burns Mausoleum at Dumfries is a fine plaster mural by the sculptor Peter Turnerelli which shows Burns standing by his plough whilst above him and throwing her inspiring mantle over him hovers the figure of Coila, his poetic muse, the embodiment of the Ayrshire district of Kyle where he was born; Burns created the Muse Coila as a poetic device for his poem The Vision, in which she provides the farmer poet with inspiration and encourages him to follow his true nature and poetic vocation.

The lasting fame of Robert Burns rests not only on his poetry, but also his letters, his collecting and recording of folk songs (a field in which he was considerably ahead of his time), and the joyous, carefree swagger with which he approached life.

Photo: Dumfries, Robert Burns Mausoleum, Interior 1988.


You may be interested in these related books:

Printed specially for you and with a free personal dedication available on almost all our titles with hundreds to choose from, our nostalgic local books make great gifts for someone or why not treat yourself and add some history to your bookshelves?

Book of Ayr - A History and Celebration
Free optional inscription available!

Ayr - A History and Celebration

Featuring the stories and events that make up the town's fascinating history, learn about the personalities, past and present - including benefactors, tradesmen and businessmen - whose energy and innovation have played a vital role in shaping the community. Illustrated with Frith photographs and specially commissioned modern photographs, you can enjoy an enthusiastic appreciation of the new community that is developing before your eyes. Topic Boxes and Fact File boxes cover subjects of particular local interest and will test your local knowledge to the full. Printed in full colour.

Ayr - A History and Celebration (ISBN: 978-1-84589-696-6)
Rob Close


You may be interested in these related books:

Printed specially for you and with a free personal dedication available on almost all our titles with hundreds to choose from, our nostalgic local books make great gifts for someone or why not treat yourself and add some history to your bookshelves?

Book of Dumfries - A History and Celebration
Free optional inscription available!

Dumfries - A History and Celebration

Featuring the stories and events that make up the town's fascinating history, learn about the personalities, past and present - including benefactors, tradesmen and businessmen - whose energy and innovation have played a vital role in shaping the community. Illustrated with Frith photographs and specially commissioned modern photographs, you can enjoy an enthusiastic appreciation of the new community that is developing before your eyes. Topic Boxes and Fact File boxes cover subjects of particular local interest and will test your local knowledge to the full. Printed in full colour.

Dumfries - A History and Celebration (ISBN: 978-1-84589-697-3)
Pete Fortune & Hugh McMillan


You may be interested in these related books:

Printed specially for you and with a free personal dedication available on almost all our titles with hundreds to choose from, our nostalgic local books make great gifts for someone or why not treat yourself and add some history to your bookshelves?

Book of Did You Know? Scotland
Free optional inscription available!

Did You Know? Scotland

Containing fascinating facts, words & phrases, ghost stories, local recipes, sporting trivia and a quiz, and illustrated with evocative photographs sourced by the world-famous Francis Frith Collection, Did You Know? Scotland will challenge your local knowledge, and provide amusing and enjoyable insights into Scotland's history and heritage.

Did You Know? Scotland (ISBN: 978-1-84546-949-8)


You may be interested in these related books:

Printed specially for you and with a free personal dedication available on almost all our titles with hundreds to choose from, our nostalgic local books make great gifts for someone or why not treat yourself and add some history to your bookshelves?

Book of A Taste of Scotland
Free optional inscription available!

A Taste of Scotland

Travel around Scotland through the pages of this book and discover a selection of the delicious traditional food of the country, as well as stories and fascinating facts behind the recipes. Your journey is given added flavour by the delightful historical images from The Francis Frith Collection, showing the people and places of Scotland in the past. A Taste of Scotland includes 50 recipes, some traditional, some reflecting local produce that Scotland is famous for, some linked to characters or historical personages or events, some versions adapted to suit modern tastes.Rediscover 50 traditional locally-inspired dishes. Some recipes are modern interpretations using some of the fine local produce that Scotland is famous for - we hope that this unique book provides you with a true taste of Scotland!

A Taste of Scotland (ISBN: 978-1-84589-462-7)
Compiled by Julia Skinner


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