I’m an avid lover of history and literature, so I couldn’t wait for the chance to take a trip to the place where Robert grew up: Alloway, South Ayrshire. Alloway is a gorgeous village that is overflowing with history and folk tales connected to the life and career of Robert Burns. From Robert’s childhood home at Burns Cottage, to the collection of over 5,000 of his works at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, Alloway holds the historic heart of the life of Robert Burns. Moreover, Alloway offers the chance for its visitors to dive straight into the pages of one of Robert’s most famous poems, Tam O’Shanter, at the chilling ruins of Alloway Auld Kirk and the medieval Brig O’Doon. Alloway is alive with the legacy of Robert Burns.
My Visit to Alloway
I absolutely loved my visit to Alloway and exploring its incredible connection to Robert Burns. My personal favourite locations were Alloway Auld Kirk and Brig O’Doon, where I truly felt that I had wandered into the pages of a Burns poem, as well into the pages of history.
Alloway and Tam O’Shanter
Of Alloway’s inspiration in Robert’s work, no poem is so famous as the tale of Tam O’Shanter. In this poem, Robert’s leading character, Tam, comes face-to-face with the Devil, witches, and warlocks who haunt the ruins of Alloway Auld Kirk. Tam and his trusty grey mare, Meg, are chased from the haunted kirk to Brig O’Doon. This bridge and its crossing over the River Doon into Carrick marked the safe boundary for Tam and Meg from the clutches of their paranormal assailants. Make it over the bridge they did – but not without the loss of Meg’s tail, snatched from her by the leading witch, Nannie.
When I arrived in Alloway, I was completely blown away by how similar Alloway Auld Kirk and Brig O’Doon were to their description in Tam O’Shanter. It is a short walk between the two, and both sites have informative signage and poetic homages to the work of Burns in connection to their history. Alloway Auld Kirk is every bit as creepy as I had expected, but it is also a very beautiful ruin set in a historic kirkyard dating back to the 16th century. It’s amazing to think that this place has changed little since Robert’s lifetime, as the kirk was already a ruin by the penning of Tam O’Shanter. Visiting the kirk and the bridge provides us with a glimpse into the wild imaginations of the bard, forged in an Alloway childhood of folk tales and oral histories.
Discovering Robert Burns's Childhood in Alloway
Robert Burns was born on the 25th of January 1759 in Alloway. The first 7 years of his life would be spent in this village, alongside his first three younger siblings (he would become the eldest brother of three more siblings once the family had moved from Alloway). While the folk tales and traditions of Alloway are deeply rooted in Robert’s work, the influence of his parents also shaped the Robert Burns we love and celebrate today.
Robert’s father, William Burnes, was from Dunnottar in Kincardineshire. William was a hard worker and deeply pious, with ambition for his own prospects in life. Originally working as a gardener and a landscaper in Edinburgh, William moved southwest to Ayrshire to pursue his goal of becoming a farmer. This he managed to achieve—although not without a fair share of financial problems—and became a tenant farmer before buying his own land in the 1770s.
Visiting the Burns Cottage
William constructed a four-room cottage in Alloway in 1757, the same year that he married Agnes Broun from Kirkoswald, South Ayrshire. You can visit this very cottage today and see for yourself the place that a young Robert Burns grew up. This wee cottage saw the roots for Robert’s future success, largely from the influence of his parents.
William Burnes’ own basic education of reading, writing, and arithmetic instilled in him a passion for the education of his own children, who he taught himself for a time. He also paid for the tuition of his two eldest sons, Robert and Gilbert, through various points in their childhood, which included subjects such as Latin and French. When I visited the cottage, I felt that it was easy to picture Robert and his father, whether at work tending to the animals in the stable and managing the crops in the garden or sat a table pouring over notes and homework together.
Although significant, access to an education was not the sole foundation for Robert’s success as a literary icon. While the dramatic events and figures of history additionally inspired the poet, it was the folk tales and legends of his childhood home of Alloway that initially set the young mind of Robert Burns alight with creativity. Robert’s mother, Agnes, was known to have passed the oral traditions and histories of Ayrshire to her children, carried to her from own grandmother. You can imagine Agnes telling these stories and songs to her children in the kitchen of the Burns Cottage, where today a rendition of the chilling Tam O’Shanter plays while you explore this room. Visit the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum to learn more about the folklore of Alloway and beyond that inspired a young Robert.