Come join me on a virtual tour around Ayrshire, and let’s follow in the footsteps of Robert Burns, meeting some of his famous characters along the way.
Kirkoswald – home of Souter Johnnie
Pottering around Ayrshire recently we passed several signs for Soutar Johnnie’s Cottage. Intrigued we decided to check it out. If you’re familiar with the Burns poem ‘Tam O’Shanter’, you’ll recognise Soutar Johnnie as Tam’s drinking crony.
I’ve loved the tale of Tam O’Shanter since I was a bairn (child). I always preferred stories about creepy and magical beasties, over those about adventurous, posh kids drinking lashings of ginger beer. As a student, I was taught Scottish Literature by a fabulous, eccentric called Professor Jack. In lectures, he’d recite Tam O’Shanter from memory as he leapt around, arms flailing. He was a joy to watch and always had me enthralled.
Souter Johnnie’s Cottage is located in Kirkoswald, where Rabbie attended the village school. With thatched cottages an old ruined kirk and kirkyard, the village has a timeless, old world feel to it. Souter Johnnie clearly wasn’t expecting us, as we arrived to find his house closed. Thankfully, it was only closed temporarily for renovations.
Undeterred, we decided to check out the old ruined kirk and kirkyard instead.
“Maybe Souter Johnnie’s in here?”, I suggested. I was right – not only was he in there, he was buried alongside his literary buddies Tam O’Shanter and Kirkton Jean. We found Robert Burns’ grandparents too and his old school master.
And at his elbow, Souter Johnny,
His ancient, trusty, drouthy crony;
Tam lo’ed him like a vera brither –
They had been fou for weeks thegither!
That at the Lord’s house, even on Sunday,
Thou drank wi’ Kirkton Jean till Monday.
I didn’t know the characters in the poem were based on real people, so I was delighted by this new discovery. Apparently, the real Tam O’Shanter and Souter Johnnie loved nothing better than visiting the town of Ayr on market day. They were known to have a skinful (drinking binge), just like their literary immortalisations.
Burns Cottage – Burns Trail, Alloway
After Kirkoswald, we headed to Alloway where Burns was born in 1759. Before exploring the Burns Trail in the village it was time to eat. We found a little tea room (aptly named Poet’s Corner) and grabbed an al fresco lunch.With snow falling in other parts of Scotland, we felt smug basking in April sunshine. Fed and with caffeine levels topped up, it was time to explore Alloway’s Burns trail.
Our first stop was the bard’s birthplace. Although the village was busy, the outside of Burns Cottage was delightfully people free. It was an unexpected surprise to be able to snap the famous cottage without moaning about people wandering into shot.
The Wee White Dug piped up that Burns wasn’t the only famous, handsome lad who hailed from Ayrshire. He too is an Ayrshire laddie. It seems that after appearing on a Visit Scotland billboard in London recently, he now considers himself as famous as Robert Burns.
Poet’s Path – the Burns Trail, Alloway
After snapping Burns Cottage, we meadered along Poet’s Path. The path features Tam O’Shanter weather vanes and statues inspired by other Burns works – it’s great fun.
We weren’t long on the path when the boy came face to face with ‘the’ moose. He was not amused. He puffed up his chest and gave the gargantuan moose his most fearsome (yappy) terrier bark. The moose didn’t flinch. The Wee White Dug decided it probably hadn’t seen him, so he crept by with the stealth of a ninja, likely muttering about calling pest control under his breath.
Alloway Auld Kirk – The Burns Trail, Alloway
After our encounter with mega-moose we headed to Alloway Auld Kirk. This is where Tam O’Shanter watched the witches dance as Auld Nick played the fiddle. It’s also where you’ll find the parents of Robert Burns buried.
It’s such an atmospheric place and it really brings the poem to life. I could almost hear Tam, lost in the moment crying out “weel done, Cutty-sark” before immediately regretting his outburst.
Brig o’ Doon – The Burns Trail, Alloway
Our next stop was the Brig o’ Doon. Brig is the Scots word for bridge, and the River Doon is the river that flows under this famous literary bridge.
After angering the witches by interrupting their hellish ceilidh, the terrified Tam flees on horseback towards the keystane (keystone) on the brig – the witches hot on his heels. Witches can’t cross flowing water, so if Tam reached the keystane he’d be safe. He was lucky that night – he escaped the otherworldly beings pursuing him. His trusty mare, Meg did too, but she wasn’t quite as lucky as Tam. Although she escaped with her life, poor Meg had her tail torn off by a witch.
The boy practiced some fast running on the Brig o’ Doon and was confident he’d have reached the keystane with his tail intact. We didn’t for a second believe he could outrun a horse, so we ignored his outlandish boasts.
Burns National Monument – The Burns Trail, Alloway
Our last Burns inspired visit of the day was to the Burns National Monument & Memorial Gardens. The gardens were a riot of cheery Spring daffodils.
We ended our Burns inspired literary tour with a stroll amongst the daffies.
Ayrshire is a beautiful region with lots to see and do, so if you’re planning a trip to Scotland – make sure Ayrshire’s on your bucket list. If you enjoyed this blog, you may also like this other Ayrshire post.
It’s only fitting that I end with a quote from the great man himself.
O Scotia! my dear, my native soil! For whom my warmest wish to heaven is sent; Long may thy hardy sons of rustic toil Be blest with health, and peace, and sweet content.
Until next time …