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Robert Burns Lives!
Memories of Muhammad Ali by Alison Wilson

Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Greater Atlanta, GA, USA

This special article by volunteer manager Alison Wilson is about an experience of George Spence, a recent visitor at the Burns Museum in Alloway, Scotland. This story revolves around Muhammed Ali, one of the world’s most gifted boxers and proclaimed by many as the very best in the history of professional boxing. I have had two encounters with Muhammed Ali, once during the Kentucky Derby in 1984 and then again when he lit the flame to open the Atlanta Olympics in 1996. Ali has been indescribable since beating Sonny Liston (I listened to the fight on the radio) and went on to be a three-time holder on the heavyweight boxing championship, the first to ever accomplish this feat.

This is a narrative about Ali, George Spence who was a mere lad at the time, and Robert Burns, a heavy-weight championship holder in his own right when it comes to Scottish poetry and songs. After all, not many have written just one book only to have over 500 books written about him in return. I hope this story brings back many good memories to all of us. My thanks to David Hope, Alison Wilson, George Spence and the Burns Museum for allowing me to share this unique article about Ali sitting in Burns’ chair at the museum years ago in the presence of young George Spence. (FRS: 6.16.2016)

Volunteer Manager Alison Wilson tells us about an unexpected and exciting experience that she had whilst guiding a tour of the museum on Saturday.

I had an amazing experience at the museum on Saturday. There I was, standing at the chair made out of John Wilson’s Kilmarnock printing press which produced the first edition of Burns’s Poems, ‘Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect’ giving it big licks to a group of 15 Americans all about how Muhammad Ali had once sat on it when he visited the cottage in 1965. There is a famous photo of the boxing legend sat in the chair surrounded by fans and I heard that the boy stood nearest Ali in the photo was in the museum that day.

Eventually, with the aid of Ros at the shop, we found the boy from the photo eating his lunch in the cafe. Now a fully grown man, George Spence from Dreghorn was visiting the museum with his wife and grandchildren. He needed little persuasion to have his photo taken next to the original photo of himself at the age of 13 with Muhammad Ali.

George had met Muhammad Ali over 50 years ago during the summer holidays when his father was on shifts. His mother, he said, “made him get up and take them to Burns cottage” as she’d heard Muhammad Ali was coming. When they arrived it seemed to the young George that hundreds of people were milling around on the grass at the back of the cottage trying to get a glimpse of the Heavyweight Champion of the World. George’s canny mother, however, realised that the great celebrity would sooner or later go into the cottage itself. “She grabbed us and pushed us in to the cottage”, he remembered. Whereupon the door slammed shut. George with his wee three-year-old sister, mother and father were inside with just a few others. Suddenly the door burst open and in swept Muhammad Ali with his entourage and all the press.

Ali then stepped over the barrier and sat on the seat pretending to write one of his legendary poems just like Robert Burns. He joked, “Bobbie Burns will be looking down seeing me sitting in his chair”. He spoke to George personally asking if he would like to be a fighter like him.

As you can imagine, George told this story as if it had happened yesterday and it was such a privilege to listen to such a brilliant story about an important part of the recent history of Burns Cottage. George had only recently discovered the photo of himself with Ali on the internet but had cherished the memory of meeting the great man ever since. I only hope he found his return visit to the scene memorable too.

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