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Robert Burns Lives
Volume 1 Chapter 8

 My Long-Awaited Journey Through Burns Country

By Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Atlanta, GA, USA

This past August, after a fun-filled week in Edinburgh enjoying the best ever tattoo according to those “who know”, and an all too brief jaunt into the Highlands to see all lands once occupied by but still held sacred by Clan Shaw members, my wife Susan and I dropped our traveling companions, Dr. David Shi, President of Furman University, and his lovely wife Susan at the Inverness airport early one morning. We then proceeded to do something we had never done on our previous trips to Scotland - drive toward Burns Country to visit as many of the historical places as we can that were made famous by the National Poet of Scotland whom we have come to love and respect as much as any native Scot. 

Our first stop was in Glasgow to visit George Square and the Mitchell Library. There is a magnificent statue of Robert Burns in George Square and once the pigeons gave me a brief respite from landing on the head of the statue and my dodging their missiles, I took several pictures. Not far away, towering over the Burns statue, was one of my hero, Sir Walter Scott. It is so high that you have to crane your neck to see the top of it. About 10:30 a.m. we made our way over to the Mitchell Library to see the reputed world’s largest collection of Burns books and Burnsiana. Unfortunately, there was no one available to show us through the Burns Library because everyone was “on break”. They advised us to come back at 2:30 that afternoon. I asked if 1:30 would be okay since we needed to head on down toward Ayr. “No sir,” the receptionist said, “They will be on afternoon break.” No comment. I’ll phone ahead next time to see if an appointment can be made.

After a pretty decent pizza for lunch, we lingered in George Square until the appointed hour and finally got in to see the marvelous treasure of Burns items. Our hostess was Elaine Stanier, Team Librarian, a most courteous guide. Their Burns room is about the size of the basketball gyms I remember playing ball in as a boy in Mullins and North Charleston, SC. You could literally spend days and days in the library pouring over the 5,000+ books on Robert Burns. Be still, my panting heart!

Unfortunately, explained Ms. Stanier, the only person on the library staff knowledgeable about Burns had recently resigned, and there was no one to answer our specific questions. Be still, my burning heart! Susan and I did spend over an hour pulling books and jotting down the necessary information to seek them out on, etc. Luckily, I’ve been able to purchase a few since returning from Scotland. Our guide did give me a Robert Burns bookmark that the library had used for a conference, and it is highly prized.

Kilmarnock was our next destination. Not many towns cast boast of a small book being printed by John Wilson that today is worth over $60,000 a copy. After parking, we thought it would be a good idea to buy some Burns postcards to send to our friends back home, but after walking the town mall, looking in every shop that had cards, we came up empty. No one sold Burns postcards! The clerks just shook their heads when we asked. I guess stranger things have happened. However, we did find our way to the quite unusual and unique full-body statue that honors both Robert Burns and John Wilson sharing the same pedestal located on the upper part of the mall. More pictures.

We then rode over to Dean Castle to see if anyone was in the office of the Burns World Federation, and this time luck smiled on us. What a pleasure to meet Shirley Bell, the executive in charge of the Federation, and her equally capable Office Manager, Margaret Craig. Learning we would be in Dumfries on Saturday night, Mrs. Bell invited us to dinner if our schedules worked out. Next, following the Burns Heritage Trail brochure we were given by Shirley and Margaret, we were off to Irvine to find the nine-foot high bronze statue of Burns. We struck out there, completely. We asked several pedestrians and a policeman where the Burns statue was located, but no one knew. Finally, we found a taxi driver who told us to “go to the end of the street, turn right, go to the first round-about, turn left, follow that street all the way to the park and you will find it on the left hand side of the road.” We thanked him and walked for about 15 minutes only to discover it was a statue of a politician! We walked back to the main street, asked a few more people and gave up after spending and hour and a half trying. Next trip I’ll make better plans and contact a member of the local Burns Club for assistance.  Time did not permit a visit to the “oldest continuous Burns Club in the world”.

Ayr was different since the statue sits in the middle of the town. There was a pharmacia a few doors away, and they made my day because of the numerous Burns postcards they had in their card rack. The statue of Burns is in a wee park in the center of town with a few benches scattered about, and there we found the pigeons more cooperative than at Glasgow’s George Square, so out came the cameras. Susan and I proceeded to jot a line or two on some of the Burns postcards. I had this brilliant idea of taking them back across the street to the Post Office and mailing them from Ayr. A Robert Burns post card postmarked from Ayr, what a neat little way to say hello to our Burns friends in the States. How disappointed I was to find out that the mail is picked up in Ayr and taken to Glasgow to be postmarked! I think they call this progress. However, we did see a pub called “Honest Man Bar” (the “honest man” being a phrase of Burns) so we wandered in for a glass of wine to drown our sorrows and met a most engaging bartender, Richard Saunders. Asked about the name of the pub, he replied, “Aye, Robert Burns!” Today, at home on our Burns’ library shelves are two bottles of “Honest Man” wine, one red and one white, that we bought at a modest price and lugged the 5,000 miles back to Atlanta.

After a night on the seashore at the Horizon Hotel, “Ayr’s Only Seafront Hotel” which in the words of Willie Shakespeare was “much ado about nothing” (Sardine space, anyone? We won’t go back there!) we set off for Alloway, birthplace of the bard. I guess Alloway would be considered a suburb of Ayr since it was just a few miles down the road. We were not disappointed. The Burns Cottage, familiar to all Burnsians the world over, is easily recognized. The Cottage and Museum are first rate as is the Burns Monument and Gardens just a couple of blocks further along the road. We visited the auld Alloway Kirk where the poet’s father is buried, and then we walked over to the Brig O’Doon. The Tam O’Shanter Experience will have to wait until the next trip to Burns Country - Dumfries beckoned urgently since we did not have a room reserved for the evening. But, you can bet your bottom dollar I was a happy camper that morning, having taken in the cottage, museum and monument and, just as important to me, the Burns store which contained a few books and numerous pictures and items of Burns!

We then began what was a tedious drive down to Dumfries, tedious because of the single lanes and so much traffic on a Saturday. We passed a sign to Ellisland but due to time constraints and in search of a bed, we short-listed the farm for our “to do” list next time we are there. I can see why Shirley Bell rides the train from Dumfries to Kilmarnock!

Arriving in Dumfries that afternoon we set out to find a place to spend the night. You’ll do yourself a favor if you write down the name Rivendell, 105 Edinburgh Road, if you like upscale B&Bs that do not attempt to play robber barons for wayfaring travelers on a late Saturday afternoon. There was one room left, and we jumped at it. You can find this particular B&B at The young couple, Karen and Bruce Harper, who own Rivendell have both recently retired from the local police force and are to be congratulated for the fine services and accommodations they provide for about £22 per person. When Susan and I return to Dumfries, Rivendell will be our destination.

The rest of Saturday afternoon we spent in Dumfries seeing the Burns statue, The Globe Inn and the Burns Howff Club upstairs, the house Burns died in, and in St. Michael’s kirk yard, home of his final resting place, the Robert Burns mausoleum. Here he rests with some of his children and his beloved “Bonnie Jean”. It was our good fortune to meet a young man who works at the Burns house named Paul Cowley. He shared a lot of history about the house Burns died in, as well as the cemetery and mausoleum. He personally escorted us over to the cemetery a wee walk away and with key in hand opened the gates to the mausoleum. Paul then took us over to the Globe Inn that Burns was known to frequent. He led us upstairs to the Burns Howff Club where we found out that the members of that quaint Burns Club are raising money for a statue in honor of Jean Armour. Brace yourself when you see it. Since the world has basically been relegated to seeing pictures of “Bonnie Jean” as an older, more mature woman in her later years, the maquette they showed us is of a younger time in her life. If this is anywhere near what Jean Armour looked like as a young woman, then one can see why Burns was so taken with her. She is portrayed as a beautiful young lass, very pleasing to the eye, rather “fetching” as the old phrase goes. Excuse me for saying so and I do not wish to offend anyone, but she is portrayed as rather sexy in the small statue. Do I like it? You bet I do! You will like it too unless you are an old foggie and slave bound to the older pictures of her. Hey, we were all young and good looking at one time! The statue is to be erected in Dumfries adjacent to St. Michael’s Church and the Burns Mausoleum. David Smith, Hon. Secretary, wrote in an October email to me, “hopefully the project will be completed by July, 2004 and perhaps your members (Atlanta Burns Club) will be able to visit the statue should you make a future visit to Scotland.” In a November email he further writes, “We hope to unveil the Jean Armour statue on 21st July, 2004, the anniversary date of the death of Robert Burns…The proposed site is outside the front gate of St. Michael’s Kirk, with Jean looking down towards Burns House.” As far as I know, there has never been a statue of Jean Armour erected anywhere in the world while her husband has more statues in his honor than any man who ever lived. This said, if any of you are interested in joining me in making a donation to this worthy event, please send your check to:

Mr. David Smith
Hon. Secretary
Burns Howff Club
C/o Globe Inn
56 High Street
Dumfries DG1 2JA
Scotland, U.K.

What do you do on a Saturday night in Dumfries? We joined up with Shirley Bell and her husband, Jack, for a wonderful dinner at a small Italian restaurant named Benvineto’s. I like to think I know a little about Italian cuisine having frequented for the past 25 years Atlanta’s finest Italian restaurant, LaGrotta (owned by our good friends, Sergio and Ursula Favalli with whom we recently toured Italy). I was not prepared for what took place that night at dinner. The place was jammed full of people - you get a good feeling when you walk in knowing the locals have filled it to the brim. Simply put, the food was delicious. The wine was just as good and inexpensive. I ate till I thought I would pop, and the four of us had a fine evening sharing food, wine and maybe a few lies! If the food we enjoyed that evening is any indication of how good the young chef is, suffice it to say he can more than hold his own with any chef I’ve seen on the Food Network, including the guy from Fall River, MA. It was that good! We have eaten in many fine Italian restaurants here in the States and abroad, and my old favorite LaGrotta is still the Grande Dame of them all. Yet, I found myself whispering something in Susan’s ear as we walked to the car that night I thought I’d never say - “Move over LaGrotta!”

Early Sunday morning, after as good a Scottish breakfast as one could ask for, we were off to Kirkpatrick Durham to meet with antiquarian book dealer, Benny Gillies. I met Benny on the internet. I had visited with him at the book fair in Edinburgh a week earlier and had passed on purchasing a first Edinburgh Edition (1787) of Burns’ Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect. All weekend I kept kicking myself for not buying the book. I just knew he had sold it. Even though the book had two pages of facsimile replacements, I now hoped I had not made a mistake by not buying it in Edinburgh. I was greatly relieved when Benny told me he still had the book, so I bought it right on the spot after, of course, a little negotiation. If my Daddy knew what I paid for this book, even though he was a college man himself, he’d think I had lost my mind and would, as the old saying goes, “turn over in his grave”. But I know one thing, an opportunity to buy this book does not come along often, and I know one more thing, the book is now mine. For a relatively new Burnsian, life does not get much better than the last three days.

We drove the remainder of the day to reach Manchester for our flight the next morning. Burns country was now in the past but will always remain in my heart. But next July we plan to return to Scotland with our son and daughter-in-law, Scott and Denise. Maybe, just maybe, we can steal away a day or two and once again head south out of Glasgow. Fortunately, we have already secured our Delta tickets, and when the Jean Armour statue is unveiled and dedicated on July 21, 2004, we will be in the air on the way back to Atlanta. (11-11-03).

Plaque at the Burns House in Dumfries, Scotland, where he died

Mausoleum in Dumfries where Burns is buried along with his wife, Jean, and several of his children

Robert Burns on one side and John Wilson, printer of the Kilmarnock edition of Poems Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect.

Bed in which Robert Burns died in Dumfries

Burns Monument in Kilmarnock with a protective fence

Return to December/January 2004 Index Page  |  Visit Frank R Shaw's Page  | Robert Burns Lives


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