Since winning a colouring competition in his honour when I was ten, I’ve always had a bit of a thing for old Rabbie Burns, so I was delighted to finally visit the new Birthplace Museum with the volunteers from the Georgian House, on what turned out to be a real dreich October day! Replacing the 1906 visitor centre, the new museum was designed by Edinburgh’s Simpson & Brown for the National Trust for Scotland, and is home to the biggest Burns collection in the world. The new building - clad in Moray timber and crowned with a sweeping grass roof - forms the centrepiece to several other Alloway hotspots that include the Burns cottage, Auld Kirk and Brig O’ Doon, and represents a meeting of great design with sustainability.
After arriving in the West Coast, we headed up to Burn’s cottage, a traditional thatched But and Ben where the poet was born in 1759. Comprising of just four rooms, it’s hard to believe that the tiny abode housed Robert, his parents and siblings, the family tutor John Murdoch as well as the family horse, cows and chickens! Inside the byrne, four screens give us a bird’s eye view of each room and what would’ve been going on, from his father rising early to work on the farm, to his mother making butter, or Robert himself having lessons in the evening. Replicas of the original furniture and cleverly placed sound recordings bring the house to life, whilst snippets of poetry on the walls and furniture remind us of the influence his home had on his work.
From here we walked down to the new museum, via the new Poet’s Path, a charming walkway that keeps us entertained with decorative wind vanes that tell the story of Tam O’ Shanter, as well as a sculptural ode to a mouse, and a curving footbridge that gives you a taste of the materials used throughout the masterplan. In spite of the rain, the museum building looks very impressive. Flanked by two curved dry stone walls marking the perimeter, the museum is built from head to toe in locally sourced, untreated timber. The T-shaped public zone of entrance court and cafe are bright and airy, and reveal the nature of the undulating roof that crowns the building, feeding light throughout.
After lunch we were taken through to the darkened main exhibition space, where the collection is split up into four sections explaining who Robert Burns was, what influenced him, his legacy and of course, the works themselves. Instead of being left to our own devices, our tour guide pointed out a few things of particular interest, such as the only surviving picture of his long suffering wife, Jean Armour as well as the miniature pencil and notebook set that Burns would carry around with him should inspiration strike. Other notable items include a painting illustrating the very first Burns Supper, which took place only a year after Robert died in 1796, and a small segment of the (black!) wedding dress Jean wore to marry her husband. Apparently, white dresses only came into fashion with the Victorians!
Interestingly, all the wording surrounding the exhibits is in Scots, which is a nice touch and creates more of an affinity with the poet than straightforward English would. Our Charlotte Square neighbour Alex Salmond would be most impressed! Unfortunately, with the weather being so miserable and time being tight I wasn’t able to explore the Auld Kirk and the Brig O’ Doon which complete the Burns experience, but if anything, that gives me an excuse to go back another day and finish the job. All in all, it was a great day, it’s just a pity it was so goddamn cauld!