There’s something about Robert Burns. More statues have been erected to Scotland’s national poet around the world than to any other literary figure and he penned arguably the world’s most well-kent song – the global New Year anthem and ringtone earworm Auld Lang Syne. Not bad for a man born into poverty in Ayr in 1759.
But perhaps it was because Burns was a dreamer who battled for everything he was never given. He was also a prolific philanderer (he fathered at least a dozen children), a dedicated drinker and a passionate advocate of Scottish independence. But above all, he was an idealistic internationalist whose firm belief that a “A Man's a Man for A' That"” shone through his work, whether in English or his native Scots.
There’s only one place to begin a deeper dive into the bard’s life: the simple thatched cottage where he was born on January 25, 1759 in the wee Ayrshire village of Alloway, now a museum. Much of the village is dedicated to Burns; it’s a sort of literary timewarp wrought in stone. A National Trust for Scotland umbrella website pulls all the attractions together; handily they can all be reached easily on foot.
The ‘Poet’s Path’ - enlivened with sculptures and characters from Burns’ poems - leads from the Burns Cottage to the sparkling modern Burns Museum, which is brilliantly done.
The main displays are all written in Scots, with English translations available; the pre-eminence of Scots making visitors think about Scots as a distinct language in a way Burns would have no doubt been thrilled by. Don’t miss the café, where visitors can tuck into a Burns supper, while would-be young poets can play outside in the replica Burns Cottage playhouse.
Nearby is the 21m-high Burns Monument, which overlooks a well-kept rose garden (a favourite flower of Burns). Designed by Sir Thomas Hamilton Junior in the 1820s, the monument’s nine pillars represent muses from Greek mythology; a nod to how Burns took inspiration from the Classics as much as he did Mother Nature.
Following in the footsteps of Tam o’ Shanter (the titular character of one of his greatest poems) leads visitors to the ruined Alloway Auld Kirk, and on down to the original Brig o’Doon. This stone arch bridge has been saved from demolition a number of times and has changed little since Burns crossed it daily with his dad on his way to work. To walk its cobbles is to literally walk in the poet’s footsteps.
For Burns fans seeking even more local landmarks, there’s the home of Souter Johnnie in Kirkoswald, the workshop of an 18th-century shoemaker immortalised in Tam o’Shanter.
Other Burns attractions in Ayrshire include the Bachelors' Club in Tarbolton, where Burns is said to have learned to ‘dance and debate’- its ‘10 Rules of Membership’ were crafted by Burns. Then there’s the Burns House Museum in Mauchline, where Robert Burns lived and worked between 1784 and 1788.
With his legacy written all over the south of Scotland, working out an itinerary can be almost as tough as trying to translate his Scots into English without losing its rollicking romance.
Fortunately, a new 187-mile Burns Trail has just been announced, whisking travellers on a six-day adventure from Eyemouth, on the east coast, across a swathe of the Borders to Dumfries in the west. This driving route is inspired by the tour of southern Scotland Burns took in 1787, and calls at the trio of romantically ruined abbeys at Kelso, Jedburgh and Melrose that fired his imagination, before easing west to Dumfries and Galloway.
Ayrshire will always be Burns country, but the historic market town of Dumfries was where he spent his later years. After years struggling to become the self-educated tenant farmer he dreamed of at Ellisland Farm (open to the public as a modest museum just north of Dumfries) and eulogised in his writing, he retreated to Dumfries, and the town is now as essential a stop for Burns devotees as Alloway.
The Burns House, where he lived from 1791 until his death in 1796, is a must. In this simple sandstone townhouse you can admire the famous Kilmarnock and Edinburgh editions of his work, as well see the simple study where he wrote some of his best-loved poems.
Another essential is the The Globe Inn - it may have been recently refurbished, but Burns’ verse is still etched on to the windows and the tradition continues that if a visitor cannot recite Burns in his old chair then they pay for the round. Either way, there’s nowhere better to raise a wee dram to the man himself.
From the Globe Inn, the Robert Burns Trail snakes off around the market town of Dumfries, crisscrossing the River Nith, as Burns himself would have when he worked as an exciseman. The trail passes his statue in the town’s pedestrianised heart, then delves again into his story at the Robert Burns Centre, a popular cinema with a Burns exhibition.
A natural end for the walk is St Michael’s Kirkyard, where the poet was laid to rest after dying of rheumatic fever at the age of 37. He now lies in the specially commissioned Burns Mausoleum, alongside his widow, Jean Armour, and five of their children. It wasn’t always this way: before being moved in 1817, he was originally buried beneath a simple, inconspicuous stone – an unfitting tribute that Burns admirers and pilgrims William and Dorothy Wordsworth were horrified to see when they visited.
A Burns-inspired pilgrimage to Edinburgh is also on the cards. Not that the Scottish capital has always embraced the man: the city’s haut monde of the day were often too appalled by his radical nationalism and womanising ways to fully acknowledge his talent during his lifetime. But he certainly made his mark on the city - settle in with a dram at the White Hart Inn, on cobbled Grassmarket, where Burns used to hold court in sight of the city’s gallows, or head to another of his haunts, the Deacon Brodie’s Tavern on the Royal Mile. The Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour weaves in stories of Burns with pit-stops at some of the city’s most storied watering holes.
The Writers’ Museum, meanwhile, is home to a revered collection of Robert Burns’ works, manuscripts and personal objects, as well as portraits and a writing desk from his Dumfries home. But perhaps the most famous of all his likenesses hangs in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, brilliantly captured by his friend and fellow radical Alexander Nasmyth. It’s a rousing, dramatic portrait that Burns himself would have no doubt raised a glass to - for the sake, of course, of Auld Lang Syne.