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9 Mar 2021

The Great Eight at Robert Burns Birthplace Museum

Written by Caroline Smith, Operations Manager
A view of the entrance to Robert Burns Birthplace Museum at the end of the day. An orange glow comes from the lit shop inside. The museum has a triangular wooden porch covering and drystone-effect walls. Parking spaces can be seen in the foreground.
Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, Alloway
Caroline Smith, Operations Manager at Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, tells us about some of her favourite things to look out for at the property.

Alloway stands at the heart of Burns Country. This Ayrshire village, where Scotland’s bard was born and raised, has a network of landmarks that tell the story of his extraordinary life and works.

Alloway Auld Kirk and Brig o’ Doon – both of which feature in his classic poem Tam o’ Shanter – the Burns Monument and the cottage where he was born in 1759 all link to the new Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, which opened in 2010 and contains over 5,000 Burns artefacts and objects.

An exterior view of Burns Cottage, seen from the garden area behind the cottage. The cottage is long, single storey and has white walls, with a thatched roof. Wide gravel paths lead up to it. A wooden garden bench sits outside, and several mature deciduous trees grow nearby.
Burns Cottage

Burns Cottage

This is where Burns was born, where he spent some of the formative years of his life and where he got much of his inspiration for his later writing. It’s a fragile, clay structure with a thatched roof that needs a lot of care, and in 2019 we launched an urgent fundraising campaign to save it. The work began in the autumn of 2019, and the thatcher finally finished work when lockdown restrictions lifted in July 2020. When we started to raise funds, it really highlighted how strongly people felt about Burns Cottage. Many people have a deep, emotional connection to Burns and his work, and we see that when people visit the cottage.

Thatching Burns Cottage

An old woollen sock is displayed against a plain grey background. The sock is probably knee length and is mainly blue, with yellowy toes and cuff. The heel has been darned several times.
Burns’s socks

Burns’s socks

We actually have a pair of Robert Burns’s socks in our collection! They are knitted and have his initials sewn into them. From their measurements, he would have been around a size eight. They’re made from a thick wool and have been repaired and patched up. I think they’re a really special item. Someone knitted them for him, possibly his wife or mother. I think it’s incredible that this close personal object, that he would have worn, has survived all this time. Who kept them all this time?! I can’t imagine there are many famous people out there who have their own dedicated museum with their socks in it!

A page of an old handwritten manuscript is displayed in a glass cabinet, as well as being protected by a plastic cover. Beside the manuscript lies a large grey feather quill.
‘Auld Lang Syne’ on display in the museum

‘Auld Lang Syne’ manuscript

This is an original manuscript, which dates back to 1793. It features the original words of the poem in Burns’s handwriting. It’s something that we keep very carefully in store because it’s incredibly valuable, not only to us at Robert Burns Birthplace Museum but also to Scotland. ‘Auld Lang Syne’ is well-known all around the world, where it has become the soundtrack for New Year celebrations. It’s a song that has huge significance for expats and people of Scottish descent, and this manuscript takes us right back to its popular beginning.

Auld lang syne

A view of Burns Monument, looking up from the surrounding rose garden. The monument stands on a large stone plinth. The columns and dome are topped off by a gold statue, reaching into the sky. Rose beds lie in the foreground, with yew hedging and broadleaved trees further behind.
Burns Monument

Burns Monument

This monument really was the start of Burns tourism in Alloway. When the monument was completed in 1823, people started to visit the village to pay homage to Burns. It was built because Edinburgh had a monument to him, Dumfries had a monument and local people asked, ‘why don’t we have one in Alloway where he was born?’ Funds were raised to build it by public subscription. Burns Cottage was actually operating as an alehouse at the time, and the monument is where some of the first items relating to Burns were put on display. Gradually, as the collection grew, they needed a building to put it in – and that’s where the pavilion came from, which you can see next to Burns Cottage today.

Read more about the mysteries of this 200-year-old monument

A very large stone statue of a mouse sitting on its hind legs stands on a patch of grass beside a long, straight path. In the background, a couple walk arm in arm along the path. A large hedge borders the path to the other side.
Poet’s Path

Poet’s Path

This path connects Burns Cottage and the new museum and has sculptures all along the way, inspired by Burns’s works. We have the ‘tim’rous beastie’, a somewhat-larger-than-life mouse. We have a fox, inspired by ‘A Fragment (On Glenriddel’s Fox breaking his chain)’. We have an enormous granite haggis and we will also be adding a new structure in the next few months: The Twa Dogs.

We can’t help the fact that an urban landscape has grown up between the cottage and museum in Alloway. Our challenge was to link the properties and make people forget about the houses and roads built in between, letting them enjoy the experience of the journey. The pathway does that. It takes you away from the road and lets you continue to enjoy Burns’s story.

A small, wooden display box contains three gold rings in a row, all nestled in a cushion. Small gold plaques lie above each one labelling them (from left to right): Burns' Hair; Bonnie Jeans Wedding Ring; Burns' wife's hair. The ring in the middle is a narrow gold band, but the rings either side are more like signet rings.
Wedding rings on display in the museum

Jean Armour’s wedding ring

I think it’s really nice that we have this item in the collection because Jean was, obviously, a very important part of Robert’s life. She inspired many of his stories and poems. There were other women – this is well known – but Jean, as his wife, was a constant in Burns’s adult life. The ring is contained in a box, which has two signet rings on either side of the wedding ring. Each of the signet rings holds a fragment of the couple’s hair. To me, it feels as though they’re still united – after all this time.

A view of a children's play area, surrounded by tall, leafy oak trees. In the foreground is a wooden bridge and balancing poles. Further back are miniature replica of Burns Cottage and Alloway Auld Kirk, both with climbing nets leading up to them. Bright bunting hangs across the playground.
Scots Wa-Hey play area at Robert Burns Birthplace Museum

The play area

Our play area has a mini Burns Cottage that children can play in, climb over and climb through. Every part of the area is inspired by Burns and the surrounding landscape. The flying fox lets little ones pretend they’re Tam o’ Shanter, being chased by the witches. We have the witches’ cauldron, which was in the Auld Kirk in the poem, and we have a mini Brig o’ Doon as well.

“We’re trying to encourage children to learn about Burns and the landmarks and stories that were significant to him.”
Caroline Smith
Operations Manager

We also have incorporated Scots words throughout the play area, which helps children to pick up these little nuggets about Burns. Then, when they go back to school and learn about him, they’ll be able to make a connection.

A wooden fiddle, carved with flowers and foliage, is displayed against a plain, almost white background.
The Gregg violin

The Gregg violin

This was named by VisitScotland in 2017 as one of the ‘25 Objects That Shaped Scotland’s History’. It’s made from pine, maple and sycamore, and decorated with a red, green and black floral design. It dates back to 1750 and was owned by Burns’s dance teacher William Gregg. It was rediscovered by the committee of the nearby Bachelors’ Club and restored in 1995. It has even toured the States in recent years. It’s just incredible to think that Burns danced to tunes played on that fiddle; it really connects the past to the present. We still have it, we have preserved it – but more importantly, it’s still played. Burns danced to it all those years ago, and people are still dancing to its tune today.

Epic USA trip begins for Burns violin

This story first appeared in The Scots Magazine

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