MarySmith’sPlace – At home with Rabbie Burns

Over the last couple of months I’ve had the pleasure of meeting hundreds of people from France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Belgium, Poland, Slovenia, America, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Northern Ireland, Ireland, England, Wales and Scotland – and two Russian speakers from Israel. I’ve probably missed a few nations from the list but it gives you a flavour of the international appeal of Scotland’s Bard, Robert Burns. Robert_burns

All these people have been to the Robert Burns House museum in Dumfries, where I’ve been working as a temporary attendant this summer (the main reason for the lack of regular blog posts!). Scotland’s most famous poet, Robert Burns lived here for the last three years of his life with his wife Jean Armour (who lived on in the house for a further thirty eight years after her husband’s death) and five children.

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Robert Burns House, Burns Street, Dumfries

Last year 15,000 people came through the door to explore his home with its four rooms full of exhibits from his life and work, both as a poet and exciseman. Sometimes, doing the introductory welcome I felt a bit like an estate agent describing the house’s ‘must see’ features: “This would have been the parlour, kept for entertaining, across the passage is the kitchen with original range and larder and upstairs are two bedrooms – the box bed was not Robert’s but it a period piece of the time – and a small study. Make sure you look at the window in the study to see where Robert scratched his name on the glass with his diamond ring.”

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The kitchen with origial range – and the flagged floor Jean Armour and swept




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In one of the two bedrooms.

After a summer of reading about, talking about, answering questions about Scotland’s Bard, I’m still not sure what I make of him. Definitely a complex character. Undoubtedly, a great poet, a man who loathed hypocrisy, especially that of the Church and a socialist who believed in equality. I don’t believe he was an alcoholic. He liked a drink – but he lived in hard drinking times (and the water was none too safe) – but I don’t believe anyone could be such a prolific writer if he spent most of his time drunk.

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The first edition of Burns’ poems: The Kilmarnock Edition

He was a womaniser, that’s for sure. His wife deserves a sainthood for what she put up with, even bringing up one of his illegitimate daughters as her own. And yet, she made a huge effort to ensure his name was kept alive, welcoming visitors such as Wordsworth and Coleridge to the home she’d shared with Rab.

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Bonnie Jean. Sadly the only portaits of Jean were in her later life so we don’t know how she looked when young.

It’s a museum, yes, but it’s clear it was a family home. There’s no suggestion of it being haunted but it has a lovely, homely atmosphere and a strong feeling of connection to Robert and Jean. That could be because we usually have Eddi Reader singing Burns songs on a loop. No one sings his songs like Eddi Reader. When sweeping the flagstone floor in the kitchen I often found myself thinking that Jean Armour swept this same floor all those years ago.

The Robert Burns House museum is a must-see if you are ever visiting Dumfries. Or, if you live in Dumfries and haven’t yet been to see it, do go along. Several people over the summer admitted they’d lived in the town all their lives but never visited. One visitor said she’d walked past it for over forty years before finally, this year, she decided to come inside. She says she’ll definitely be back.

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The Mausoleum where Burns is buried in St Michael’s Churchyard, Dumfries.



40 thoughts on “MarySmith’sPlace – At home with Rabbie Burns

  1. Delivered the immortal Memory speech for The National Trust (Scotland) at The Caledonia Club, Mayfair
    a couple of years ago. Got to sleep in The Rabbie Burns room. Very thrilled to have the honour.
    Have never been to the Dumfries house. Saw the monument, though.
    My granny’s ancestor was Christina Fotheringham, who married a Burness in Angus and whose descendants were related to Rab’s father.
    My great grandfather x 5 or 6 was John Macaulay, Dumbarton’s Town Clerk, who signed the document which gave Rab the Freedom of the Town. RB wrote him a letter, thanking him for his hospitality and commenting on his 8 ‘comely daughters’
    Scottish, or whit?!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thanks so much for dropping by, Candia. No wonder you were thrilled at giving the Immortal Memory at the Caledonia Club. I’d have been terrified! How interesting about your granny’s connection to the Burness family and I love the story about Rab’s thank you letter. He always had an eye for the ladies!

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      • Have just seen your biography. We have a Uny of Glasgow connection. I studied English Lang and Lit there 1972-6 and then was supposed to be doing an M Phil in Lit, but couldn’t get a grant to continue my studies. Did a Dip Ed instead, as well as a Cert Ed.
        Also have a love of poetry and published my first collection, which Blackwells is selling. Won the Wells Festival of Lit in 1994 or thereabouts.
        Was 3rd in Buxton last year. Used to win quite a few under my previous name and read with top poets, but wrote nothing for a decade and a half while I enabled all my 6th formers to achieve their As. Too drained. Now retired and am ready to publish 2 more collections. Also painting for first time since school. Singing as well.
        Just making contact as I like what you have done and are doing!
        Candia is my alter ego!

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        • Well, it’s nice to ‘meet’ you here, Candia. I was in Glasgow much later than you – as a very mature student. I smiled at you giving up writing for a decade and a half while you were teaching. I taught a creative writing module for one seminar while the usual lecturer took a sabbatical. I said at the interview I hoped the teaching would stimulate my own writing – only to be told by the person going off on sabbatical: “You won’t. Teaching sucks the creativity out of you.” He was right.
          Let me know when your new poetry publications are available (though you might need to let me know your real name, unless you publishing as Candia!).

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    • The house is well worth a visit – I’ve only given a brief desciption of some of what’s in it. I’ve loved reading letters and poems written in his own hand and seeing things Jean would have used every day- from her spectacles to her teapot.

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  2. I love you have that sweeping floor connection; in the Dickens museum I stood and thought I might be looking over the great man’s shoulder, seeing him engrossed in a sentence, digging around for the right word. Love the idea of sharing the same space as one such as these. Odd really, sort of Stephen Hawkins-esque notions of the space time continuum and parallel universes where we might be inhabit the same space yet not quite. And I making sense? Probably not. But I will visit….

    Liked by 3 people

    • I think I know what you mean, Geoff. In Dumfries there’s also the Robert Burns Centre which is a cinema with an exhibition room above containing exhibits from Burns’ life but it doesn’t feel the way his house feels. It was his home. He came back to it after a day’s work, he sat in his tiny study writing, he entertained friends in the parlour. Jean lived there for another 38 years. It’s maybe something the walls have absorbed? Do visit – and do let me know if you are ever coming this way.

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  3. Loved this glimpse, Mary. My close friend at the time, Glaswegian artist Tom Coffield, gave me my first copy of Burns’ poems forty years ago in a Montmartre cafe. I still have it and every so often I will dip in and think of Tommy.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I don’t know that much about him, but I think everyone has heard of him, and ‘Burns Night’ too. He certainly left a legacy behind, as the international interest you have been witness too proves.
    Thanks, Mary.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Sometimes a visitor would say, like you, “I don’t know much about him or his writing.” I’d ask what they sing at New Year. “Oh, did he write that?” And My Love is like a red, red rose is another many people know not realising Burns write it. His legacy will live on.

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  5. What a great summer job. I would have loved it! I enjoy visiting the homes of people I admire. I had such a thrill when I stopped in at Jane Austen’s house in Chawton. I’ll never forget touching the small table she wrote on. Should I ever make it to your part of the world, I will certainly visit Robbie Burn’s House!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Darlene. Yes, I feel very privileged to have worked there over the summer. I remember enjoying your blog post about visiting Jane Austen’s house. I hope you will make it my part of the world one day – it’s lovely, steeped in history, with lots to do and see and glorious countryside and beaches. I’m about to read your post about the Winchester Conference now!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks for the great piece of Scottish history, Mary. It reminded me so much of my visit a few years ago to the home of Agatha Christie. I couldn’t believe I was actually looking at the bed she slept in, the bathroom she used, and walked around the same gardens she did where she got the ideas for some of her stories. It was a wonderful experience.
    It’s great to hear that Robert left his mark on that house by scratching his name into that pane of glass.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Hugh. Geoff had the same experience in Dickens’ house and Darlene in Jane Austen’s. As Robert for scratching his name on the windowpane – this was something he often did. In The Globe Inn, the pub he favoured, he scratched some lines of poetry on the window of the bedroom where he was sleeping with the barmaid. She was the one who had the baby girl Jean Armour brought up as her own. When he farmed at Ellisland, just outside Dumfries, he also wrote on the window and when fell out with his landlord he smashed the glass. Arrogant? Sure of his place in history? I’m not sure, but he was a fascinating character.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I agree, Mary. Do you know why Burn’s Night is celebrated in Scotland? He must have been such an inspiration and important person to the Scottish people for them to give him his very own night.
        I’m trying to imagine what a ‘Roberts’ night’ would be like and how it would be celebrated. 😀

        Liked by 1 person

        • Burns Night is celebrated on his birthday, 25th January, because he is hugely important to Scotland and her people who gather together to honour the man some say is Scotland’s finest poet. Burns Suppers are held all over the world. At a Burns Supper we usually start with cock-a-leekie soup followed by haggis, neeps and mashed tatties. The haggis is piped in – a piper plays while the haggis is carried to the table. Someone then recites Burns’ poem, To a Haggis. The piper is given a dram. We all raise our glasses to toast the haggis. We eat. We drink. There are several speeches and toasts – The Immortal Memory, the Toast to the Lasses, the reply to the toast to the lasses – and some poems are recited and songs are sung. A lot of whisky is drunk. It’s great fun. You should come up to experience it.

          Liked by 1 person

  7. Mary, this sounds like a wonderful way to spend the summer! You present the house brilliantly, the small details giving a hint of his life, and it’s fascinating to learn about Burns. It must be a privilege to work at the house and sharing it visitors from afar and near. How true that locals often fail to visit museums etc just next door. For years I lived not far from Gainsborough’s house before seeing it in person with a visitor from abroad! Been back many times since!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for commenting, Annika. It was a privilege and great fun and I was great to meet so many people from all over the world. It’s often the case the local person visits a museum when taking guests from abroad out and about.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: Channelling Burns, Dickens and Winnie The Pooh #thoughts | TanGental

  9. Ah, that’s where you’ve been all summer. This is FASCINATING. Good for you being a docent – you learn so much and then share so much to visitors. I know little about Robert Burns, and now, being the feminist I am, I’d like to read a book of historical fiction in the voice of Bonnie Jean. Last year I read a novel in the voice of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s wife MR. EMERSON’S WIFE, and it was eye-opening. Women were the mainstay and backbone in so many instances in those days when they had no power.

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    • It was a fascinating job. I would also like to know more about Rabbie’s wife, Jean Armour. Catherine Czerkawska has written a historical novel centred on Jean called The Jewel. I enjoyed it but still feel I need to know more, especially about her later life. Thanks for your comments.

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