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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.