Queen of the South

Dumfries, the ‘Queen of the South’: important trading town on the river Nith, the administrative centre and foremost town in Dumfries and Galloway. It has, over the years, been home to many people of note, including JM Barrie, who schooled at Dumfries Academy, and John Laurie, who played Private Frasier in Dad’s Army (“we’re all doomed!”) It is best known as being the final home of Robert Burns, who farmed nearby and moved into town as he relied less on farming and more on poetry (and tax collection) for his living. He died here in 1796. For his funeral, the streets were absolutely packed, with an estimated 10,000 people in attendance.

The ‘Sanghoose of Scotland’: Burns’s first residence in Dumfries

My first experience of the town, was on a brief stop during my journey to Kirkcudbright. I saw the house Burns had first lived in (the ‘Sanghoose of Scotland’), on moving to Dumfries. The building now houses a coffee shop and a newsagent. One of his favourite pubs, the Coach and Horses is just around the corner. As the pub and the Café were both closed, I had to content myself with visiting the newsagent and buying myself a bottle of water. I’m afraid most business, particularly in hospitality, have been adversely affected by the Covid pandemic, and I could not, on this trip at least, rely on anything being open during the normal hours.

We had had a long drive across the country that day, and had settled into our beautiful cottage in Kirkcudbright: a lovely, log cabin affair: no TV, no wifi, set in it’s own garden complete with lake and hundreds of birds who gathered at the feeders every morning to see what had been left for them and discuss the day ahead.

“He learnt to communicate with birds and discovered that their conversation was fantastically boring. It was all to do with wind speed, wing spans, power-to-weight rations and a fair bit about berries.”

Douglas Adams, Life, the Universe and Everything

Little wonder, then, that when I informed Mrs. P that we would be visiting Dumfries in the morning that she replied that I could go and chase around after long dead poets if I wished, but she would be staying put for a relaxing day, thank you very much, and no amount of potential shopping would sway her. And so it was that early the following morning (early for a holiday start, anyway) I set out alone to discover Dumfries.

The Rose Garden, Dumfries

I was a little early for my appointment at the Robert Burns House, so I looked around the little garden opposite. These little spaces are dotted around the town, each one dedicated to a different aspect of Burns’s life and career. This one, the ‘Rose Garden’ had an engraving of “My luve is like a red, red rose” among the many rose bushes. There were also lines from other poems and scenes from Tam O’Shanter around the walls. A lovely little space to sit and rest and spend a few spare moments. Something I’m becoming more and more grateful form as I get older.

I walked over the Robert Burns House, where I was greeted at the door and allowed to wander around. Burns spent the final years of his life in this house, which has been preserved to show us how the Burns family lived in the closing years of the eighteenth century. Burns was now relying on his income as an exciseman, a job that brought him into contact with a wide range of rural communities, as he travelled round the county. He Began to preserve the folk songs he had heard, as well as writing his own.

The Robert Burns House, Dumfries

The house is quite a handsome one, of red sandstone. They were now successful enough to have a maidservant. There are several rooms to explore, including a study, kitchen and bedrooms. You can see Burns’s writing desk and the bed in which he breathed his last. There are some of Jean’s possessions here too, including a a portrait of her husband that she carried with her. Following Burns’s death, she was visited here by such illustrious guests as the Wordsworths, Coleridge and Keats.

I left the house and walked up towards the church. There are two statues at the top of the road, facing each other across the busy thoroughfare. There is a statue of Jean Armour, complete with child clutching to her. Across the road is Ca’ the Yowes, a carved red sandstone block based on one of Burns’s songs.

The Burns Mausoleum,

St. Michael’s south Parish Church was where the Burns family worshipped. I was quite disappointed to find it closed as I had hoped to see the pew at which the Burns family sat: still visible inside and indicated with a plaque. I would at least be able to see the memorial. In the churchyard is an ornate classical temple, in shining white marble. Inside, a statue depicts the bard standing next to his plough, while an angel hovers overhead (do angels hover?) inside, the poets gravestone marks where he lies, alongside Jean. On the stone lay a single red rose.

There’s quite a nice view over the town from the suspension footbridge across the Nith. Too grey and drizzly today for a decent photograph but I enjoyed the view as I crossed and walked along the bank, quieter and bit greener on this side, towards the Robert Burns Centre. This converted watermill spends most of its life as a local cinema but, during the day, hosts a small exhibition about Robert Burns and about Dumfries in the early 18th century. The have some books and letters, a magnificent model of the pre-Victorian town and a film telling Burns’s story. It’s a great little exhibition, staffed by friendly and chatty and staff and also has a great gift shop. I bought a whisky glass with an etched portrait of Burns, a scarf in Burns check (not exactly a tartan but a checked plaid that was designed by the Burns family) and a complete works of the poet. A lovely hardback edition which the shop had on sale at £3.99

Robert Burns Statue, Dumfries

I had some time to kill before I was due at Ellisland farm, so I had a walk around the town. There is Large statue of Burns at the top of the town, surrounded by well-planted flower beds and popular among the local seagull community. I also had time to look in at the Moat Brae centre for Children’s Literature. JM Barrie, while at school in Dumfries, frequently went to play in Mont Brae. The adventures he and his pals had in the garden here went on to be the inspiration for his much loved Peter Pan stories. A very enthusiastic lady told me all about the events and fun they have in store for young people, all designed to get them reading and interested in literature.

The ‘Hole in the Wa” Inn is reached through a narrow passage between surrounding buildings. One of Burns’s favourite inns, it bears a painted mural on the outside wall depicting images of the poet and his works. I asked if lunch was available but was disappointed. Again. I find it frustrating, of course, how many pubs I was unable to go into. A visit to a pub, particularly one with literary connections, punctuates the day nicely and allows me to refresh and take some notes. I understand, of course, that we all have to make sacrifices at the moment, and I would rather stay covid-free than have a large pub lunch but it’s frustrating nonetheless. I had a half of heavy (I would be driving later) and a brief chat with some of the regulars and asked them about Burns. “Ask Tam” one of them told me, indicating an older bearded gentleman. “He’s been here since the pub opened… in 1620!”

Ellisland Farm

Ellisland Farm is a couple of miles north of the town, where Burns moved in 1788 to run a dairy farm. The farm has been preserved as a museum to 19th century farming, as well as to Burns and his connection with the land. The farm buildings have been preserved to give you an insight into 18th Century farming practices. There also have some of Burns letters and possessions, like his fishing rod – you can even stroll out onto the Nith and stand on the same stone bank that Burns fished from. Walk a little up the path (where, allegedly, Burns would stroll while composing lines in his head: he composed Tam O’Shanter in this way) and there is an open field. A noticeboard informs that this is where he encountered a wounded hare, inspiring one of his greatest nature poems and certainly one of my favourites.

Inhuman man! curse on thy barb’rous art,
And blasted be thy murder-aiming eye;
May never pity soothe thee with a sigh,
Nor ever pleasure glad thy cruel heart! 

Robert Burns, The Wounded Hare
The Hermitage, Friar’s Carse Hotel.

Friar’s Carse was a large country house near Ellisland, where Burns was a frequent visitor. Today it is a nice looking country house hotel just a short walk from Ellisland. It was closed today, of course, but I was able to have a good look at the exterior. They even have a recreation of the hermitage in the grounds. This was a small stone hut that Burns would use to meet friends and write poetry. It seems that its primary function was to give Burns somewhere to sleep when he was too drunk to walk home. It seems that drinking at Friar’s Carse, then the home of his patron, Robert Riddell, could become raucous and messy. On one occasion Burns presented the ladies of the house with “The Rape of the Sabines.” We’re not exactly sure what form this ‘performance’ took but Burns was immediately ejected from the premises and Elizabeth Riddell never forgave him.

Burns’s Chair, The Globe Inn, Dumfries

I called back at Dumfries on the way back. Of all the pubs and inns that Burns frequented, his favourite was The Globe. He had a bed permanently reserved for him here, in case he should need to spend the night. You can see the bed as part of a tour that the Globe organises. You will be guided by a member of the local Burns club, which means that you are taken behind closed doors, to see some of the artefacts that the club keeps under lock and key: they have their own Burns exhibition in part of their meeting room. As well as the bed, you can see the poets favourite chair – unavailable for most customers. There is a tradition that anyone unwittingly sitting in the chair has to recite a Burns poem or buy drinks for the house! You can see his writing on the window, of course, as you can in most of the houses he occupied. He had his own diamond stylus and stencil for just this purpose. I particularly liked sitting in his favourite ‘snug’ to enjoy another half. On the wall, was a bundle of straw, allegedly taken from the mattress on which the Bard slept. This seemed to take me closer to the poet than any of the exhibits and artefacts I had seen that day.

Dumfries is a charming little town, whether you are a fan of Burns or not. If you are a fan, it’s a must-see destination, full of interest, buildings and views he would have known. What I enjoyed most were the little sculpture and gardens that are placed throughout the town. I get the feeling that they celebrate Burns, not to bring the tourists in, but because they love him. He was, and remains, part of the town.

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