The Bar at Burns Cottage

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This May 16th, as part of the Museums at Night 2015 festivities, we are turning the clock back once more to the days when Burns Cottage was a pub. But how did the Cottage become a pub, and what was it like? Learning Intern, Mhairi Gowans, delves into the Cottage’s unusual past.

A wooden sign from the Burns Heid Inn
A wooden sign from the Burns Heid Inn

After the Burnes family left the Cottage in the 1760’s to the farm at Mt Oliphaunt, Burns Cottage (originally named ‘New Gardens’) was left vacant until William found a buyer in the Shoemakers Incorporation in 1781. Buying before the publishing of the Kilmarnock Edition, the Shoemakers managed to land themselves a bargain: what they bought for £160, they would sell for £4000 a hundred years later.

An engraving showing two extensions made by the Shoemakers Incorporation
An engraving showing two extensions made by the Shoemakers Incorporation

By the time of Robert Burns’s death, the Cottage was already receiving a great deal of interest and the tenant present in 1803, John (Miller) Goudie, made the decision to transform the Cottage into a pub called the Burns Head Inn, adding on a new section to the Cottage building. The first public mention of the pub comes from the Scots Magazine of 1805, which states that ‘the person who occupies it at present has turned it into a snug public house. At this house, early on the birthday of the poet, a social party meet to celebrate it with festivity.’

Architectural drawings made of the pub extension
Architectural drawings made of the pub extension

Festivity seems to be the word to use in regard to Miller Goudie, who appears in anecdotes as an infamous local character. For example, an Irish lawyer visiting in 1810 said he saw ‘Miller Goudie, the man that transformed it into a public house, sitting drunk in the corner where ‘the saint, the father, and the husband prayed.’ Keats said about his visit in 1818, that the innkeeper was a ‘mahogany faced old jack ass,’ while a 1904 book published by the Monument Trustees says that, ‘Goudie’s chief aims in life seem to have been pledging the Poet’s memory with anyone who would furnish him with the wherewithal to do so.’ It also said that Miller Goudie claimed to know Burns, although the writer of his obituary in the Ayr Advertiser in 1842 stated that ‘he seems to have retained but very slight recollection of the Poet. The Miller thought he was eccentric, and ‘no that richt in the head.’

A photograph of Burns Cottage with the Innkeeper and prominent residents.
A photograph of Burns Cottage with the Innkeeper and prominent residents.

Following the death of Miller Goudie, the Inn and Cottage passed through the hands of several tenants over a short period of time. One of the tenants, Davidson Ritchie, was photographed here with some notable Alloway residents. However, the Cottage’s time as a public house was coming to an end as the Monument Trustees, with aid from the Earl of Stair, bought the Cottage in 1880. However, the roaring trade of sight seers to the Burns Head Inn has left its mark in the form of graffiti. If you have ever been to Burns Cottage you might have noticed the writing on the doors: initials, names, dates, all scrawled onto the wood. If you look even closer you will also find graffiti on some of the windows: all from historic visitors wanting to write messages to their favourite poet, or to show that they had been there.

Graffiti from the Cottage's time as a pub can still be found on windows and doors!
Graffiti from the Cottage’s time as a pub can still be found on windows and doors!

So come along to the Burns Head Inn this May 16th and while you’re toasting the Bard spare a thought for the infamous Miller Goudie!

For information and tickets for the event please click here!

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