One of Robert Burns’s most famous poems, Tam O’Shanter; features characters who were inspired by people that Burns had met over the years, several of whom came from Kirkoswald. One such character, Souter Johnnie, was based on John Davidson, a souter or shoe maker, who lived in what is now known as Souter Johnnie’s Cottage.
Kirkoswald features strongly in the landscape of Burns history. Burns’s mother Agnes was born near Culzean Castle, a 5 minute car journey from Souter Johnnie’s Cottage. Robert’s mother Agnes had strong links with the area for, after her mother died when she was 10 and her father remarried, she was sent to live with her grandmother (Mrs Ranie) in Kirkoswald. Agnes, who had a strong influence with regards to Scottish music and ballads, developed her knowledge from her grandmother in Kirkoswald as Grannie Ranie was a repository for old Scottish ballads and Covenanter stories.
Burns himself had spent some time in Kirkoswald in the summer and autumn of 1775 at a school where he learnt the tasks of “mensuration, surveying, dialling, &c” which were mathematical instructions relating to surveying.
John Davidson’s house, or Souter Johnnie’s Cottage, was built around 1785 and it sits on the main trunk road that runs through Kirkoswald. Davidson lived in the cottage until 1806 when he died and the cottage remained in his family as a home until 1920 when it was handed over to a committee headed by Rev James Muir, who was a scholar of Burns’s work. The property was taken over by the NTS in 1932 and restored to how it would have looked in the 18th century when Davidson would have live there.
The cottage itself has two large rooms, with a workshop extension at the back. It sits amongst a lovely garden, which has a brew house featuring life sized sandstone statues of the poems main characters carved by Scottish sculptor James Thom around 1830.
Davidson’s neighbour was a man called Douglas Graham, he had married Robert’s mother’s, Agnes, friend who was called Agnes Gillespie. Graham was the inspiration for Tam himself!
The workshop features a large selection of objects that were used in the process of shoe making. At the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum there is one object that belonged to Davidson – his hand guard used for protecting his hand while stitching shoes. There are other really interesting objects dotted around Souter Johnnie’s Cottage – when you are there have a look for a Family Bible and a large gun over the fireplace.
Souter Johnnie’s is currently undergoing some exciting conservation work. So far the cottage extension has been re slated and over the coming months the main cottage roof will be re thatched. There is also a photographic exhibition which shows local images of Old Kirkoswald in the cottage.
After you have visited Souter Johnnie’s, there is a lot of exploring in Kirkoswald.
The village kirk yard (on the Main Street on the opposite side of the road from Souter Johnnie’s) is particularly worth exploring. Three main inspirations for Tam O’Shanter – John Davidson, Douglas Graham (Tam O’ Shanter) and Jean Kennedy (Kirkton Jean) – are buried here as well as Robert the Bruce’s baptismal font.
The Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, the Bachelors Club and Souter Johnnie’s Cottage make a fantastic day out exploring Burns landscape and history in Ayrshire.
Souter Johnnie’s Cottage is open until the 30 September, Friday to Tuesday 11 30 to 5pm. For more information contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit http://www.nts.org.uk/Property/Souter-Johnnies-Cottage/Property-description