In November 2009, a small book containing 14 Burns poems and songs was presented to astronaut Nick Patrick by ten young Scots taking part in the Scottish Space School. This book was to make a 5.7 million mile journey the following February, completing 217 orbits of the Earth on a two week long mission to the International Space Station.
The Scottish Space School is an initiative delivered by the University of Strathclyde, designed to encourage young people to consider careers in science and engineering. These particular students were taking part in a trip to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas, where they were able to hand the book over to Nick Patrick. Originally, the book was given to the Space School by Alan Archibald, a distant relative of Jean Armour, Burns’s wife. It made its out of this world trip to celebrate the Year of Homecoming in 2010 aboard NASA’s STS 130 Endeavour spacecraft.
The book is now part of our museum collection, alongside a photograph of Nick who said:
‘It was a real honour to have met such an enthusiastic group of young people, not only to continue the inspirational work undertaken by the Scottish Space School, but to also help spread the timeless poetry of Robert Burns.’
When I started as a volunteer and just walked around the Kirk yard I wanted to know more about the Kirk and the people who were buried there. During a tour someone asked me about a headstone, and this started the project of writing down the 219 headstones so I could learn more and be able to answer the any questions.
It started off as just a project to learn more, but it has now become more involved with research of many families, guided tours, and talks on the Kirk yard. It has taken a year to finish it, with the Kirk yard laid out as is on an A1 sheet of paper.
The most well known headstone is of course William Burnes, the flat stone in front is very worn, but it is the resting place of Isabella Begg (Robert Burns’ youngest sister and two of her children Agnes and Isabella, they were all in their 80s when they died.
Do you have a favourite headstone (or stones!)
One is a headstone in remembrance of Charles Acton Broke who was the son of Rear Admiral Sir Philip Bowes Acton Broke. This man was a Captain of a ship during the war with the Americas in 1812, and was the first to defeat and capture an American ship.
There are two headstones of people who died in their 100th year!
My favourite one I cannot read the writing, but on the reverse are two fluted panels with a heart and a tear in each corner. I would love to know who they were.
Also the headstone of John Tennant, as there is so much detail on the stone which I have great pleasure in relating to visitors.
The next step in the research is to write out a Kirkyard plan based from a survey done in 1995 , when completed you will be able to compare the difference in the headstone conditions between 1995 and 2015 many of which are completely eroded.
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
5 years ago, I saw an ad in the Ayrshire Post . Volunteers needed for a new museum opening in Alloway, this was the New Robert Burns Birthplace Museum
I had just retired and was looking for something to fill my time, not just to do charity work but to keep the learning ethos on going , hence I started on the journey (I shall call it ), my knowledge of Robert Burns was very limited. As a school girl we were bused down from Paisley to visit the cottage, I was so bored I threw toffee papers at the film of Tam and Meg as they galloped over the fields.
Today it is a different story ,I am now a guide at RBBM .I am often to be found taking school groups around the site in all kind of weather, I was standing on the Brig O’Doon ,the snow swirling round me ,I was telling a class of 6yr olds about Robert Burns, one little schoolgirl tugged my coat and asked “are you Robert Burns sister” as I knew so much about him
Now another hat I wear is shop assistant in the “Burns an’ a’ that ” shop in the town, we sell NTS goods and local crafters work .
Its a great way of interacting with the public, I am often to be found at the Highlight Talks held in the Museum every Wednesday where one of the volunteers will give an in depth talk on one piece in particular ,it’s an excellent way of getting the knowledge to enhance the visitors experience.
So I would say to anyone thinking about volunteering with the NTS, jump on board ,the journey is amazing.
I am so glad I answered the advert in the Ayrshire Post!
I have been volunteering at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum as a Guide since it opened in November 2010.
Being an Ayrshire Lass I was fortunate to be brought up learning about Burns, his life and his poetry. I also took part in many Burns Schools Festivals and still perform at many Burns Suppers in Ayrshire and beyond.
As a Volunteer I carry out many varied duties – my main one is guiding visitors around the museum, the wider site which includes the Cottage, the Auld Kirk, the Brig O’Doon, the gardens, the Monument, the Poet’s Path etc., etc.
My Guiding role involves taking school parties, adult groups, overseas visitors, dressing up in costume as and when required for various events and activities – for example Evening Hallowe’en Tours, Mini Burns Suppers which are held in the Cottage and various Burns events centred around the museum and wider site in January.
My most memorable experience and honour was being asked to record “The Cottar’s Saturday Night” for one of the exhibits in the museum.
I carry out many varied duties but first and foremost I try to give all our visitors a memorable experience. This involves passing on knowledge about Burns – his life, family, poem, letters etc. I also inform visitors about the products and services provided e.g. brochures (for all National Trust for Scotland properties), guide books for the Museum and wider site, the resteraunt shop, Garden Shop, Education Tours, etc.
Providing information, advice and assistance to visitors is invaluable.
I always try to present a friendly and positive image to visitor to ensure that they are receiving excellent Customer Service and feel genuinely welcome. At the outset I want them to know they will be well looked after and receive the necessary information and an enjoyable and informative visit.
Asking children if they are learning about Burns or other Scottish poets at school is so special, particularly hearing them recite what they have learnt – after a little encouragement!
I inform/direct visitors to other NTS properties – remembering to mention membership of the NTS. This is so worthwhile especially for visitors who are just beginning their holiday and hope to visit other places of interest.
If visitors leave having learnt something they did not know before this is so satisfying and I feel I have done a good job. Also if visitors leave wanting to return that is a bonus.
It is so enjoyable meeting people from other parts of the world and passing on knowledge,
I have many favourite things about RBBM – the contents of the Museum, the Cottage, the Brig O’Doon, the beautifully kept gardens.
I am so fortunate to be working in such a warm friendly environment with such excellent, helpful colleges and staff.
I was one of the second group of volunteers taken on board at the RBBM. I started as a Tour Guide, moving on to driving the buggy, assisting with Craft Fairs and helping out with the Pop-up Shop in Ayr – “Ayrshire Gifts an’ a’ that”.
When I heard about the role of volunteer at the RBBM, it captured my attention as I thought it would be good fun – which it is! The variety of the “job” is amazing, from taking part in events, helping with the admin side of the Pop-up Shop, assisting in the organisation of the volunteer/staff day trips, to trying to answer people’s questions about Burns (the most popular one is “what did he die of?”). I have also taken part in special events, such as Alloween, playing the part of an old witch in the kitchen. Some people may say that I was typecast !!
It is difficult to pinpoint a single memorable experience, as the customers are all different, and I have a lot of good memories from meeting “neighbours” of the Museum to those from the far corners of the globe, and other volunteers from other properties of the Trust. I was also very lucky to be one of the few chosen to go on a trip to London to visit the British Museum (for afternoon tea, a private tour and then for a Museum awards ceremony that evening). HRH Prince Charles donated tickets for a Highgrove Tour and I was fortunate to win a pair too !!