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Robert Burns Lives!
Atlanta’s Robert Burns Cottage by Frank R. Shaw


Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA
Email: [email protected]

For years the article below has been on the web site of A Highlander and His Books, and I decided it was time to put it in its rightful place - Robert Burns Lives! I will be moving additional Burns articles from the other web site in the weeks and months ahead as well.  This will accomplish my decision to have all Burns articles together under one location. 

You will hear more about the Atlanta Burns Cottage in the days ahead as I will speak on this subject at the Robert Burns Centre’s conference at the University of Glasgow in January, 2013. It is truly a unique place, and it is an honor for me to belong to the Burns Club of Atlanta where members have met monthly in the cottage since 1911. In the meantime, enjoy theses words penned a dozen or more years ago and this favorite picture of mine taken on January 3, 2003. (FRS: 9.27.12)

Atlanta’s Robert Burns Cottage
By Frank R. Shaw

One of Atlanta’s best-kept secrets is the Robert Burns Cottage built in 1910. To get there, take Exit 59A (Boulevard/Atlanta Zoo/Cyclorama) off I-20 to Grant Park where you take a left on to Confederate Avenue, go about 1Ľ miles and turn left on Alloway Place. The cottage is just up the hill on your right. Does Alloway sound familiar? It should, since it is where Burns was born in on a cold winter’s morning in Scotland on January 25, 1759. In the 1970s, the United States Department of the Interior recognized the Burns Cottage and designated it to be forever on the National Register of Historic Places in America. As the pamphlet from The Burns Club of Atlanta says, "The only place to see one like it is in Alloway, Ayrshire, in southwest Scotland…"

This is a brief article about some forward thinking men who, on January 25th in 1896 (the Bard’s birthday), founded The Burns Club of Atlanta. Long time Burnsian member James M. Montgomery, who today probably knows as much, if not more, about the Burns Club and Cottage as anyone, writes, "Today it is the city’s oldest continuing cultural organization."

The founding members of the Burns Club met in various hotels and members’ homes prior to deciding in 1907 to construct their own building. They were unanimous in one thing - the cottage would be built as far from downtown as possible but still allow members access to the last trolley back to town after their meetings. On his last run, the conductor, as a matter of courtesy, would walk up the hill to make sure no one was left in "the farming community" for the night. Some have suggested that maybe this was a wise move on the part of the conductor since a member or two may have had one wee dram too many!

Many Atlantans played a part in building the cottage, but none larger than that of the well-known Dr. Joseph Jacobs. This is the same man who, a couple of decades earlier, had tried the flat-tasting hangover concoction of his friend John Pemberton, added a bit of soda water, and gave the world its first Coca-Cola. (Interestingly, that one little squirt of soda led to a company that last year had operating revenues of over twenty-one billion dollars and its stock is currently valued at 130 billion dollars, according to a reliable source of mine at The Coca-Cola Company.)

Dr. Jacobs bought the land himself with faith that the club would pay him back later. They did. A Scottish draftsman was hired to procure the exact measurements of the original Alloway cottage in Scotland while the club members set about assembling the granite from Stone Mountain, as well as putting in new streets on the property with names like Alloway Place and Ayr Place. A unique feature of the Atlanta Burns Cottage is that it actually bends following a curve in the road, as does the cottage in Scotland.

I have a postcard showing the Atlanta Burns Cottage with its thatched or grass roof that I won on the Internet. It is not dated, but the postage was one cent for domestic and two cents for foreign. Go figure. A later postcard given to me by Victor Gregg when he was Librarian of the Burns Club shows the cottage sans thatched/grass roof. When I inquired about the change, I learned that the local Fire Marshall had decreed the old roof needed to be replaced with a less combustible one.

There is a kitchen wing on the Atlanta cottage that the original does not have. Later, the restrooms were added after "the farming community" became a part of the city limits. Next door to the cottage is the home of the caretaker that was built in 1911. Today, college students live there assisting with the monthly meetings and special functions, as well as providing some on-premise security for the cottage. An alarm system watches over the beloved auld cottage on a 24/7 basis as well.

I joined the Atlanta Burns Club a little over a year ago, sponsored by my good friends, Ed Conley and Richard Graham. The club members have made me feel at home and very welcome. I have learned, very quickly, to love that old cottage and its members. In its own way, it is a hallowed place with its rich history of guests like the inimitable Sir Harry Lauder, Margaret "Gone with the Wind" Mitchell, and the Presbyterian minister Peter Marshall, made famous by the movie, "A Man Named Peter" and played by British actor, Richard Todd. Bill Harris, our current Librarian, has told me that Peter Marshall was the Burns’ night speaker on January 25, 1935, and that it was Marshall who initiated the kirkin’ of the tartan at the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in 1940. This was done to help build a link between our two countries. Membership, then and now, has consisted of a diverse group. A look at the records reveals that five governors have been members, as well as those "who sold beer, taught school, plastered walls, drove cabs, farmed goats, healed the sick, administered justice, wrote poetry, and laid stone."

It is no wonder I look forward to the monthly meetings and the potluck suppers that members bring to the table. The part of the program I enjoy most is after the meal when everyone stands to introduce themselves and their guest(s). No member is immune from being razzed by friendly little comments or taken to task good-naturedly by one or more members in a room that is usually filled to capacity. Here is where you hear the latest jokes, occasionally some silly comments, or where swords are drawn verbally, and old friendly battles are fought again and again, but all in good taste. It is a happy time where laughter reigns supreme and smiles fill the faces of members and guests. A speaker usually then puts forth his/her best, and all in attendance silently pray that each speaker has learned that "the mind will retain only what the tail will endure". At the conclusion of the program, everyone joins hands and sings a couple of stanzas of Auld Lang Syne. What a great evening for one and all! One can imagine Burns himself among those who come early and stay late and, as Jim Montgomery says, "In this well-used, much loved Cottage and among these diverse friends, Robert Burns would feel at home." I know I do!

Robert G. Ingersoll penned these words that hang in the Burns Cottage in Scotland:

Though Scotland boasts a thousands names
Of patriot, king and peer,
The noblest, grandest of them all
Was loved and cradled here:
Here lived the gentle peasant prince,
The loving cotter-king,
Compared with whom the greatest lord
Is but a titled thing.
(first stanza)

My thanks to Jim Montgomery for his able assistance with this column by providing me with his published work, "The Robert Burns Cottage of Atlanta" which appeared in Robert Burns & America, A Symposium, edited by G. Ross Roy, for the Robert Burns World Federation Limited held in Atlanta, GA on July 20, 2001. Other sources: Bill Harris, Librarian of the Burns Club of Atlanta; a pamphlet on the "Burns Club and the Burns Cottage"; Marilyn Cameron of www.robertburnsscotland.com; and "A Dixieland Barbecue & Celebration", The Robert Burns World Federation, 2001 Conference, Atlanta, GA.


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