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Robert Burns Lives!
Volume 1 Chapter 20


By Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Atlanta, GA, USA email: jurascot@earthlink.net

Another Tour of Burns Country

Susan and I decided earlier this year to attend the Burns World Federation meeting being held during September in Ayr, Scotland. We try to cross the pond to the auld country once a year, so we planned our trip around the meeting. Although we attended the one held in Atlanta three years ago, this would be our first Federation meeting outside the U.S.

After a later than normal arrival in Manchester (we were re-routed through Cincinnati for fueling because of gas shortages in Atlanta), we picked up our rental car and headed for Dumfries. Lordie, Lordie, I didn’t know how long a trip it was after traveling all night without sleep (neither of us are lucky enough to sleep on a plane), but we finally arrived in Dumfries without drifting off to sleep. I was reminded once again of the bumper sticker that my good friend Tom Burns likes to use, “I want to die in my sleep like my grandfather, not kicking and screaming as the other passengers in the car.”

Dumfries, where Burns lived the last years of his life, is a great small Lowland town. It is busy, and the people are friendly. The food is delicious, especially if you know your way to Benvenuto’s. Bookseller Benny Gillies and his lovely wife Lynn joined us there for dinner one night, and later in an email he proclaimed, “to find better Italian food one would have to go to Italy”. I can think of one exception here in Atlanta, but I must say their fresh seafood is out of this world. It also helped to have The Globe Inn nearby. Susan and I made our way to this Burns’ haunt at the end on each day for a glass of wine before heading to dinner at Benvenuto’s.

While in Dumfries we hit the usual Burns highlights. We visited the house where he lived and died. This wee museum has various items for sale that managed to find their way back to Atlanta. Curator Paul Cowley continues to do an excellent job. (One day I hope he will write an article for this column.) Eagerly we went to view the new statue of Burns’ wife, Jean Armour, just around the corner from the Burns House and were not disappointed! All we see today of Jean Armour is the picture of her when she was older and had lost the apparent early beauty that attracted Burns to her. The Burns Howff Club is responsible for the statue, and they are to be commended for giving us a statue of a young, beautiful woman. Sensuous, too, I might add. “A bonnie, sweet, sonsie lass” Burns might say. No wonder Burns was able to put “Clarinda” out of his mind when he arrived home from Edinburgh and the two of them married for the second time.  

The Jean Armour statue is located across the street from St. Michael’s Church where Burns was buried…twice…once in a little private corner of the kirkyard and now in the world famous mausoleum where his remains have finally found a place to rest in peace. Seems he did a lot of things in twos. Crossing the busy intersection, we found the church open, and a guide led us to the Burns’ pew. As is my preference, Burns enjoyed a pew toward the back of the church. The pew is marked with a plaque, and many visitors come to sit in it as Susan and I did. It doesn’t get much better than drinking where Burns did and then sitting in his church pew! Yet, I’m not quite ready to sleep in his bed if the powers that be ever made that a possibility.

The much-photographed statue of Burns in Dumfries Town Centre was partially covered for cleaning and repair. With visitors coming from around the world to attend the Federation meeting in Ayr, the town fathers could not have picked a worse time to cover the statue as if those in Ayr would not find their way to Dumfries either before or after the meeting. In a more recent email from Benny Gillies, it is my understanding that the city fathers have decided to give Burns a crown. According to Benny, they have placed small spikes on his head to keep the seagulls from perching there and doing you know what! From Ayr to Boston and from London to Toronto, and many points in between, many of us have waited patiently for the seagulls to fly away so we could snap a good picture of the bard. I cannot fathom Burns with a head full of spikes, so Benny has promised to send me a picture. I’ll pass it along to you in a future Burns column.

We had the privilege of spending a good part of one day at Ellisland, Burns’ last farm, located just on the outskirts of Dumfries. Curator Les Byers has been living there for nearly 25 years. He has vast knowledge about Burns in general but particularly on Ellisland and is more than willing to share it with you. The Burns objects on display are plentiful and awe inspiring. Wes showed us a book that Burns had inscribed to his son. It is something to hold a book the poet once owned but to hold one he has written in is a joy indeed. In another building he unlocked a display case and took out the sword Burns used as an excise man, letting each of us hold it. Knowing the doubting Thomases back in Atlanta as I do, I had pictures made to show them when they said, “Yeah, sure, you held his sword”.

For book lovers like me, a trip to Wigton is a must…at least one time. The drive was worth it because of the beautiful route along the coastal waters. I did find several volumes on Burns, Scott, and Stevenson, but will I go back again? I doubt it. Been there. Done that.

We had coffee with Bennie and Lynn Gillies in their home next door to his bookshop located in Kilpatrick Durham, approximately twenty minutes from Dumfries. If you get to Dumfries and do not take the short ride out to his shop, you are the loser! Susan and I have always loved the way the two of them decorated their store. It is more like one’s home than a bookshop. A lot of hard work has been put into their business, and it is a work of pride. Yes, more books on Burns were found, and Benny shipped them to me in Atlanta. Bennie is an asset to the rare book business. A man of integrity and high principles, you can believe anything he tells you about his books.

We spent an evening with Jack and Shirley Bell, she of Burns World Federation fame. We had enjoyed dining with this delightful couple in the past, and this time was no exception. The Burns Federation is lucky to have someone with Shirley’s skills. What she does for the Federation is as the commercial says, “priceless”. And, yes, we ate at Benvenuto’s since Shirley introduced us to it on a previous trip to Dumfries.

Making our way up to Ayr for the meeting was another day in paradise – driving through Burns country will do that for you. We registered for the meeting at the Ramada Inn, and to our surprise, our room was on an upper floor overlooking the ocean a couple of blocks away. It was good seeing Walter and Liz Watson. Walter, outgoing President of the Federation, was in our home in January of this year after delivering The Immortal Memory to our Atlanta Burns Club. Jack Hume from Houston was there with his two lovely daughters. As always, Mac and Jan Irvin from Atlanta attended. Mac is the United States’ representative on the Federation’s Board of Directors.

The business meeting on Saturday morning was glitch free (Shirley Bell, again) and the announcement by Patricia Ferguson, Scotland’s Minister of Tourism, that the Federation was to receive a £100,000 grant over the next five years was warmly received and vigorously applauded by those in attendance. The afternoon was given over to a speech and a slide presentation on Burns.

I do not know if Burns ever gambled on the ponies, but that night he would have enjoyed himself immensely at the recently renovated Ayr Racetrack where we all gathered for the big banquet of wine, whisky, food, and dance. I watched - never was nimble on my feet with the music. I came away from the meeting feeling that the Federation is in very good hands.

We spent our last free day visiting Irvine to see their great statue of Burns. You must really want to see it to go there because it is in a park on the outskirts of town. Susan and I attempted to visit the statue a couple of years ago, but no one we asked on the streets could point us in the right direction. It was to me, however, worth the effort to visit because I think it is one of the better statues of Burns of those I’ve seen so far. That afternoon we revisited the Tarbolton Club and, once again, were impressed with those in charge. This building is unique for Burnsians in that several important events in the life of Burns occurred in this club: it was here he founded the debating society named the Bachelor’s Club; it was here he defied his father and took dancing lessons (which caused a permanent breech in his relationship with his father); and it was here he became a Mason which did more for his career than most of us know or care to comment upon. Leaving the Tarbolton Club, we sought out the memorial obelisk to Highland Mary a few miles away but had to settle for pictures at a distance from the wee village bridge.

The next day we were off to Manchester to catch the plane to Paris and then over to London to complete our trip. An interesting event took place about 1:00 a.m. at our hotel at the Manchester Airport. The dreaded sound of the audio system blared through the darkness ordering us to evacuate the building. Susan grabbed her jewelry, and I grabbed a Burns book or two, and we headed down the stairwell to the parking lot where the hotel residents were all assembled. I noticed an airline captain took time to bring his flight manual case. There were many firemen with their trucks everywhere, as well as armed police with their AK-47 type weapons at the ready. Terrorists? One can’t help but wonder this day and time. Later we were informed it was safe to go back in, and only then did we learn that the alarm had sounded because too many smokers in the bar had set it off!

While we found no books on Burns in Paris, I did try to find a statue of Burns that is supposedly located at the British Institute. Trouble was, there is no British Institute in and of itself according to the British Counsel’s office in Paris, so I gave up. Oh ye of little heart! Later I found out that the British Institute is a part of the University of Paris, so this is one statue of Burns that will have to wait for another visit.

In London it is always a joy to visit Nigel Williams’ rare bookshop on Cecil Court, and once again he had books on Burns that were shipped back to Atlanta. The London Burns Club hosted a luncheon for Susan and me at The Caledonian Club. This wonderful show of Scottish hospitality was a fun filled time. The people at the luncheon were as friendly as any I’ve ever met anywhere. Here we were, complete strangers in London, having a delightful time with people we had not known thirty minutes before. Thanks, Walter Watson, for making this experience happen. Robert Burns does that to people and, yes, Robert Burns Lives!

We returned home to Atlanta tired but satisfied, planning another trip abroad next year, the Good Lord willing! (FRS: 11-20-05)


Statue of Burns in Dumfries being renovated and Statue of Robert Burns in Irvine


Obelisk to Highland Mary not far from Tarbolton and Marquee outside the Bachelor's Club in Tarbolton


Plaque showing the pew where Robert Burns worshipped at St. Michael's Church in Dumfries and London Burns Club luncheon honoring Susan and Frank Shaw at the Caledonian Club


Globe Inn in Dumfries and New statue of Jean Armour across from St. Michael's Church in Dumfries