As you crouch in the old low building - the cramped living room joined to the narrow kitchen, which leads straight into the cowshed - it is hard to believe that it all started here. For "here" is Burns Cottage, the thatched building with tiny windows in Alloway, Ayrshire, the birthplace of Scottish poet Robert Burns. He was born on Jan. 25, 1759, in the recess in the kitchen's thick clay walls that served as a bed, into a home so humble that 10 days later the gable collapsed and the baby had to be carried through a storm to a neighbour's house.
This point, 134 kilometres southwest of Glasgow, is the epicentre of the Burns phenomenon.
Around the world tomorrow, an estimated five million people will celebrate the 250th anniversary of his birthday and toast his achievements as a hard-living plowman poet who left a literary legacy, including My Love's Like a Red, Red Rose and Auld Lang Syne, by the time he died at the age of 37.
Now, as part of the Scottish Government's Homecoming celebrations, encouraging people around the world with an affinity for the country to visit Scotland this year, Burns Country is in the news.
I grew up in Burns Country. Born in Kilmarnock, Ayrshire's largest town, I was raised in Dunlop, a village that the poet used to visit, and alongside old roads he once walked I pitched hay for gnarled farmers who spoke the language of his poems. His uncle lies in Stewarton kirkyard beside my great-grandparents.
So here's my recommendation for a Burns Trail tour that starts in Glasgow and can easily be driven in one day, through rolling green countryside near the sea and ending at Alloway, the place of his birth.
The best way to reach Ayrshire from Glasgow is to make for Glasgow Airport and keep going, driving southwest on A737 toward the town of Irvine on the coast. Irvine is where young Burns headed when he left the farm to train as a flax dresser.
In Irvine's Glasgow Vennel, visitors will find a restored site, The Heckling Shop, alongside a thriving Genealogical Centre. You will learn that "heckling" also has a non-political meaning (teasing out linen-producing fibres from flax stems with a sharp metal comb), and that in the finest tradition of Scottish Hogmanay celebrations the place burned down on Jan. 1, 1782, sending Burns back to the farm, as he said, "like a true Poet, not worth sixpence."
A walk through Irvine's old town centre and the restored area around the harbour (from which ships used to set sail for Canada) will teach you three things about Ayrshire. First, that there is no shortage of pubs and restaurants - and even butchers and bakers - that claim links with Burns. Second, that although the local language is less mysterious than Glaswegian, this is still a land of broad Scots speech. And third, that it is a land of vigorous democracy - one of the worst places in the world to try the "Do you know who I am?" lordly approach. Women can expect to be treated to a friendly "hen" (as in "Ye forgoat yer change, hen!"), while men digging holes in the street expect friendly inquiries about their progress. Robert Burns was a true son of Ayrshire.
A sensation is born
Ten kilometres east of Irvine lies Kilmarnock, where he sprang into fame with his first book, known as the Kilmarnock Edition. At the town centre (vandalized by 1970s "redevelopment"), Burns shares a plinth with James Wilson, the "publisher " of the 1786 book that made Rabbie an overnight sensation - that is, outside the circle of local farm girls who already knew him in precisely that light.
A visit to the Dick Institute, Kilmarnock's splendid museum, reveals that Wilson was a shifty-looking fellow who (a) refused to publish the book until Burns had raised the cash up front and (b) declined to print a second edition when the first sold out. On view are some of the handwritten poems, still clearly legible, and a model of the printing press that produced the book. Other Burns sites of interest dot the town, notably the new Burns Monument and Museum in Kay Park, which was under huge reconstruction in the fall of 2008. The Robert Burns World Federation is based at Dean Castle, a short drive north, where Burns manuscripts and other materials are also on display in a grand medieval setting.
Labour and inspiration
The road south, A76, takes us to Mauchline, where Burns moved in 1784 to work his heart out as an unsuccessful farmer at Mossgiel. As you enter the village from the north, at the tall red-sandstone Burns Memorial, you take a hard right. Mossgiel is the first farm on your right, identified by a plaque at the end of the private drive. A look around at the now-drained fields explains everything. To the west, the open waters of the Firth of Clyde produce constant winds that bend the trees to leeward, while the boggy soil was better suited to producing mouse nests than crops of rye tall enough to shield rustic romantic encounters. Yet it was here, between bouts of killing labour, that Burns produced many of his finest poems.
Famously, he also produced many offspring, acquiring a reputation that caused James Armour, a master mason, to faint when he heard who had impregnated his daughter and Burns's soon-to-be wife, Jean. Their first marital home in the heart of Mauchline village is now a museum. Close to it, opposite the Parish Church and Old Kirkyard is Poosie Nancy's, an inn still serving traditional fare. Nancy was Agnes Gibson, and Burns was a regular visitor to her pub. The adjoining, less-respectable Howff gave him the setting for The Jolly Beggars Cantata, which features a rare Canadian reference, when an old soldier boasts of fighting in Quebec.
Dancing and debating
Ten minutes west is Tarbolton, where The National Trust for Scotland maintains The Bachelor's Club. As Andrew O'Hagan puts it in his new book, A Night Out With Robert Burns, this whitewashed, 17th-century building was where the young farmer joined "a dancing class (to meet girls); he formed the Bachelor's Club (to meet his pals)." The small room where they debated is well preserved and the elderly guide is a fount of information. (A moment's inattention produces the direct Ayrshire question: "Are you bored?")
Honest men, bonny lasses
A few minutes to the west lies Ayr, the county town - "Auld Ayr wham ne'er a town surpasses, For honest men and bonny lasses." This claim is hard to quantify, but certainly Ayr is a wonderful town to eat in, or to stroll around, from seafront to harbour and on to the medieval centre with its links to William Wallace and Robert The Bruce. On the High Street stands the Tam O'Shanter Inn, from which the legendary Tam set forth on his drunken ride south to Alloway.
Following Tam O'Shanter
Alloway, three kilometres south, is the birthplace that in 1759 launched a thousand Burns Suppers 250 years later ("From Canada To Kazakhstan" as The Scotsman recently reported, noting Toronto's St. Andrew's Society's CN Tower "Aboon Them A" event on Jan. 23.). Burns Cottage demonstrates how basic rural existence was in those days when cows and people lived cheek by unhygienic jowl, while the adjoining museum is full of manuscripts and memorabilia.
Five minutes due south on Tam's midnight route is the ruined Alloway Auld Kirk, still a suitable haunt for ghosts and witches. Opposite it lies The Tam O' Shanter Experience, a huge visitor centre where everything from mugs to biographies bears the mark of Burns. A theatre plays a dramatic version of Tam's ride, after which you can wander through attractive gardens past a classical 1820 monument all the way to the 14th-century Brig O'Doon, where, at the bridge's peak, Tam's horse, Meg, lost her tail to a pursuing witch.
Burns spent the last years of his life farther south, in Dumfries, where he lies buried. But what Andrew O'Hagan calls Burns's "own little world of Ayrshire" is enough for a long day's tour. And the Dumfries story is what poor Meg might have wished for - another tale for another day.
Pack your bags
Follow the poet to Kilmarnock, where he first published, and Alloway, where he was born.
WHERE TO STAY
ONE DEVONSHIRE GARDENS
1 Devonshire Gardens, Glasgow; 44 (141) 339-2001; http://www.onedevonshiregardens.com. Glasgow's finest hotel. Double rooms start at $280.
PIERSLAND HOUSE HOTEL
15 Craigend Rd., Troon, Ayrshire; 44 (129) 231-4747; http://www.piersland.co.uk. A grand old hotel. Double rooms from $227 to $315.
FAIRFIELD HOUSE HOTEL 12 Fairfield Rd.-, Ayr; 44 (129) 226-7461; http://www.fairfieldhotel.co.uk. Situated just southwest of the town centre. Doubles start at $150.
WHERE TO EAT
FOUTER'S BISTRO 2A Academy Street, Ayr; 44 (129) 226-1391. Set in the vaulted cellars of an 18th-century bank, the menu features modern Scottish cuisine.
THINGS TO DO
THE HECKLING SHOP 10, Glasgow Vennel, Irvine (and the old Burns Lodging House at Number 4); 44 (129) 427-5059.
THE DICK INSTITUTE Elmbank Avenue, Kilmarnock; 44 (156) 355-4902; visiteastayrshire.com.
Dean Castle Dean Road, Kilmarnock; 44 (156) 355-4902; http://www.deancastle.com.
BURNS HOUSE MUSEUM Castle Street, Mauchline; 44 (156) 355-4902; http://www.burnsscotland.com/tours/mauchline.
THE BACHELOR'S CLUB Tarbolton; Open April 1 to Sept. 30.
In Ayr and Alloway.
Burns Cottage and Museum, Alloway; 44 (129) 244-3700; http://www.burnsheritagepark.com.
Homecoming Scotland 2009 will celebrate some of Scotland's great contributions to the world with a year-long series of special events and festivals running from this weekend's celebration of Robert Burns's 250th birthday until St. Andrew's Day (Nov. 30). Here are some highlights:
GLASGOW FILM FESTIVAL (Feb. 12-22). This year's festival offers a retrospective of Audrey Hepburn, along with mini-specialties in short films, children's films and horror films among others. Visit http://www.glasgowfilmfestival.org.uk.
AYE WRITE! (March 6-14) An annual Glasgow festival that this Homecoming year will have special sessions celebrating the literary connections of the Scottish diaspora and the impact they have had on Scottish writing. Participatying authors include Robert Fisk, Gavin Ester and Lorraine Kelly. Visit http://www.ayewrite.com.
CLAN GATHERING (July 25-26) Edinburgh will witness one of the largest clan gatherings in history this summer. Holyrood Park will feature Highland Games over the two days and a clan parade and pageant. For more information, visit http://www.clangathering.org.
HIGHLAND GAMES There is a full program of Highland Games across Scotland throughout the summer season. One of the most famous is held in the late summer at the Braemar Gathering on the first Saturday in September. It is traditionally attended by the Royal Family. For more information, visit www.braemar
MORE INFORMATION For details and event tickets, visit http://www.homecomingscotland2009.com. For general tourist information, go to visitscotland.com.