As the birthplace of Scotland’s national bard, Robert Burns, Alloway is quintessential visiting territory for anyone wishing to experience Scotland’s rich artistic and cultural heritage outside of the capital.
Often overshadowed by the larger, historic Ayr in which it’s situated, Alloway is a secret cultural treasure of the West coast of Scotland. The village is most famous for its 15th century single-arched Brig O Doon – the setting for the climax of Robert Burns’ most famous poem Tam O’ Shanter and an iconic image of Scotland.
How to get there
You can get to Alloway from Edinburgh by bus or train depending on your budget, though travelling by train is of course quicker. A seat on a bus ranges from £12-20, whilst a train ticket is usually more expensive, averaging at £23. Journeying to Ayr will almost always involve changing at least once at Glasgow and the journey overall takes between two and three hours. Once you arrive at the train or bus station in Ayr, it’s just a medium walk or short bus-ride to Alloway.
What to see
Auld Kirk Alloway
The Auld Kirk is one of the most famous churches in Scotland and is the scene of the gathering of witches and warlocks in Tam O’ Shanter. Parts of the church date back to the 13th century though the building is dated 1516. Kirk Alloway fell into disrepair in the late 17th century and had been left to crumble to ruins perfect for Burns’ setting of night-time sorcery and rituals a century later. Today the ruins remain as eerily atmospheric as they would have done with the church standing as a hollow, roofless box containing a pair of iron mortsafes used for locking graves to protect them from grave robbers. Grave robbing was a popular pastime in Scotland during the Victorian era, most famously pursued by the notorious Burke and Hare who, tired of body-snatching by moonlight, cut out the middle man and murdered victims to sell their bodies on for medical research.
The Kirk yard contains the grave of Robert Burns’ father, William as well as an interesting selection of pictorial grave stones. If you look closely, many of the gravestones show a carving of an hour-glass; if this is upright, the person buried underneath died a natural death, if on its side the circumstances would have been much more mysterious.
Brig O’ Doon
Built in the 1400s, the bridge over the River Doon provided the main entrance and leaving point for Alloway until the 19th century when a wider and stronger version was built nearby downstream. The bridge is the final stop on the pilgrim route for Burns’ fans, being the climactic setting for the end of the poem when Tam manages only just to escape the witches, leaving behind his poor horse’s tail. The bridge provides great views over the Burns monument and the Memorial Gardens and, if you check your wallet, you might find a £5 note with an image of it on the back.
Burns Monument and Memorial Garden
The Burns monument was built to commemorate the famous poet just after his death and was designed by Sir Thomas Hamilton to the tune of around £3300. Standing at 70ft high you can climb the winding stairs to the top for a fantastic photo-opportunity of the bridge. During the summer, the gardens are in full bloom and offer a charming summer stroll leading to Statue House which contains a series of life-size statues of characters from Burns’ poems.
Blink and you’ll miss Burns Cottage which sits right on the main road of Alloway. From the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum you can walk the Poet’s Path lined with a series of weather-vanes telling the story of Tam O’ Shanter. The cottage was built in 1757 by Robert Burns’ father and the poet was born here on the 25th January 1759. It’s tradition in Scotland to celebrate Burns’ birthday with a festive Burns Supper of haggis, neeps and tatties accompanied by bagpipes and ceilidh dancing. The interior of the cottage gives you a good sense of what life would have been like for the young poet and the inspiration behind his pastoral, working-class poetry. Tickets for the cottage and Birthplace Museum can be bought here for a reasonable £8 (adult) and concessions for families are available.
Robert Burns Birthplace Museum
The Robert Burns Birthplace Museum was opened by the National Trust for Scotland in 2010 and is a great starting point to a tour of Alloway and the story of Burns. The new and very swish building has a detailed and informative museum tracing the life and works of Robert Burns’ (the largest in Scotland) as well as the history of Alloway itself. Quotes from Burns adorn the walls and floor, and there are some interactive exhibitions for children. The museum is just opposite the Auld Kirk and has a decent café too.
What to eat/drink
Speaking of cafés, Alloway isn’t known for its cuisine but, as a picturesque village, it has the expected scattering of picturesque pubs serving traditional Scottish food and drink. The Brig O’ Doon House Hotel in the heart of the Memorial Gardens has an impressive restaurant with fantastic views over the river and reams of tartan everywhere. A menu of innovative takes on traditional Scottish food can be devoured for between £20-40 per head. If you’re not looking for pub grub, Saffy’s Brasserie on Dalbair Road is run by award-winning chef Douglas Smith who uses local produce to create a Mediterranean-inspired menu.
Alloway is a fantastic example of a traditional Scottish village that has managed to retain much of its historic charm while opening itself up to visitors and fans of Robert Burns from all over the world. It’s also a great chance to see a different side of Scotland and start your exploration of the West coast.