The town that made Robert Burns 'the poet'

By Gillian Sharpe
BBC Scotland News

Image caption,
Richard Brown and Robert Burns in Eglinton Wood - a mural in the Irvine Burns Club

Robert Burns' birthplace is well-known as the Ayrshire village of Alloway but where did Burns really begin his poetic life? Another Ayrshire town is laying claim to that honour and it wants that story to be part of a wider strategy to revitalise areas of the town.

In an upstairs room of the Burns Club in Irvine, low winter sunshine filters through a stained glass window on to a group of fresh-faced school children - most of them, at least, seem to be listening intently.

"First of all we hope you remember," says a club member addressing the group, "that Alloway made the man, but Irvine made the poet."

As the words are spoken the children begin to join in.

They have spent the morning learning about the poet's connections to their own town.

As a young man, Robert Burns spent time in what was then the bustling harbour of Irvine, and he became friends with a local sea captain who encouraged him in his poetic endeavours.

As the children make their way downstairs chattering amongst themselves, their teacher explains what the visit has meant to them.

"It brings it home for them and makes it real," explains Margaret Hornsby.

"They would probably think of Robert Burns as a famous Scottish poet but not always associating it with Irvine, which is their home town, where they live, so it's exciting for them.

"They're very proud of the fact and it inspires them."

When the 22-year-old Robert Burns arrived in Irvine in 1781 it was the busiest harbour in the west of Scotland - this was before the Clyde was dredged.

Image caption,
Robert Burns and Richard Brown depicted by the harbour in Irvine

He had come to learn the craft of flax dressing, which is a stage in the manufacture of linen.

But while Burns arrived in the town with flax on his mind, by the time he left, fate and friendship had taken him in a another direction.

"Here we've got two young men, who meet in Irvine and both their lives change from that moment," says Bill Nolan, a director at the Irvine Burns Club, speaking about the friendship between Robert Burns and an Irvine sea captain a few years older than him, Richard Brown.

"One goes on to become an international figure, the other becomes a very successful merchant sailor. Everybody's heard of one, but nobody's heard of the other guy who pushed him to go down that route and encouraged him."

They met at the harbour side and Brown was a big influence on Burns concerning both women and poetry.

Burns showed his poetry to Richard Brown, who was, according to Bill Nolan "impressed".

"Later, Burns wrote to Richard Brown," he continues, "and reminded him of a Sunday they spent in Eglinton Woods where Richard Brown had encouraged Burns to have his poems published and in Burns' own words, he decided then to 'endeavour at the character of a poet.'"

Image caption,
A window at Irvine Burns Club tells how he was inspired to be a poet

"So while it's true that the child who became the man, Burns was born in Alloway, there is irrefutable evidence that Burns the poet was actually born in Irvine."

Burns' time in the town was not an entirely happy one. He did not enjoy flax dressing and it was during this time that he wrote melancholic poems like "Prayer under Pressure of Violent Anguish".

On the streets of present day Irvine, not far from the Glasgow Vennel where Burns once worked, just one of those I stopped had heard of Captain Richard Brown and his part in the poet's story.

Image caption,
Irvine has had a Burns club for almost 200 years

"I knew he (Burns) lived in Irvine for a while," was a rather more typical response. But of his contemporary, Richard Brown, most people knew nothing.

But a group of organisations is in the process of trying to change that.

The Burns connection has been one of the "central planks" of the development of their cultural strategy, according to Audrey Sutton, of North Ayrshire Council.

"We're determined that Captain Richard Brown will become a well known figure," she adds.

"He very much deserves to be. He's been a catalyst for so much of the heritage and literature of Ayrshire and indeed of Scotland and we're determined to give him his rightful place in history."

Irvine's more recent 'brand' has been as a New Town but there is now an attempt to reunite its older history with that.

It fits in with a wider project to revitalise the harbour side area, which was the backdrop for much of the friendship of Robert Burns and Richard Brown.

"When I came to Irvine there was a cockiness about the town - that has gone," says Bill Nolan.

"Part of urban regeneration isn't just about buildings, it's regenerating spirit, it's about regenerating people, it's about regenerating pride.

"Irvine's taken a lot of knocks in recent years, as have a lot of towns in the west of Scotland and it's up to us to tell people what the good things are and what the potential is.

"Have pride in your past, know where you've been and then you know where you're going."