Alloway and Southern Ayrshire FAMILY HISTORY SOCIETY Robert Burns Cottage, Alloway, Ayr
| Home | Contact | Events | Publications | Resources | Links | Membership | Interests | Activities | Notices |

Monday, 3 February 2014

21 Jan 2014 - "The Great Burns Festival of 1844"

We were entertained by an interesting talk by Tom Barclay, the Local History and Reference Librarian at the Carnegie library in Ayr, about the Great Burns Festival held on the banks of Doune in 1844, well illustrated by contemporary pictures, several obtained from "SCRAN" and the "Illustrated London News".

In 1844 the 2 sons of Robert Burns who had been in India - William Nicol and James Glencairn - had returned and were living in London. Robert Junior, his third surviving son, lived in Dumfries, while Isabella Burns Begg, the poet's youngest sister was staying with his nieces (her daughters) at Bridgehouse Cottage near Belleisle.  Ayrshire Burns enthusiasts had the idea of inviting them all to a summer event in Ayr and Alloway which would celebrate both Burns' memory and the return to Britain of his sons.  The idea then evolved to extend the invitation to everyone - Worldwide - with an interest in Robert Burns and with the Earl of Eglinton as President of the Group, the Festival was advertised in the Illustrated London News.  The landed classes, at that time, felt challenged by the changes in Society - the Earl was a Liberal and a Burns enthusiast who was happy to participate in a Festival open to everyone.

The main events were to be held around a parade from the Low Green in Ayr through the town and out to the Burns Monument, where a pavilion would be erected, accommodating up to 2,000 people.  The railway from Glasgow to Ayr had been opened in 1840, and on the 6th of August 1844 trains and steamships brought large numbers of visitors to participate in the most spectacular gathering which Ayr had seen up to that time.

Amazingly, the procession was 3 miles long and the list of participants vast.  Hugh Miller, the Provost and all the Councillors headed the parade, followed by no less than 19 Masonic Lodges.  Burns himself had been a member of the Lodge at Tarbolton and the Masons played a big part in the festivities.  Town bands from Ayrshire and beyond were included.  The Shoemakers' Guild had a prominent place as it was still a force at this time - with their patron Saint - St.Crispin still having his Saints' day being celebrated even after the Reformation - this special status was only lost after 1846.  "Souter Johnnie" - Tam's drinking companion in the famous Ballad was also given a place.  There were participants dressed as Highland Chieftains,  representatives from the Oddfellows, Foresters, Mauchline Box makers and many more organisations also took part.

Several large floral arches were erected in the town and the front page of the Illustrated London News shows the procession wending its way over the New Bridge and back over the Old Brig.  However, this is artistic licence because in the event the procession went down the Sandgate and up the High Street before heading out to Alloway.

In the paper, Andrew Glass told the story of his visit and mentions mounted Archers, who were perhaps the Kilwinning Archers, an organisation which still exists today - they may have even kept their costumes from the Eglinton Tournament.

Postcards of Burns' Cottage were produced, although at this time it was owned by the Shoemakers (the Trustees only taking it over in 1881) and was being run as an Inn.  This was described as the "disgrace of Scotland" being "licensed to retail spirits".  However, Shepherds apparently doffed their bonnets as they passed the cottage.

The procession continued past the Monument and the Auld Kirk of Alloway.  Tents and a pavilion had been erected in the fields nearby and a painting was made of the procession.  Many of the illustrations seem to have exhibited a great deal of "artistic licence" - such as the one where the North Ayrshire hills seen beyond the Spire of the Town Buildings and the Wallace Tower seems to have become a mountain range!

Performances of "Tam o'Shanter" could be seen - including one where a legion of witches sallied out of the Auld Kirk - and culminated with one dressed in a cutty-sark holding up the stump of a horse's tail.  There was also a theatre and a menagerie.  Souvenirs were produced and James Mitchell & Co. of Glasgow produced postcards to mark the day.

The Earl and Countess of Eglinton, Burns' 3 sons, Isabella Burns Begg, Mr and Mrs Thomson (Mrs Thomson had nursed Burns during his final illness), and other principal guests and dignitaries enjoyed the Banquet in the Pavilion which had been erected as a substantial weatherproof structure. Perhaps the Earl had learnt from the disastrous Eglinton Tournament which had been ruined by bad weather - and taken precautions!  Tickets were on sale for 10 shillings and 15 shillings [= around £50 today...].

Thousands outside were entertained by regimental bands and lots of liquor stalls!

Although Dickens, Tennyson and Wordsworth were invited they did not attend.  The Earl gave the first speech and toasted Burns' Memory.  Professor Wilson's speech apparently went on for an hour mentioning his travels in the Land Of Burns - and the regrettable way Burns emotions had led him astray in relation to the French Revolution and, of course, women, but his faults faded as his Cotter's Saturday Night poem idealised family life.  However, he was heckled so much that he had to sit down and the entire speech as printed in Blackwoods Edinburgh Magazine was never actually delivered. [There is an interesting report of the proceedings in the Sep 1844 edition of Blackwoods reproduced here.]

As for the numbers who attended - estimates varied widely - 50,000 - 100,000 was mentioned, but it may have been 10,000. There would, of course, have been a lot pf coming and going.  Even when the rain set-in there was apparently orderly and decorous behaviour and good humour prevailed.

A commemorative medal was produced - illustrations of this and several other pictures can be seen on

For anyone disposed to complain of rail travel today, it was interesting to learn that the journey from Ayr to Glasgow took 2 hours and while there were closed carriages for the well-heeled, those for second-class travellers were open to all the Scottish elements!

We were given a fascinating glimpse into a day which would have lived long in the memories of all those who took part and Graeme gave a wholehearted vote of thanks to Tom Barclay on behalf of the Society.

Patricia Weston

Older Postings