Touring Robbie Burns’ Country

Previous blog postings introduced The Trip of a Lifetime that the Flemings took in 1903 to the British Isles and Europe and described their ocean voyage on the R.M.S. Tunisian. In this posting, we follow them in their pilgrimage to Ayrshire, land of Robbie Burns; a quick trip to Belfast; and a tour through Loch Lomand and the Trossachs. Many thrills lay ahead for Roy, his cousin Minnie, their Aunt Jennie, and James (Minnie’s father, Jennie’s brother), as they visited places they had read about in literature and Scottish histories.

They travelled at a pace so dauntingly fast it would challenge young people today, let alone more senior-aged travellers like Jennie and James. On arrival in Liverpool, July 6, 1903, the Flemings moved quickly, taking a cab to the Liverpool and Manchester Railway Station on Lime Street in the centre of town. Not a moment to waste, they visited St George’s Hall and Walker’s Art Gallery (where they noted the statues of Michelangelo and Raphael at the entrance), before boarding the London and North Western Railway to head north to Robbie Burns’ country. With their luggage – we hope they were travelling light – they changed trains in Carlisle to the Glasgow, Dumfries and Carlisle Railway, which passed through Gretna Green (famous for “runaway marriages”), and arrived in Dumfries at 7 pm that evening. After finding their hotel – the Palmer’s Temperance Hotel – and seemingly energized, they went for a walk around town – for Dumfries was where Robert Burns had lived his last three years.

Palmer's Temperance Hotel, Dumfries
Palmer’s Temperance Hotel, Dumfries

Jennie found Dumfries a “beautiful clean city – streets so pretty and clean and situated on the Nigh River.” They came upon the Globe Inn where Burns used to drink. Jennie did not dare to enter, but Roy and James did and James, sitting in Burn’s chair, sang a stanza of “Willie brewed a peck o’ malt”. They made their way through narrow, crooked streets to 16 Burns Street where Mrs. Brown, Burns’s granddaughter, showed them the house in which he had died in 1796.

The next day, July 7, they hired a “Gladstone” – Jennie called it a “rig” – to drive through the Ayrshire countryside. One purpose was to visit the Kirkmahoe Parish, former home of James’s sister-in-law, Margaret (Robertson) Fleming (John Fleming’s wife), and where John Robertson, a family member, still resided.

They were also on the trail of Jeannie Deans, the heroine in Sir Walter Scott’s The Heart of the Midlothian – a courageous, young woman determined to save her sister. Scott based the character on Helen Walker of Dumfries, and the Flemings, who would have felt a personal connection since they emigrated to Canada on a ship named the Jeannie Deans, saw the remains of her house and grave in the IronGray Cemetery.

[Helen Walker’s story is told in Electric Scotland’s “Women in History of Scots Descent”]

By train, they went next to the village of Mauchline, where Burns lived with his wife Jean Armour, and which is also the site of the Burns National Memorial; and then onwards to the town of Ayr, the centre of Burns country, to arrive at the Ayr Arms Hotel at 11 pm.

Postcard from Ayr showing Burns Cottage and Monument
Postcard from Ayr showing Burns Cottage and Monument, 1902

The next day was devoted to Robbie Burns and must have been a day of pure bliss. A tram car on the morning of July 8 took them to Alloway, Burns’ birthplace.

For Roy — “Got off the car at the end of the line and walked down to the Auld Brig O’ Doon of Tam O’ Shanter’s memories. Alloway Mill below, we could see; went down and drank of the waters of the Doon River.” “An old man was playing the fiddle, sweet sound ‘Scots wha hae’ and ‘Ye banks and braes o’ bonnie Doon’.”

Jennie remarked on the Burns monument. “A beautiful monument stands to his honor on one of the central squares, erected in year 1823. It is handsome with scenes of his poems on each side in bold relief. The scene of his grey mare Meg and the witches [Tam O’Shanter] and Cotters Saturday Night, parting of Burns and Hiland Mary, and the Jolly Beggar.“

The gatekeeper to the Burns Monument told Roy that, on one day in 1902, 2,000 to 3,000 visitors had passed through.

[Burns Country, although deteriorating as a website, still has a very large collection of Robert Burns poems and songs. The Robert Burns Birthplace Museum website has information and pictures for some of the tourist sites. More are at Places to visit in Scotland: Burns Country, Ayrshire.  ]

Google Map - Fleming travels through Ayrshire July 6 to July 10, 1903
Google Map – Fleming travels through Ayrshire July 6 to July 10, 1903

The day not over, they walked through the Alloway Kirk where Jennie picked some gowan daisies; visited Burn’s birth cottage; and toured the museum.

With Ireland so close, they decided on an excursion to Belfast by paddle steamer on July 9th with stop for two hours (only). They sailed from Ardrossan, a town on the Scottish coast. Jennie noted the return price of $2.50 each; and Roy the trip time of four hours each way. The passage through the island-strewn channels between Scotland and Ireland was a feast of green. For Jennie, it was a voyage of unending beauty.

“Another horn [blast of the ship’s horn] brought us into sight of Ireland. The hills rise to quite a height on either side of the Channel but there are many homes down at the foot on seashore as on the side hills which are beautifully cultivated. The green of the cultivated fields is something most beautiful never to be seen in our Country and never to be seen by me again.”

In Belfast, they made the quickest of visits by “Jaunting Car where we sit sideways over the wheels” through Queen’s College. The Flemings always sought out the universities. Back by dusk to Ardrossan, they took a hotel room for the night.

Hurrying on July 10, they went to Stevenston to visit Jesse Patterson Roberts, whom Jennie likely knew, and her husband Dr Roberts. Jennie, the collector of facts, noted, “It is a town of from six to eight thousand inhabitants. The industries are coal mining and dynamite. The greatest dynamite factory in the world is here. “

In the afternoon they rushed to Glasgow to catch a train to Craignethan Castle in South Lanarkshire, a setting Sir Walter Scott used for Tillietudlem in his novel Old Mortality. Roy later wrote an article about the castle for The Advertiser, an Owen Sound newspaper. That night they returned to Duncan’s Temperance Hotel in Glasgow.

They must have risen extremely early on July 11 to set out for Loch Lomond and Callander. A train from Central Station in Glasgow took them to Balloch Pier at the southern end of Loch Lomond where they got on the steamer Prince George at 9 am.

Google Map - Loch Lomond and Trossachs
Google Map – Loch Lomond and Trossachs

Jennie was entranced with Loch Lomond the moment she stepped on the pier:

“Now the pretty Loch bursts upon our sight. No wonder it inspired and enthused Walter Scott as it is surrounded with hills on all sides and the shore dotted with some houses and villas as now is pointed out to us.”

This was the country of the Highland outlaw Rob Roy and the MacGregor clan. It was also the landscape that Sir Walter Scott made famous in his epic poem The Lady of the Lake.

Travelling by both steamer and horse-drawn coach, they absorbed the wild and romantic scenery. Roy‘s notes described their 1903 experience.

“We get on the coach in front of Inversnaid Hotel. 2 coaches – 25 in each 5 x 5 – and go the 6 or 7 miles to Stronachlachar, mostly up hill – coach went slowly, nearly altogether on walk – 4 horses, coachman, and guard dressed in Red – red coat, pants and either gray or red plug hat. The passengers are pleasant and conversing with both friends and those unacquainted, surveying and remarking on the lochs, hills, valleys, heights, flowers, heather, peasants and sights, history along the road. Did not see the fort of General [James] Wolfe as expected. Came in sight of Loch Arklet and then to Stronachlacher. Waited 1 hour. Got on board little steamer “Sir Walter Scott” (also saw Rob Roy) and sailed Loch Katrine – saw up the glen to NW Glengyle – the house of the MacGregors. Passed most elegant, high grass banks and hills, heights over heights. On south [was] Ben Venue 2386 ft [mountain in Trossachs area]. Then turned around farther side of Ellen’s Isle and landed at the pier. Coach to Trossachs Hotel – another wait – opposite Loch Achray – on farther side – saw the coaches from Aberfoyle – “Roderick Dhu” name of our coach – passed over and saw the Brig o’ Turk. Single stone arch. 9+ miles to Callander mostly along Loch Venachar and Ben Ledi to left and north. “

They had a luncheon at 4 pm. at the Eagle Temperance Hotel in Callander, a town situated near Stirling and their gateway to the Highlands. They were only four hours and a short train journey from their destination of Dunkeld.

[Full Google MyMap showing Fleming itinerary may be viewed here.]

[This part of Scotland is well described in Black’s Guide to Scotland by G.E. Milton, a copy of which Roy may have seen. Editions were published frequently in the early 1900s.   It may be previewed today at Google Books (33rd edition, 1903).  Start at page 142 for the section on “Stirling to the Trossachs and Loch Lomond”. ]

To be continued …

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