The last time I visited this place, I was very young. Even then, I was so 'into' Burns, a fascination that has never really left me, that I was always persuading my mum and dad to drive about the countryside, visiting places with connections to the poet. It helped that we lived within walking distance of Burns Cottage in Alloway and I would wend my way there on fine spring and summer Saturdays, always hoping to see a ghost or two. Rab remained obdurately unwilling to manifest himself, even for such a fan as me.
Later, much later, I wrote a couple of plays about Burns: one for BBC R4 about the writing of Tam o' Shanter, notable mainly for a stunning performance of the poem from Liam Brennan as Burns, with Gerda Stevenson as Jean and an early appearance by Billy Boyd (of later hobbit fame) who was an absolute joy to work with and made everyone laugh.
Later, I wrote a play for Glasgow's Oran Mor, about the last few weeks of the poet's life down on the Solway coast. But in both of these plays, Jean Armour, the poet's long-suffering wife, figured largely, her voice more or less demanding to be heard. (Much as William's voice would not be denied in The Physic Garden!)
Ever since then, I've wanted to write a novel about Jean. Not a piece of non-fiction, although like all my historical fiction it'll be well researched. But I've had this longing to crawl inside Jean's head and try to write her story. You've only to read a few accounts of the poet's life to see how easy it seems to have been for academics to dismiss Jean as 'not quite worthy of the bard.' Creative Scotland, it seems, agrees with me, because they have just awarded me a very welcome sum of money to research the novel and here I am, at the start of a longish road to a new book.
|Donald Pirie and Clare Waugh as Rab and Jean|
Anyway, I loved Ellisland. And I loved it not least because it hasn't been overly interpreted. It remains one of those atmospheric places where nobody has got their hands on the displays, nobody has introduced sound and light effects with a hundred buttons for kids to press, and nobody has tried to tell you what you ought to think and feel.
I don't know how long the Trust in charge of Ellisland will resist the temptation to revamp it, so I'm very glad I saw it as it is. It was a very fine day, there were house martins flying and calling about the old buildings and the walk along the Nith, where Rab is said to have composed Tam, was a green, shady pathway, fringed with wild flowers, dappled with sunshine. The curator, who lives in the cottage, was knowledgeable and helpful, and the exhibits - oh the exhibits were to treasure: Burns's sword, Jean Armour's much mended 'mutch' and the poet's wooden box, hewn from a single log, with his initials on the top.
This is how these small museums used to be and sometimes I find myself wondering what it is about them that I enjoy so much and what it is about the new museums that - splendid and well thought out as they are - so irritates me sometimes. I can only conclude that where there is too much explanation and interpretation, there is no room at all for imagination. You are always being told what to feel and what to think.
One of the tricks to writing historical fiction is to do just enough research. But then, you give yourself permission to make things up. And only then do you find out what you don't know, what you actually need to know. So you go back and find some answers. But if you do too much research to begin with, if you dot all the 'i's and cross all the 't's there's a good chance that you won't want to make anything up at all.
Ellisland is open to the public and it's magic. If you're a Burns enthusiast, go and see it while it's still in it's wonderfully welcoming state. If you're not a Burns enthusiast, you may well have changed your mind by the time you come away!