Case Study: Burns Cottage at Alloway – the origins and archaeology of the Heritage Industry

The National Trust for Scotland recently commissioned a Historic Building Survey at the newly-acquired  Burns Cottage, the birthplace of the great Scottish poet. Alloway was once a hamlet on the banks of the River Doon in Ayrshire, but it is now an affluent suburb of Ayr. The survey was undertaken in advance of refurbishment works and part of the wider redevelopment of the Burns smallholding site and museum, and the nearby Tam o’Shanter Experience, into the new Robert Burns Birthplace Museum. Associated archaeological works involved recording, monitoring and evaluation undertaken by Addyman Archaeology, and threw considerable light on the history of the site.

Recording the interior of Burns Cottage, © National Trust for Scotland

Burns’ father, William Burnes, built ‘his clay biggin’ at Alloway in the 1750s and Robert was born there in the box-bed in the kitchen on January 25th 1759. Later, a byre and barn were added, the building saw use as an inn and it was transformed into a Victorian and Edwardian tourist attraction.

How much of the original building’s fabric has survived from the days when young Robert lived there? Although much of the fabric was still hidden under a thick layer of lime harl, close archaeological scrutiny of the cottage documented many subtle changes in the fabric. Photographs taken during refurbishments in 1993 revealed blocked windows, construction breaks, and many changes in building material were identified and mapped. The emerging picture is of phases of repair and rebuilding, now hidden beneath a lime harl which makes the building appear homogenous and presents it as a simple cottage of mid-18th century character. Analysis of the building has shown that not much that immediately meets the eye is as early as that, and the archaeological work has revealed just how profoundly the cottage has been transformed under changing approaches to the museological presentation of heritage sites – the building encapsulates the history of the ‘Heritage Industry’.

The cottage rapidly became iconic following the poet’s early death in 1796 and, within a few short years, it was turned into a heritage site in a sense which would be recognised today: the ‘birthplace,’ the box-bed and the kitchen interior all lovingly preserved. The use of the building as the Burns Head Inn would probably have pleased the poet. In Victorian times, however, selling of alcohol seemed unacceptable for the birthplace of a National Treasure and the Burns Monument Trust, which acquired the building in 1881, sought to return it to its 18th-century character or, rather, to create a Romanticised vision of that character. The heritage value of the cottage was already evident: William Burnes had sold the cottage for £160 in 1781; it sold for £4,000 exactly 100 years later.

The use of the cottage as a museum resulted in the addition of an exhibition space to the south. Although later demolished to re-create the 18th century ensemble, excavation within the grounds revealed the buried footings of this exhibition hall. An evaluation trench in the woods bounding the site revealed a ‘ritual cache’, the post-WWI disposal of redundant Burns memorabilia such as porcelain crested ware figurines and framed  Burns Cottage post-cards!

In the later 20th century, the cottage itself saw various minor repairs, until it was re-invented again as a heritage attraction in the 1990s. Regrettably, it seems that these alterations might have rendered it a late casualty of the ‘make the past pay for itself’ philosophy of the 1980s. The many repairs and few remaining dowdy fittings had left a feeling of a sanitised interior but the up-grading included major impacts upon the fabric by the installation of audiovisual equipment and services. The site also had to be rendered robust enough for the anticipated increase in visitor numbers. Perhaps most deleterious was the imposition of an idealised view of how the past should be presented within and about the cottage – not without imagination but with little academic rigour and a great emphasis on managed entertainment. It was most unfortunate that unforeseen structural and conservatorial issues arose during these refurbishment works. These dwarfed the intentions of recreating the original cottage using traditional materials based on academic research and advice. Photographic and documentary evidence suggest that in the process a great deal of genuine historic fabric was either heavily compromised or stripped away.

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