Literary Places with the Burns Monument Centre’s Ross Mcgregor
When I began a new job as Heritage Officer at Kilmarnock’s Burns Monument Centre the My Favourite Place project had recently been launched. It was the perfect opportunity for me to put a stronger focus on the area’s literary heritage (the area being East Ayrshire, stretching from Dunlop down to Dalmellington).
We signed up to host a workshop, led by the poet Ryan van Winkle. This was really successful so we took the opportunity to quickly arrange a follow-up, again focusing on writing about place but this time utilising our local history and archive collections. The ‘A Place in the Archive’ workshop was led by Zoe Strachan and Dr Christine Ewing of Ayrshire Archives, and used a wide range of archive material as a stimulus for writing. Poor Relief records, private letters, photographs and school records told so many stories about the area that it seemed fairly easy for participants to delve in and shape them into new creations. This workshop opened up lots of possibilities about how we could use local history and archive material in a creative workshop context.
As well as encouraging new writing about place, I felt My Favourite Place could be used to promote literary heritage, beyond the most obvious – Burns, and to a lesser extent George Douglas Brown (Ochiltree). I was already familiar with the area’s recent literary heritage, for example William McIlvanney, Stewart Conn, Rab Wilson and Zoe Strachan. Digging into the Centre’s Ayrshire Collection I found a treasure trove of local literature from the 1700s onwards. Although the majority was written by Kilmarnock authors and printed by the numerous Kilmarnock printers, I’ve discovered and learned a lot about the rich literary heritage of the wider area. My first discovery was John Lapraik, well-known to Burns enthusiasts, whose collection Poems, on Several Occasions (1788) was published by Burns’s Kilmarnock publisher shortly after his own famous debut. Although viewed as an amateur poet, I found some of Lapraik’s lines fascinating as glimpses into a place rarely written about by anyone else – Muirkirk. His ‘Lines Put Upon a Post Leading to the Tar-Work at Muirkirk, 1786’ seems to be a plea to the world to recognise the richness of the town’s landscape and natural resources. Similarly, Robert Hettrick of Dalmellington wrote passionately about ‘the wonders of the roaring Doon’ in his poem ‘Craigs of Ness’ in 1826.
I’ve been happy to set aside any critical judgements on the literary merit or otherwise of these poems; instead, I’d like to celebrate them as poems about particular places in a particular time. To that end I’ve been working on an exhibit in the Centre, which will display extracts of writing about places in East Ayrshire alongside photographs from our collections. An example is this extraordinary extract from McIlvanney’s Docherty which describes a fictionalised version of a well-known Kilmarnock street in the early part of the 20th century:
‘High Street, both as a terrain and as a population, was special. Everyone whom circumstances had herded into its hundred-or-so yards had failed in the same way. It was a penal colony for those who had committed poverty, a vice which was usually hereditary.’ (Docherty, 1975) (Image above).