Essay

The Robert Burns Zombie Cottage of Hotlanta

The Scottish poet at home in another time and place.

by Nick Marino
Robert Burns House, Atlanta, Georgia.

To get to the Robert Burns replica cottage in the Ormewood Park neighborhood of Atlanta, you turn right at the Zesto burger hut. You pass a white picket fence draped in kudzu, then turn again when you see the Georgia Department of Public Safety building at the corner of Alloway Place and East Confederate Avenue. Then up a hill you go, through an ordinary residential block lined with modest brick homes, when suddenly and conspicuously it emerges: the landmark cottage where Scotland’s national poet was born in 1759. Or, rather, a painstaking reproduction.

When I visited the Atlanta cottage on a balmy Sunday afternoon 250 years after Burns was born, a trim Scotsman named Eddie Morgan met me outside. Morgan is vice president of the local Burns club, which has about 100 members and meets on the first Wednesday of every month. As I pulled in, he sat on a stone wall just outside the house wearing a golf shirt, shorts, and white socks with topsiders.

The notion of a Burns club is hardly unique to Atlanta. Winnipeg, San Diego, Barcelona, and Milwaukee, for example, all have clubs of their own. But whereas those clubs tend to congregate at golf courses or ballrooms, the Atlanta members meet here, in a house designed specially for this purpose. Early members of the Atlanta Burns club, Morgan told me in his Scottish lilt, “commissioned an architect to go to the Burns cottage in Ayrshire and draw up blueprints so the house could be an exact replica.” The replica cottage was completed in 1911, and it feels like a peculiar cross between a hobbit house and a barn.

The attention to structural detail is serious, though a few concessions to modernity and location have been allowed: the place has electricity and running water, for example, and a kitchen and bathrooms were added in the 1970s. The Atlanta house is made of granite, as opposed to clay and lath. Morgan pointed to the asphalt roof. “This roof in Ayrshire is thatch,” he said, “and the roof here was originally thatch. But there’s too many critters.” 

Morgan showed me around to the side of the property, near a neighboring caretaker’s house. A stone inscription adorned the side of the replica Burns cottage itself. It’s poetry, but not from Burns. Rather, the passage traces back to Civil War colonel Robert G. Ingersoll, an Illinois abolitionist and orator. It is a fitting bit of verse for Burns, a populist poet whose “best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men” became a passage for the ages, whose “Auld Lang Syne” is still drunkenly sung by the masses at New Year’s, and whose funeral reportedly drew more than 10,000 mourners. The quote from Ingersoll’s ode to Burns reads:

Here lived the gentle
Peasant prince,
The loving cottar-king
Compared with whom the
Greatest lord
Is but a titled thing

* * *

Robert Burns House, Atlanta, Georgia.

In Atlanta, as in Ayrshire, the building is long and straight, with rooms stacked one behind the next. Its utter anachronism makes an impression, but the uncanny feeling is less about the tiny windows or concrete floors than about the whole shape of the building, which is wildly out of context in a neighborhood of brick single-family homes. It's a startling and endearing sore thumb—the architectural equivalent of a kid who shows up for high school math class wearing a pilgrim suit. No one lives here, which contributes to the house’s feeling musty and mysterious and full of wonder.

The main meeting space is three rooms, as opposed to Ayrshire’s four, and the walls of the largest room (where club meetings take place) are covered in banners of tartan plaid. Round tables for members occupy most of the floor space, and at the head of the room is a long table with a podium and a gavel. The club president and vice president sit here during meetings, flanked by a guest speaker, a fairly regal place atop the seating chart.

In the Ayrshire cottage, Morgan said while giving me the tour, the corresponding space provided shelter for livestock—and the animals, in turn, provided heat for “ploughman poet” Burns: “a lot of heat coming off those beasts.”

Morgan emigrated from Scotland to Atlanta in 1986 to do biomedical research at Emory University. When he heard about the cottage, “I was thinking it’s probably typical American bluster. And then I came here and I saw it.” He closed his eyes. “I was instantly taken by it, almost intoxicated.”

In the back are two smaller rooms, one a library and the other a shrine to past Burns club presidents. Morgan, who will “be president next year if I don’t screw up,” grew up in the Isle of Cumbrae, a Scottish vacation destination. His parents owned a bed-and-breakfast, and his dad presided over the local Burns club. “My father recited Burns when he came home from the pub at night, but I’ve never been what you’d call a Burns scholar,” Morgan says. “I’ve read a biography, and one is enough.”

And yet Burns—or perhaps just the idea of Burns—inspires Morgan and millions more. Some, of course, like the poetry. (Bob Dylan is an avowed fan of Burns’s famous poem “A Red, Red Rose.”) For others, Burns inspires Scottish pride. (Morgan says that he “never thought of the Scottish language as being beautiful until I heard Burns.”) But perhaps the biggest reason for the world’s ongoing Burns obsession is the poet’s connection with the everyman. Here again is Colonel Ingersoll, who wrote extensively about Burns: “Burns dwelt with simple things—with those that touch the heart; that tell of joy; that spring from labor done; that lift the burdens of despair from fainting souls; that soften hearts until the pearls of pity fall from eyes unused to weep.”

Here in Atlanta—home to joyful laborers such as Chipper Jones and Ludacris—a shrine to a populist poet makes a certain kind of sense.

* * *

Apart from the replica cottage, the Atlanta Burns club has another curious distinction: its founding president was Joseph Jacobs of Jacobs’ Pharmacy—the Atlanta drugstore where John Pemberton first sold the beverage he’d invented, Coca-Cola. It was Jacobs’s money that bought the land for the Atlanta cottage, the club’s immediate past president Victor Scott Gregg told me, and many of Jacobs’s peers gathered for the first local club meeting, on January 25, 1896, the poet’s birthday, 100 years after his death.

Today the Atlanta Burns club is nearly as much a celebration of Scotland and literature as it is a commemoration of Burns himself. But even the Scottish theme isn’t always upheld. Every meeting begins with a potluck dinner that’s more likely to feature fried chicken and green beans than haggis and black pudding. The monthly guest speakers aren’t even required to touch on Burns. (October’s speech was on Robert Louis Stevenson.) Burns, then, is a conduit to a larger world of ideas.

“A lot of it’s just an excuse to have a party,” Morgan said. “And that’s well and good. Burns would’ve been the first to condone that.”

Originally Published: December 16, 2009

COMMENTS (2)

On December 19, 2009 at 4:38am Ralph Windle wrote:
Nick Marino on Robert Burns 'in another time and place 'is a fitting comment on the Bard's ubiquity and relevance - though Tam O'Shanter and Coca-Cola might have stretched his modernity a mite too far.

The good news, which has perhaps not reached Atlanta, is that the Bard's immortal soul has transmigrated - most suitably, given Marino's deft description of the heating system in the Ayrshire cottage - into a contemporary Sheep, by name Bertie Ramsbottom; some of whose works are regularly performed at the best Burns Night in Oxfordshire, England, where he thrives. ( see www.ralphwindle.com/poet oveate).

His 'Monarch of the Glen' has the unmistakeable imprimatur:-

I'm Andrew MacTavish frae over the Border,/ and mony's the year that I've ganged thrae the heather./ Ma faithers were here when the auld Thane o'Cawdor/ And Lady McBeth were sleep-walkin' tegither./There's a chill in ma banes, an' I'm no unco pretty,/ thrae roamin' these hills in the rain an' the weather./ But I'm cock o'the hielands frae here to the city,/and mony's the dam that has swooned tae ma blether ..

...and so on.

This is Immortality in both senses of the word. For Auld Lang Syne.

Ralph Windle

On December 19, 2009 at 1:18pm Helen Massie Mitchell Ruggieri wrote:
Glad to hear that Atlanta Scots take Burns seriously. We here in the far
north (just south of Bufalo) celebrate
Burns night each January but have no plans to recreate the cottage.
Thanks for the immortal words.

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Biography

Nick Marino is managing editor of Paste magazine. His previous work has appeared in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly and Spin. He has taught critical writing at the University of Mississippi, and currently coaches women's rowing for Georgia Tech. 

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Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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