Monday, 25 March 2019

Kilmarnock. Dick Institute. Robert Burns.

                                                ALL PHOTOS CLICK FULL SCREEN.
A day trip by bus with Anne saw us leave Buchanan Bus Station and under an hour later roll into Kilmarnock, a town 18km or 11 miles inland from the coastal town of Ayr, both around a similar size with populations just under 50,000 residents. The Dick Institute above.
Kilmarnock Bus Station. I seem to remember, traveling here in the 1960s the bus station then was covered over and in a different location, appearing very dark, mysterious, and atmospheric through a child's eyes. Like going briefly underground into a subterranean kingdom full of strange smells and sights. That stuck in my mind anyway, coming here again, and looking at old photos online of the '1960s SMT Kilmarnock Bus Station' you will see what I mean. Placing bus stations inside buildings or erecting garages underground seemed to be fairly common back then before engine exhaust pollution was even recognized as a threat to health. Cigarette and pipe smoke inside buses at busy times, upstairs, was even worse, like a dense fog on occasions, and children just accepted this as normal. This modern bus station is more open plan, airy, and bright. The building behind is a multi level car park and the main shopping centre is just behind that.
As I know what she's like once she hits the shops I carefully steered Anne in the direction of the Dick Institute... and hopeful enlightenment. This is it here and for decades I'd passed signs for it on Ayrshire hill walks without even knowing what it was. Normally, as I've mentioned before, any hill walking companions are  completely focused on hills with little or no interest in visiting urban areas. But for once, with Anne keen to visit " a Scottish dick museum" in her own words, I had some company. Thank you, oh precious one.
The building itself came as something of a surprise, unexpectedly grand and ornate, as did this entire preserved district, carefully landscaped with fine period buildings in the surrounding vicinity.
Inside it was just as impressive, the entire upper level divided into separate interesting and spacious rooms. I thought I'd left poet Robert Burns (never Rabbie in his own lifetime) behind in Ayr but it turned out Kilmarnock has just as large a Burns presence as Alloway where he grew up. As an adult he moved to a farm within walking distance of this town so Kilmarnock, having a printing press, was where he really started to become famous and publish his poems. I learned Burns poetry and songs in school of course, after a fashion, but like Shakespeare I often stumbled over reading the printed words out loud and to most of my classmates and myself it was an endurance test to get through rather than a pleasure, with half the class laughing at our pitiful efforts if already chosen and the other half nervous they would be the next victims.
Although a household name worldwide I think it's fair to say that Burns is mainly championed in the UK by certain actors, certain traditional folk singers or intellectual types to prove their deep Scottish roots in some strange fashion and not really by the general public at large. For a modern audience it can be hard to understand and appreciate fully. Many Russians apparently are fond of Burns but over here he's mainly trotted out at Burns suppers once a year... or hogmanay, usually in middle class households as a dinner party variation, or in more upmarket hotels, restaurants and public buildings, as a Scottish treat/icon for tourists where they have made the effort to pronounce the poems correctly, often through specialized help, like a guest Burns speaker, or talented non professional.
Similar to the equally renowned James Joyce, apart from a few well known examples ( Auld Lang Syne) you just can't dip in to these writers immediately with any level of ease- they require time, study, and practice to get it sounding spot on. There may be exceptions but in thousands of ordinary Scottish houses I've visited over decades in work I've never seen Robert Burns displayed or mentioned in any of them. A bit like the definition of a classic book- titles known by everyone but read by very few. Except in certain domestic bookcases where a copy of Burns poetry would seem like an omission to a well balanced thoughtful collection, a tasteful blend to complement the house overall, not necessarily to be well thumbed or remembered.        But everyone knows the name.

That's not to say we didn't find this information interesting as not being Burns enthusiasts we were surprised by the Kilmarnock connection and intrigued to learn more. Rather than tell you the story you can read it yourself here. Hopefully.
The ground floor of the Dick Institute contains the town library and like a lot of medium sized fairly isolated towns I've visited, Cumbernauld springs to mind, it has a wide selection of books, films and other entertainment- more than the average suburban city library would hold, as if its not here in this facility Glasgow is the nearest larger source of information- pre internet days. Even now it's still well stocked and we had a look through the racks of films, finding classics of cinema I've not seen for years.... modern, world, and period titles. Nowadays, with DVD hire shops shut and supermarkets stocking very limited film titles it's a much poorer selection on show for casual browsing customers- something you tend to forget until you see the broader spectrum of films in a place like this with French, German, Japanese and smaller indie movies well represented. The ground floor also hosts art installations and various events.
Come to Kilmarnock and get educated... like us.
As I've seen before in numerous post industrial British towns, at one time, especially during the industrial revolution and colonial era, each of these places, almost backwaters nowadays, (for folk living outside Ayrshire that is) had a thriving local economy and in the case of coastal towns often traded independently with other countries. The general populace may have had poor working conditions and low wages but judging by the scale of the public buildings surrounding the Dick Institute, Kilmarnock was not a poor town back then. Far from it. Similar to the case of not that far away Paisley or Clydebank -now and back then- once two of the richest towns in the UK 70 years ago with worldwide trade, industry, and export links- now two of the poorest.
The old Technical School, part of Kilmarnock Academy, converted into upmarket apartments by the looks of them but nice to see it saved. Lovely period building.
A closer detail.
Arts and crafts. Technical college entrance arch. Only Kilmarnock Academy and Eton College in the UK have produced two separate Nobel peace prize winners- a mark of its important standing back then for a rural community surrounded by farmland in a fairly off grid location. The older buildings here date from the 1800s through to 1910.
Another part of Kilmarnock Academy. Although the old buildings still seem to be in use for certain events/business enterprises, etc a new modern school for pupils sits nearby.
Kilmarnock War Memorial. An unusual plain square cube whereas most others feature a black angel or similar sculpture.
Never realized that Scotland, per head of population, suffered the largest losses of any allied country during the First World War.
Stained Glass Panel. Dick Institute.
Adam and Eve panel.

This we found in the porch of the New Laigh Kirk or Church, a fine building with both modern and original stained glass panels. You had to ask permission to photograph the ones inside so none here as the custodian was busy with other visitors on our arrival but the new ones were fabulous creations and much admired. Built in the early 1800s it replaced an earlier version, hence the 'new' kirk tag.
Another surprise was finding out American gothic horror writer and poet Edgar Allan Poe may have visited this same church to study the headstones as a child, sent here from school. Although born in America, after his mother died he was taken in by a Scottish women who took pity on him and took him from the USA to Irvine, a nearby Scottish coastal town about 10km 6 miles away from Kilmarnock. He lived in Irvine for around a year before moving to London then back to the USA. We had no inkling Edgar Allan Poe had been anywhere near Scotland, let alone this church.

With various cemetery headstones featuring luckless Covenanters who had been decapitated and tortured this may well have fed into his schoolboy imagination from that time. As seen in previous posts killing witches was also popular in Scotland. Also his mother died in extreme poverty and desperation of tuberculosis when he was a child as did his young wife decades later, suggesting he may either have been an unconscious but largely unaffected carrier of this terrible illness or maybe as a well known but frequently penniless writer he lived in unheated rooms through the damp winters. Two treasured loved ones coughing up blood and dying slowly may well have played a part in molding his psyche towards gloomy macabre thoughts. Annabel Lee is one of his most moving poems though, written about his failing wife's health, but styled in an effective 'fever dream' context, and he only lived two years more after her untimely death.
During the industrial revolution Kilmarnock made its money from coal mines, iron ore deposits, linen, manufacturing, stone quarries ( the rich sandstone from ballochmyle was used widely) and even fresh water river pearls. Up until recently Johnnie Walker, the whisky manufacturer, had a large presence in the town, with several generations employed. Starting from the early 1880s it evolved into a world famous brand, always based in Kilmarnock, and at its height in the 1970s it employed almost 2000 folk in well paid steady jobs. After a takeover it's now based elsewhere.
We then had a wander around Kilmarnock's main shopping district, and unlike Ayr, with its down at heel slightly faded appearance,closed shops, and pigeon plus seagull plagued rooftops and skies overhead, Kilmarnock appears, at least for now, to be bucking the high street trend better. Fewer empty shops here and a more interesting street layout with cobbled pedestrian zones and some fine Victorian buildings, which made it more enjoyable walking around. In Ayr you always had to watch out for cars coming up behind you right through the main shopping streets and it was very vehicle intense, even at night in the dark, with continuous cars circling like vultures waiting for unwary pedestrians to put a foot wrong. Much more relaxed here and Anne enjoyed it. She went shopping while I took a tour of the neighbourhood, arranging to meet each other later on.
Doves. Garden of Eden.
Victorian Pub.
Burns Statue and Shopping Mall.
Kilmarnock Heritage Walk info. We had done most of this before we found this sign.
Street Art. A pavement swimmer in the High Street.
Period street layout. Kilmarnock town centre has a scattering of Victorian era buildings, enough to give it some character.
Robert Burns Monument Centre. We found this building in Kay Park, a short 20 minute walk from the town shopping district, also used as a genealogy research unit and wedding venue, judging by the confetti blowing around.
1846 traditional pub and live music venue.

Masonic Temple. Built 1920s using Ballochmyle red sandstone. Burns was an honorary member of the older lodge here, a useful stepping stone to getting further ahead, no doubt. In many instances throughout history you can find people/artists with equal or greater talent who somehow manage to slip between the cracks and get overlooked despite loads of potential. Either through dodgy temperament, shy retiring nature, no ability to promote themselves, not good looking enough, lack of focus and opportunities, just plain bad luck, wrong choices, or empty of sheer ambition and contacts. It's not always the greatest talents in history that get remembered every time just the ones that have the right combination of good luck, judgement, drive, temperament, a ruthless streak to get ahead, the ability to interact with the right people, at the right time, and perseverance to seize any opportunity and adapt to it when it comes. Usually every society in any era has room for only one or very occasionally two great painters, artists, poets, sculptors, writers etc who get elevated above all the rest. And it can boil down to how comfortable you are with the star makers- the folk that can make things happen for you- and the ability and intelligence to tick all the boxes put in front of you on your way to the top- talent (or genius) being just one small factor in a complicated equation. After all, talent, (and genius) can also be manufactured from nothing sometimes if enough people buy into it, especially in this modern era of relentless spin, like a heavy object rolling downhill to the point where it becomes unstoppable force. "That artist is a Genius! " agree 20 carefully selected people in a room.  If they say it often enough it becomes self fulfilling, occasionally. (obviously, I'm not talking about Robert Burns in that respect just fame in general and the great game of winners and losers as to who gets remembered by history,,, and what for...)
Sometimes, it can be all show at the front and not much behind. A D.I. Lion. ( those who visit it will know the truth of this) And a pleasant journey back in good company with my always welcome companion.


Anabel Marsh said...

One of my aunts lived in Kilmarnock for a few years when I was young and I don’t think I’ve ever visited since. Even then, we went straight to her house and not the town centre which I know nothing about, so this post has been very interesting. Maybe I need to plan a visit!

lisa44 said...

Larkin Poe are playing on Sun 7 Apr 2019 @ 7:00 pm | Oran Mor, Glasgow. The bad news is that they sold out months ago but the good news is that I am going along with wife and friends. I’ll tell you what they were like though. The other good news is that Samantha Fish is playing at the Oran Mor, Friday, 10 May 2019; and she is every bit as good and that’s not sold out yet

You should have come up to the Dean Castle Country park and seen how the council managed to squander 4.8 million, with little or nothing to show for the multi million pound project apart from vandalising it by cutting down hundreds of trees, then digging hole that looks like an industrial site.I just had to put that in since people locally are are disgusted by their incompetence.(which is massive)

Carol said...

Well, let's face it, you've just gotta see a 'Scottish Dick Museum' haven't you? ;-)

I agree you can't get hold of decent films to rent nowadays - I think they think we should just all use Netflix or similar!

blueskyscotland said...

Yes, same here Anabel,
only went there as a youngster because the bus stopped there briefly on the way to Ayr. If Kilmarnock was on the coast it would get more visitors but being inland you really need a reason to go there deliberately.

blueskyscotland said...

Cheers Liza44,
Hope you enjoy your night there, it's a good venue. Watched Cloudbusting there a while ago and they put on a brilliant show. I've seen a few Samantha Fish videos. Great thing about You Tube is that you can listen to music you would not normally seek out just by clicking on what comes up next so that particular night I went from discovering Larkin Poe to German Jazz, Jeff Beck, French Electro Swing then obscure 60s rock and Irish music. Like travelling the world in a few hours.
We were going to visit Dean Castle then heard it was shut for ' improvements.' I've been round it on a bike five years ago then visited Moscow... just to say I'd cycled to Moscow in a day.

blueskyscotland said...

Hi Carol,
The lion certainly doesn't have one as its only got an upper body- no back end- never did find where its bum and tail went to but it was missing in action.
Yes, you get a very limited DVD selection now and some of the best, most original films I've seen have all been minor indie, subtitled or limited release efforts that would not make the supermarket racks.

Carol said...

true about the best films not being the famous blockbusters but rather the unknown stuff!

blueskyscotland said...

Like 'Hunt For the Wilderpeople' :o)

You Tube 1hr 41 mins. M.G. version.

Andy said...

Bit behind on my blog reading. My minds eye would have Kilmarnock down as bland place with little interest admittedly based on a visit to a Premier in on my way to Arran a few years back. Shows how, if you scratch the surface that most places have something to interest the casual visitor. Loved that music track as well.