On our registers: Robert Burns’ cottage

Blog by Laura Brown, Social Media Manager at RoS.

As the celebrations for Burns Night approached, we decided to delve into our archives and see what we could find on our land registers about Scotland’s national bard.

This might seem like a random task for us at the Registers of Scotland (RoS) to be ticking off during the work day, but you’d be mistaken. Because this year, we’re celebrating a mammoth 400 years since the birth of the world’s oldest national land register, the General Register of Sasines. And, in this spirit, we’re running a campaign on social media – #RoS400 – which aims to underline the best bits of our rich history and our current missions. Don’t tell me you haven’t heard of it?! Get following us on social on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

Burns Cottage in Alloway, Ayrshire
Burns Cottage in Alloway, Ayrshire

So, a few days ago, myself and my colleague Innes (a RoS ‘legend’ who pretty much knows everything you’d ever want to know about the organisation) opened Registers Direct and began searching for leftovers of the life of Robert Burns so we could share a snippet with our followers. Here’s what we found.

Using Registers Direct to discover Scotland’s history

Our Registers Direct service allows you to access the mass of information in the Land Register, Sasine Register (that really old land register I mentioned earlier!) and personal registers. If you fancy doing this yourself, you’ll need to apply online and, once your application is verified, be aware of the search fees before you get started.


So, we opened Registers Direct and began. Our mission? To discover the oldest online record that made reference to Burns Cottage. This is the house where Robert Burns was born back in 1759 in Alloway, Ayrshire. Innes and I weren’t entirely sure that there would even be any record on either the Land or Sasine Register. Sometimes, when a building is passed down through generations of family members and then onto the ‘Scottish Ministers’ (i.e. Historic Environment Scotland) or a charity like the National Trust for Scotland, it doesn’t make that much of a mark on the registers… Which means it’s harder to trace its history.

We got lucky: there was a mention of Burns Cottage on the Sasine Register dating from 2008. Not quite as old as I was hoping, but it sent us on the right path. In 2008, there was a transfer from the Burns Monument Trust to the National Trust for Scotland for places of historic interest [and] natural beauty’. And although dating from less than a decade ago, this search sheet pointed us in the right direction. To discover more about Burns, we’d need to come off Registers Direct to delve deeper into the ‘First Series’ of the Sasine Register.

Exploring Scotland’s oldest land registry documents

Being pointed towards the First Series search sheets was like gold dust; we knew we were onto something really old. For the next stage of our search, Innes left Registers Direct behind and opened the Back Office Production System (BOPS) which houses historical information from the General Register of Sasines. And guess what? After following the footprints the Second Series search sheets had left us, Innes found a reference to Burns Cottage. Take a look at a snapshot of the search sheet below:


You’ll see that this search sheet dates from 1881, where it reads:

1881 May 28. Disp. by the Deacon and other members of the Incorporation of Shoemakers… for behalf of the subscribers to the monument erected to the memory of Robert Burns the Ayrshire Poet at Alloway, near Ayr. Dated 24, 25 & 26 1881.

Basically what this shows is the Incorporation of Shoemakers selling Burns Cottage to the trustees of Burns Monument Trust. This was exciting to find, though not quite as exciting as linking the property with Rabbie himself… But that was to come. This selling of the property directly relates to the written history you can discover on UndiscoveredScotland, where it describes how Burns’ father William leased the cottage to the Shoemakers (who used it as an alehouse).

And then we looked closer.

About a week after we’d done that recce of the Sasine Register‘s oldest documents, I reopened the screenshot to schedule in some social media coverage of what we found. But I noticed something:


On the very left hand side of the search sheet, in the smallest scrawl you could dream up, there was a date. 1756. I looked closer, straining my eyes on the computer screen:

Feu. William Burns, 25 June 1756. Disp. by … to Shoemakers Incorp 8 Sept. 1781.

How had I not noticed before? This was history right in front of me and finally, an actual mention of a Burns! This search sheet chronology was proof of William, Robert’s father, purchasing (‘feu’) the land that Burns Cottage was subsequently built on back in the 1750s. Then, a few years later, one of Scotland’s most famous sons was born.

Fancy visiting Burns Cottage?

If the romance and intrigue of Burns’ poetry – and the historical ties to the places he lived, especially in Alloway and Dumfriesshire – are piquing your interest enough to pay a visit, find out more about Burns Cottage on the official website.


And finally, have a read at the main search sheet description of Burns Cottage where the Bard lived for the first seven years of his life:

The subjects consisting of Burns Cottage, and lands adjoining, with the houses thereon described as 18 … of ground, bounded on the south east by the road from S… to Bridge of Doon and on the south west by a new made road from Alloway along the Sergeant’s B…. in Barony of Alloway.

P.S. Did you know that Robert Burns was also a land surveyor? Have a look at this intriguing article on the RICS website.

We’d love your feedback on this blog! Would you like to see more of these types of posts? Leave your comments below and don’t forget to join the conversation over on social media using #RoS400.

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