Last night was our annual village 'Car Treasure Hunt'. We've been doing these on and off for years. In fact it's a testament to the relative peacefulness of Ayrshire's roads, that they are still possible in these parts. For anyone who has never participated before, you pay a small sum towards whatever good cause has been nominated, get a sheet with a set of 'clues' and instructions - and off you go, filling in the answers to cryptic (sometimes very cryptic indeed) questions and directions as you go.
Last night there were four of us in a friend's car and the hunt involved an hour or so's drive along the winding back roads of Ayrshire, through the kind of countryside that Robert Burns would have known. It was a sunny night, and the countryside was looking its very best - in that wonderful time between spring and summer, when the verges are full of pink campion and a few remaining bluebells, where the hedges are creamy with sweet scented may blossom, and the gentle hillsides are ablaze with whin (gorse) blossoms. Everywhere, farmers were working hard at the silage while the weather was so congenial and the nights so long and light. It doesn't get dark till well past ten o'clock now and even at eleven there is still light in the sky.
In truth it seems very little changed in the 200+ years since Robert Burns roamed these hills and lanes with his current squeeze. It was a clear and very warm evening and it seemed as though around every corner was another stunning perspective across woods and fields, white farmhouses huddled into hillsides, and long vistas west towards the glittering sea and the hills of Arran, with Kintyre behind.
It often strikes me that the powers-that-be in Ayrshire do not know what they have in terms of scenery. If this kind of vista was anywhere else, it would be proudly promoted - the 'garden of Scotland', unspoilt landscapes of the Burns Country, and so on. I have no idea why there is, instead, a relentless focus on golf. I've no problem with golf, but there is so much more to Ayrshire and it's odd that even the people who live amid such beauty and such historical interest don't seem to notice it.
Anyway, there we were, driving slowly along yet another of the intensely pretty back roads when we passed an old farmhouse that seemed to be peculiarly sunk in time. It certainly leapt out at me and I couldn't quite say why. It wasn't part of the treasure hunt. There were no clues to be had here, and yet as we passed, I had the urge to ask our driver to stop so that I could go back, have a closer look, find out more. It just seemed ancient and interesting and for some unaccountable reason, it drew me. But, we were on a treasure hunt and we drove on.
Later, back at home (we didn't win, but we didn't do too badly either!) I followed the route we had taken on a map - not easy because we had been on a road that I didn't remember driving along before, even though I've lived here for many years - and there it was. To my amazement, I discovered that the house was Mount Oliphant. Which was the place where the Burness family moved from the cottage in Alloway where the poet was born. Rab later changed his name to Burns. It hadn't been a particularly happy place for the family - the land was, as ever with these small tenant farms, particularly bad. Landowners would rent them out and the poor tenants would be responsible for 'improving' them, often at the expense of their own health and strength. It was this kind of work in conditions much less warm and congenial than last night, that the poet described as the 'toil of a galley slave'. And so it must have been. It helped to destroy his own and his father's health.
The place is, of course, changed. But there is still something recognisable about it when you look at old pictures such as this one.
If you want to know more about exactly what I have been researching, you could seek out a copy of my most recent novel, The Jewel - all about the life and times of Robert Burns's Ayrshire born wife, Jean Armour. It's available in all good bookshops, as they say - and on Kindle of course, and in other eBook forms as well.