It’s lunchtime on a grey Wednesday in Dumfries, and I’m standing in the small, round, creaky-floored room at the top of a decommissioned windmill. It’s pitch black: I can see precisely nothing. Then the museum attendant (for the windmill is part of the Dumfries Museum) pulls a rope, an aperture opens above us, and Dumfries appears on the drum-like tabletop in the middle of the room.
There’s the red of the sandstone, the green of the grass, the silver of the cars that are snaking across the New Bridge. Birds swoop across the fulminating weir. It’s a projection (entering via a small shutter, light is reflected downwards by a mirror and, passing through a convex lens, casts an image on to the table), but the detail is exquisite and the movement of the people, water and birds has a fluidity that I’ve never seen on a television screen. “We try very hard not to look into people’s houses,” says the attendant hastily.
The camera obscura was built in 1836, a time when Scotland was rosy-cheeked with Enlightenment endeavour. It was funded by local astronomy enthusiasts, and is the oldest continuously operated one in Scotland. This makes it Dumfries’ second-biggest claim to fame – with a tip of the hat to its being named Scotland’s happiest town last October – the first being its association with Robert Burns.
There is so much Burns here, indeed, that lying in a darkened room seems the only appropriate response. Scotland’s national poet lived here from 1788 until his premature death in 1796, pen-pushing at an excise house by day and constructing lyrical Scots nationhood by night. He was doing much more by night, in fact, drinking in pubs that survive to this day and fathering several of his 12 children here. Many of Dumfries’ 50,000-odd inhabitants must be direct descendants, which might help explain the town’s devotion to him.
As we changed the direction of the shutter with gentle pulls of a rope, a wider spread of Dumfries fell upon the tabletop, including the Burns Mausoleum, where even in a churchyard – kirkyard, I mean – full of preposterously ornate red sandstone tombs, Burns’ is the finest. The remains of Burns, along with those of his wife Jean Armour, lie beneath a gravestone that is visible through a glass pane and a wrought iron gate.
When goggling at the grave earlier, I trod in the footsteps of one John Keats, who wrote a poem about his visit to the tomb. Keats, too, understood the discomfort of visiting a windy graveyard on a wet day in March, writing in the poem that “The short-liv’d, paly summer is but won/ From winter’s ague for one hour’s gleam.”
Fortunately, it’s very easy to pay Burns the respect of visiting his favourite pubs. After leaving the camera obscura, I followed in his footsteps by going to the Globe Inn, a cosy, wood-panelled pub whose stone walls made me invisible to the camera obscura’s wandering eye.
Doonhamers (the people of Dumfries) are such a friendly, unflappable crew that I doubt they mind the idea of appearing on the camera obscura tabletop. Perhaps, in idle moments, they wonder how they look from up there.
Fortunately, Burns is good for unwitting surveillance as well as the beauty of Scottish life and language: “O, wad some Power the giftie gie us/ To see ourselves as others see us!”.
Six fine reasons to visit Dumfries
There’s lots of local history besides Burns, including Roman occupation. Find out more at the excellent Dumfries Museum – where you can also find the camera obscura.
Dumfries was a finalist for the Britain’s Best Walking Neighbourhood award this year, and while the town as a whole isn’t particularly pretty, its historic riverside area is a good place for a stroll. Try the Burns Trail – more details in the Robert Burns Centre.
The Robert Burns Centre and the Robert Burns House are good places to learn about Rabbie’s life and work.
For Rabbie-tinged history, visit the High Street’s Globe Inn. For a modern local favourite, visit the Cavens Arms.
You’ll need a booking, but try Home, the restaurant above the Coach and Horses inn that overlooks the river. Its menu is mostly British and French fare, and the food is easily the best in town.
It’s in St Michael’s Kirkyard, which is up the hill from the river and would be worth a trip even if Burns had never been buried here.