Passionate about Robert Burns



John and Margaret Skilling

John and Margaret Skilling are steeped in the culture and heritage of Robert Burns and they share a passionate desire to promote and extend the works and legacy of Burns throughout Ayrshire and further afield.

John and Margaret were both born and brought up in the Kilmarnock area and over the years they lived in various other places. However, they eventually returned to Ayrshire and settled in Alloway. In their early years, both attended Kilmarnock Academy.  John’s Primary School was the Bentinck in Kilmarnock, while Margaret attended the Academy from the age of 5 till she was 18.  It was not until a few years after leaving school, when they joined a Henderson Church summer youth coach trip to Girvan, that they met. Over several years their relationship flourished and they married.

John’s work took them from Kilmarnock to Wick, to Oban, to Bradford in West Yorkshire and, in 1985, finally back to Ayrshire when John got a job at Dickie’s Foundry in Ayr.

Once they had settled into their new Ayrshire home, Margaret and John joined Alloway Parish Church, both becoming Church Elders. They also joined the Alloway BurnsClub, where over the years they have been active and influential members.  Both have served as President of the Club, John 1991-1993 and Margaret 2008-2010.  Both are also members of the Ayrshire Association of Burns Clubs and both are Past Presidents - John 1994-96 and Margaret 1998-2000.  John is also a Past President of the Robert Burns World Federation (RBWF), serving from 2000 to 2001.   John was elected President of the Bradford St Andrews in 1979 and maintained his interest in Burns all the time he spent in Yorkshire.  

In these roles, they have attended several Burns Clubs, Burns Suppers and many other commemorative events throughout the world.  During his period as RBWF President, John and Margaret travelled extensively including visits to Canada, the United States and New Zealand. While in US, they visited the replica Burns Cottage at Atlanta Georgia, built in 1911.  While in New Zealand John gave an “Immortal Memory” in the town of Kerikeri.  In recognition of their dedication to preserving and extending the legacy of Robert Burns, John and Margaret have both been made Honorary Presidents of the Robert Burns World Federation and the Ayrshire Association of Burns Clubs (AABC). For several years John was Convener of the RBWF Heritage Committee ensuring locations linked to the poet were kept in good condition and that members were encouraged to visit as many sites as possible.  Margaret has also held positions of Secretary of the RBWF Schools Committee, Secretary of the AABC and Secretary and Treasurer of Alloway Burns Club.

According to Stephen Houston writing in the Ayrshire Post in November 2018 “there’s always been a third person in the marriage of John and Margaret Skilling - Robert Burns to be precise!”.

The Trysting Thorn


“At length I reach’d the bonieglen,

Where early life I sported.

I pass’d the milland trysting thorn,

Where Nancy aft I courted.”


This verse from Burns’ poem “The Soldier’s Return” tells the story of a soldier returning from the war to his home in Coylton, Ayrshire.  He passes the Trysting Thorn, a well-known local meeting spot for lovers. The original trysting thorn, a hawthorn bush, died and was cut down in 1918. Sections of it were sent to Burns Museums and Clubs throughout the world, and one of its seeds was replanted at Coylton. Over the years, this second generation Trysting Thorn was largely ignored and its condition declined.  John acquired funding from South Ayrshire Council and set up a small working party to clean up the overgrown site and restore the Trysting Thorn to a healthy state.  John still returns from time to time to ensure the upkeep of this important site.




The Ploughing Competition

Robert Burns lived at Mossgiel Farm, Mauchline, from 1784 until 1788, during which time he wrote many his best-known works including “The Holy Fair”, “Holy Willie’s Prayer”, “The Twa Dogs” and“To a Mouse”. It was while he lived at Mossgiel that he met Jean Armour, whom he later married, despite strong opposition from her father.

In 1996 John organised a Ploughing Competition at Mossgiel Farm.  The event was initially planned for January 1996, however a very heavy snowfall prevented the Competition from going ahead at that time and it had to be rescheduled to a date in March. John and the others organising the event expected a modest turnout, however on the day several thousand people turned up. There were “fields and fields” of vehicles parked and a huge crowd of spectators. Overall, the event was an enormous success.



Leglen Wood

It is well known by Burnsians throughout the world that the young Robert Burns was captivated by the history of Sir William Wallace. He is quoted as saying that Wallace “poured a Scottish prejudice in my veins which will boil along there til the floodgates of life shut in eternal rest.”

It was recorded in Blind Harry’s ballad “The Wallace”, published in the 15th century, that Wallace frequented Leglen Wood

Syne to the Leglen wood, when it was late,

To make a silent and a safe retreat

Leglen Wood is on the banks of the River Ayr about 3 miles from Auchencruive and 5 miles from Lochlie Farm, where Burns lived between the ages of 18 and 25. Burns himself roved around this area  dreaming of his hero Wallace.  In 1876 he wrote in a letter to Mrs Dunlop, a descendent of William Wallace, “I explored every den and dell where I could suppose my heroic Countryman to have sheltered”. His affection for Wallace is further evident in the name he gave his second son - Francis Wallace Burns.

Over the years, Leglen Wood became neglected and overgrown.  John organised another working party to tidy up the area and the Memorial Cairn which had been erected by the Burns World Federation in 1929. The Cairn is reached by passing through an ornate gate donated to the area by the Calgary Burns Club to commemorate the250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns.

Robert Burns Memorial Window

In 1996 it was proposed to install a memorial window in Alloway Parish Church to commemorate the Bicentenary of the death Robert Burns.  John, who at that time was President of the Ayrshire Association of Burns Clubs, was a member of the Committee who were instrumental in raising funds, gaining approval for the design of the window and ensuring its installation. The window was dedicated in Alloway Parish Church on Sunday, 29 September 1996.



The Pilgrim Stone

A large stone, known as The Pilgrim Stone, was found at the back of the Auld Kirk at Alloway. It was removed to Loudoun Hall in Ayr.  However, John believed it should be in Alloway and accessible for everyone to see. So, he secured funding and negotiated in order to get the Stone brought back to Alloway. He wanted it to be outside the Parish Church, however it was re-located inside the Church. The church is open every Sunday all year, and every day over the summer, so the Pilgrim Stone is accessible to visitors. This is particularly appropriate as the Church lies on the Whithorn Way, which is an ancient pilgrimage route running from Glasgow Cathedral to remains of the Monastery of St Ninian at Whithorn in Dumfries and Galloway.  Each summer John and Margaret act as guides in Alloway Parish Church.



The Old Bridge over the River Doon

Adam Smith and James Armour, who was the father of Jean Armour, Robert Burns’ wife, were the stonemasons who built the low bridge over the River Doon, which crosses the Doon on the Dunure Road at the Secret Garden Cafe.  A commemorative plaque was built into the Secret Garden building when the bridge was built.  However during renovations to the cafe, the stone was plastered over.  Thanks to John’s efforts, a commemorative plaque is built into a large stone and again commemorates the building of the bridge.

Auld Nick’s View

John served as Property Convener at Alloway Parish Church for a number of years. While in this role, he was concerned that the narrow road leading from the main road through Alloway up to the Alloway Parish Church car park, which also gives pedestrian access to the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, was unnamed. Hence it was difficult to give travel directions to anyone wishing to visit the Church or Museum. John persuaded South Ayrshire Council to name the road “Auld Nick’s View”. His rationale for the name was that as Auld Nick looked out of the east window of the Auld Kirk towards Tam O’Shanter crossing the Brig O’Doon, this would have been his view!

As is obvious, John has had a profound influence on the legacy of Robert Burns, extending that legacy and ensuring that many places and artefacts which were important to Burns are now maintained and accessible for everyone.  


Promoting Burns’s Legacy to Schools

Margaret was a farmer’s daughter who had always wanted to be a secondary school teacher.  She realised this ambition and subsequently taught at many schools including Kilmarnock Academy,  St Joseph’s Academy,  Wick High School, Bradford Girls’ Grammar and Ayr Academy.

Throughout her teaching career, Margaret was passionate about teaching her pupils about Robert Burns. She set up Burns Clubs in all her schools, arranged Burns Suppers for her pupils and introduced school competitions where pupils had the chance to learn and recite Burns poems. Her legacy is evident today with the vast number of school competitions for Burns poems and songs held throughout the world.

Margaret is particularly proud of her success in introducing Robert Burns to the curriculum at Bradford Grammar School in North Yorkshire and introducing Burns Suppers to the pupils there. Burns was well received by the School and Margaret’s influence lasted well beyond the years she spent teaching there.

For several years Margaret was Schools Convener for the Burns World Federation and her expertise was in high demand when it came to judging Burns Competitions. The Burns World Federation runs annual competitions for Primary and Secondary schoolchildren in singing, recitation and instrumental performances of Burns poetry and songs.

The Helen Waddell Memorial Trophy is a prestigious award given annually to the competitor who gives the best recitation of the Burns poem “To a Haggis”.  Margaret tutored the 2015 winner, Cameron Kerr, who in addition to the Trophy, was presented with an uncooked haggis!  Cameron has gone on to be a popular speaker at Burns Suppers throughout the country.

For several years Margaret was a volunteer Guide at the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum and at the Monument and Gardens.


Changes in Burns Clubs’ Membership profiles

Margaret and John between them have given numerous recitations of Burns poetry at Burns Suppers and other events promoting the legacy of Burns.  They have also given speeches such as “The Immortal Memory of Robert Burns”, “Toast to the Lassies” and the “Reply to the Toast to the Lassies”.

However, not long ago it would have been unthinkable for a woman to address the haggis at a Burns Supper. Initially, the Burns Movement was considered exclusively a male domain. The Bachelor’s Club in Tarbolton, set up in 1780, by Robert Burns and his brother was a male-only Debating Society, and traditionally, Burns Clubs and Burns Suppers were attended only by men.  Although there are still some men-only Clubs, social change over the years has led to the inclusion of women and families. Margaret has been pleased to witness these changes in attitudes towards women within the Burns Movement.

Margaret and John are modest about their achievements in perpetuating and extending the legacy left behind by Robert Burns.  Their contribution to his legacy is immense and is much appreciated by Burns Clubs and Burns enthusiasts throughout the world.


ART Project

Both Margaret and John agree that that the Alloway Tunnel Project is a wonderful initiative which will “make a big difference” to the area. They both enjoy the outdoors and enjoy walking in and around Alloway, Doonfoot and Ayr. One of their favourite walks is to go along Longhill Avenue, down the stairs to the Alloway Tunnel and up the path to the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum and they are looking forward to walking thorough the renovated Tunnel on a regular basis. Further, the Tunnel lies on the Whithorn Way, so once renovated, it will greatly enhance this section of the pilgrims walk.

“We had a sneak preview of paintings being prepared by Chris Rutterford for the Tunnel mural. Chris’s portrait of Robert Burns, which will have a prominent position in the mural, is wonderful and the detail Chris has added is amazing. Everything is there, the Red Rose, the Mouse, and all the artefacts displayed on Burns’ desk in the Museum.”

John and Margaret firmly believe that once the Project is complete, it will lead to enormous benefits to the local community. It will encourage many more visitors to come to Alloway and add significantly to the legacy left behind by Scotland’s National Bard – Robert Burns.


Margaret and John Skilling

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