Robert Burns House stands on what is now known as Burns Street on the south eastern side of the centre of Dumfries. It is only a couple of hundred yards away from another essential stopping off point on any Burns pilgrimage to Dumfries, his mausoleum in St Michael' Churchyard: and from the gates of the churchyard it is possible to see the large black arrow on the white gable end of the house opposite, pointing the way to Burns House.
This is the house in which Robert Burns died on 21 July 1796, three days after returning from seeking a cure for his illness at Brow Well. Today it serves as a shrine to Robert Burns and his work, nicely complementing the exhibits on view in the town's Robert Burns Centre. Visitors to the house should also look out for the statue of Jean Armour and one of their children, erected in 2004 on a site between the house and the churchyard in which the Burns Mausoleum stands, and the small memorial garden on the opposite side of the street from the house.
Robert Burns and his family moved into this two storey house in what was then called Mill Street in May 1793. It may not seem large to modern eyes for a growing family, but it was considerably less cramped than their previous accommodation in the town, in a two roomed upstairs flat in Bank Street. Robert and Jean must have been especially attracted by the idea of a parlour in which they could entertain guests, and the scope for a small study in which Burns could write. They rented the house from their landlord, Captain John Hamilton, who had also rented them the flat in Bank Street, for £8 per year.
Burns' death left Jean Armour as a 31 year old widow with six children to bring up on her own: five surviving sons of her own plus her adopted daughter Elizabeth, the illegitimate daughter of Robert Burns and Anna Park. Burns' many friends and fans quickly rallied round, though not always with very helpful offers. One benefactor offered to provide an education for the children, on condition Jean move to Ayr. Meanwhile, relatives offered to look after some of the boys in a way that would have split the family up. More helpful offers allowed Jean to continue to live in the house rent free, and ensured the children received a good education in Dumfries.
Jean seems to have been determined to keep her family together at their home in Mill Street, and to open it up as a memorial to Robert. As a result a steady stream of visitors called by. On 18 August 1803 the poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth visited, an event recorded by Wordsworth's sister Dorothy in her Recollections of a Tour Made in Scotland 1803. Jean Armour was away at the time, staying at the seaside with her children following the death of her 13 year old son Wallace, but a maid showed the visitors around the house. Other notable visitors included John Keats in 1818 and American author Nathaniel Hawthorn in the 1850s.
Jean Armour continued to live in the house on what had been renamed as Burns Street until her death in 1834, when she was buried besides Burns in the mausoleum completed in 1817. The house was brought by one of Burns' sons, Colonel William Nichol Burns, in 1851, but despite the railways bringing an every increasing stream of Burns enthusiasts to Dumfries, the condition of the house deteriorated over the following decades. As a result it played no part in events commemorating the centenary of Burns' death in 1896.
In 1903 Dumfries Town Council took over the house, repaired it, and opened it to the public under the care of an elderly couple who took up residence, one of whom was Robert Burn's granddaughter. Further improvements were made during the 1930s when the house was owned by Dumfries and Galloway Royal Infirmary. During this time the whole house was opened to the public for the first time, complete with furniture of the sort that would have been here in Burns' day. The hospital found it had more pressing priorities during the war and in 1944 the house was again taken over by Dumfries Town Council. It has been in the care of the local authority ever since.