On the day before the anniversary of Robert Burns’ birthday this week, I accompanied some students from Preston Lodge High School to see the Robert Burns Memorial Shelter in Prestonpans.

They are a group of fantastic storytellers and we had been sharing tales in Scots the previous week.

It was, of course, a propitious day to pay a visit to the memorial, being the eve of Burns Night!

The shelter was built in 1959 by the Airts Burns Club, and paid for by public subscription.

It is situated close to the sea, by the turret, which overlooks the Hepburn rocks, a part of my childhood playground and I’m sure many others’ also.

I remember being intrigued by the building.

I recall my nickname for it was “the jail” because that’s what it looked like to me when I was a child. I remember thinking it wouldn’t look out of place in a Western movie!

But the inscription above the door didn’t say jail, although I wasn’t sure then what it did mean.

It reads, in capital letters: “BETTER A WEE BUSH THAN NAE BIELD”.

It wasn’t until much later that I discovered the phrase comes from the seal that Robert Burns made for himself.

Bield is a Scots word meaning shelter, but it means more than just a physical structure. It conveys the idea of protection or sanctuary, a safe place.

What did Burns mean by this?

Others better informed than me might explain, but my instinct is that Burns’ experience of poverty and looming homelessness inspired his quote, as well as his connection to nature.

So I think the idea of a shelter as a memorial to Burns is such a symbolic and inspired idea (there is also a monument nearby).

And these days, there is an added meaning to the purpose of the shelter, for it is a bield for a fantastic mural.

In 2005, artist Kate Hunter was commissioned by the Prestoungrange Arts Festival to create the mural which depicts the key images from Robert Burns’ poem Tam o’ Shanter.

Her art covers the interior walls of the shelter and, although the building is normally closed, it’s possible to view it through the metal bars on the door and two windows.

Prestonpans has many murals, of course, depicting the town’s rich history.

Kate’s art is such a wonderful addition to this. She has managed to capture the eerie and sinister quality of the tale, while also conveying the humour in Burns’ telling of it in his poem.

The setting inside the shelter adds to the impact of Kate’s art.

It’s hidden from sight, in an unusual-looking building, which tempts you to go investigate, just as Tam did at Kirk Alloway.

When you peer inside from the windows, you are met, like Tam was, with an “unco sight!”

Warlocks and witches in a dance

Nae Cotillion brent-new frae France,

But hornpipes, jigs, strathspeys, and reels

Put life and mettle in their heels.

A winnock bunker in the east,

There sat Auld Nick in shape o’ beast

A towie tyke, black, grim, and large

To gie them music was his charge.

The Preston Lodge High School students had been introduced to the story of Tam o’ Shanter, and some of the poem, by their teacher.

So it was a wonderful moment watching them discover the mural, and being able to identify the different scenes and characters.

But the mural also has unexpected details, which reference other works by Burns, and as well as people who influenced him.

Look carefully and you will find a wee, sleekit cowrin, tim’rous beastie hiding. . . well, to be honest, the mouse isn’t so tim’rous or cowrin in the mural.

There is a red rose too, and we know what that is a reference to.

The famous composer and fiddler Neil Gow plays in the tavern scene. He wasn’t there in the poem, of course, but he and his music were a big influence on Burns, and they did meet in real life.

There’s lots more to discover and I used to think it was a shame that the shelter wasn’t open.

But now I think this is the best way to view Kate’s engaging mural: just like Tam himself, peering through a window into a semi-darkened old building, where witches and warlocks dance, to tunes played by Auld Nick himself.

Go on, see for yourself!