WHAT’S THE STORY?

TONIGHT and for many nights beforehand and afterwards, around the world there will be gatherings around the world to mark the 259th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, acclaimed as Scotland’s National Bard.

The annual Burns Supper is a tradition that has been going since shortly after the poet died in Dumfries on 21 July, 1796 at the age of 37.

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There are no Shakespeare Lunches, Dickens Dinners or Tolstoy Teas celebrated annually, and even though many countries mark the birthdays of their greatest writers, no-one else is commemorated in the manner of the uniquely Scottish Burns Supper.

WHO STARTED IT ALL?

WE very nearly did not have a January celebration of Burns. Friends of his gathered at his birthplace, Burns Cottage in Alloway on 21 July, 1801, to mark the fifth anniversary of his death.

Along came Greenock Burns Club, the first of its kind in the world, which was founded in 1801 by people from Ayrshire who had known the poet.

They obviously did not know him well enough, because when they borrowed the idea of the gathering in July, 1801, and transposed it to mark Burns’s birthday, they got the date wrong.

Thus it was that the world’s first Burns Supper to mark the anniversary of his birthday was held in Alloway on 29 January, 1802. Someone queried the date and emissaries were despatched to Ayrshire where the parish records – there were no birth certificates back then – confirmed that the Bard had indeed been born on 25 January, 1759, and in 1803, Greenock Burns Club held their supper on the correct date.

The “mother club” of the worldwide federation of Burns clubs remains among the most active in promoting the work of Rabbie.

HOW DID THE SUPPER IDEA SPREAD?

HOW could it fail not to? An event mixing whisky, haggis and Scottish culture was just what Scottish people were looking for in the early years of the 19th century when there was still an ongoing attempt to impose “British” values on “North Britain” and the King’s English was being foisted on an unwilling population.

Burns had worked tirelessly to preserve the Scots language and culture and he became the symbol of the Scottish resistance to Anglification.

The concept of the Burns Club really took off in 1805 when Paisley Burns Club became the first to have an official constitution and slowly but surely the message that Burns was worth celebrating spread across Scotland and wherever Scots went – in those days of the expanding British Empire, that was a great many places.

It wasn’t just clubs that spread the supper notion. Friends and families across Scotland picked up on the idea and by 1811, the Reverend William Peebles wrote his infamous warning against the growing practice of people hosting suppers to celebrate Burns. He called it “Burnomania: the celebrity of Robert Burns considered in a Discourse addressed to all real Christians of every Denomination”.

Peebles, writing anonymously, called Burns an “irreligious profligate” who wrote “vile scraps of indecent ribaldry”. Peebles sort of forgot to mention that had been a target for the witty invective of Burns in the poem The Kirk’s Alarm, parodied as “Poet Willie, ye only stood by where he sh*t”.

PEEBLES FAILED?

YES, and so did all those who attacked him as a freemason, a drunkard and a womaniser who defied the all-powerful Kirk. His power as a poet shone through and as people came to know him and his works, so the annual tradition of the Burns Supper came to be a ritual where people – all men for many decades but thankfully now featuring both sexes – would gather to mark the anniversary of the birth of the man who in a real sense is the world’s poet, and not just our national bard.

There are now more than 400 Burns Clubs worldwide, countless Suppers, and it was announced recently that an astonishing 16,000 people across the globe signed up for the online course on Burns by the University of Glasgow.

WHAT SHOULD A PROPER BURNS SUPPER BE LIKE?

THAT informative website robertburns.org says it all: “Burns Suppers range from stentoriously formal gatherings of esthetes and scholars to uproariously informal rave-ups of drunkards and louts. Most Burns Suppers fall in the middle of this range, and adhere, more or less, to some sort of time-honoured form which includes the eating of a traditional Scottish meal, the drinking of Scotch whisky, and the recitation of works by, about, and in the spirit of the Bard.”

In brief the running order should have The Selkirk Grace or humanist equivalent, the Address to the Haggis (and toasted in whisky), the eating of said haggis with boiled swede and potatoes (neeps and tatties), and then a speech and toast to the Immortal Memory, an Address and Toast to The Lasses, a Reply to that Toast to the Lasses, concluding with the reading or singing of works by Burns.

You can add in as many courses and drinks as you like. Enjoy!