ONE climbs the stairs at a pace and enters a small, couthy room breathless through exertion or possibly because of an almost childish expectation.

Genuine genius has made this walk. A giant of literature has tread gently on this floor. The eye takes in the scene quickly and with some ease. It is a room built in the early 1700s, with a fireplace at either end, low lighting, and tables and chairs set out for a dinner.

It is the scene for what many, including a host of aficionados, believe to be the best Burns Supper in the world. Irrefutably, it is a room where the great poet danced, debated and entered Freemasonry.

It is the home of the Bachelors’ Club in Tarbolton, Ayrshire. It is the meeting place for a body that seeks to both honour the memory of Burns and emphasise his relevance in the modern world.

Its president, Robert McCroskie, mixes the personal, philosophical and aesthetic when discussing Burns. A former schoolmaster, he puts it more simply: “The tenets of Freemasonry and the philosophy of Burns certainly run parallel to my beliefs in life as an elder for 35 years in the Church of Scotland.”

He believes verse five of the Epistle to Davie by Burns sums up his relationship with life and with others. This verse points out that it is not titles, rank or money that make us blessed or happy.

The heart aye’s the part aye

That makes us right or wrang

McCroskie adds: “This is what Burns is talking about throughout his poems and songs. It’s what you have in your heart that’s important.”

Tarbolton, and the Bachelors’ Club, is important to McCroskie because it is where the poet became a man. “It is the scene of one of the most important episodes in his life. Burns was here. He did things that were important to his life here. We must try to maintain this. There is a passion for that. The people of Tarbolton and beyond must know what they have here,” he says.

“The £21m Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway is fine. But the heart of Burns is in the Bachelors’ Club. It is palpable.”

The building, now administered by the National Trust of Scotland, was once the hub of the community, where dancing and sewing classes were held and the weavers’ guild, the farmers’ guild and the Freemasons gathered.

It was frequented by a young man whose verse and songs were to entrance the world. Burns is thought to have joined a dancing club in the rooms in 1779. Then, on November 11, 1780, Burns, then 21, and his brother, Gilbert, and friends formed the first rural debating society. Since the founder members were all unmarried, they called it the Bachelors’ Club. Its aim was to “cultivate friendship” and to “improve their minds with meaningful discussion’’.

On July 4, 1781, Burns was admitted to Freemasonry in these rooms, too. The sword used in the initiation ceremony is still in the rooms, indeed it was given to the club on the proviso it never left the premises.

This historic building was scheduled for demolition in the 1920s but was saved by the community and given to the National Trust for Scotland in 1938.

It was in the 1980s that McCroskie became involved in its story. “I came back from university and I was looking for something other than sport to stimulate me,’’ says McCroskie, who was a physical education teacher. “I was looking for something more cerebral rather than physical and Freemasonry, the Church and Burns provided that.’’

His family life was soaked in Burns. He was brought up in Annbank but his father, an engineer, and his grandfather had both been born in Tarbolton parish. “My father could recite Burns but wouldn’t do it in public as he was a quiet man,” he says. “My sister performed in poetry festivals and Burns competitions but it wasn’t for me at that point.”

McCroskie is a fine, insightful and humorous speaker on Burns, having given the Immortal Memory at the Bachelors’ Club in 2008. But that has been the product of years of learning at the feet of scholars. He became president of the Bachelors’ Club in 2015 and pays tribute to those who guided his way.

“It came as a bit of a shock,” he says of the presidency. “But I was always fortunate going through life to have mentors, people you could rely on. One was John Weir, a former president. He forgot more than I know about Burns. The other was the Rev Ian U Macdonald, the immediate past president and minister emeritus at Tarbolton. These are two giants in the world of Burns and life.”

He is forthright on the role of the Bachelors’ Club, where 33 men and women will squeeze into the rooms later this month for the traditional supper.

“I can never take it for granted. I regard myself as a custodian. I believe we all do on the committee. We are trying to protect a legacy left by great men. We are trying to push it forward.”

In the spirit of Burns, he adds: “It is not to do with money, it is about the heart. This is why Burns is still relevant. He died in 1796 but is there anything more relevant today than the lines Man’s inhumanity to man/Makes countless thousands mourn!; or in the age of hunger and food banks and homelessness is there anything that speaks more of gratitude than the Selkirk Grace and having both the ability and opportunity to eat? This is why I love Burns because his words are enduring. They still have great meaning today.”

McCroskie was raised in the poet’s work and they have resonated with him to extraordinary effect down the years. “My mother was in a care home and she had problems with her memory,” he says. “On the day she died she recited faithfully and perfectly A Man’s A Man For A’ That.”

It is what makes Burns great. He was philosopher, poet and phenomenon. But his message was intensely personal. It intrigues the literary theorist, it buoys the mother facing death, it inspires those at the Bachelors’ Club and beyond to do good.

It is a fair legacy for a life of just 37 years.



Favourite poets beside Burns: A few. Robert Service, Longfellow, WH Auden, WD Cocker, Rudyard Kipling.

Favourite Burns poem: Epistle to a Young Friend, Epistle to Davie, particularly verse five, Lament for James, Earl of Glencairn. But I enjoy the shorter, humorous ones too, such as To a Haggis.

Favourite music: My family were all pipers, except me. So I love the bagpipes but I enjoy classical music such as Beethoven’s 9th, Dvorak’s Te Deum. Cantos Sagrados by James MacMillan is extraordinary. But I also enjoy Tina Turner and Bryan Adams.

Favourite place: Jerusalem, Victoria Falls from the Zambian side, and Key West, Florida.