BURNS Night 2019 started as ever with scores of guests in their finery passing the piper at the entrance to Freemasons’ Hall. Wearing Highland military dress he played the full Scottish repertoire as men in kilts and trews and women in different tartan ensembles came in from the cold, collected glasses of malt whisky and took their seats in the ornate, beautifully lit hall, decked out in saltires.

All of the tables were named after a clan and sported a complimentary bottle of whisky and on each place setting a programme with Burns poetry and songs in ... surprise, surprise: German.

For this wasn’t Falkirk or Fraserburgh, this was the Frankfurt Burns Supper in the heart of Germany’s financial capital. Nearly 180 guests packed into the sell-out event, and hardly any of them were Scottish. It turns out that many of the tartan-clad guests had never even been to Scotland. The organiser and compère of the evening was English, the Selkirk Grace was read by a German, the Toast to the Lassies by an American, the reply by the Scottish Government representative to Germany, who is married to a German and the Immortal Memory by a half-German Scot (yours truly). On a show of hands, 40% of the guests had never been to a Burns Supper before.

It was a surprise to them that the first foreign language Burns was translated into was German and that he was the subject of correspondence by Germany’s national poet Johann von Goethe. Equally surprising was that “For a’ that and a’ that” was translated into the popular German radical poem and song “Trotz alledem” and published in one of Karl Marx’s newspapers in the 1850s. They loved the poems and songs, the piping and, despite some misgivings, also enjoyed the the Haggis, which had been specially flown in for the event.

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The 2019 Frankfurt Burns Supper was a huge success, attended by the great and the good of the German and international financial community, and was clearly enjoyed by all who were there.

They particularly liked the message that Burns was an internationalist, that he had been inspired by European politics, and they loved to be reminded that Scotland is a European country that voted to remain in the European Union.

The National:

When I say they loved it, what I mean is they really, really loved it: so much so that they all got up, clapped and cheered, hollered and raised their glasses in a standing ovation. I’ve never seen anything like it at a Burns supper before. This was newsworthy for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, one of Germany’s biggest selling quality newspapers, which had sent along a reporter to cover a Burns Supper!

“Haggis is easier to digest than Brexit” headlined the FAZ this week. Stressing Scotland is a European country made a big impression on the audience “that hit home. The guests applauded, whooped and lifted their glasses in a toast”.

In some respects this shouldn’t be surprising: Germans have always had a soft spot for Scotland. The literature of Walter Scott and poems of Ossian were huge hits in the 19th century, the country inspired Felix Mendelssohn to compose some of the finest classical music on a Scottish theme with the concert overture The Hebrides, and even the popular pipe tune Highland Cathedral was written by Germans.

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The interest in Robert Burns is not just confined internationally to Germany – the high point of the Burns season is marked around the world. This weekend there are Burns Suppers in Dunedin Town Hall, New Zealand; the Conrad Hotel, Hong Kong; on Novinskiy Boulevard in Moscow; at the Peninsula Hotel, Beijing, and at literally hundreds of other venues.

There is not a single other country in the world associated with a similar annual cultural event. Scotland is genuinely blessed to have a national poet who is an international phenomenon and such a draw year after year to celebrations around the globe.

Perhaps it’s time for us to think about how we reach out to all of those attending Burns nights. Many of them have never even been to Scotland. We could not have a stronger group of brand ambassadors. Fortunately at least once a year we have been given the gift to see ourselves as others see us and this weekend tens of thousands of people at home and abroad will be toasting: “That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth, Shall bear the gree, an’ a’ that”. In these challenging times, let’s raise our glasses to that.