RT Burns Club

*Federation No. 2085*


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Forum Home > What makes a Burns Supper > The first recorded Burns celebration

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ven before his death, poet Robert Burns’ cottage at Alloway,Ayrshire, had been sold to the incorporation, or guild, of shoemakersof Ayr, one of whose members turned it into an alehouse. It was here,on 29 January 1801 (they got his birthday wrong) that soldiers of theArgyll Fencibles (militia) met to hear their band play – and to use theservices of his cottage in its new role.Thefirst recorded Burns Supper took place at Alloway in the same year, buton the anniversary of his death (21st July). It involved a speech andmultiple toasts; to eat there was haggis (which was addressed) and, amercifully lost tradition, sheep’s head; given the social status ofthose present, refreshment was probably wine and ale rather thanwhisky. Present were nine friends and patrons of Burns. Among them wasa lady, though thereafter the Suppers were mostly (sometimesmilitantly) all-male affairs until far into the twentieth century: acurious slant on Burns’ own life as well as on the first dinner. The‘toast to the lasses’ was traditionally thanks for the cooking and anappreciation of the women in Burns’ life, only later degenerating intoa sexist (often misogynistic) rant.

Celebrations were held twice yearly until 1809 when participantssettled on January (25th), because this fell in a slack period of theagricultural year. Commercialisation of his birthplace did little tohonour the memory of his life and work, and in 1822 the poet John Keatscomplained bitterly of how both the ambience and the landlord of theAlloway inn degraded Burns’ greatness.

Any group of individuals can hold a Burns Supper. These blendsociability and conversation, keynotes of the Scottish Enlightenment,with more universal practices such as commensality and drinking.Sociability could be more consistently promoted by associations. Set upin the early 1800s, Paisley (which has the earliest extant minute bookstarting in 1805) and Greenock vie for the title of first Burns Club,but after 1810 these associations proliferated. Popularised in thepress, Burns Suppers and Burns Clubs were widespread by 1830 not onlyin his native Ayrshire, but also throughout Scotland. The great AyrFestival of 1844 enhanced international awareness of the celebration,and the creation of the Burns Federation in 1885 brought togetherhundreds of Clubs worldwide. There are as many as 400 affiliated clubsnowadays. The first all-female club was founded at Shotts inLanarkshire in 1920, and the Federation, now based in Kilmarnock, hadto wait until 1970 for its first woman president.

Burns died at a time of profound economic, social and politicalchange when writers perceived that Scottish identity was being lost.Romantic and anti-modernist, they found in him a symbol of an allegedlyuncorrupted Scotland. Burns became a uniquely elastic symbol over timeand space, as valuable to those who did not know his language (Englishor Scots) as to those who did; to laissez-faire liberals (nineteenthcentury) as to radicals and socialists (twentieth century); to theurban middle classes as to the rural working people from which Burnsand his inspiration came; to Japanese as to those of Anglo-Saxon stock;to temperance campaigners as to generous imbibers; to nationalists asto unionists. The cult surrounding him has been reshaped many times inthe two centuries since his death. Identities have mouldedrepresentations of Burns as much as Burns has formed identities, butBurns has proved a uniquely enduring and accessible icon. Celebratingthe centenary of his birth in 1859, the Boston, Mass. Burns Club,founded in 1850, affirmed that there had ‘never been any national,sectional, or other bar to membership’, other than a love of libertyand republicanism.

Representations of Burns mix the particular and the historicallyaccurate with the general and the fabricated. So too with the Suppersthat commemorate him. They have been appropriated to express bourgeoismale solidarity and commercial needs as much as universality, though itis possible that the enduring popularity of these gatherings lies intheir safely apolitical nature.

It is curious that an invented and reinvented tradition bearingBurns’ name should have become a powerful symbol of Scots at home and,even more, abroad, when another active contribution of his has been solittle developed. This was his confident and skilful use of Scots.Burns was celebrated in the nineteenth century for preserving a dyinglanguage, and the use of Scots is integral with the Suppers. Yet it isanother surrendered or suppressed tongue, Gaelic, which has beenresuscitated in the guise of an independent ‘national’ language inmodern Scotland. This is despite never having been spoken by all Scots,even in the middle ages, and being now spoken by just 1% of Scotland’spopulation, most of whom live in greater Glasgow.


January 2, 2010 at 9:02 AM Flag Quote & Reply

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