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Robert Burns' Night

January 2014


When I was working on a newspaper in Australia, I was once given a story to cover involving a Burns' Supper, a local celebration of life and work of Robert Burns. Since then I have found that countries all over the world hold various Robert Burns' events on or around the day of his birth, January 25th. In New Zealand and Canada, where many Scottish people emigrated, this is probably understandable, but in fact countries as far apart as Cyprus, Denmark and yes China, Thailand and even Japan all hold special  annual events to commemorate Burns.

Burns' Night in Chicago, USA

Ask among your friends, and like me you will probably find few who really know much about Robert Burns and even fewer if any who can name even one of his poems. So who was this man who still received global acclaim 270 years after his death?

Robert Burns was born in 25th Jan 1759 in a house built by his father in South Ayrshire in Scotland. He was the eldest of seven children and despite a move when he was young to a 70 acre farm, he grew up in poverty.  His father eventually died as a bankrupt. However, Robert Burns did receive some education, despite his heavy manual labour on the farm from an early age.

Robbie was a bit of a rebel, supporting the French Revolution and showing independent ideas on both Calvinism and the way society worked.  He had various amorous intrigues and but also started writing poetry from a young age. He became a prolific writer of poetry, penning famous works such as Tam O’Shanter, Red, Red Rose, Auld Lang Syne and Address to a Haggis. 

He died at just 37 of heart disease, on the same day as his wife gave birth to his last child Maxwell. While a reported 10.000 people went to pay their respects at his funeral, it is only in more recent years that his popularity has soared, in part to the mystique and individuality of the “Scottishness” of his work, with its inclusion of words that mystify many modern people.

For instance, in the Address the Haggis, an essential part of every year’s celebration, the first line reads: Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face. If you don’t know the word sonsie means jolly or cheerful, you are immediately lost.

The Burns' Night celebrations usually include the piping in of the guests and the piping in of the celebratory haggis.

Then Burns' poem Address to a Haggis is usually read, and at the line: His knife see rustic Labour dicht, the person reading the poem draws and cleans a knife. Then, at the line An' cut you up wi' ready slicht, he plunges it into the haggis and cuts it open from end to end. When done properly this "ceremony" is a highlight of the evening. Then there are usually tributes, toasts, and of course, the poems and songs of Robert Burns - along with live music, silent auctions, fine Scotch whisky and excellent dining. 

There is clearly something extraordinarily appealing and long lasting about the work of Robert Burns for it to be celebrated internationally on such a scale every year. In Russia, the Kremlin Burns Supper is usually televised.  There are more public statues of Robert Burns around the world that of any other writer.

There will of course always be those who do not appreciate his work - evidently Jeremy Paxman has described him as a “king of sentimental doggerel”! But for someone to still be achieving worldwide acclaim and to generate special celebration events in countries across the world well over 200 years after his death, he must have something rather special.


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