In the summer of 1801, nine gentlemen arranged to meet in an Ayrshire alehouse to remember a friend and a poet. They dined on sheep’s head and haggis, proposed a number of commemorative toasts, and heard an ode specially written for the occasion. The presence of the poet was suggested by a portrait presented to the group for the dinner, and the room they occupied was in fact the very spot where their friend was born, 42 years before. When they had finished they resolved to meet on the poet’s birthday the following year. What had taken place was the world’s first Burns Supper.
The format of the Burns Supper has remained essentially the same over 200 years but what other ways can we celebrate Burns in the 21st century? If Burns died today, how would we celebrate his life and work? And what can we learn from the commemoration of other writers or public figures?
In order to answer some of these questions, I think it is important to look at the original Burns Supper and where its inspiration lay. At the time, it was not unusual to remember a famous person or event by holding a dinner. The life of famous men like the politician, Charles James Fox (1749 – 1806), was remembered in ‘Fox dinners’, which took place annually from 1808 – 1907. The Battle of Trafalgar (1805) is still commemorated in ‘Trafalgar Suppers’, patriotic affairs which have a strong naval theme. Although the first Burns Supper took the same idea, it was moulded by the peculiarities of Burns’s life and work in a way unlike any other writer.
Firstly, there was an emphasis on conviviality. It was noted in a minute of the Supper that, ‘The party was such as Burns himself would have joined with heartfelt satisfaction’ with an interesting mix of local notables, including intimates of Burns to whom he had dedicated two of his earliest published works. Secondly, there was a strong creative element. The organizer, Reverend Hamilton Paul (1773-1854), is described (albeit in his own minute) as ‘Chaplain & Laureate’. Paul composed the ode that was recited at the first supper, and was subsequently called upon to write a ‘Birthday Ode’ the following year ‘in praise of the Bard of Coila’. Thirdly, the work of Burns and the meal itself became organically linked. Haggis was chosen as the main dish presumably because of Burns’s poem To a Haggis which was duly read. Sheep’s head has a less obvious Burns connection although this may have been a nod to his mock elegy, The death and dying words of Poor Mailie. The supper was washed down by a series of toasts each of which was ‘drank by three times three’ (perhaps of significance to freemasons; Burns was one). Whisky may have been the drink of choice – there are certainly many references to ‘barley-brie’ in the poems and songs of Burns – but is more likely that claret or a sweet wine such as ‘Malaga’, used to toast old times in Burns’s first version of Auld Lang Syne (December 1788), accompanied the dinner. Finally, the presence of Burns was conjured by the location for the supper – the birthroom of the poet which had since become part of the ‘Burns Head’ tavern – and a portrait of the poet ‘painted on wood [and] intended as a signpost to the cottage’. Therefore, conviviality, creativity, food and drink referencing the work of Burns, and the presence of the poet were all hallmarks of the original Burns Supper.
In rethinking how we celebrate Burns in the 21st century, these elements are all just as compelling as they were five years after the death of Burns but could they be interpreted in different ways?
In my opinion, the best Burns Suppers continue the warmth and friendship of the first ever supper by encouraging friends to get together and each take part in some element of organizing or performing at the supper. The intimacy and enjoyment which radiates from the minutes of the first Burns Supper is often absent today in large scale, formal suppers which formulaically trot out its component parts at the expense of fun and friendship. Liturgy has become lethargy. In modern times, ceilidhs have become more and more popular and, for me, some of the best Burns Suppers involve dancing. In this way, everyone becomes a performer which can help to make the supper less passive and less reverential. The distinction between the ‘top table’ of speakers and ‘body of the Kirk’ dissolves.
The idea of composing new poetry for a supper has largely been lost. This could be because, in Scotland at least, we are still dazzled by the brilliance of Burns. However, this seems like a lost opportunity. By making the Burns Supper a platform for new poetry, like the odes composed by Hamilton Paul, Burns Suppers could encourage new talent while honouring Burns (who often quoted other writers). Seamus Heaney’s Birl for Burns (2008) is a classic example of paying tribute to Burns with an authentic voice. The annual Walter Scott prize for historical fiction, or Developing Dylan 100 (encouraging young people to interpret the work of Dylan Thomas in new ways, such as rap, film, poetry and social media) is an excellent way of celebrating the work of old and the new. Could Burns Suppers complement a similar prize for poetry, the winning work being read across the world at all suppers?
Although the close links between Burns’s work and the format of the Burns Supper have played a large part in making the supper a ‘natural’ way of celebrating Burns, it could be argued that this has also narrowed our awareness of the breadth of all that Burns wrote. How they are performed has too. Restricting what is read at a supper to a handful of the usual poems – To a Haggis, Selkirk Grace, Tam o’ Shanter, and perhaps Holy Willie’s Prayer – does little justice to the richness and depth of the Burns canon. Equally, insisting that these are recited from memory can result that in a hastily read, meaningless parroting of Burns, particularly for those who have little knowledge of the Scots language. Although I appreciate the value of a poem remembered by the heart, why not read from a book? There appears to be a machismo in learning Burns by rote not found with other writers. This could explain why there are very few marathon reading sessions for Burns. Selecting works which mean something to the audience would be a good basis for selecting a poem or song. If you’re a doctor, why not read Death and Dr Hornbook, if it’s a junior Burns Supper then why not ventriloquise with a poem like The Twa Dogs, or The Brigs of Ayr, and if you are concerned about green issues, then why not choose The Humble Petition of Bruar Water, or To a Mouse? Widening the repertoire would do much to diversify and animate the Burns Supper.
On the matter of toasts, I think it would also be healthier to focus on the audience and contemporary issues than outdated nods to the political establishment. Too often, Burns Suppers are perceived to be bastions of cosy self-satisfaction, a reflection of ourselves rather than Burns.
Finally, the presence of Burns continues to be an important element of every Burns Supper, even today. This happens in a number of ways. Like the original Burns Supper, images of Burns abound at more traditional affairs – appearing on everything from napkins to menus to whisky glasses. Unlike the first Burns Supper, Burns is not known personally to those present so some other way of making the poet familiar is needed. The ‘immortal memory’, a eulogy on the life and work of Burns, is a core part of the Burns Supper and is a way of making Burns’s life and achievements known and appreciable. At its worst, this is a dry, dutiful hagiography of Burns; at its best, the immortal memory can make Burns one of the guests.
Celebrating the immortal memory of Burns has extended beyond the supper table with conferences, scholarships, humanitarian awards, sheltered housing, tv and radio documentaries, parades, and even hospital beds honouring Burns and his ideals. These initiatives make remembering Burns less flash-in-the-pan and better reflect modern tastes.
Looking to how other writers are celebrated, Ireland’s annual homage to James Joyce, Bloomsday re-enacts events in the novel Ulysees in a way which utilizes place, people, and performance. This involves dressing up, reenactment of the events in Ulysees, marathon readings of the novel, pub crawls, pilgrimages along the route described in the book, and the playing of music integral to the plot. Bloomsday has style: period costume is important in recapturing the atmosphere, as well as the sartorial style of the author (a literary take on dressing as Elvis). Shakespeare’s birthday is celebrated in his native Stratford-upon-Avon by a procession of local people carrying flowers from his birthplace to his grave, a route lined by flags of the world. The emphasis here is more on the local link with a real man, perhaps deliberate given the conspiracy theories surrounding authorship of plays published in the name of William Shakespeare.
In 2010, the work of Philip Larkin was remembered in Hull by a trail marked with giant fibreglass toads bearing the words of Larkin, each marking a place associated with Larkin in the city. The toads – a playful reference to Larkin’s eponymous poem – were partly designed by the community and auctioned afterwards for charity. Events which capture the public imagination, bring people together, and act in the spirit of the writer or their work are far more likely to interest those unaware of that writer and what they achieved.
At Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, our mission is to celebrate Burns 365 days a year. This is also the theme we have chosen for 2015. The centrepiece of the year is a new experience for visitors – an Express Burns Supper. Visitors are greeted by a costumed guide and bagpiper, and taken to Burns Cottage where they enjoy haggis, neeps, and tatties, and cranachan, and a few short works read around the table. They then toast the memory of Burns in the small room where he was born and where the world’s first Burns Supper took place. All in under an hour. This is a short burst of Burns for visitors to Scotland who may know nothing about him. Although we hope that the Supper will attract large numbers of visitors to the site, the real measure of success will be whether or not guests read Burns the next day. Ultimately, this would be, in the words of Hamilton Paul, the most fitting ‘tribute to the memory of departed genius’.