Residing in the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, beside a table set for a banquet, lies an invitation to the 1859 Centenary Celebrations held at Edinburgh’s Music Hall. This invitation celebrates the poet, paying homage to the history and memory of Burns throughout not only Scotland but the World. His memory was something James Ballantine hoped to immortalise in his 1859 book entitled Chronicle of the Hundredth Birthday of Robert Burns.
Ballantine was a stained-glass artist and writer from Edinburgh, who also served as Secretary at Edinburgh Music Hall’s Centenary Celebrations. For his chronicle, Ballantine compiled descriptions from 872 celebrations taking place in city halls, corn exchanges, local meeting halls, hotels and private houses on the 25th January 1859. The book accounts the 872 recorded events by providing complete texts of proceedings and entertainment along with comprehensive guest lists of attendees. The latter, most likely, in strict pecking order!
While Ballantine acknowledges his work represented only a “condensation” of the actual number of celebrations that took place on the 25th January 1859, he nevertheless logged 676 events from Scotland, 76 from England, 10 from Ireland, 61 from the United States and 1 from Copenhagen. These written accounts owed thanks to an impressive network of sources, sending information and newspaper clippings from local papers. This network was indeed truly impressive as Ballantine published his work in Edinburgh and London, a mere four months after the January Celebrations.
Edinburgh Music Hall’s 1859 Centenary Celebrations: A Banquet for Burns
“The Celebration of the hundredth birthday of Robert Burns, on the 25th day of January, in the year 1859, presented a spectacle unprecedented in the history of the world”. – James Ballantine
Throughout Scotland, the Centenary Celebrations of the 25th January 1859 were widely regarded as a holiday. In Edinburgh: shopkeepers closed early afternoon around 2 o’clock; the poet’s Calton Hill Monument was florally decorated with many visiting the memorial to pay homage to Burns; crowds formed across the city; and people proceeded to various centenary festivals. The invitation from the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum (image above), showing a bust of Burns surrounded by banners alongside names of his poems, invited guests to Edinburgh Music Hall’s Banquet.
The Music Hall held as Ballantine claims “a great banquet”. Spectators gathered at every door, or promenaded along George Street, to observe the long lines of cabs and carriages arriving for the evening’s celebrations. Inside the Hall, tables were laid for seven hundred people, while the orchestra and galleries were filled by five hundred ladies, who Ballantine notes “took their places at an early hour, and remained till nearly the conclusion of proceedings”. The evening began as the banquet’s Chairman Lord Ardmillan, an Ayrshire man, presided and was accompanied to the platform by several other gentlemen, including James Ballantine.
An extensive list of councillors, lords and other ‘notable’ people attended the event such as Sir W. Dunbar (member of parliament), Bishop Gillis (served Eastern District of Scotland), Mr Hepburn (representative of the Caledonian Society of London), Sir John Richardson of Lancrigg (Arctic navigator, and in his youth a frequent visitor at Burns’ house in Dumfries) and Mr Gray of Preston (as a playmate of his children, knew the poet) among many others. Also attending the event was Miss Burns, granddaughter of the poet. She was accompanied by three daughters of Burns’ friend the late Mr. George Thomson.
The evening’s entertainment involved numerous speeches, toasts alongside various performances of songs and poems. Lord Ardmillan’s opening and lengthy speech attempted to connect the Music Hall Banquet to celebrations occurring across the Country, Nation and World that evening. He claimed, “…But Burns belongs not to Ayrshire alone, but to Scotland; and, in a sense not to Scotland alone but to humanity…”.
Ballantine also partook in the celebrations, reading verses he had composed especially for the occasion. The best-received recitation of the evening came from a Mr Walter Glover, performing Tam O’Shanter. Ballantine’s Chronicle claims this poem as “by far the most popular recitation in the 1859 celebrations”. At 101 years old, Glover, who used to carry packages for Burns between Dumfries and Edinburgh, “ascended the platform to loud cheers”. To the audience’s amazement, Glover recited Tam O’Shanter from end to end in, as Ballantine claimed, “a strong voice and with due emphasis and discretion”.
Celebrations at The Music Hall continued late until the whole company, standing, hand-in-hand, sang Auld Lang Syne and departed in the early hours into their carriages and cabs. This time without the crowds watching!
Remembering the Centenary Celebrations
Across Scotland celebrations occurred from Alloway to Aberdeen, Greenock to Glasgow and Dumfries to Dundee. Up and down the country celebrations took place for our National poet, as we toasted, ate and sang to mark the centenary and memory of Robert Burns. Below is an image of the citizen’s banquet, held at the Corn Exchange at Edinburgh’s Dunedin Hall. Outside Scotland, celebrations were held across the World in the likes of London, Liverpool, Copenhagen, Canada and the United States. The Illustrated London News, of the 29th January 1859, indicted the global quality of celebrations noting “all who speak the English language… united on this remarkable occasion to recognise and to glorify a poet”.
Across the celebrations, those attended by relatives and friends of Burns offered a link to the poet. For example: William Nichol Burns attended celebrations in Dumfries; Colonel James Glencairn Burns (fourth son of the poet) and Mr Robert Burns Begg (nephew) were invited to Glasgow’s City Hall; and in Ulster, Eliza Burns (daughter of Burns’ eldest son) was presented with an oil painting of her grandfather.
Burns’ belongings also helped form radical connections. For instance: the New York celebration included “[a] piece of bark, elegantly framed, cut from a tree on Burn’s farm… [a] lock of Burns’ hair and an impression of his seal”; while the Boston celebration presented a haggis specially cooked for the occasion in the cottage Burns was born in, here in Alloway; and London’s Crystal Palace festivities contained locks of Burns’ and Jean Armour’s hair, alongside the poet’s writing table and pages from his account book.
Nevertheless, with or without Burns belongings and relatives, different and countless events took place on the night of the 25th January 1859, to mark a hundred years since the birth of Robert Burns. These Centenary events sought to celebrate and immortalise Burns across not only Scotland but the World. Now, 161 years later the celebrations continue. So, in this month of January, enjoy your Burns’ Suppers and have a thocht aboot the celebrations by that mak-kit our Burns Night traditions.
For Volunteers Week, we asked our volunteers to write a blog post about their volunteering experience. Here’s Hugh Farrell sharing some of his thoughts.
As a lifelong admirer of Robert Burns, a past president of four Burns Clubs and past secretary of a fifth, I volunteered to be a guide as soon as the National Trust came to Alloway. Indeed, wild horses could not have held me back! Confirmation that Robert Burns was the prime mover for my desire to become a volunteer.
To have the opportunity to immerse myself in the history of the Cottage and to find myself walking in the footsteps of the young Robert Burns is wonderful. Another plus is the opportunity to meet people who arrive from all around the world to visit the birthplace of Scotland’s National Bard who remains, in my opinion, The International Bard of Humanity. Then there are the thousands of schoolchildren who visit every year who we seek to inspire but who also inspire their guides. The children are encouraged to recite or sing their “Burns “ party pieces and a great many are really delighted to do so.
I always try to bring Robert Burns’ love of Scotland to the fore and note the light that comes into the eyes of visitors when I quote his poetry, songs or prose.
Communication is of course a two way process and whilst it pleases me to speak of the history of the Cottage, I am also intrigued to hear the tales of the visitors such as the American historian who informed me that Robert Burns was the first National Poet of the USA.
The first known Burns Supper was held in the Cottage in 1801, and continued to be held there until 1809, after which time it was relocated to the Kings Arms Hotel in Ayr.
The Supper was returned to the Cottage on 25th January 2016 and has now become a fixture on the calendar. It is organised by the volunteers of the Friends of the Museum, with superb support from NTS staff, and is a major fundraiser.
There are many activities to be involved in at RBBM, some for fundraising and some for fun. There are various crafts and activities, and even a chance to scare visitors at Halloween as they are guided through the gardens to the haunted Auld Kirk of Alloway! (They then went on to the Cottage where Doctor Hornbook, a Burns character, was performing an amputation!)
As a volunteer guide, I also take tours of the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum where I can expand on the life and times of our Bard as we view the great number of artefacts that are on display.
The question is often posed as to what is my favourite item, or song, or poem. The answer is always “too many to cover in such a short time.” However Robert Burns’ Kilmarnock Edition, where it all began, might be a good starting point.
I have written of the fantastic times that I have with our visitors but there is also so much pleasure in the camaraderie within the volunteer team and between volunteers and NTS staff members who support us in everything we do.
Retirement from the “day job” is the end of an era. Volunteering is the beginning of a better era.
Friends of Robert Burns Birthplace Museum is a registered independent charity which was created in February 2013 to support the museum. Initially, the Friends group was set up in order to raise funds for the Burns Monument Restoration Appeal – this was a tremendous success, with the Friends donating £30,000 to the Burns Monument Fund in 2017, and a further £6000 donated in 2018. Since then, the Friends have continued to raise funds through a variety of means, and these are donated to the museum for use in other restoration and development projects.
The Friends fundraise in many different ways. Chief amongst them is the Garden Shop: in 2013, the Friends took over the old ticket kiosk in the Burns Monument Garden and set about converting it into a shop. Open during the summer season, the Garden Shop sells plants, bulbs and seeds, as well as Burns-related crafts, drinks and ice-creams to enjoy. Whilst the shop is closed throughout winter, the dedicated volunteers sell Christmas trees and wreaths during the festive season as well. Now in its seventh year, the Garden Shop is set to re-open in the very near future; it is opening later than usual due to work being done on the electronics within the shop.
A number of events also run throughout the year – for example, next month the Friends are putting on a Big Band Night at the museum, featuring the highly popular band That Swing Sensation. Further details can be found on the RBBM website. The Friends also hold an annual quiz night, as well as raffles and tombolas throughout the year.
Finally, it is thanks to the Friends of Robert Burns Birthplace Museum, and in particular the Chair, Hugh Farrell, that the Burns Supper returned to the Burns Cottage. The first ever Burns Supper was held in July 1801, when nine friends of the late Robert Burns gathered in his childhood home to dine, read his poetry and deliver an ode to the Bard before raising a glass in his name. The suppers continued to be held in the Cottage until 1809, before moving to the King’s Arms Hotel in Ayr in 1810. After a gap of two hundred and seven years, on 25th January 2016, a Burns Supper was once again held in Burns Cottage. This event has become the Friends’ major fundraiser.
The Supper has been a regular event every year since and attracts guests from all over the world. The traditional order of a Burns Supper is delivered, complete with piper, fiddler, poetry recitals, songs, and, of course, haggis, neeps and tatties. The names of the nine gentlemen who attended that first supper are listed on the programme, as are the names of all performers and guests at the current supper; a copy of the programme is then placed in the museum archives to become part of the history of the cottage. Attendees at the Burns Cottage Supper are also lucky enough to interact with an object from RBBM’s own collection (with the curator watching closely nearby!). And each year, the Gregg Fiddle that Robert Burns learned to dance to is played: a magical moment.
The Friends of Robert Burns Birthplace Museum are an integral part of RBBM, and the work they do to fundraise for our restoration and development projects is invaluable. We would like to thank them endlessly for the contributions they have made so far, and we look forward to many more years working successfully with them to ensure as many people as possible can enjoy the birthplace of the Bard.
More information on the Friends can be found on their Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/friendsofrbbm/
Stuck for what to make for your Burns Supper later? Here at RBBM, we’ve got you covered. Below are some cracking recipes to get you out that inspiration rut.
Starting it off…
Given that Scotland’s got some of the best, why not kick off your Burns Night celebrations with some salmon? This smoked salmon pâté from Olive Magazine is a great option. Find it here.
Or maybe you want a soup to start? Both cullen skink or cock-a-leekie are classic (and delicious) options. This Nick Nairn recipe is sure to produce a show-stopping cullen skink – available here; and Tom Kitchin’s got you covered for a cock-a-leekie – available here.
Wee Beasties of the Glen
Of course, every Burns Supper needs a haggis to address! The great chieftain o’ the puddin race is much older than the man himself, but it’s on his birthday that most of us gather together to enjoy the dish.
Macsween have a hoard of fantastic recipes available on their website, many of which offer a wholly unexpected take on the humble haggis. One of our favourites are these Wee Beasties of the Glen’ – delicious bite-size haggis treats, coated in oatmeal and then fried. Find the recipe for these here.
Fortunately in these modern times, we can enjoy many different varieties including vegetarian, vegan, kosher and gluten-free – meaning everyone can help themselves to a plate of the good stuff!
You cannae have a Burns Supper without the neeps and tatties. But why not mix it up this year (literally) with a healthy serving of clapshot?
Originating from Orkney, this traditional dish combines both neeps and tatties, adding a wee bit of onion and some chives. Simple but delicious – clapshot is an excellent way to change up your usual Burns Supper.
Author of The Scots Kitchen, F. Marian MacNeill (a native Orcadian), has a traditional recipe for clapshot. You can find this – with a bit of history too – on the Scotsman’s Food and Drink page, here. If you’ve got any vegans at your table, you can swap out the butter for cooking oil.
A classic Scottish dessert – there’s nothing better than fresh raspberries after a hearty haggis meal. Top it all off (of course) with sweet honey, crunchy oats, a healthy dollop of cream and a swig of whisky.
Mary Berry’s take on cranachan is a winner, swapping the traditional crowdie for mascarpone – find her recipe here.
If you have any braw Burns Supper recipes of your own – we’d pure love to see them! Just don’t forget to finish your night off with a wee dram – it’s what Robert would want on his birthday.