Loch Awe in spring - Photo courtesy of Neil Donald Photography






Sunday, 27 January 2013

Robert Burns fever - am I a heretic?

It's that time of year again. Across the world, Burns fans have been gathering to celebrate the life and works of Rabbie, Scotland's favourite poet. For the past 20 years I've been going to a supper hosted by my husband's debating society – originally a men-only group modelled a little on the Bachelor's Club in Tarbolton, which Burns himself attended. There have been some great evenings, some inspired ones, and some that are best forgotten. There's the usual ritual of piping in a haggis, the Address to said beastie, the Immortal Memory to the Bard, followed by toast to the lassies and reply etc etc. And in the case of this group, there's a pretty good ceilidh thereafter, as there are some fine musicians in the Society (Aly Bain is a member, though he's quite often busy on Burns Night!).

And so I ventured out once again on Friday night, for more of the same.

Should I confess? I find the ritual format depressing. Why on earth do we celebrate the work of such a wonderful rapscallion in such a mind-numbingly unoriginal way? Okay, there's plenty to talk about, because like that English giant of literature, Shakespeare, you can pick any aspect of the man and his works to make more or less whatever point you want to about life, love, politics or the human condition. And it's certainly true that Burns's work has that rare quality of universality (dare I say, even more so than Shakespeare's, because he seems to resonate across all nations and classes?). We know a fair bit about his life, which was deliciously scandal-ridden. It was also quite hard – he died of a disease of poverty (rheumatic fever) and enmeshed in debt.

But Burns Suppers seem to have become a self-perpetuating industry, and no-one seems to challenge this. (With the magnificent exception of Kenneth Roy – see http://www.scottishreview.net/KennethRoy52.shtml?utm_source=Sign-Up.to&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=286564-The+case+for+abolishing+Burns+suppers+  ) What would Burns himself think of these events? I suspect he'd be having houghmagandie under the table with some wench – and who could blame him? In my opinion, there's a very good reason why there are no Shakespeare Suppers every year on 23 April, or Jane Austen Suppers on 16 December.

On the other hand, the continued existence of this annual shindig does help to keep Rabbie and his works alive, no doubt about that. So – good thing or bad thing? And if we ditch the suppers, how should we celebrate the birth of our Scottish national poet?

20 comments:

  1. You can't ditch the suppers! They're Scotland to the rest of the world, Jenny. I have fond memories of said suppers at the home of one of my husband's cousins whose wife is Scottish. Roll up the carpet time.....get the dancing going faster as the hooch goes down! Nights like that were poetry all their own....:)
    Great post...:)

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    1. I suppose it's a kind of brand identity... As I said, what WOULD Burns have thought about that?

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  3. I deleted this because it was duplicated Linda!

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    1. Really? How odd....maybe I hit the publish button twice....soooorrrreeeeee.

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  4. Ah, Jenny - you touched a chord! I'm not a fan. I think they can be misogynistic - I still hear people going on about how wonderful an all-male Burns Supper is. Not sure about that.

    I'm not a fan of Burns the man, either, so I think we get a little dewy-eyed about him. If eh lived today I suspect we'd be tearing him apart with our disapproval, for one reason if not another.

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  5. Er,well, I wouldn't know about the all-male version (though I've heard reports). Yes - hard to survive as a national treasure in today's media-bitchy environment!

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  6. Great post, Jenny. I have no objections to the Suppers as I do think they keep the memory alive all over the world, but I expect they vary in quality. Does Burns need them? Now you're asking and I don't know the answer - perhaps. I certainly find much of his poetry as memorable as Shakepeare's - and there's no doubt the man himself was interesting!

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  7. Linda said, 'They're Scotland to the rest of the world.' What I worry about is - is this how I'd like the rest of the world to see Scotland? Stuck in some sort of time warp with a bag full of offal and formulaic, male-dominated rituals? I'm really not sure...

    Thans for dropping by, Rosemary.

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    1. Yes, Jenny - I think you've put your finger on my reservations about it.

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    2. I said it with the greatest respect, Jenny....it is the uniqueness of Scotland that we Sassanachs admire....honestly.

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  8. A thought-provoking post, Jenny. I read it last night and am still thinking about my response. If we did away with Burns suppers would Burns and his work be forgotten in time? As you point out we don't celebrate a Shakespeare Day but then his work is performed all year round in all sorts of places all over the world, not confined to a few days either side of January 25th as is the case with Burns. Dumfries has just had its Big Burns Supper Festival, a weekend of amazing events, by no means all related to the Bard and his work and maybe we need more of that sort of thing and less of the traditional time-warp ritual. And I do think we should eat those bags of offal all year round!

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    1. Yes, using Burns as a springboard for celebrating other poetry would be good, even if the Bard is still the main focus. I vote for a Mary Smith Supper!

      Thanks Mary.

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  9. No problem with celebrating Burns, but it would be good to have suppers for other writers every 10 years or so - Dunbar, Henryson, or Lady Nairne, whose songs are rooted in the Scottish psyche (and easily mistaken for those of Burns).

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  10. It would be great to look more at other Scottish poets, whether past or present. I'm a great fan of Norman McCaig's work, for example. But do we have to have supper with it? Oh go on then – but maybe not haggis... A great bowl of Cullen Skink would do me just fine.

    You've prompted me to look at Lady Nairne. I'm not familiar with her poetry. Thanks for dropping in and contributing.

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  11. Interesting points but why not let the thousands who so enjoy the ritual and tradition get on with it, and anybody else is free to host an alternative one, though so few do. Personally if I had the time, energy and inclination I'd organise a Burns musical improvisation outside Burns Cottage, hold a huge musical extravaganza based on his verse and music, outside the Burns Centre or in St Michaels Kirkyard Dumfries, or a meditation based on nature at Ellisland. But as I am 'Fair furfochten, wabbit, sair -----A'll dream an' fantasise nae mair----- Fur Rabbie wad be roon the pole --- Ma silly verse he wadnae thole'.

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  12. Love it! I think we would 'thole' your verse, Janette.

    Well, you organise the musical extravaganza, and I'll be there...

    Thanks for contributing!

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  13. Much more a fan of Burns the poet than the man. I do like the idea of a Mary Smith supper. Come on Mary, you could organise it. Afghan food and poems for one course, the Islay ones for another.

    I'm not that keen on Burns suppers for myself but like Linda I do think they keep an idea of 'Scotland' in people's minds all over the world. We just need to enlarge on that idea a bit...

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  14. You're so balanced, Gill! I suppose you're right about keeping Scotland in people's minds - after all, the Irish have no qualms about shamrocks and leprechauns, do they?

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  15. Well, Gill, the Afghan food would be turnips and potatoes with mutton so you'd have much the same menu with each set of poems!

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