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?