The birth of Scottish poet and lyricist Robert Burns has been celebrated worldwide for over 200 years in more or less traditional fashion at Burns suppers or Burns nights. The traditional format of a Burns supper has changed little since it was first introduced in 1802 at the Mother Club in Greenock.
Robert Burns (also known as Robbie Burns, Scotland’s favourite son, the ploughman poet, Robden of Solway Firth, the Bard of Ayrshire and, in Scotland, simply as The Bard) is widely regarded as the national poet of Scotland. Famous for his poems and lyrics written in the Scots language, his poems and songs have included such masterly works as ‘A Red, Red Rose’; ‘A Man’s a Man for A’ That’; ‘To a Louse’; ‘To a Mouse’; ‘The Battle of Sherramuir’; ‘Tam o’ Shanter’; ‘Ae Fond Kiss’; and of course ‘Address to a Haggis’ and ‘Auld Lang Syne’.
Robert Burns was also a Freemason, having been initiated into lodge St David, Tarbolton No 133 on 4 July 1781 at the age of 22.
The basic format of a Burns supper starts with a general welcome and announcements followed with the Selkirk Grace (so called because Burns was said to have delivered it at a dinner given by the Earl of Selkirk at St Mary’s Isle Priory in Galloway). After the grace comes the piping and cutting of the haggis when Burns’s famous ‘Address to a Haggis’ is recited with passion and the haggis is cut open. The haggis is then toasted with a glass of ‘the water of life’, Scotch whisky. A typical bill o’ fare at a Burns supper would be cock-a-leekie soup; haggis warm reeking, rich wi’ champit tatties and bashed neeps; cranachan or tipsy laird (whisky trifle), and a tassie o’ coffee.
After the end of the meal, it is the tradition to have a series of toasts and replies. That is when the toast to ‘the immortal memory’, an overview of Robert Burn’s life and works is given. The event usually concludes with the singing of ‘Auld Lang Syne’.
Things began in perfect style at the Burns night held at the Blackpool Masonic club in Adelaide Street where a hundred or so guests arrived for the celebrations. Members of various lodges (with particularly good turnouts from Emblem Lodge No 6727 and Saturnian Lodge 7563) joined family members and friends, lady Masons, and non-Masons in the banqueting suite Organised by the Masonic club in order to raise money for the building fund, the guests were in good spirit and all were thoroughly enjoying the evening. Chairman of the club committee, Colin Goodwin welcomed those present and Bob McGown, past chairman of the Masonic Hall Directors, in authentic Scottish dialect, delivered the Selkirk Grace. After the haggis had been piped in, in real style by a piper in full traditional regalia, Bob recited the address to the haggis with gusto and passion.
The evening was off to a brilliant start; drinks flowed freely, appetites were quelled, conversation proceeded in the liveliest manner, and laughter engulfed the banqueting suite. All were having a wonderful time. Some visitors also enjoyed a guided tour of the magnificent lodge room, mesmerised by the ornate décor and mystifying symbols.
But it would appear that the gathering was having too much of a good time. The partying was so opulent and the desire to have fun was so great that the draw of music and dancing in the bar area was too appealing and the banqueting suddenly concluded and all rushed off to continue their merrymaking. Tradition took a nose dive at this point and the works of Robert Burns dissipated into an alcoholic haze. In their eagerness to continue their revelry, the carousers totally forgot the toast to the immortal memory of the Bard and the singing of Auld Lang Syne. Robbie had been robbed of his toast!
A dreadful sin some Burns purists may exclaim but Burns suppers have not been without their faux pas in the past. Indeed, the first Burns supper in the Mother Club in Greenock in 1802 was held on what was thought to be his birthday, 29 January. A year later however, in 1803, it was discovered from the Ayr parish record that the correct date was 25 January 1759. So after all, perhaps Blackpool Masonic club were merely upholding a tradition of Burns supper gaffes.
Nevertheless, in conclusion, a wee reminder from our brethren north of the border to any lodge contemplating commemorating the birth of Scotland’s favourite son:
Sassenachs! Mind it well if ye can
When celebratin’ uir stoatin man
That while ye dine an’ hae a laugh
Tae raise yer glass oan his behalf