Burns Night, held on January 25th every year to commemorate the memory of Robert Burns, has succeeded in identifying a single poet with a whole nation more than perhaps any other country on earth. How? Well, they began soon after the poet’s death in 1796, informally among hs friends and acquaintances, but then on a more organized basis after the meeting of “nine gentlemen of Ayr,” at the poet’s birthplace in 1801, when a haggis formed part of the meal in his memory. The first established Burns Club, the Alloway Burns Club, formed as a result of this dinner, and the Greenock Burns Club dedicated itself to his commemoration soon after. By 1810, formal Burns Clubs and informal gatherings alike were celebrating Burns Night and honoring Burns across Britain, and in the course of the following decade, they spread across the English-speaking world and beyond.

How did they gain such popularity? Partly through the same upsurge of Scottish Romanticism articulated in the same period by Sir Walter Scott, which gave Scotland European cultural standing. Also, though, through Burns’s gift of keeping the common touch, perpetuated through his verse. After all, how many great poets could owe part of their fame to a poem about a stuffed sheep’s gut? And lastly, through the involvement of Scots with the British Empire, which took their descendants across the globe. The Act of Union of 1707 saw Scotland surrender its independence for a stake in empire, and the worldwide renown of Burns Night partly reflects that bargain.


The TeleRead community values your civil and thoughtful comments. We use a cache, so expect a delay. Problems? E-mail newteleread@gmail.com.