Celebrating Burns the Bard

HERE’S tae us; wha’s like us? Gey many… actually! From Hong Kong to Hawaii and Edinburgh to Dunedin January 25 is becoming more of an international festival each year as the world celebrates the birth of the Bard.Burns’ Night is probably the one annual event most associated with Scotland, its culture, food and drink than any other day of the year, including St Andrew’s day and Hogmanay.

Robert Burns

Robert Burns

It is the single occasion when Scots, their descendants and anybody with even the most tenuous link to old Caledonia – maybe they ate a McDonald’s burger once – suddenly discovers there’s a hint of Scottish-ness, or even just Scotch, in their blood.

A menu of cocka leekie soup with haggis, neeps and tatties followed by clootie dumpling and a large side order of Celtic kitsch may not be to everyone’s taste but it helps ensure that for one night at least people of all classes, creeds and colours the world o’er shall brothers be for a’ that.

Celebrating Burns around the world

Hong Kong – The St Andrews Society of Hong Kong dates back to 1881 and and its annual Burns’ Supper for expats and those with an affinity for Scotland is a highlight in the social calendar of the former British outpost.

Dunedin – Thomas Burns, a nephew of the poet, was one of the founding fathers of New Zealand’s most southerly city. Residents of the city have been celebrating Burns Night since 1855 and the Dunedin Burns Club was established in 1861 to promote his poetry and foster the love of Scottish song and story.

Montréal – The St Andrew’s Society of Montreal has been promoting Scottish culture and serving the city’s Scots since 1835. The Society plays a key role in promoting and nurturing Scottish traditions and culture among its members and the Burns Supper is one of the highlights of the year.

New York – Founded in 1856 the Caledonian Society in New York remains a focal point for the Scottish-American community cting as a resource for information and knowledge concerning Scotland, Scottish heritage and culture. The annual Burns Supper is said to be one of the most elegant black tie events to be found anywhere.

United Arab Emirates – The Abu Dhabi St Andrews Society has at least 18 nationalities among its membership and was set up to promote social activities and friendly relations between all nationalities and Scottish residents in Abu Dhabi. Held in the gardens of the British Embassy the annual Burns Supper is a glittering affair and one of the most popular of the club’s many events.

Hawaii – The Hawaii Caledonian Society actively promotes greater awareness and understanding of Scottish heritage. Scots have been travelling to Hawaii since the end of the 18th century, many arrived in the wake of Captain James Cook, a part-Scot, after he opened Hawaii to the West.


January is the busiest time of the year for purveyors of Scottish cuisine. From haggis and shortbread to whisky and Irn Bru markets around the world stock up on produce from Scotland to meet the demand for Burns’ Night celebrations.

VisitScotland has even produced a free ebook, “Hold Your Own Burns Supper”, for the uninitiated offering hints and tips on everything from choosing the venue, what to wear, eat and drink, through to the running order and addressing the haggis. It even provides the words to Auld Lang Syne, even though Guinness Book of World Records claims it is one of the three most popular songs in the English language. The other two being ‘Happy Birthday’ and ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow’.

Even though Burns never wore a kilt, especially as they were illegal for much of his life, his birthday celebrations now provide hire shops with a roaring trade in tartan outfits.

Burns’ night celebrations the world over have now made the kilt almost de rigueur, so much so that this year the German discount supermarket Lidl introduced a range of “traditional” Highland wear across all 610 of its UK stores. For less than £30 men could buy an eight yard kilt, in a choice of two tartans for just £29.99. A selection of ghillie shirts was also on offer for £11.99 and a leather sporran for £9.99.

But it’s not just the fashion, food and drink industries that benefit. Tourism remains a major money spinner, especially in Ayrshire where there are numerous locations connected to the poet who was born there in 1759. Visitors to the area can follow in his footsteps from the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway to the Auld Kirk where “Tam O’Shanter” had his run-in with the witches.

“Since the poet’s death in 1796, visitors from across the world have come to Alloway in their millions to see for themselves where it all began for Burns,” said Dr David Hopes, Director of Robert Burns Birthplace Museum.

“This is also where the tradition of remembering the poet began: the world’s first Burns Supper took place in the humble room where Burns was born less than five years after his death and is now celebrated internationally. The rise of Burns’ fame and the popularity of the Burns Supper is truly unparalled.”

Voted the Greatest Ever Scot in a television poll in 2009 Burns is a very valuable asset for the Scottish economy. His legacy brings in more than £160million a year making him probably the richest member of the dead poet’s society. Not bad for a farmer turned exciseman with a fondness for wine, women and song who died at the age of just 37 leaving behind 12 children by four different women and a string of broken-hearts.

His yearly income outstrips those of top earning passed-over pop stars such as Michael Jackson whose estate makes around £92million a year and Elvis Presley who still earns about £36million annually.

Jackson was a huge fan of Burns and even recorded an album setting the Bard’s poems to music.

Burn's Cottage, Ayr

Photograph by: Bryan MesserBurn’s Cottage, Ayr

More than 218 years after his death Burns remains an international beacon of Scotland’s cultural life.

He is a global icon recognised as one of the top literary figures in the history of the planet. His work is out of this world – literally. A miniature book of this work was carried into orbit by British-born astronaut Nicholas Patrick on a two-week space mission in 2010.

It is estimated that more than 160 substantial memorials dedicated to Robert Burns are dotted around the globe. The only person with more statues is Queen Victoria.

“Robert Burns is Scotland’s greatest cultural icon, recognised and celebrated all around the world. His legacy is of incalculable value to Scotland and the country’s image abroad,” said Fiona Hyslop, Cabinet Secretary for Culture.

His work has appeared in hundreds of films and television programmes, including ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’, ‘When Harry met Sally’ and ‘Sex and the City’ and he has been credited with inspiring other literary giants.

JD Salinger’s novel ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ is based on the poem ‘Comin Thro the Rye’ and and John Steinbeck took the title of his book ‘Of Mice and Men’ from Burns’ poem ‘To a Mouse’.

“Burns and his work are emotive subjects owned by many and of significant future importance for the nation,” said Professor J. John Lennon of the Moffat Centre at Glasgow Caledonian University.

“The value of Burns as an international icon for Scotland’s creative and literary tradition can and must be celebrated on a comparable stage to Joyce in Ireland and Hans Christian Andersen in Denmark.”