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Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Robert Burns Night

A portrait of Scottish poet Robert Burns

Ian Jack in the Guardian offers a fond examination of the phenomenon of the Burns Night Supper in It's Burns Night – sae let the Lord be thankit

The temptation here is to mock Burns Suppers as an example of what historian Hugh Trevor-Roper called "invented traditions", a ritual that like Druidism, clan tartans and eisteddfods is essentially a Victorian reimagining of the past. But the historical record demolishes that idea. The memorialisation of Burns began only a few years after his death in 1796. There were Burns Clubs in the west of Scotland by 1805, a mausoleum in Dumfries by 1817, a monument (the foundation stone was laid by James Boswell's son with "full Masonic honours") started at his birthplace in Alloway, Ayrshire, in 1820. As to Burns Suppers, the first was held at his old Alloway cottage in 1801 and for several years commemorated his July death as well as his January birth. From the beginning, speeches were made to the poet's "immortal memory" – many guests had known him – and haggis featured on the menu as well as sheep's head.

The cottage, which the Burns family quit long before, had been converted to an alehouse and soon began to attract literary pilgrims. Keats, visiting in 1818, wrote to a friend: "We went to the cottage and took some whiskey … The man at the cottage was a great bore with his anecdotes – I hate the rascal – his life consists in fuz, fuzzy, fuzziest – he drinks glasses five for the quarter and twelve for the hour, – he is a mahogany faced old jackass who knew Burns – he ought to be kicked for having spoken to him."

As an after-death cult, Burns's was almost instant, and like all successful cults it had objects and places that followers could visit and feel attached to.

Lodge Vitruvian is forgoing its semi-regular Burns Night Supper this year—twice we've been snowed out, and our ranks have been shrinking as of late. So we'll have a year off. But if you are in search of material, recipes, and poetry for your own lodge's Burns celebration, visit the most comprehensive Burns Supper Guide at Burns Country.

See also What makes a Burns Supper? by the World Burns Club.

If you have a hankering for a haggis, see Haggis Guide: Buying & Cooking Haggis for Burns Day Supper

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