What’s So Special About Robert Burns?

Posted on 20 January, 2011 17:16 pm

Scottish Quest asked Douglas Martin of the Dalry Burns Club to explain to us what’s so special about Robert Burns.

Robert Burns and Dalry Burns Club

Robert Burns (1759 – 1796) was a Romantic poet born in humble circumstances in Scotland who became world-famous.  His writings on life, love and liberty have delighted and inspired not only native Scots but a worldwide audience of admirers.

Born in Alloway in Ayrshire, Burns endured a life of impoverished hardship, farming on a succession of poor steadings until he secured employment with the government Customs and Excise office.

Although his life and loves have been the subject of much research and deliberation, it is Burns’s works that have secured his place in the pantheon of great writers.

By the age of twenty-seven, his first collection of poems had been published.

The ‘Kilmarnock Edition’ confirmed the poet’s ability to write grippingly on a wide range of subjects: from nationalism to nature and from love and beauty to social deprivation.

Burns might properly be regarded as proto-Romantic in content and style and his influence is evident in the work of later Romantics, such as Wordsworth, Shelley and Coleridge.

His influence also spread to the United States, with vernacular poets such as Riley and Stanton being among his admirers.  Burns was also the poet of the people in pre-Soviet Russia, where his socialist perspective struck a chord.

A Russian translation of Burns’s work, begun in 1924, sold over 600,000 copies.

‘Tam O’Shanter’ is probably the poet’s best-known work.  An epic narrative poem, this work, full of carousing and witchcraft, ends with a warning on the adverse effects of strong drink.

Many of Burns’s poems reflect the difficult social conditions prevalent in Scotland in the eighteenth century and others rail against the unbalanced social hierarchy of the time.  Other works are more light-hearted and revel in the jollity and fulfillment to be found in genuine friendship.

Burns’s love songs are, arguably, unequalled.

Listen to ‘Ae Fond Kiss’ or ‘My Love Is Like A Red, Red Rose’ and the poet’s heartfelt appreciation of true love will become apparent.  Apart from writing original lyrics, Burns set out to collect Scottish folk-songs, using his skills to refurbish many old Scots songs.

Robert Burns died in Dumfries in July, 1796 at the age of thirty-seven years.  His legacy is profound and far-reaching and his memory and works are preserved and appreciated by Caledonian Societies and Burns Clubs throughout the world.

What’s So Special About the Dalry Burns Club?

Dalry Burns Club was established in 1825 in the town’s ‘Montgomerie’s Inn’ (now the ‘Turf Inn’) when Hugh Morris and Andrew Crawford were elected Chairman and Secretary.

The first Anniversary Dinner, in January 1826, was attended by twenty local men, the majority of whom were weavers.  Since then, the Club has held an Anniversary Dinner each year, with the result that Dalry Burns Club has the longest, continuous record of dinners – or ‘Burns Suppers’ – in the world.

With such a long period of celebrating the life and works of the poet, Dalry Burns Club has established a number of traditional elements.

The Club’s membership is currently limited to 90 (there’s a waiting list for membership) and all toasts, poetry readings and musical items are delivered by Club members; no outside performers are employed.

Apart from the ‘Memory of Burns’, the most important toast of the evening is the ‘Memory of Jean Armour’, rather than the more commonly heard ‘Toast To The Lassies’.

The records and artifacts of the Club are known collectively as the ‘Cairn’.  The member who compiled the earliest archive of the Club was William Logan of Coldstream, who was Chairman in 1864.  It is thanks to William Logan that the Club has records dating back to its inception.  In 1888, the landlord of the ‘Turf Inn’ donated several items to the Club, including two toddy ladles, which had been used at anniversary dinners since the earliest days.  As a receipt for dues paid, members received a measure of whisky from the ‘Tappit Hen’ and this tradition continues to this day.

In recent years, the Club archive has been transferred, as far as possible, to the internet and the records are available on the Club’s website at www.dalryburnsclub.org.uk.

The Club is a registered Scottish Charity (No 038312) and is a member of The Burns Federation.  While the Anniversary Dinner remains an important aspect of the Club’s activities, regular Club meetings are held throughout the year and the Club also arranges visits to Burns-related sites and events, such as the ‘Holy Fair’ at Mauchline.

The Club raises funds to sponsor arts-related activities in local schools.  For many years, verse and singing competitions have been supported by the Club and, more recently, an art competition was inaugurated.

Club funds are also used to finance the expanding website: apart from the Burns Club archive, there are extensive photographic records of ‘Old Dalry’ and ‘Dalry School’ and both sections of the website attract interest and additional material from contributors.

The Club is proud to have supported the ‘First Edition’ project, which saw a replica of the printing press used for the ‘Kilmarnock Edition’ built and installed in the Dick Institute in Kilmarnock.

The Club has also raised funds to purchase a Houston painting, ‘The Turf Inn’, which was reproduced on the cover of the programme for the Centenary Dinner of 1925.  George Houston F.R.S.A. was a noted artist who was born in Dalry and was Chairman of Dalry Burns Club in 1907.  The painting now hangs in the local library.  The Club also contributed funds towards the development of the National Trust Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway.

The Club’s most recent endeavour has been the production of the Scottish Quest Robert Burns Quiz E-book.

With the encouragement and support of Lynne Cadenhead at 1745 Trading Co Ltd, over 200 questions have been amassed and published as a downloadable quiz.  Questions range from very easy to rather more difficult and the quiz is suitable for all ages.

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