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Of Burns suppers and my red, red face

AMONG the countless things which distinguish the east from the west of Scotia is Robert Burns.

Growing up in the former his name was not one with which I was comfortably familiar. I guess I must have been taught a few of his poems and could perhaps recite a couple on demand but none that sticks in the memory. But it would have been a very different story had I lived in his native Ayrshire where it would have been impossible to ignore him. Burns may have had to wait until the Edinburgh literati "discovered" him but it was his native heath which fed his inspiration and did its damnedest to protect his memory.

We are, of course, about to enter the season of neeps and haggis when Rabbie – how that name sticks in the craw – will be toasted until overworked livers howl in protest. It is 217 years since he died and still his flame burns. What new can there possibly be to say about him? It is a question I often ask myself, not least because there is an Immortal Memory or two soon to deliver. Recently a few letters relating to Burns were unearthed but while interesting to Burnsomaniacs their content was the stuff of footnotes. I have come therefore to the melancholy conclusion that he has exhausted all avenues of meaningful inquiry.

For someone who has been bidden to wax at length on him this is a dispiriting thought. Burns suppers have been on the go virtually ever since he died and are held all over the world in every kind of venue. They have even been televised, albeit making less than riveting viewing, and doubtless get scores of hits on YouTube. So sought after are some speakers that they are booked many years in advance; as befits my status I usually get a call at the last minute when someone else has been hit by a mysterious lurgy.

A doyen of the circuit, if not the doyen, is the incomparable John Cairney who has portrayed Burns so often he has virtually become him. He once played him in a mental institution which by all accounts went down well with an unusually sympathetic audience. On leaving, Cairney realised why when he overheard one inmate say to another: "Why is that guy getting out of here if he thinks he's Rabbie Burns?"

I have yet to cap that. My debut performance at a Burns supper was at a venerable club in Glasgow where the top of the bill was Donald Dewar. As you might expect he was an excellent speaker but after about 20 minutes he forgot Burns and launched into a party political broadcast which prompted some of the members to disconnect their hearing aids and replenish their glasses. By the time I got up to speak, shortly before I turned into a pumpkin, there was not a sober soul to be found and I was welcomed with a volley of bread rolls.

Undeterred I continued to accept invitations on the basis that such behaviour is the exception rather than the norm. If only it were. Once I spoke at a dentists' Burns supper, at which Tam o' Shanter was replaced by his Ode to the Toothache ("My curse upon your venom'd stang, That shoots my tortur'd gums alang," etc). Of that bibulous occasion, all I can say is that I'm glad I hadn't booked an appointment the following morning.

Last year I pitched up in North Berwick, one of the few places in the country that there is no record of Burns visiting. Iain Gray, erstwhile leader of the Scottish Labour Party, was a fellow speaker. However, both he and I were effortlessly upstaged by a man whose name I did not catch who recited To a Mouse while a real wee, sleekit, cowrin, tim'rous beastie ran up and down his arm. Apparently, he'd rented it from a pet shop in West Lothian.

The most august supper I have attended was at the Caledonian Club in London where my (female) partner was the main speaker. "I hear a woman's giving the Immortal Memory tonight," said one (male) guest to another. Pregnant pause. "Well, why not?" Why not, indeed.

Book tickets for The Herald and Sunday Herald Burns event

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