Few poets capture Scottish class, culture and early Romanticism as well as Robert Burns. Known as the Bard of Ayshire, Rabbie Burns and various other names and epithets, Burns is regarded as the national poet of Scotland. In 2009, he was named “The Greatest Scot,” having just beat First War knight William Wallace, in a vote put to the Scottish public by STV.
Five years after his death in 1796, caused by rheumatic fever, close friends of the poet hosted the first Burns Supper. The night has since grown into a regular occurrence and country-wide event, eventually making its way to the states.
For more than 10 years, the Northern Arizona Celtic Heritage Society has been hosting the annual Burns Supper in celebration of the great Scottish poet. While its celebrations had previously taken place at the Kilted Kat banquet hall in Flagstaff, this year’s Burns Supper has found a home at Uptown Pubhouse, where it will be hosted by poet and barman James Jay.
Who was Robert Burns?
Author of more than 550 poems and songs before his death at the age of 37, Burns’ influence stretches far beyond his home country.
“Whenever we think about what a poet is, whatever connotation, culturally what we likely go back to is what Burns represented. His influence I don’t think can be overstated,” Jay said.
Burns’ writings, which ranged from romantic musings on faraway lovers and nature, to deeply sympathetic views of the “everyman,” went on to serve as an influence for Liberalism and Socialism. He is often regarded as one of the pioneers of the Romantic Movement in the 18th century.
In A Night Out with Robert Burns, a collection of Burns’ poetry arranged by Andrew O’Hagan, O’Hagan spoke to Burns’ universal appeal.
“Burns has been harnessed now, like no one else, to represent the romantic spirit of the common man, and there are common men the world over who are keen to hear him... He is perpetually at one with the stars, in love with little mice, swelling to the noise of rivers, the flush on a young girl’s cheek, outraged and saddened at poverty,” O’Hagan wrote.
Beyond his homeland of Scotland, Burns has had a tremendous impact on a number of famous American authors such as John Steinbeck, who derived the title of his 1937 novella Of Mice and Men from Burns’ poem “To a Mouse.” J.D. Salinger’s infamous protagonist in Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield, also re-interprets Burns’ “Coming’ Through the Rye.”
His words adorning the space above a kitchen sink or used as fodder for political revolution, Burns “is the prince of poetry, not only for me or for Scotland, but for the world,” O’Hagan wrote. “Burns is indeed our poet—now, and for as long as the world has a care and a feeling for the dance of reality and imagination.”
Celebrating Burns Night (Supper)
Burns Night, or Supper, falls on the poet’s birthday, Jan. 25, every year. The first Burns Night took place in 1801, and new rituals have since been adopted and practiced, but paying tribute to Burns’ poetry and songs remains at the center of the celebration.
At Uptown Pubhouse, Jay said the celebration will be less formal than others, opting for more of a “celebrate as you’d like” type of feel. Though, the night will feature live music, bagpipes and poetry readings.
“I think the main thing is it’s part of a tradition that goes back for centuries,” Jay said. “It’s terrific to be part of the longstanding tradition.”
Jude McKenzie, events coordinator of NACHS, said Flagstaff’s annual Burns Supper began with the Literacy Volunteers of Coconino County, now the Literacy Center. When NACHS took over the event, “we made it into a full blown, all-the-way Scottish event,” McKenzie said. NACHS incorporated more of a traditional Burns Supper feel, featuring Bard toasts, kilt attire, poetry readings, bagpipes and, of course, songs, like “Auld Lang Syne,” now traditionally sung at midnight at the start of the new year.
Whereas the Burns Supper at the Kilted Kat was more formal, “this [year’s event at Uptown Pubhouse] is more pubby and scrubby and scrappy and happy,” McKenzie said with a laugh.
The night, as tradition calls for, will feature haggis, a savory pudding containing sheep’s liver, heart and lungs, with minced onion, oatmeal, stock and spices, all typically bound in an animal’s stomach. The uninitiated should forget what’s in it and try it for themselves, McKenzie said. The night of, an eight-pound haggis will be available for free for anyone to try.
One of NACHS’ three biggest fundraisers, including the annual Celtic Festival and the Highland Tea with Diana Gabaldon event, proceeds from the Burns Supper will go toward the organization’s scholarship fund for Celtic studies.
Of course, the crux of the night is paying honor and tribute to Burns.
“I think he was a dreamer. He was a person who inspired people on so many levels,” McKenzie said. “It’s a very heartwarming, solidarity kind of feeling to have the group, and you may not know each other, but you’re all coming together to celebrate this person who made such a difference.”
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