On Monday the 28th of May, St. Andrew’s held the annual Burns Supper and Concert. The Burns Supper is a centuries old Scottish tradition, celebrating the life and work of the Ploughman Poet, Robert Burns. Born the eldest son of tenant farmers, William Burnes and Agnes Broun, in Alloway, South Ayrshire, Burns enjoyed a meteoric rise from farmer and excise officer, to internationally beloved poet and lyricist. By the twilight of his days, he was to be heralded as the National Poet of Scotland, a pioneer of the Romantic Movement, the voice of the Scottish diaspora, and by far the most globally influential Scots author of all time. His poetry is written varyingly in Scots, and a hybrid Scottish-English, and muses tactfully and viscerally upon themes ranging from outright patriotism (as in Scots Wha Hae), to class-critical radicalism (as in The Cotter’s Saturday Night), from the giddy delights of love (as in A Red, Red Rose), to the incomparable pangs of heartache (as in Ae Fond Kiss). Burns did not only compose original verse, but also delighted in collecting and reinterpreting traditional Scottish folk-songs (as in Auld Lang Syne). The range of his literary output is well encapsulated by his fond reception in the private library of Abraham Lincoln, the translations of the Soviet author, Samuil Marshak, the novels of John Steinbeck and J.D. Salinger, and the folk-ballads of Bob Dylan – to name only a handful of his modern readers. From humble, bucolic origins, the Bard of Ayrshire resonated across epochs, borders, genres, and political divisions.
The first Burns Supper was held on the 21st of July, 1801 at Burns Cottage – the Alloway house built by William Burnes in 1757 to accommodate his prospective family. The occasion was arranged by his close friends to commemorate the fifth anniversary of his passing. In that same year, the first Burns Club (occasionally called “The Mother Club”), which remains in operation to this day, was inaugurated in Greenock, Inverclyde, with an expressed constitutional purpose “…to cherish the name of Robert Burns, and generally to encourage an interest in the Scottish language and literature.” The Greenock Burns Club held their first Burns Supper on the 29th of January 1802, to coincide with what they thought to be the birthday of their namesake. However, upon consulting the Ayr Parish records in 1803, it was discovered that Burns was actually born on the 25th January 1759. It has been custom ever since that awkward realization to hold Burns Suppers on or about the 25th of January. Notionally, however, the suppers may occur at any other time of the year – as is the case with our own, since we do not sit in January.
The St. Andrew’s Burns Supper took its heed from the traditional structure of such occasions. Guests were piped into the hall by fR. Max Eastwood, to be greeted by Principal, Wayne Erickson, with a rendition of the customary Selkirk Grace: “Some hae meat an canna eat, / and some wad eat that want it; / but we hae meat, and we can eat, / an sae the Lord be thankit.” After a pre-emptive course of Cock-A-Leekie Soup, the pipes sounded again to herald the arrival of the “Great chieftain o the puddin’-race” – the Haggis. The flaming entrails were borne into the dining hall by sophomore, Harry Wright, followed closely by the kilt-clad and claymore-wielding Dean of Studies, Alex Wright. Senior Fellow and Archivist, Professor Ian Jack, enlightened the audience with a Standard English translation of Burns’ own To a Haggis, before Alex toasted our supper in the original Scots. Having polished off the haggis, as well as generous servings on neeps, tatties, and salmon, the formal proceedings of dinner concluded with some toasts and reflections on Burns, accompanied by a healthy plate of Cranachan (“Tipsy Laird”).
Following dinner, we descended to Senior Common Room for the Burns Night Concert arranged by Prof. Jack. Fortified by several blocks of cheese and snifters of Drambuie, attendees were treated to a tasting-platter of Burns’ lyrical genius, selected by Prof. Jack, sung to both modern and traditional settings, with the addition of some unaccompanied recitations.
Performers on the night included Hugh Beith (Cello), Jessica Harper (Soprano), Titus Grenyer (Violin), Prof. Ian Jack (Piano), Hannah Steel (Reciter), Dr. Hester Wilson (Soprano), and Alex Wright (Reciter). The programme captured the inimitable versatility for which Burns is so admired. The international resonance of Burns was on display in Jemand (“Somebody”), Wilhelm Gerhard’s 1840 German rendering of Burns’ ode to a distant flame. We saw, on the obverse, his fondness for his homeland in Schumann’s setting of his Highland Cradle Song, and John Anderson, My Jo, set by Haydn to a traditional tune. We discovered also that his lyrics alone are mesmerizing (and, indeed, humorous) enough to capture an audience, with unaccompanied recitals of Wha Is That At My Bower Door?, Mary Morison, and To A Mouse.
Burns was, however, above all, a man of deep and overwhelming passions, who knew all too well the troubles wrought by pursuing love. This passion was front-and-centre in moving performances of Mendelssohn’s setting of O Wert Thou In The Cauld Blast, Haydn’s arrangement of Ay Waukin, O, and a traditional version of For The Sake O’ Somebody. The evening concluded with a touching rendition of his most personal, and yet universal, reflection upon the gamble of desire, Ae Fond Kiss, set to a traditional Scottish tune attributed to Rory Dall (c. 1700): “Had we never lov’d sae kindly, / had we never lov’d sae blindly, / never met – or never parted – / we had ne’er been broken-hearted.”