The Burns Supper: History of the celebration of Scotland and its bard to be tracked around the world

From its beginnings as humble memorial dinner to a missed friend to the modern day global celebration of Scotland that is marked today, the Burns Supper is a phenomenon like no othere

Professor Gerard Carruthers, Co-Director of the Centre for Robert Burns Studies at the University of Glasgow, at the National Trust for Scotlands Burns Birthplace Museum in Alloway, Ayrshire. PIC: Martin Shields.

Now, Burns experts at the University of Glasgow are to chart the impact of the Burns Supper around the world with it estimated that more than 9.5m people will sit down to a night of haggis, whisky and poetry this year.

A digital map will be created of Burns Supper activity, both past and present, with detailed information to be included on the food and drink served, speeches delivered, and toasts raised .

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All elements of the performance by men, women and children will be charted along with information on the many and diverse communities involved in the celebration, which is held on January 25, the birthday of the poet.

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“Robert Burns is world writer whose life and work have given rise to one of the great world cultural phenomena – the Burns Supper. It is a testimony to the bard’s enduring appeal not only within Scotland but around the world. And at the centre of the supper of course is his great body of work from poetry to song which speaks so strongly to people.

“On 21 July 1801, close friends of Burns held the first Burns supper to mark the fifth anniversary of the bard’s death. They would never have guessed nearly 220 years on that this would have grown into such a worldwide phenomenon.

“By the end of the project we aim to have have a one-stop shop for everything you want to know about the Burns Supper, past and present.”

The research is being funded by Frank and Susan Shaw of Atlanta with the Centre for Robert Burns Studies representing the world's largest concentration of Burns experts.

Bill Nolan, Secretary of the Irvine Burns Club, one of the oldest continually existing Burns Clubs in the world and Immediate Past President of the World Burns Federation, said: “Burns Suppers are a very special part of Scotland’s social fabric that we have exported successfully to the rest of the world. I can’t think of any other writer or poet who is remembered annually in this way and that’s why Robert Burns is uniquely Scotland’s international icon.”

“It’s a myth that there’s any formal protocol that has to be followed other than the basic one that every Burns Supper has to be fun and that’s easily assessed by asking one question ‘Would Robert Burns have enjoyed this event?’ To which the answer should always be a resounding ‘Yes - and he’s coming back next year’ “

The History of the Burns Supper project will build on the pioneering work of Dr Clark McGinn, an advisor on the project who did his PhD with the CRBS.

Dr McGinn said: “Within a few years of the first dinner, Burns Suppers were being held across Scotland, but in England, India, America, and Jamaica too; with Canada, Australia and New Zealand following. This spontaneous, global growth was because the Burns Supper was the kind of party Burns himself would have enjoyed, so what better way to showcase and celebrate his life, poems and songs?”

The first Burns Supper was celebrated in Burns Cottage, Alloway on the 21 July 1801 commemorating the date of the bard’s passing rather than his birth, and those friends met again, as did the founders of Greenock Burns Club holding Burns Suppers on 29 January 1802, getting the poet’s date of birthday wrong by four days.

The research will collate and track the elements of the Burns Suppers from those first dinners, such as the Grace, the Immortal Memory and other kinds of poems, songs and speeches performed to understand the patterns of growth over the last 200 years.

Poems and songs about Burns used over the 200 years at these occasions will be gathered. Burns Suppers will be detailed through the nineteenth-century, across the British Empire, by missionaries, soldiers, reformers & others, across America, Asia, Australia and Europe and right up to the present day.

A recent Scottish Government commissioned report by the University’s Professor Murray Pittock shows that Robert Burns is worth over £200 million a year to the Scottish economy and the poet’s brand is worth nearly £140 million annually. The study also found that in Scotland alone, Burns Suppers are worth £11 million annual with an estimated 9.5 million people worldwide attend Burns Suppers every year.