Bard poetry? More like bad poetry as Scots prepare to celebrate ‘alternative’ Burns Night

Auchentoshan, the whisky firm behind the move to celebrate an alternative Burns Night, said that the celebration of William Topaz McGonagall will be 'an alternative evening of whisky, terrible poetry, haggis and general mayhem.' Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty
Auchentoshan, the whisky firm behind the move to celebrate an alternative Burns Night, said that the celebration of William Topaz McGonagall will be 'an alternative evening of whisky, terrible poetry, haggis and general mayhem.' Picture: Hulton Archive/Getty
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HE HAS long been cast as a bit of a joke figure and is routinely described as the worst poet in the history of the English language.

But the name of William Topaz McGonagall is set to be celebrated at pubs across Scotland later this month on a night more traditionally associated with a rather more illustrious writer of verse.

Fans of the eccentric Dundonian wordsmith will gather on Burns Night to toast the man they believe should be regarded as Scotland’s other national poet. In a move set to upset poetry purists everywhere, fans of McGonagall will take part in “alternative” Burns suppers, where dessert will be served first and there will be no renditions of the Address to a Haggis.

Instead, diners will perform a selection of pieces from McGonagall’s own extensive and much-maligned canon.

The brainchild of whisky firm Auchentoshan, the McGonagall suppers will take place at pubs across the UK, with venues being encouraged to serve a menu that starts with the traditional Scottish dessert of cranachan, before moving on to a main course of haggis and a starter of flaked salmon over oatcakes.

Brand manager Hannah Fisher said: “Auchentoshan likes to do things differently and, just like us, McGonagall liked to challenge perceptions. It therefore seems apt that we host a series of dinners that takes an interesting twist on one of Scotland’s most revered celebrations.

“It will be an alternative evening of whisky, terrible poetry, haggis and general mayhem.”

Among the venues taking part in the celebrations are the Hyde Out bar in Edinburgh, as well as three English venues in Darlington, Durham and London.

McGonagall enthusiast Chris Hunt, who runs the website McGonagall Online, welcomed the idea of celebrating the poet on 25 January. He said: “I think this is a brilliant idea.

“I’ve been to quite a few Burns suppers where I’ve tried to sneak in a bit of McGonagall – it’s nice to cover both extremes of Scottish poetic output in one evening.”

Asked if the poet deserved his reputation as the worst Scotland had ever produced, he said. “Yes. He’s pretty much the bottom of the bottom in terms of quality, but his poems are entertaining.

“We’re still buying them 100 years after his death, so he must have done something right.”

Born in Edinburgh in 1825, McGonagall wrote about 200 poems, including the infamous Tay Bridge Disaster –often described as the worst poem in British literary history.

Recounting the tragic events of 1879 in which the Tay Rail Bridge collapsed as a train passed over it, the poems begins: “Beautiful railway bridge of the silv’ry Tay / Alas! I am very sorry to say/ That ninety lives have been taken away /On the last sabbath day of 1879 / Which shall be remembered for a very long time.”