World’s first official Robert Burns club ‘was founded in England’

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He is Scotland’s national bard, celebrated around the globe on his birthday this week with bagpipes, haggis and whisky.

But Scots fans of Robert Burns may be in for a surprise - as the world’s first ever official Burns Club may have been in England, according to a writer.

Robert Burns.

Robert Burns.

While the Paisley Burns Club - founded in 1805 - claims to have been the first to be formally constituted, Greenock describes itself as the “Mother Club”.

But Burns expert Dr Clark McGinn has claimed the first Burns Club was actually in Sunderland.

Dr McGinn, from Ayr, made the claim after examining archive documents dating back more than 200 years for his new book The Burns Supper: A Concise History,

He said: “There has always been a rivalry between Paisley and Greenock about which is the oldest Burns Club.

“In my research I found that Greenock held Suppers from 1802 but it only started calling itself a ‘Burns Club’ at the same time as Paisley, in 1805.

“But, to my surprise, I also discovered there was an even earlier Burns Club in Sunderland, that was founded the previous year and even branded itself as the oldest in the world at the time.

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“The Sunderland Burns Club only lasted until the 1850s -- it was resurrected in 1897 and closed forever in 2011 -- but it was undoubtedly the first.”

The first Burns Supper was held at Burns Cottage, the bard’s birthplace in Alloway, Ayrshire, in July 1801, on the fifth anniversary of the poet’s death.

Although no formal record now exists - as the first minute book was lost - members of the Greenock Ayrshire Society met and agreed to have a dinner in January 1802.

However, those gatherings were billed as “Greenock Ayrshire Burns Dinners”, according to Dr McGinn, and it was only in 1805 that “Greenock Burns Club” broke away.

According to Dr McGinn, the Greenock Club’s own report, published in the Greenock Advertiser on 2 February 1810, calls that year’s dinner the club’s sixth. In the same year, The Paisley Burns Club met for its first Burns Supper.

He said annual reports from the Sunderland Burns Club - published until 1828 - consistently stated their formation as 1804, and even called themselves “the oldest Burns Club in existence”.

Dr McGinn, a former President of the Burns Club of London, charts the rapid spread of Burns Suppers and Clubs around the world in his new book.

While the Irvine Burns Club claims the longest unbroken history, dating back to its formation in 1826, and the earliest Edinburgh club was founded in 1814, Burns Suppers were already being held in Oxford (1806); Jamaica (1807) and Bombay (1810).

There were Burns Suppers in Philadelphia (1817) some two years before the formation of The Burns Club of Dumfries, where the poet spent his later years and now lies buried. Even Tasmania was celebrating Burns as early as 1826.

Dr McGinn, who has delivered 200 immortal memories in 15 countries and 31 cities around the globe, added: “People think of Burns clubs as inherently Scottish, but the celebration of the bard is not defined by geographical boundaries.

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“There are currently more than 200 clubs affiliated to the Robert Burns World Federation, with members all over Scotland and England, and as far afield as Atlanta (USA), Calgary (Canada), Dunedin (New Zealand) and Kiev (Ukraine) among many other locations.

“But the very first Burns club in existence appears to have been in England of all places.”

Greenock Burns Club dispute Dr McGinn’s claim, however. It’s president, June Forbes, said: “I haven’t heard of the Sunderland Burns Club but as far as we are concerned we are the oldest. We are known throughout the world as ‘The Mother Club’.”

Archivist Margaret Kane added: “The argument over which club was first comes up every now and again because our first minute book was lost, but we believe the Greenock Club is the oldest in the world.

“The first Supper was in 1802 but they constituted a Burns Society, they called it, on the 21st July 1801.”

* The Burns Supper, A Concise History, by Clark McGinn, is published by Luath Press, priced £9.99