Brian Ferguson: Burns is inspiring cultural celebrations worthy of his name

The Big Burns Supper in Dumfries is billed as 'a heady mixture of cabaret, comedy, music and entertainment in the most modern of Scotland's celebrations of the national bard, Robert Burns.''
The Big Burns Supper in Dumfries is billed as 'a heady mixture of cabaret, comedy, music and entertainment in the most modern of Scotland's celebrations of the national bard, Robert Burns.''
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It is increasingly hard to recall, but there was a time when the Scottish tourism and events business was not grappling with some kind of big idea each year.

The annual concept is simply enough - pick a theme strong enough to underpin a year-long series of special events and a sustained campaign to “galvanise”’ the industry, get different sectors to work together properly and give Scotland the edge over its major rivals.

The latest in a series of such initiatives overseen by VisitScotland and the Scottish Government - the Year of Young People - is underway.

The “Themed Years”, as they are known, may have certainly generated significant publicity, but have beeen a bit of a mixed bag thus far.

The legacies of efforts to promote Scotland’s natural larder, a celebration of the nation’s most remote and unspoilt landscapes, and a drive to promote outdoors sports and adventure activities continue to be felt - particularly in terms of an explosion of events, the development of campaigns like the North Coast 500, and the huge increase in popularity of locations like Skye and the Outer Hebrides.

But a celebration of creativity time to coincide with the London Olympics became embroiled in a bitter row with artists over the running of new quango Creative Scotland.

A showcase of architecture and design seemed to precipitate a revolution in the architectural profession and the resignation of its figurehead.

Then there were the Homecoming initiatives - the most recent of which tied in with Scotland’s hosting of the Ryder Cup and Commonwealth Games, but also coincided with the independence referendum and the 700th anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn.

A decision to plough significant public funding into a Bannockburn celebration was always likely to run into trouble in the referendum year - and so it proved.

The original Homecoming in back in 2009 made sense to try to capitalise on the 250th anniversary of the birth of Robert Burns, a somewhat neglected figure by then. But this was a time when such campaigns were untried in Scotland.

The two most memorable Homecoming elements were a financially disastrous clan gathering centrepiece and a widely-mocked promotional advert. But 2009 undoubtedly reignited interest, debate and passions over the life and work of Burns.

While there had been a high-profile and handsomely funded attempt to stage a contemporary Burns festival in his native Ayrshire in 2002, its original scale and ambition dwindled away as the funding dried up.

Inevitably, the 2009 momentum was also difficult to sustain. But in recent years, there have been signs of a sustained interest well outside the boundaries of those dinners steeped in Burns tradition and folklore.

Much has been down to the staging by Glasgow’s Celtic Connections festival of highly imaginative “Burns With A Difference” concerts.

Dumfries’s Big Burns Supper festival, which now attracts a 70,000-strong annual audience, boasts leading Burns interpreters like Eddi Reader, Dougie MacLean, Emily Smith and Robyn Stapleton, alongside guests like Donovan, Badly Drawn Boy and Camille O’Sullivan.

Two significant new multi-arts Burns festivals have emerged in Edinburgh in the last 12 months alone - staged on and around Rose Street, and at Summerhall. Thousands are also expected in Perth for a two-day event to launch its Riverside Light Nights season.

While Scotland is some way from boasting anything to rival the St Patrick’s Day celebrations in Ireland, something genuinely appears to be stirring with Burns.

There are no shortage of artists keen to explore his world or have their name attached to Burns-linked festivals, and there seems to be increasingly demand for new events in the darkest depths of winter.

Less than a decade on from that landmark anniversary, Burns may just be inspiring the start of a cultural celebration worthy of his name.