Supporters club always had a laugh with Tommy at Burns Supper with a difference

THE passing of Tommy Burns has seen all of Scottish football mourn the loss of a respected and popular individual, and among those who will say goodbye to a fond friend are the members of the Heriot Watt & Edinburgh University Celtic Supporters Club.

For over 20 years the club hosted the annual Tommy Burns Supper, which became a unique event in Scotland. What started as a joke in 1987 became nothing short of a cultural institution.

What was it all about and how did it begin?

Well, after being noised up in a Cowgate pub by Tory students who had been imbibing heavily at their own (Robert) Burns Supper, a small band of Heriot Watt & Edinburgh University Celtic Supporters Club members had the entirely daft idea of holding a Tommy Burns Supper at Edinburgh University as both a celebration of the flame-haired maestro and a parody of the original Bardic event.

If it was just a joke, Tommy certainly got it. He delivered the punchline by agreeing to attend, sharing the top table with the club's first honorary president, Brian McClair, Scotsman journalist Anthony Troon and sports writer Hugh Keevins, who was to become a regular fixture.

Such was the demand for tickets the following year, the supper was moved from a downstairs bar in Teviot Row Union up to the grand Banqueting Hall, which became the regular venue, attracting some 250 frantic folk from across and furth of Scotland every year.

The 'TB Supper' as it became known was special in many ways. It was the only annual dinner held in honour of a Scottish sportsman; but it was never a sportsman's dinner per se and it was never an exclusively Celtic affair.

True, many Celtic greats like John Fallon, Jim Craig and Billy McNeill attended, but what attracted the diners was equally the bigger Bill o' Fare on offer.

Among those who spoke, sang or performed for their supper were the raucous Alexander Sisters, young piping genius Martyn Bennett, film producer Peter Broughan, historian Professor Tom Devine, anarchic comic Bob Doollally, broadcasters Jim Delahunt and Forbes McFall, composer James MacMillan, Sherriff Hugh Matthews QC, singer-songwriters Peter Nardini and Rod Paterson, actors Tony Roper and Elaine C Smith, MPs John McAllion and Brian Wilson, and journalist Tom Shields.

At what other football event could you be regularly treated to poetry – serious, comic and satirical – excerpts from plays, cutting-edge music, thought-provoking speeches and academic excellence?

And in pride of place was Tommy himself who always capped the evening with his stirring rendition of the Weill/Brecht classic (as popularised by Bobby Darin) Mack the Knife.

Tommy only missed three of the suppers, when he was at Reading and at Newcastle, and this year due to his illness.

When he was manager at Kilmarnock, a wee but vociferous squad of Killie fans were welcomed to the occasion, as was journalist and Hibs fan Simon Pia who regularly addressed the TB/Celtic faithful as "our country cousins". Take the High Road's Inverdarroch, aka actor and stolid Rangers fan John Stahl, also appeared on the bill in 1997 when he was starring as the great manager himself in The Jock Stein Story at Glasgow's Pavilion Theatre.

What drew Tommy year after year to what may seem, after all, just an extended joke? It certainly wasn't egotism or vanity. He wasn't that kind of man.

Partly, it may have been the charitable side of the affair. Over the 22 years, some 40,000 was raised for charities from the East End of Glasgow to Central and South America. The irony and humour of the occasion certainly appealed to him. But I think, above all, it was the closeness to the Celtic fans which the occasion provided that he valued above all else.

Tommy loved Celtic. And he loved people, whatever their colour, creed or football persuasion.

He was always late, mind you. Always. And throughout the evening he always drank deeply – from his glass of milk.