Robbie Burns Day: Celebrating Scotland's most famous son

- January 24, 2013

A portrait of Burns and his impressive sideburns.
A portrait of Burns and his impressive sideburns.

When a Burns supper is finishing up in Warsaw, one will still be going on in London. A few hours later, when the scotch is being toasted in Vancouver, people will be sitting down in Halifax ready to enjoy their haggis.

More than 200 years after his death, Robert Burns’ legacy lives on. Celebrated each January 25, Robbie Burns Day may speak to the spread of Scottish culture more than any other event; it’s more celebrated worldwide than Scotland’s own national holiday, St. Andrew's Day.

Burns is regarded as the National Poet of Scotland. In 2009 he was voted the Greatest Scot by the Scottish public through the television channel STV.

“If you were to teach a class on Scottish history, chances are he would be on the list,” says David McNeil, associate professor of English at Dal.

Poetry of passion

Born in Alloway, Ayrshire on January 25, 1759 to a labourer family, Burns spent the early part of his life on a farm. With little formal education, he learned solely from his father who greatly stressed the connection between education and success.

After joining a country dance school, Burns formed the Tarbolton Bachelors' Club, a men’s club that aimed to relieve wearied labouring men from their work and life. The Halifax Burns’ Club, based on the Tarbolton Club, was founded in 1997 and limits its membership to 37 members, coinciding with the number of years Burns was alive.

Burns’ celebrated poetry was written mainly about his passion: women. He not only had a romantic passion for women but advocated for their rights at a time when this was often an unpopular point of view.

Like many acclaimed artists, Burns’ poetry and folk songs were increasingly celebrated following his death in 1796. This reflects that he wrote and published at a time when Scottish culture was flattened by the influence of English literature and culture.

“He is considered the poet of the people because he wrote for the people,” says Dr. McNeil, referring to Burns' use of the Scottish dialect. Burns wrote mainly in the vernacular language, the language used in everyday exchanges between people as opposed to a formal written language.

Suppertime scotch and haggis

It’s not surprising that Burns’ legacy is revered in "New Scotland" (Nova Scotia).

“There is important Scottish heritage running through Dalhousie,” says Dr. McNeil. After all, Dalhousie was founded in 1818 by the ninth Earl of Dalhousie, George Ramsay, a Scottish soldier.

On Friday, Dalhousie’s University Club is hosting one of Halifax’s many Robbie Burns Day suppers. A Burns Supper typically includes a special menu of haggis, single malt scotches and reading of Burns’ poetry. Many supper-goers arrive in kilts.

Dr. McNeil will be wearing his.

“It’s almost like Halloween; I don’t get opportunities to wear my kilt very often,” he says.

Dalhousie students interested in diving deeper into Scottish heritage have an opportunity to do so – and for prize money, at that. The Clan Ramsay of Nova Scotia Prize is a scholarship offered by the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences for the best paper dealing with any aspect of Scottish culture within Canada, from Scottish reformists, to the Scottish influence on education, to the impact of Scottish industrialists. The prize is worth $500.

Chances are that Robert Burns — or, as he signed his tax return, "Rhymer Rabbie, alias Burns" — will make an appearance in one of these papers.


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