“Alloway’s auld haunted kirk” in Ayrshire, key scene in Burns’ “Tam O’Shanter”, and actual burial place of his parents William and Agnes.
When, as a child, I first came across the phenomenon of the Burns Supper, the thing which struck me was that the food served could be so plain. The idea that people would get dressed up and go out for a fancy meal at which the main course was haggis seemed incomprehensible. So I was reassured the first time I read an actual Burns Supper menu, to see that this very much acquired taste in food actually played only a minor role in the meal, and that beef was usually the main course.
Later, the other question which puzzled me was: why did the poet Robert Burns have an annual meal organised in his honour, an event which started so soon after his death, when no other famous writer did? Why, indeed, did he have special societies set up in his honour? True, Burns was a writer who celebrated conviviality and companionship, but so did others. The works of Shakespeare, Dickens, and Joyce all suggest that they are writers who see food and drink as among the great pleasures of life, and surely the English and the Irish are nationalities who welcome a good party as much as the Scots?
The answer to the mystery, I am certain, although I have found it hard to find anyone who shares this view in writing, is freemasonry. It is well-known that Burns was a freemason, part of a religious movement which developed in the 18th century as men espoused rational and scientific thinking which was seen to be a modern alternative to the hierarchy and doctrine of the medieval Catholic Church, and which is still popular today. It seems highly likely to me that many of the people who wished to honour Burns after his premature death were fellow masons as well as literary admirers. The first Burns Club was set up in 1801 in Greenock, only five years after his death – a speedy appreciation, indeed. The Burns Monument in Ayr which was built in the 1820s shows Masonic design influences.
Certainly, other factors came into play soon afterwards to extend and deepen Burns’ reputation. For example, Carol McGurk points out that many of the next couple of generations of Scots of the same social class as Burns (which she describes as “peasant”) did what he had once planned to do and emigrated. The picture of Scottish life portrayed in Burns’ work which they read now was instrumental in forming the memory of their former homeland. By the centenary of Burns’ birth, 1859, several editions of his work had appeared, and, as Carol McGurk says, “British popular culture was (now) permeated with the familiar aspects of the Burns myth”.
During the last generation, the classic Burns Supper has become less structured and formal. Nowadays, Burns events in January or early February retain the food and drink and music but tend to have fewer speeches. This is probably because there are fewer Burns experts around and fewer skilled public speakers who are not professional politicians or actors. Also, our Scottish culture has become more international and less text-based. Men and women now participate equally, in contrast to the men-only clubs which hosted them regularly in the past. The result is a more varied, more welcoming type of Burns event, perhaps more in keeping with the poet’s democratic outlook.
Robert Burns’ status as a writer is still celebrated – and certainly his complex colourful life is understood better than in the past. However, in my experience, intriguingly, the freemasonry element of the Burns story is still rarely mentioned.
Reference : McGurk, Carol (1994), “Burns and Nostalgia” in Simpson, Kenneth (ed) Burns Now Edinburgh : Canongate Academic