Ok, well now that we have a fairly good handle on who Robert Burns was and why he was so celebrated, it would be appropriate to look at when and why Burns night came about.
The First Burns' Night
The very first Burns’ night was held five years to the day after the poet died. Nine chums of the bard’s got together to pay homage to their departed friend. The evening was devised by Paul Hamilton who designed the evening to resemble a masonic meeting, full of pomp and ceremony, haggis and whiskey. For the longest time, it has been assumed that, bucking with the convention of the times, a woman was present at this first Burns’ supper. Don’t worry, the offending woman was actually a man, the confusion has arisen owing to the fact that this man was named Primrose Kennedy. David Scott, of the Duns Burns Club has kindly informed me that Primrose Kennedy was a veteran of the British Army, having fought alongside George Washington - the guy with the wooden teeth.
The lack of women probably encouraged the evolution of one of my favourite parts of a Burns’ supper, the toast to the lassies, but more on that later. Women or none, what is clear is that the original nine attendees had such a great time at their first burns night that they wanted to do it again, and again.
As I mentioned above, Burns’ night was originally held on the anniversary of Rabbie’s death, but this being a little morbid, and falling smack-bang in the middle of harvest, meant that a different date was desired. Of course, the organisers decided on Robert’s birthday. So, in 1802 they held their second Burns’ night on January the 29th.
A Burns' Night Blunder
Now, I can almost hear you from here, screaming at your screens, blinded by righteous indignation “Hey Bozo!” I’m sure you are shouting “Burns’ night is on January 25th, any clown knows that!” You are absolutely right, and nice use of the word bozo; I especially like how you proceeded to call me a clown – that’s a very neat insult, well done. Sorry, I got side-tracked there by the power of your (and by your, I really mean my) language skill, what I meant to say was, yes, you are right, Burns’ night is not on the 29th of January, I know, you clearly know but there was a group of people who didn’t know, the organisers of the second Burns night. They seem to have just assumed that Rabbie’s birthday was the 29th and it wasn’t until the following year that anybody bothered to look it up.
Since then, Burns nights have been held on the 25th of January and thankfully the "no girls allowed" tradition has been dropped and women are actively encouraged to participate in the proceedings. With the passing of the years, the event has spread across the world, basically wherever Scots have gone. The first Burns’ night outside Scotland was held in Oxford in 1806, followed by London in 1810, India 1812 and Australia 1823. Of course appreciation of Burns’ work has grown beyond the community of Scottish diaspora dotted around the globe with Burns’ celebrations commonly held in Russia, Hong Kong, France and so on…
There you go, from humble origins to a global phenomenon Burns Night is certainly something Scotland can be proud of. Why not take a little pride in your upcoming Burns night celebrations and share a picture or two with us on Facebook, Instagram or whatever medium who choose - you could even post us one if you like!