When members of the Dunedin Burns Club and its friends gathered in 1906 to celebrate the 147th birthday of Scotland’s national bard, they did so ‘with mirth and song and joyous acclamations’. The Club’s choir and the Dunedin Pipe Band enlivened the proceedings, offering musical entertainment between the many toasts and speeches that were delivered. The key address of the evening was made by Sir Robert Stout. Born in Lerwick, Shetland, in 1844, Stout left for New Zealand in 1863, soon rising to become one of the country’s most prominent public figures, serving as Premier and Chief Justice. An ardent champion of his Scottish heritage, Stout was engaged with a number of Scottish associations, thereby maintaining strong links with his native Shetland and the Scottish mainland. He was keen for others of Scottish descent to do the same, thus expressing his delight that even young New Zealanders still knew and were interested in Robert Burns. Stout went on: ‘I believe it makes for concord and union amongst our people if we keep in memory the land from which many of us have sprung. I do not think much of that man, to whatever nation he may belong, who forgets his native country or the country of his ancestors. Depend upon it, the man who is ashamed of the country from which he has come has something wrong with his disposition, and something wrong with his heart.’ (Otago Witness, 31 January 1906 – click here to download an image of the newspaper page). Keeping in memory the native land was crucial for Stout, and celebrating Burns Night was one of the best means to do so.
Events held in honour of Robert Burns are perhaps the best known and enduring Scottish cultural tradition transplanted overseas, first emerging soon after the poet’s death in 1796. While the earliest celebrations in Scotland were organised by friends of the poet, the familiar patterns, many of which are still in place today, were established in the early nineteenth century. Among the recurring components that eventually made their way around the world were the recitation of Burns’s poems, the singing of his songs, and the honouring of the poet himself, usually through a a number of toasts.
As far as can be established, the first Burns celebration in New Zealand was held in Dunedin in 1855, though earlier examples of toasts in honour of the poet, delivered, for instance, at a Masonic Festival in Auckland in 1850, are already suggestive of Burns’s popularity in the country. In the absence of designated Burns clubs, the first anniversary celebrations held in New Zealand were usually arranged by groups of individuals. For the first dinner in Dunedin in 1855, the initiators of the event were Messrs John Barr, Fisher, Kilgour, Birch, and Wilson. Little is known of the latter four, but John Barr was a prominent figure in Dunedin’s Scottish circles, later becoming the poet laureate of the Otago Caledonian Society. Held at Dunedin’s Royal Hotel, the event Barr helped organise was praised by the local press and duly repeated in similar fashion the following year. Though of a much smaller scale, Burns anniversary celebrations grew at a similarly rapid speed to that of Caledonian Games, quickly spreading all over New Zealand. Given the increased popularity throughout the country, committees were soon established to organise the events as annual fixtures. Dinners continued to be held, but balls and theatre plays also featured among the events organised. To this day the popularity of Burns is visible in the monuments erected throughout New Zealand in his honour.
This story is a slightly revised extract from chapter 6, ‘Collective Rememberings of Home: Robert Burns as a Site of
Memory’, from Scottish Ethnicity and the Making of New Zealand Society, 1850-1930.