Burns Centenary Celebrations: Honouring the Poet’s Death in the Scottish Diaspora

Screen Shot 2016-01-24 at 16.34.22Burns, and the commemorations in his name, entrenched what might suitably be described as a memory community, and one effective in maintaining links globally. The Burns centenary celebrations held in 1896, honouring the poet’s death on 21 July, serve as a useful case study. Managed by various committees in connection with the Dumfries Burns Club and the Burns Federation, the centenary event organisers were keen to involve members from overseas to do honour to Burns. In writing ‘to all the Burns Clubs and Scottish Societies, and also to the leading newspapers of America, Australia, and New Zealand’, the officials expressed the sincere hope that no Scot abroad would ‘allow distance to be any hindrance to them if they wished to be represented here on the 21st July and assist us in doing honour to the memory of our great national poet’. And indeed, further practical steps were taken to promote the representation of as many overseas Burns clubs as possible.

Earlier in the year, the Thames Burns Club in New Zealand had received a circular from the Dumfries Burns Club. The writers of the circular assumed that ‘the Burns world will naturally turn its eyes and thoughts to the spot where the National Poet rests’, thereby hoping to encourage the sending of a deputation to the commemoration on 21 July. While there is no evidence of the sending of such a deputation, the lady members of the Thames Burns Club formed a special committee for the purpose of making a fitting wreath for the planned procession in Dumfries. The report on what became known as the Great Demonstration in Dumfries proves that that wreath was indeed made and sent to Scotland. The procession of Burns clubs was headed by a wagon decorated with wreaths which had been sent from overseas, including from Newark, Philadelphia, San Angelo, Texas, and the aforementioned wreath of the Thames Burns Club. Moreover, in the American and colonial deputations was Mr John Mill, Port Chalmers, representing the Dunedin Burns Club.

While the centenary commemorations in Scotland were widely reported in the New Zealand press, there was also a diverse range of celebrations in the country itself. There was a gathering of clans at Manaia, while a grand national concert was organised in Christchurch. With a very large and enthusiastic audience, the Christchurch Opera House offered a suitable venue for an enjoyable programme of songs and music, at the end of which ‘a large portrait of Burns . . . wreathed with laurel, was unveiled, and Mr G. Laurenson spoke a brief eulogy of the poet’. In addition, a fitting centenary address was also published. Written by Edinburgh-born Wilhelmina Sherriff Bain, the address praises Burns and his work:

Forgetherin’ here this July nicht,

Wi’ thochts o’ thee,

An’ greetin’s tae they royal hicht

O poesie!

The main commemoration of Burns’s centenary took place in Wellington, a fact reflected by the long list of illustrious guests, including the New Zealand Governor, the earl of Glasgow, in the Chair, Premier Richard John Seddon and the Hon. John McKenzie, Minister of Lands and Agriculture, also present. Held at Thomas’s Hall, proceedings commenced with the Governor being escorted to his chair by a piper, a toast then delivered in his honour not only because he was the Governor, but also ‘a Scotchman, and an Ayrshireman’. In response, the Governor stressed that ‘as an Ayrshireman, he would say that, though it was 100 years since Burns died, his memory had year by year been growing more precious to his countrymen. . . . there was actually a cult of Burns springing up’. And indeed, as the enduring tradition of Burns anniversary celebrations shows, Burns remains a strong, perhaps the strongest, cultural icon for the Scottish Diaspora.

This story is a slightly revised extract from chapter 6, ‘Collective Rememberings of Home: Robert Burns as a Site of
Memory’, from my Scottish Ethnicity and the Making of New Zealand Society, 1850-1930.

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