Robert Burns – Scottish Diaspora Icon

St Andrew’s Day undoubtedly was one of the main celebrations in the annual events calendar of the Scots abroad. On equal footing stood, however, the celebration of Burns Night in honour of Scotland’s national bard, Robert Burns. Burns societies and clubs were formed all around the world to organise events, and it was their activities that contributed to making Robert Burns a central Scottish Diaspora icon.

Burns celebrations have their origin in early nineteenth century Scotland. The years when the Burns cult first developed in Scotland were a time of great change. Early nineteenth-century Scottish society was a society in upheaval: industrialisation and the associated modernisation processes brought major dislocation. As a result, many people tried to hold on to their accustomed ways of life and familiar traditions, with strenuous efforts being made to protect Scottish society from corruption. Such attempts partly explain why early and mid-nineteenth century Scotland was characterised by what Finlay has described as ‘Highlandism and tartanry, the romanticisation of the Scottish past, the sentimentalisation of rural life’. Although such romantic notions of Scottishness have been critically discussed, they clearly fulfilled an important function in maintaining some level of continuity and distinctiveness, an important component in the making of a nation and national consciousness. Burns was crucial because he represented, both in his work and as a person, traditional Scottish virtues and a pure and uncompromised version of Scotland and its rural past. The poet, in fact, practically safeguarded aspects of Scottish life. If placed within this context, Burns was more than Scotland’s national poet, a literary presence who had to be celebrated; he became a symbol of Scottish national identity and helped to secure it. This important point explains why celebrations of Burns developed relatively quickly after his death, and then spread so quickly throughout the Scottish Diaspora. So let’s explore the nature of Burns anniversary celebrations among the Scots abroad.

Burns dinners in the Scottish Diaspora followed the traditional core patterns that had been established after Burns’s death in Scotland, the evening being organised around various toasts and the actual dinner. Scottish songs would be sung between the toasts, with ‘Auld Land Syne’ to conclude the proceedings. The central element of all Burns anniversary celebrations was the toast to the immortal memory of Robert Burns, which commonly described the poet to sufficiently ‘warm the heart of every Scotchmen’; he was the poet of ‘Scottish feeling and sentiment’. The view of Burns as a patriot had been fostered by Burns’s own commitment to Scotland, a devotion that shines through in his poems and letters. Scots, Simpson argues, ‘have found in Burns a compensation for the loss of nationhood’. Invoking the memory of Burns could be a means of compensation and explains why ‘Scotchmen paid such homage to the memory of Burns’. He became a symbol and connector who, with his poems, ‘was able to knit the hearts of Scottish people together’. This notion is underscored by the fact that Burns was considered to ‘comprise in himself every variety of the Scottish character’. Accordingly, as one speaker at a dinner argued, to ‘do honour to the memory of Burns … [is to] do honour to the land of our birth, which the poet has rendered classic … And well may we Scotchmen be proud of Burns, for he loved Scotland’. In his function as a connector, Burns was primarily used, as the Secretary of the Dunedin Burns Club reveals in a letter to the Secretary of the Highland Society of New South Wales reveals,

[t]o popularise our grand Scottish music and songs, and in helping to instil in children of Scotsmen a love for the land of their fathers, its splendid traditions, and a pride in their Scottish blood. [Burns] taught Scottish men and women to glory in their nationality, taught them to believe in the Brotherhood of man and he has taught millions who have never seen Scotland’s hills and glens. . . the best feelings of our humanity.

The idea that Burns represented Scotland made him a potent symbolic marker of ethnic distinctiveness.

The bill of fare on most occasions included traditional Scottish dishes such as neeps and tatties, shortbread or haggis. As a reporter from the Otago Witness noted, ‘[t]he national dishes of Scotland were not forgotten, and at each end of the table a noble haggis maintained its pride of place, the dish immortalised by the great poet, by his address to it as the Great chieftain o’ the puddin’ race. The sheepshead, too, smoked on the board, with other dishes solid and savoury.’ The haggis was popular and ‘greatly in request’, specifically chosen with a range of other dishes to reflect the Scottish traditional, the national, cuisine. The partaking of a typical Scottish dish, preferably ‘washed down by a liquid equally Scottish’, was a communal activity that not only demonstrated ‘the love with which the Scotch in this country [New Zealand] clung to the memory of the Old Country’, but also helped to foster a spirit of solidarity. If it is acknowledged that national dishes are not simply food items, but in fact bearers of national culture, their semi-ritual consumption adds another dimension. Foodways are important for the production of ethnic identity and a locus for memory. They served as another distinct marker of ethnicity and communal glue, further providing continuity with the past.

As a result, many Burns anniversary guests saw themselves as united in their longings for the old homeland. As a Mr Hibbard observed in 1870, ‘… [t]hough many years absent from my native land, I am heart and soul a Scotchman. Scotland is to me the bright spot in the distance’. The distance from Scotland, both physical and temporal, seems to have had no particular relevance for those attending the dinners. As a Mr Church observed at the same dinner:

Whatever others may feel, I feel it an honour to take part in an event that appeals so directly to our sentiments of patriotism, and that recalls so vividly to our mind the scenes and associations of the land of our birth. I do not look upon this festival to the memory of Burns as an idle and useless ceremony as some do, but as a re-union at which some of the finest sensibilities of our nature may be aroused and quickened. Amongst these I give a high place to the love of our native country, a sentiment that has proved the root of much that is noble and excellent in the history of the nations of the earth.

Mr Church was proud of his Scottishness, going on to note the important contributions Scots had made all over the world, where Burns Night celebrations continue to be held to this day.

Further reading:

Tanja Bueltmann, ‘”The Image of Scotland which We Cherish in Our Hearts”: Burns Anniversary Celebrations in Colonial Otago’, Immigrants & Minorities, 30:1 (2012), pp. 78-97.

Finlay & Simpson chapters in K. Simpson (ed.), Love and Liberty: Robert Burns – A Bicentenary Celebration (East Linton: Tuckwell Press, 1997).

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