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Scots, Wha Hae! A History of Burns Clubs


By Kirsty OUP-UK

“Nae man can tether time or tide,” said Robert Burns in Tam o’Shanter. Over the 200 years since the Scottish Bard’s death in July 1796 his poetry has been celebrated the world over through a network of Burns Clubs. Since tomorrow is Burns Night, I thought today would be the ideal time to post this entry from The Oxford Companion to Scottish History, which tells us all about Burns Clubs and how they came into being.


Burns clubs are societies devoted to the life and work of Robert Burns. The earliest meeting of devotees of Burns took place in the summer of 1801, only five years after the poet’s death. Nine gentlemen of Ayr, friends and admirers of Burns, held a dinner in the poet’s birthplace (then a tavern). Haggis formed a part of the fare and Burns’s Address to a Haggis was recited. The Revd Hamilton Paul delivered the toast to the ‘Immortal Memory’ of Burns in verses of his own composition. Thus was established the essential form of the Burns supper. Before breaking up, the company resolved to celebrate the birthday of Burns the following January. Out of these informal gatherings the Alloway Club developed, later dinners being held at the King’s Arms, Ayr, in midsummer. This early club ceased to exist in 1819 and was not revived until 1908.

The Greenock Burns Club owed its genesis to a much older body called the Greenock Ayrshire Society, which appears to have held Burns suppers from 1802 and by 1811 had metamorphosed into the Greenock Burns Club. Greenock have had a continuous existence down to the present day, whereas the rival Paisley Burns Club (1805) was in abeyance from 1836 till 1874.

The Kilmarnock Burns Club first met at the Angel Inn (formerly Begbie’s Tavern) in January 1808, but was dormant from 1814 to 1841. The Dunfermline United Burns Club (1812) likewise had a lengthy period of suspended animation, being revived in 1870. Though a relative latecomer, the Dumfries Burns Club (1820) has flourished ever since its foundation. It arose out of the campaign (1813–19) to erect a mausoleum over the poet’s grave.

scot-history.jpgBy 1810 Burns suppers were being held on an ad hoc basis in many parts of the country. The first in England was held at Oxford in 1806 and Burns Night celebrations were taking place in London by 1810. The idea spread to India in 1812, and thereafter to Canada, the USA and the Australian colonies. The Burns movement received enormous stimulus from the celebrations of the centenary of the poet’s birth in January 1859; out of the many hundreds of dinners and concerts around the world developed some of the oldest clubs in existence today. Nothing was done to bring them together until February 1885, when Burnsians met in London for the unveiling of the monument in the Thames Embankment Gardens. A meeting in Kilmarnock on 17 July formally instituted the Burns Federation, with its international headquarters in the town where the poet’s works first saw the light of day in printed form.

In its inaugural year the Federation had ten members: eight clubs in Scotland and two in England. A further 23 joined in 1886, including ten in Scotland, six in England, one in Ireland, two each in Australia and the USA, and one each in Canada and New Zealand. Progress was slow in the early years, but the launch of the Burns Chronicle in September 1891 gave the Federation fresh impetus and in the run-up to the centenary of the poet’s death in 1896 it grew dramatically.

By 1925 the number of affiliated clubs had grown to 350, at which level it has remained remarkably constant ever since, although many of the older clubs have disappeared and new ones continually take their place. Annual conferences were confined to Kilmarnock until 1894 when Glasgow was the venue. In 1907 it went south of the Border for the first time, to Sunderland. By the 1930s, the custom of holding the conference alternately in Scotland and England was well established. Since 1978, when London, Ontario, was the venue, the conference has taken place in Canada or the USA on several occasions. The current number of members affiliated to active clubs worldwide is estimated at 80,000.

Recent Comments

  1. Julie Deans

    Greetings from a wet and wintery day here in Falkirk, Central Scotland!

    It would be great if you could find a minute to read about our “Worldwide Toast to Robert Burns.”

    Our web-site http://www.worldwidetoasttorobertburns.com has been specifically designed to co-ordinate a Worldwide Toast in honour of Burns to celebrate his 250th Anniversary. The site will help us to co-ordinate all of the toasts from around the world and make this a historic event on behalf of Burns!

    So far, the response that we have received to our Worldwide Toast idea has been overwhelming and in only a very short time our web-site has been visited by no less than 67 countries, in fact, every continent except Antarctica (and we are working on that one!!). I had always known that Burns and Scotland were celebrated around the globe but I never realised to what an extent!

    To help us make it work, it would be just great if you could sign up for our newsletters at http://www.worldwidetoasttorobertburns.com to keep up to date with our progress and to please pass on the word and ask your friends and relatives to sign up too and, of course, to take part!

    It really is easy since all you need to do is raise a glass, count the numbers and afterwards complete a brief form on the web-site to record your numbers. It is as simple as that.

    Finally, if you happen to have time to have a look at the web-site, then you will also see that we have introduced some YouTube footage. Please excuse my Falkirk accent but we hope that they will prove of interest especially to all of the Scottish Societies abroad who are so far away but hold Scotland so close to their hearts.

    Cheers the now and kind regards.

    Julie & Steve

  2. Julie Deans

    A huge thanks to the Oxford University Press for featuring our Worldwide Toast.

    The excitement is mounting and many more countries have now signed up to take part from all over the globe.

    It’s not too late to raise a glass!

    All the very best.

    Julie & Steve

  3. Geoff Crolley

    I’m trying to find out if it is possible to create a BURNS CORRIDOR Network made up of clubs, businesses, places of interest etc within the Burns Corridor, working together to make the best of what we have.

    Any information would be appreciated.

    Cheers, Geoff

  4. Geoff Crolley

    I was surprised at the lack of interest from Burns Clubs in the Robert Burns International Airport Petition.

  5. catriona

    in edmonton, alberta, women are not allowed to be part of the Burns club. Why? Burns loved women! The club is “men” only.
    Ha Ha Ha.

Comments are closed.