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Burns Night goes virtual: 'It might be even bigger this year'

LibBrooks Scotland correspondent
·3-min read

It’s the night when Scots emerge from mid-winter hibernation, says the Burns scholar Pauline Mackay. On the poet’s birthday, 25 January, or thereabouts, thousands of societies, clubs and groups of friends across Scotland and around the world gather to celebrate the life and work of the national bard Robert Burns.

The ritual elements of a Burns supper – addressing those gathered with his poem To a Haggis, completing several rounds of toasts and reading from the funny, sexy, radical diversity of his work – have remained constant since the first event was held by nine friends in 1801, five years after his death.

“It’s always a lovely celebration at a difficult time of year, and I think that’s why people are going all out this year to celebrate in the depths of a hard lockdown,” says Mackay, a lecturer in Robert Burns studies at the University of Glasgow, whose new book, Burns for Every Day of the Year, offers daily glimpses into his life, times and works.There are so many drives to get people together virtually, it might be even bigger this year.”

Mackay’s colleagues at the Centre for Robert Burns Studies have sent out invitations to 2,000 addresses in more than 140 countries, including Scottish societies, pipe bands, Burns clubs, Scottish country dance group, museums, schools and universities, to contribute to their #VirtualBurnsNight. The aim is to create a map of Burns suppers around the world.

A statue of Burns in Edinburgh
A statue of Burns in Edinburgh. Photograph: S Vincent/Alamy

More than 2,600 tickets were sold to a UK and overseas audience for the National Trust for Scotland’s Burns Big Night In on Saturday, hosted by the DJ Edith Bowman from the cottage in Alloway, south Ayrshire, where the poet was born. On the opposite coast, a rotary club in Burntisland, Fife, welcomed more than 500 guests from around the UK and across the Atlantic after moving its traditional supper online. St Andrews University has 1,200 alumni and friends registered for its Global Burns Night on Monday, which features contributions from staff and students, including the rising star of Scots language poetry, Len Pennie.

Nor is the momentum limited to Scotland: in Vancouver, Canada, the singer-songwriter Bruce Couglan was joined by 250 guests for his virtual celebration of the bard and his ballads last Friday. Couglan, who has toured Scotland a number of times, says: “You don’t have to be Scottish to love Robbie Burns. There is something universal about his work that has intrigued people of all walks of life for over two centuries. His words echo with such humanity and compassion that they’ve helped inspire sweeping social reform.”

Mackay says: “He’s a poet who travels very well,” noting that Auld Lang Syne – with its sentiments of togetherness and friendship – is one of the world’s most famous songs, and especially poignant at a moment when separation is being endured on a global scale. “He has been translated into hundreds of different languages since the 19th century. A part of the reason Burns is celebrated all over the world is that his work is so diverse. He writes on everything: love, friendship, sex, politics, religion. He could write very seriously, but also with great humour.”

A haggis at a Burns supper last year
A haggis at a Burns supper last year. Photograph: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

No Burns supper would be complete without a haggis, and the Scott Brothers family butcher in Dundee has seen a steep increase in demand for its post-a-haggis service this year.

“There’s a little extra sentiment because of all that’s going on this year,” says the manager, Graeme Cairns. “We’ve had a steady stream of orders, with messages saying ‘sorry we can’t be with you this year but we’ll be together soon’.”