Worldwide Celebrations
Mark Robert Burns' 200th Birthday

by Denise Silvester Carr
contributor to the Illustrated London News

No New Year's celebration in America or formal farewell gathering in the UK is really complete without it: Auld Lang Syne, possibly the most raucous song ever. But as the words of possibly the world's best known melody reverberate, few people singing "Should auld acquaintance be forgot" realize who wrote it along with more than 700 other songs and poems. The answer is Scotland's national poet, Robert Burns. The poetry of the Caledonian Bard or Scotland's Shakespeare as he is known, conveys a range of sorrows and joys, moods and emotions that has appealed to people everywhere, and each year on the anniversary of his birth, Burns clubs from Moscow to Melbourne meet for a dinner to celebrate his work.

Widespread Celebration
This year is the 200th anniversary of Burn's death, on July 21, 1796. Celebrations are planned both in Scotland and around the world to commemorate his life and work especially in Scotland where the biggest Burns Supper on earth will be held.

Burns was born on January 25, 1759, the son of a poor but ambitious gardener . Named Rabbie Burns, he grew up in a cottage in Alloway, a hamlet in Ayrshire, south west Scotland. His education was basic but his winning personality, reputation for womanizing and his way with words have made him almost as great a literary figure as Shakespeare. Burns was a farmer; his admiration of the beautiful Ayrshire countryside, and his love of dancing, music and conversation contributed to his personality, charm and deep knowledge of the human spirit, which established his reputation as a man of passion and unique literary talent. Influenced by tales of romance, legend and history, he began to write in his early teens.

Haggis Sussers
Each year on the anniversary of Burns's birth, admirers gather to dine on homely country fare. The dish of tasty haggis (minced sheep offal boiled with onions and oatmeal, much better than it sounds) is piped in, the "address" to it is recited and toasts of fine whisky are drunk to "the immortal memory". Burns Night Suppers have mushroomed since 1801 when nine Ayrshire gentlemen sat down to commemorate the poet, and today they are held by Burns clubs worldwide and wherever Scots people gather.

More than 400 clubs are affiliated to the Burns Federation in Ayr, a body founded in 1885 to encourage and promote his life and work, but it is a figure that only skims the surface. The former USSR alone boasts hundreds of clubs. And such is Burns's popularity in Japan that "Coming Thru' the Rye" is played on pedestrian crossings in some cities when the lights change.

Monuments to Burns proliferate. At one time every Carnegie library in the United States, some 3,460, had a bust of Burns; more than 180 statues exist today in public places. In stone, bronze or marble his image can be found in London's Embankment Gardens, in New Zealand in Dunedin and Hokitika, in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and in Dumfries where he died and where in 1996 the festivities to mark the bicentenary will reach their climax.

Celebrations began in Alloway in January with a display of fireworks that painted the sky above his birthplace. Later in the month the Post Office issued four commemorative stamps, featuring some of his most famous opening lines. On January 25, the world's biggest Burns Night was held, attended by representatives of his clubs around the world.

Touring Show
A travelling son et lumiere will outline the story of Burns's masterpiece, the ballad of the heroic deeds of "Tam o'Shanter" at different venues between May and October. The distinguished Scottish actor and Burns scholar, John Cairney, is touring the high roads and the low roads with his recreation of the poet during June and July.

Cairney will present a new version of a one man show that has been acclaimed in theatres from London's West End to Auckland. With "In the Footsteps of Burns" he intends to travel much as the poet did in 1787. Burns went by horse and so will Cairney following the route he rode or trod though not necessarily in the same sequence.

In Edinburgh ,where Burns was lionised by society when he went there in 1786 shortly after his first published work appeared, there will be an exhibition in the Royal Museum of Scotland from June 8th until September examining his life and times. Some 30 paintings by Alexander Goudie interpreting the "Tam o'Shanter" tale will go on show in Ayr in July and then travel to Edinburgh, London, New York and Moscow.

The most important commemoration is reserved for July 21st in Dumfries. Burns did not have sufficient confidence in his ability to earn his living by writing, and, with some misgivings, in 1788 he took on the tenancy of a farm north of Dumfries. At the same time he wrote to the Scottish Board of Excise expressing a wish to work for it and a post was found for him. The farm was a "ruinous affair" and he moved with his wife, Jean, and their young family that included children sired by other women to Dumfries where, never a robust man, he died at the age of 37.

Following a service in St Michael's Church, where Burns's enormous funeral was held, a grand procession of more than 20,000 people, many of them from all over the world, will march through Dumfries. Wreaths will be placed at his mausoleum and the marchers will enter Dock Park where musicians and singers will; entertain the thousands who have travelled to honor the Scotsman whose memory is immortal... echoing his most famous line: Should auld acquaintance be forgot. Obviously not in the case of Robbie Burns.

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