By Rosie Dowsing
‘O what a glorious sight/ Warm-reekin, rich!’ wrote Robert Burns, in his ‘Address to a Haggis’, the poem traditionally read every year to commence Burns Night dinners across Scotland, Durham and the whole country.
Thanks to Burns, who is regarded as the national poet and cultural icon of Scotland, true Scots and Durham students alike will indulge in steaming haggis, neeps and tatties (mashed turnips and potatoes), followed by a cheery Ceilidh dance. Collingwood, St Mary’s and Grey College are keeping with tradition and holding their Burns Night formals on the poet’s birthday, on 25th January. Josephine Butler celebrates on the 22nd, Cuths on the 24th and Hatfield will hold theirs on the 26th, to name just a few. So Durham can expect nearly a whole week of black tie festivities.
“To cherish the name of Robert Burns; to foster a love of his writings, and generally to encourage an interest in the Scottish language and literature.” This was the objective of the first Burns Club, established in 1801, with their inaugural Burns Night celebration happening a year afterwards to officially commemorate his life and works. After two centuries, the occasion has become more celebrated around Scotland than their national day of St Andrews.
Today, this joyous affair does indeed ‘cherish’ the name of the poet, and honours the directness, wit and patriotism employed by Burns in his great work, with the simple addressing of the haggis before the merry tucking into of a hearty meal.
The evening of fun will be a spectacle of all things Scottish, proving that culture is most certainly something to celebrate
The traditional post-dinner Ceilidh involves dancing and drinking, something that students especially enjoy. The Gaelic word of Ceilidh means gathering or party, and the typical dances to Scottish folklore songs are nothing short of jolly. The Gay Gordons, being over 130 years old and named after the army regiment of the Gordon Highlands, is usually danced first, followed by the Dashing White Sergeant, a sociable and fun dance in which revellers can move from partner to partner.
Such uplifting music and gaiety, stemming from the works of one individual poet, is a celebration of art, literature, and for the Scots, their rich cultural heritage. “I personally feel honoured to have been asked to address the haggis at Grey’s Burns Night Formal,” says Andrew, a fourth year, “the whole occasion brings a little piece of home to Durham”. It is impossible not to know who ‘Rabbie’ Burns is if you grew up in Scotland like Andrew, who had Burns poetry recitals in many of his classes.
The great variety of Burns’ works alone, makes him an intriguing poet to study. This talented poet and lyricist of the 18th century pioneered the infamous movement of Romanticism, but also wrote with satirical flair, humour and sincerity. His Scottishness permeates his writings, particularly when using quintessential dialect or adapting elements of traditional Scottish folk song. Among his most famous works is the poem ‘Halloween’, which itself is a word with Scottish origin, and the spooky lyrics are celebrated each year in October.
In Edinburgh, The Writers Museum is a must-see for all those who love the Burns legacy, where his life is exhibited alongside the other most notable Scottish writers, Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson. His influence, however, reached much further abroad. In 1956, the Soviet Union created a special commemorative stamp of Burns’ portrait to mark the 160th anniversary of his death. There are memorials of the poet in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and in over ten US states.
Durham will not be the only city that sees a week dominated by Burns Night, haggis eating and Ceilidh festivities. Many people around the world will be honouring the life of this one influential poet. The evening of fun will be a spectacle of all things Scottish, proving that culture is most certainly something to celebrate.
Photograph: Norman Pogson via Shutterstock