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Robert Burns Lives!
Almost Speechless by Clark McGinn

Edited by Frank R. Shaw, FSA Scot, Dawsonville, GA, USA

It is always delightful to post an article by Clark McGinn on our website. As a gifted writer and speaker, Clark is an excellent wordsmith and he takes a back seat to no one in both categories. His articles and speeches are marked by first rate scholarship. Clark is the author of popular books on the subjects of Burns Suppers and being Scottish, and he also wrote an Afterword to The Luath Kilmarnock Edition of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect.

But Clark is not a one-dimensional man dwelling entirely on Robert Burns. His latest book, Out of Pocket, is not about the Bard but about banking, the business he has worked in since college days with posts in New York and London. It is too bad those involved in the Ayr Bank collapse of 1772 did not have Out of Pocket and its inherent wisdom to rely on as that crisis might have been averted. The same goes today for America with 376 failed banks and, in particular, my state of Georgia which heads that sad list with 57 banks that the FDIC has taken over, one just a few miles from our home which we drive by almost daily.

Clark was born in the heart of Burns country and for over 30 years he has been speaking at suppers honoring Burns. A graduate of Glasgow University, he founded the World Student Debating Competition 25 plus years ago, and it is still going strong today. In addition, Clark is a frequent writer for The Scotsman as well as on line for Scotland Now.

“One of the things I enjoy about Robert Burns,” says Clark, “is the complexity of the man and his work – as a speaker, that allows me to approach each speech differently, focusing on a particular facet of Burns which will strike a chord with that evening’s audiences.”

This former president of the Burns Club of London has spoken to audiences ranging from six people to over a thousand. His speeches have been televised in Britain, the United States, Australia, and Canada. As you can tell, Clark McGinn is a Burns Supper Specialist, and you can read more about him at (FRS: 4.7.11)

Almost Speechless
By Clark McGinn

Clark McGinn

Burns Night has expanded over the years so nowadays you can find a party not just on 25th January, or on the Fridays and Saturdays closest to the day – but almost whenever you want. I suppose since the early Burns Suppers were held on the 29th (in the mistaken belief that was the poet’s birthday) or even in July (which makes a lot of sense as Ayrshire can be a bit cold and damp in the New Year) then that latitude is no worry – especially as it gives me a great chance to visit other latitudes to speak of my hero, Robert Burns. I would like to share some of the fun of this Burns Season with you today.

We broke some records on the way: notably at the first event which, being in December in Stockholm, was the earliest Burns Supper ever (my wife, rather more pessimistically suggests it could be the last of the previous season, but you get the point). I’ve been speaking at a Burns Night in Stockholm for the last five or six years and thanks to the organiser’s wonderful planning and generous hospitality, it’s one of the ‘hot tickets’ in Stockholm’s winter programme and the host wanted to share the experience with all the support teams in his company who hadn’t seen the event before. So we rolled Rabbie into their staff Christmas Party which was in the beautiful atrium of the National Museum. While a good time was had by all, the elements conspired against me – as the poem says: ‘the storm without might rail and rustle, Tam did na mind the storm a whistle’ – however, Tam wasn’t flying to the snowed up Heathrow, so this Burns Night turned into three nights on the BA help line (an oxymoron by the way) fortunately, I’d packed trousers as well as the kilt.

The travel crisis theme carried into the New Year, when the guest speaker for our home evening couldn’t leave Glasgow because of flooded railway lines, but we did release him from his offer to deliver his speech over the cell phone, instead we toasted ’Absent Friends, and One In Particular’ straight after a speechless Immortal Memory. It grieves me as a speaker to say that the absence of the biggest speech didn’t spoil the night for our guests!

Helsinki next in the icy winds off the Baltic – as the old joke goes, when I wear the kilt I’m not worried about where the cold wind’s from, only where it’s going to... An evocative evening in the Officers’ Club of the Finnish armed services, giving an Immortal Memory on the theme of national spirit under the watchful eye of Marshall Mannerheim, who is the William Wallace of Finland (his favourite dish, called vorsmak, seems to be a bit like haggis, albeit with a few anchovies thrown in for good luck). Then it was back to London to a private club in the City for an intimate evening with only two dozen guests. In amongst an eclectic art collection (including Churchill’s hat and original cartoons of the Beatles from the Yellow Submarine film) I did a double turn, Addressing the Haggis as well as toasting the Immortal Memory. This is my fifth year here, and the lovely staff not only enjoy watching the address but conspire to bring out as big a knife as possible to slay the beastie – this year I found a butcher’s cleaver on the table! We rounded off that evening with songs from a great young Scots tenor who had all the guests joining in the choruses of some of the old favourites.

Now came the day itself, and this year’s 25th saw one of the most unusual speeches I’ve ever made. Talisker holds some terrific parties around Burns time and this year was no exception, with a big celebration close to the Tower of London. To literally ferry guests from the West End, they laid on a fast RIB boat that could take 10 at a time, with me in a kilt and a very warm Newfoundland fisherman’s sweater telling guests about Burns, his legacy and how he captured the smuggler’s ship Rosamund near Dumfries, the only time he was ever fired upon in his excise career. We pelted along in the safe hands of a trainee RNLI cox taking about 15 minutes to pass the great sights of London from Big Ben, past the London Eye, under the bridges – a few cheers from passers by when they saw a kiltie on a speedboat! Past Traitors’ Gate and the site of the beheading of Burns’s Jacobite heroes and then into the haven of St Katherine’s dock – with the size of the boat we had to go there and back twice which was cold but breathtaking in the dark and then I just had the time to change to run to get to another event.

For Glasgow University, home of the Centre For Robert Burns Studies, I performed at the Caledonian Club for the London Alumni – the Principal’s speech contained the first news of the wonderful grant of £1million that will fund the Centre’s new edition of the complete works. Rather than the traditional Immortal Memory, eight of us recited Tam o’Shanter, each taking a section and bringing out the play-like nature of Burns’s great narrative work, concluding with a few words, a toast and a bit of catching up at the bar by the drouthy cronies who had been performing. GU always has a celidh after their dinners, and it was great fun to dance to a super band led by our piper for the evening – it puts life and mettle in your heels when the great pipes jump into the last set of the Strip The Willow.

Now for a bit of stamina: the next week saw four suppers on four consecutive nights in four different cities. Given the earlier transport SNAFUs I packed my bag with a degree of trepidation as it was off to Scandinavia again. First stop Oslo! The old rivalry between the Scots and the Vikings was laid aside for an evening kindly hosted by Her Britannic Majesty’s Ambassador to Norway, who generously opened her residence as the evening’s venue. It is famed as one of the most beautiful buildings in Norway and still remains so, as the piper’s drones missed the priceless crystal chandelier by a whisker – so close to disaster that if it had been at Wimbledon, they would have replayed it on Hawkeye. The dining room was a beautiful backdrop to the festivities (and the important message that bringing together Norwegian and British businesses was a very important thing in today’s difficult markets). To end the evening one of Norway’s iconic traditional singers sang Burns’s songs with such feeling, it was only on the third verse that I realised he was singing the words in translation – man to man indeed.

The high architectural standard was maintained on Wednesday in a charming Art Nouveau villa in the outskirts of Stockholm, and in reward for listening to me, the capacity audience were rewarded by one of the loveliest sopranos I know, who used her RSAMD training to try and shatter the chandeliers – she wanted to complete what the piper couldn’t finish the night before! Then after a few grabbed hours of sleep, it was up in the dark of Thursday to find that the chef had opened the kitchen early to make me a quick but much appreciated breakfast. Then there was a near disaster as I walked on the icy steps down to the taxi – just at the bottom I slipped and went head-over-heels by good fortune nothing was dented (apart from my self-importance) – and luckily I was dressed in my breeks, not my kilt!

On arrival in Copenhagen, we were delayed firstly by an impromptu strike by the baggage handlers, and then by the congestion in the airport due to Copenhagen Fashion Week – just wait till they see how I’m dressed tonight – that will make then jealous on the Catwalk. Planning ahead is always key and fortunately our event planner called ahead to the venue to check that the haggis had arrived – just as the chef was about to ‘unwrap it and slice it up’ – close shave there! Worrying about what else could go wrong, she then phoned Friday’s venue – just to confirm that they shouldn’t take it out of the skin before heating – ‘you want this hot?’ was the Swedish Chef’s reply (not that Swedish Chef, Muppet fans...)

Things were looking dangerous back at Copenhagen airport – so as a precaution a minibus was arranged for a road trip across the new bridge to reach Gothenburg – the thought really appealed: a crate of beer in the back, few songs etc, but things worked to the original plan and we were on a wee plane to Gothenburg for Friday completing a tour as long as a longboat and which will be one of my fondest memories.

Then my favourite part of the year – off to the East coast of the US – this year Boston on Thursday in the Downtown Harvard Club with its stupendous views over ‘America’s Edinburgh’ and the Charles River. My friends and fellow Alumni from GU gathered for a buffet supper evening, made special as a group of really nice young students heard that their applications to come to Glasgow to study at our Vet school had been approved, so in six months they would be walking in the footsteps of James Herriot! Then by shuttle on to Washington DC and a beautiful old building housing the Arts Club, using the same informal format and with delicious homemade haggis – it was a real pleasure to stab that one! Again it was a chance to meet many good friends and share some old jokes. This was a special night as the oldest alumnus there graduated in 1948 and also we had candidates for a junior year abroad – if Burns isn’t inclusive what could be? As a final treat our host took my wife and I upstairs to see the room in which President Monroe held his inaugural dinner in 1817, I wonder if he drank a toast to his fellow Freemason, Brother Burns?

And that closed the run for 2011. That’s a lot of haggis, a fair amount of whisky and a lot of happiness. In some ways, though, the season never really ends; I am writing this in Vancouver meeting some new colleagues in my exciting new job that will take me to Dublin. I am here over the weekend, so had to take time yesterday to find the statue of Rabbie in Stanley Park, unveiled by former Prime Minister Ramsey MacDonald in 1925. It’s an exact copy of the one in Burns Statue Square in my home town of Ayr, and in the Vancouver drizzle it was hard not to be nostalgic. Sitting on the bench beside this testament to international friendship, and looking out at the inlets leading to the great Pacific, I noticed the dedication plaque on the park bench:

Peggy Harrison

And I will luve thee still my dear
Till a’ the seas gang dry.

That says more than every word I’ve said this year. Burns is like that isn’t he?

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