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Robert Burns Lives!
Burns Night: Poetry and Emotion By Clark McGinn

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

International renowned speaker, Clark McGinn, is one of the busiest men on behalf of Robert Burns that I know. Clark is already booked in over a dozen places for 2011 and has been known to deliver over 30 Immortal Memories around the world in a given Burns season. This gifted speaker is popular because his speeches are interesting and informative. In addition, he has learned the third secret to a good speech - the mind will retain only what the tail can endure.

I met Clark a few years back in London when my wife and I were hosted at a luncheon at the lovely Caledonian Club there. He was among those present who turned out to welcome us by London Burns Club. Not only did they present us with a wonderfully delicious meal, but the haggis was extraordinary. When I asked about it, I learned that the club’s chef is Scottish. Enough said.

It was a pleasure to meet up again with Clark this past summer at London’s premier Scottish restaurant, Boisdale of Belgravia, along with good friend Jim Henderson, and our wives. Jim is Honorary Secretary and Clark is Immediate Past President of the London Burns Club. One day I hope to hear Clark speak at our Burns Club in Atlanta, but in the meantime, look for another of his article’s in the near future.

This article first appeared in on January 25, 2010, and I wish to express my appreciation to Clark and for it appearing here on Robert Burns Lives!

(FRS: 3.4.10)

Burns Night: Poetry and Emotion

By Clark McGinn

Burns Postcard
Portrait of Robert Burns, from the second edition of his collected poems, Edinburgh, 1787.  G. Ross Roy Collection Robert Burns, Burnsians and Scottish Literature, University of South Carolina.

SCOTLAND'S Burns Night is almost unique – how many countries have a national day devoted to the celebration of a poet?

Today on 25 January – though not because of a formal holiday or an official laureateship – Scots (and friends of Scotland) meet to celebrate the life and works of our bard, Robert Burns, at Burns Suppers at home and in far-flung locations across the globe. Most countries define themselves through patron saints, or battles, or revolutions or kings' birthdays and use those icons in commemoration of their nationality. We in Scotland are part of a very select group who capture our national spirit by toasting a home-grown poetic genius.

We are not unique, for two other nations join us: Finland celebrates its bard Johan Ludvig Runeberg around the anniversary of his birthday on 5 February and Pakistan takes a day off to remember the poetry of its founder and poet Muhammad Iqbal each 9 November.

These three poets teach us something about their homelands but also illuminate some universal human traits that deserve to be lauded more often than once a year. What do we gain by elevating a poet to be the symbol of our country?

This question came home to me last week when I was proposing the toast to the Immortal Memory at a Burns Supper in Helsinki. While -30C and the kilt is a bracing mix, the warmth of a Finnish welcome more than compensated. Our dinner was held in the Katajanokan Kasino which served for many years as the officers' mess for the Finnish forces and which provided an atmospheric venue to reflect on life, companionship and song. Beneath the portrait of Marshal Mannerheim – the William Wallace of Finland – our Finnish guests particularly enjoyed the haggis: it seems that the old marshal's favourite food was a dish called "vorshmack" (like haggis but adding herring and anchovies) which goes well with the local vodka. Much of the conversation over dinner was about the similarities between our countries: in size, in spirit (both national and alcoholic) and the deep grained desire for freedom. So when it came to speaking about Burns and his life and works, it felt apparent that everyone in the room believed that the immortal memory of our poets is a direct link to the immortal spirit of our nations.

Finland's history is complex, bloody and unbowed (as illustrated by Mannerheim who was the only officer decorated by both the Allies and the Germans in both First and Second World Wars) and the verse of Runeberg reflects that history. Like Burns, Runeburg sings of the beauty of his country and the valour of its arms without ever forgetting the hard and punishing lives faced by the ordinary men and women struggling not just in war, but every day to eke out a living on the hard land.

Born in 1804, Runeburg was rescued from his poor background by his archbishop uncle who financed his education so that he could become a teacher. In his childhood, Finland faced another upheaval when a Russian victory displaced its Swedish rulers and turned the Finns into an ostensibly autonomous grand duchy under the Tsar. Years later, as tutor to a family in the poor central Finnish countryside, Runeberg came face to face with the hardship of the rural Finns. Being middle class, he spoke and wrote in Swedish; here he met the Finns' ancient language and culture. From then, Runeberg's poetry captured his people's inner steel – the indomitable pawky spirit the Finns call "sisu" – whether describing the punishing rural life in The Elk Hunters or the blitz of the war in his masterpiece Tales of Ensign Steel. The opening of this long work became the national anthem in his lifetime and is typical of his style, displaying a love of the physical beauty of his land and the unquenchable desire to defend it which reminds me strongly of Scots Wa' Hae.

He made his career as a university lecturer in classics, yet he was always conscious of the words of the simple folk. When he died in 1877, every florist in Helsinki ran out of stock as his compatriots placed tributes on his grave. As Finland's long struggle for freedom took seven more decades to complete, Runeberg's works provided a cultural and political platform for independence. Ensign Steel's words: "Let not one devil cross the bridge!" were adopted as the watchword against aggression with its unmissable echoes of Burns's call to our duty: "Wha sae base as be a slave?"

In a softer memory, it seems that the great poet aided his inventive powers by breakfasting on cylindrical pastries filled with raspberry jam (accompanied by a glass of punch). These delicacies are known as Runeberg's tarts and they remain a popular way to remember him in the run up to his festival, though his favourite punch is rarely served at breakfast today.

On the way home from the Burns Supper, I crunched carefully over the snow to pause for a moment before his statue in central Helsinki. There he stands, staring out just like Rabbie in Burns Statue Square in my home town, Ayr, waiting for his annual garland of flowers in a few days' time.

Pakistan goes even further with a formal national holiday to honour its national poet, Sir Muhammad Iqbal, marking his birth on 9 November, 1877 when the British Raj ruled over the undivided Indian subcontinent. A genius in the round, Iqbal – known throughout the Muslim world as Allama (the Scholar) – was a profound thinker on religious and political revival for the people of the region that was to become Pakistan. Much of his thought is expressed in poetry written in classical Persian and also the local Urdu which are treasured and studied throughout his homeland.

Young Muhammad's talents were nurtured by his hard-working and devout father and honed at the Scotch Mission College in Sialkot in the Punjab, a town almost as famous today for being home to Pakistan's oldest firm of bagpipe makers. His abilities won him a government scholarship to study at Cambridge and Lincoln's Inn. He became a leader in the movement calling for an independent Muslim state in north-west India. After completing his courses, he returned home to divide his time between poetry, philosophy and the law but always kept the aims of religious revival and independence for his people at the forefront of his endeavours.

He died in 1938 and so never saw his national vision completed, but Allama Iqbal's poems are felt to be an integral part of the fabric of the independence of Pakistan. This is recognised every day, as a guard of honour from the Pakistan army mounts vigil over the Tomb of the Scholar waiting for the annual round of celebration to pour out across his entire nation on his birthday festival.

All three poets capture particular themes which resonate with their countrymen and women, yet deliver a wider message to a wider audience transcending the time and place of each poet's birth. Each takes core values with a wide acceptance – independence of thought and action in Burns's case; the acceptance of the hardness of human life and the refusal to buckle under it for Runeberg or the appreciation that coming to comprehend one's self allows participation in the wider nation from Iqbal. Their poems, their styles, their languages are all different but the poet's craft is constant and as touching today as ever it was in their lifetimes.

There are links: each of Scotland, Finland and Pakistan has controversial and often bloody histories with larger neighbours and imperial rulers. Another is the interplay between the formal language of rulers (English and Swedish) with that of the fields and mountains (Scots, Finnish, Urdu) so that the celebration of their poetry also shows a nation holding on to its core through trouble and trial. It is not, however, triumphalist, it is more the recognition that poetry can be a living embodiment of all we hold sacred and that some countries seem to feel that is more worthy of remembrance than the rise and fall of captains and kings.

Maybe the world would be a better place if more countries made the commitment to toast their poets and followed our lead? If a national day has a purpose it must be to reflect on the values we share as a people. Poetry is after all reflective (in at least two senses of the word) of our society. Only a few nations hold this philosophy and we Scots should be proud to be one of them.

In our case, with estimates that more than nine million people joined in Burns Suppers last year, Burns Night is not just our effective national festival: it is the biggest literary event in the world. Few countries are fortunate enough to have such a Bard – a real but nearly mythic poet who captures the people's voice and soul – and so it is interesting to think on this night that is special to us of our friends in Finland and Pakistan who share this real attachment to their own bards.

So remember these three men of different backgrounds in diverse countries yet honoured in a similar way. Three men who used words not power, nor money, nor force to change the world. That's an important concept – a truly immortal memory – so enjoy Burns Night wherever you are!

• Clark McGinn's books The Ultimate Burns Supper Book and The Ultimate Guide To Being Scottish are published by Luath Press.

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