Last weekend I attended the Big Burns Supper 2014, a festival held annually in the pleasant town of Dumfries to celebrate Scotland’s national poet.
According to a Scots poet of a later generation, Edwin Muir, the charm of Robert Burns is that he can be all things to all men. Burns represents, he claimed, “to the respectable, a decent man; to the Rabelaisian, bawdy; to the sentimentalist, sentimental; to the socialist, a revolutionary; to the nationalist, a patriot; to the religious, pious”. The sub-text is, whatever you want your own personal Burns to be, he will be.
The appeal of Burns to the Scots and to their considerable diaspora is easy to understand. He wrote not in highfalutin English but in Scots, for the Scots. He was not afraid to sprinkle his prose and verse with dialect words and phrases. Much of the stuff he wrote has populist appeal, as witness his masterly reworking of a limping old ballad that’s now sung around the world at the turn of the year and been recorded by Bing Crosby, Elvis, Jimi Hendrix, Boney M and Kenny G, to name but a handful of those who’ve tried their hand at ‘Auld Lang Syne’.
On the flight to Scotland, I allowed myself to speculate as to how the Scots should package Burns to widen the appeal, particularly non-Caledonians. Easy, I decided. Here we have a guy who was anti-authoritarian, even seditious. A convivial soul who liked nothing better than hanging around with his pals and downing a few scoops. A graffiti artist, too. Better yet, he looked like the young Elvis, wrote like Shakespeare and put it about like Sven Goran-Ericksen The Swedish Love Machine. Someone should make the movie. But please… spare us Mel Gibson.
At which point we touched down in Glasgow. Half an hour later I had a pristine, ten miles on the clock Arnold Clark-supplied Opel Astra under me and we were winging our way down the M74, destination Dumfries where the 2014 Big Burns Supper festival was to kick off on the morrow. Having time to spare I got off the motorway north of Moffat and drove past enthralling scenery to show Ann, my wife, the Devil’s Beef Tub, a deep, dramatic, swirling hole in the hills. Thereafter, we retraced our steps before meandering down the scenic A702, stopping for lunch in the well-kept town of Thornhill, birthplace of mega-talented and drop-dead-gorgeous Scottish singer, Emily Smith.
In Dumfries, a place I have only happy memories of, there is a camera obscura, a device that’s a precursor of photography. When the weather permits, it shows you a panoramic image of the town on the inner wall of the building. The custodian was, I remember, always at pains to point out the swans on the River Nith; also The Crichton – “Yin’s the biggest lunatic asylum in Scotland”. I was amused but awed to find that this was the location of our hotel for this trip. On arrival, I found the shadows of the past had been vanquished and that the extensive grounds now host the Royal Infirmary, a business park, two college campuses and The Aston, a fine hotel housing a Marco Pierre White restaurant where we dined with Rosemary and Andrea from the organising team of the Big Burns Supper, who outlined the concept to me.
The festival, first held in the town in 2012, aims to celebrate, via a programme of concerts, comedy, cabaret and community participation, the poet’s life and work. Burns, who died at 37 spent but the last four years of his life here, yet produced fully a quarter of his output during that period. A spiegeltent, a large travelling show tent, constructed in wood and canvas and decorated with mirrors and stained glass, had been erected in the town centre and this was to be the core venue for the festival’s programme. There would be a procession through the town lit by 1,000 lantern. 5,000 individual Burns suppers – haggis, neaps (turnips) and tatties (potatoes) would be served up over the course of the event.
After dinner, we wasted no times in getting into the festival spirit, perhaps literally, by attending an event titled ‘Whisky for Dafties’, an introduction to the delights of Scottish single malt, hosted in robust fashion by comedian/whiskey fanatic Alan Anderson.
Afterwards we repaired to The Globe, Dumfries’ oldest pub and Burns’ local where an impromptu music session was underway in the compact ‘Snug’ and a more formal one in ‘The Room’. We opted for informality. The Globe’s manager Jane Brown, herself a devotee of the poet (and President of the worldwide Robert Burns Society) kindly showed us the upstairs bedroom where our hero enjoyed assignations with the Globe’s blonde barmaid Anna Park. Burns’ other amusement while at his favourite ‘howff’ was to inscribe poems on the windows with a diamond-tipped pen. Some of these poems may still be seen.
Next day we visited Ellisland Farm, Burns’ first home in the region, a few miles outside Dumfries, where curator Les Byers, impressive custodian of the poet’s lore and legend gave us more inside track. Dumfries, he advised, was in those days a prosperous, bustling town, more important even than Glasgow as the hub of the lucrative trade in tobacco, a commodity imported through the nearby port of Carsethorn wherefrom, in 1851 alone, more than 21,000 people emigrated to Canada, The States, Australia and New Zealand.
After taking leave of Les, we headed for the sea ourselves, seizing the opportunity of a break in the wet weather to walk on the beach at Rockcliffe and ramble up and over to Kippford via the Jubilee Path, something I’d done many times before.
Later we attended Le Haggis, an event that fully justified its billing as as “the sexiest show in the festival”, a ninety minute extravaganza involving music, song, cabaret and an amazing display of dexterity, fitness and physique by a pair of burlesque acrobats. In the interim, the band, fronted by a fabulous girl singer (who sings, as I was informed, in the local community choir) brought real meaning to ‘A man’s a man for a’ that’, a song more frequently maladroitly performed either as a turgid dirge or as a jolly knees-up. Another performance that nearly had the tent crashing down on us was a vibrant rendition, by a lassie garbed in a leather basque and ‘sussies’ of Kirsty MacColl’s ‘In These Shoes’.
We attended the lantern procession, a truly amazing sight. More than 30 local groups and organisations took part in the parade, accompanied by several floats and huge puppets. Kudos to the Manchester (another town dear to my heart) Samba School whose rhythmic momentum, aided by a brace of pipe bands, drove the whole thing along. Afterwards, we ducked the late night Roller Disco “I’m not comfortable without my own skates, hehe.” “Yeah, right”, says my wife.
Highlight of the next day was, for me, the live performance in the Spiegeltent, of Dick Gaughan, a master interpreter of both traditional and contemporary songs and a guitar genius, whom I first met when I was co-hosting a folk club in England back when Burns was a lad (well, not quite). A dish of the obligatory haggis and its customary trappings fortified us for pints, first in The Ship, my own ‘local’ back in the days when my acquaintanceship with Dumfries was more regular than it is today. The pints there are as honest as ever and the denizens still play dominoes, altogether another proper pub holding back the tide of muzak and expensive swill. Later, in the packed-to-the-rafters Globe we dissected the event with other festival attendees and learned of myriad delights we’d missed. At the end of the evening a girl we met in the street offered to walk us to the taxi rank to ensure we did not get lost, where else on earth would you get that sort of courtesy these days? Truly, Doonhamers (the inhabitants of Dumfries – I’ll explain another time) are salt of the earth.
The festival’s organisers deserve huge credit for The Big Burns Supper. I feel sure it’s an event that will, year on year, grow in stature, appealing not only to the Burns anorak, the patriot and the emigré, but to the wider body of people out there, of every race and creed, who enjoy song, dance, theatre, literature, merrymaking, the craic and just having a great time. Me, I intend coming back – for a’ that.
Homecoming Scotland 2014 In 2014, Scotland will welcome the world as we take to the global stage and celebrate our nation through a year-long series of exciting events. Complementing the Ryder Cup and Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games, Homecoming Scotland will be a celebration of the country’s rich culture, natural beauty, active adventures and creative heritage. For more information go to: www.visitscotland.com
Accommodation I stayed at Aston Hotel, Dumfries www.astonhotels.co.uk/dumfries
Big Burns Supper http://2014.bigburnssupper.com/
Ellisland Farm, Dumfries www.ellislandfarm.co.uk
Dumfries Museum & Camera Obscura The Observatory, Rotchell Road Dumfries DG2 7SW www.dumfriesmuseum.com
Complete Works of Robert Burns www.robertburns.org/works/