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.
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.
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
January 25, 2010, and I wish to express my appreciation to Clark and
for it appearing here on Robert Burns
Burns Night: Poetry and Emotion
By Clark McGinn
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
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
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
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
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
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.