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Robert Burns School Program comes to Canada

The Schools Program is an initiative of the Robert Burns World Federation headquartered in Kilmarnock, Scotland. The original program from 1992 has recently been updated.

Every year thousands of pupils in the U.K. take part in the various aspects of this program in the form of a competition, where the winners receive Certificates of Merit and prizes.

The concept has even spread to Russia where the “St. Petersburg Essay Competition“ produces outstanding entries from the senior classes.

For many years the Federation had tried to introduce the idea of a competition to schools in North America, with limited success. However an opportunity presented itself in 2006 when I received a phone call from St. Margaret of Scotland School here in Southern Ontario.  I had played Pipes for the School on several occasions in the past during their Graduation Day. The phone call in 2006 WAS Different. Because an ‘exchange’ teacher had come over from Scotland for a year, his request, was to assist in a Burns celebration he was planning with his class.

The result was a gathering in the school Gymnasium where his pupils recited verses from the Selkirk Grace and the Address to the Haggis. This was followed by a demonstration of the ‘Gay Gordons‘, a  Scottish folk dance. The rest of the school had joined us in the Gym,  including the junior Kindergarten classes, who were peering round the door, little eyes wide with astonishment! We decided to give everyone a ‘crash course’ on the ‘Strip the Willow’ which they amazingly learned quite quickly. I had supplied the Piping for the previous part of the Ceremony and started off the dancing again. This one went on longer than I expected and I breathed a sigh of relief when they finally decided to stop!

A couple of months later, with permission of the parents, I presented certificates to the class participants, and took some photographs. (see below).

In January 2008, I was again contacted, this time by the Principal to come and give a talk on Burns and play some pipe music appropriate to the occasion. This time we gathered in the Library and I was pleasantly surprised to find that some of the pupils had retained the poetry they were taught. (see also attachments). I displayed a portrait of Burns (Naysmith version) and also a poster commemorating a Burns supper in Moscow.

This illustrated the International appeal of Robert Burns.

As a consequence of this interest I met with the Principal with the idea of introducing the Burns School competition. The pupils had obviously enjoyed the experience, especially the ones who had earned Certificates. At our Meeting, we agreed on the idea of a competition which would culminate in a Scottish Night to correspond with Tartan Day in Ontario. 

With the invaluable assistance of May Crawley,  the Canadian Director of the World Federation, we presented a revised School Program, which I had adapted from the original, and slanted more towards North American pupils. (A sample from the opening pages is attached.) I felt that it was necessary to state more positively, why a Scottish Icon of literature would be of interest to pupils in Canada and the USA.

Although I had also received indications of interest from a few other Schools in the area, we agreed with the V.P. of  St. Margaret’s that for the first year we should concentrate on the one school, with participation of 400 pupils, and then present the package, amended if necessary, to the other Schools.

In passing I would note, that one of these is a private School whose English Teacher suggested that she would incorporate Burns Poetry and life into the curriculum for next year. This, is an exciting prospect, which coupled with this years events is a big step forward. My sincere belief is that, to keep the ‘Immortal Memory’ alive, its continuance is in the hands of the younger generation. That is surely the most important part of the Mandate of the Federation (reference the Schools Program), associated organizations, and admirers of Robert Burns. 

                                                               Jack Jackson December 2008
                                                               Member of the Robert Burns World Federation

Why Burns?

Robert Burns is an Iconic figure in Scottish Culture and Folklore. It is said that one cannot think of Scotland without thinking of Robert Burns. Since his death over 200yrs. ago, his fame has spread across the Globe to such diverse places as Japan, Russia and the Middle East. Here, in North America, there is strong and ardent support for his works and Memory. The renowned American author, John Steinbeck, wrote a novel entitled “Of mice and men”, the plot based on Burns’ poem “Ode to a mouse”.

Throughout the world there are more statues to Robert Burns than any other poet or composer, one of the earliest being here in Toronto. On New Years eve, millions of Earth’s inhabitants join hands and sing the words of “Auld Lang Syne”, an Anthem of Hope, penned by this 18th Century literary figure.

Throughout his collected works are poems and songs expressing his concern for the plight of the nation’s poor and decrying the circumstances that perpetuate their misery. Burns hated war, slavery and social injustice and strongly expressed the hope that “man to man the world o’er, shall brothers be for a’ that”. The sentiments he expressed  is on a par with those of present day Social Critics and Reformers. In his day, it was unique to find someone who could appeal to the ‘masses’ and also the higher echelons of society, such as the ‘Edinburgh Literatie’.

Robert Burns could “walk with Kings nor lose the common touch”, an ideal expressed in a later century by Rudyard Kipling.

Time spent perusing the works of Scotland’s National Bard, is to set out on a journey of enlightenment and enjoyment. You will thrill to his nationalistic sounding ballads and find the warmest of sentiments in his love songs. Above all, retain an open mind, and the experience will stay with you for the rest of your life.

                                                                                       Jack Jackson Oct. 2008

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