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Robert Burns Lives!
The History of The Burns Club of London: 1868 to 1968 Part I By Clark McGinn

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

When Susan and I were in London several years ago, we were honored to be guests at a luncheon hosted by The Burns Club of London at the city’s prestigious Caledonian Club. No one has ever experienced more warmth and hospitality from Burns Club members anywhere. Then Club President Walter Watson had set the wheels in motion for the event, and it was there I met a most interesting man by the name of Clark McGinn. We have stayed in touch ever since, and Clark’s outstanding, comprehensive, and well-documented articles on Burns have appeared in the pages of Robert Burns Lives! many times.

At that same luncheon I was also privileged to meet Jim Henderson who now serves as Honorary Secretary of the Club. Thanks to emails and trips to London, the three of us, along with our wives, have built a lasting friendship. Jim recently sent me a history of the first one hundred years of the Burns Club of London and mentioned that Clark might be updating it for the club’s 150th anniversary. Naturally I contacted Clark and asked him for an article regarding his efforts, and you will enjoy below the result of that request.

Jim and Clark have both served as President of The Burns Club of London which was founded in 1868. Thanks to these two men, I am a proud Associate Member, and I extend my gratitude to Jim for sharing its historical information and to Clark for contributing an extremely interesting article on the club. A lot of histories such as this are usually “dead on arrival” but this is indeed an exception, and I’m certain you will enjoy both articles. Today’s Part I is actually an introduction to next week’s Part II, the history of the club printed in 1968. Now you will meet one of the finest Burnsians of all time – Colin Rae Brown.

(FRS: 7.26.11)

The History of The Burns Club of London:
1868 to 1968
Part I
By Clark McGinn
Past President, The Burns Club of London

In introducing this interesting history of the Burns Club of London, rediscovered by my good friend, Jim Henderson who is both Honorary Secretary of the Club and, through his tireless efforts over years, also our well-deserved Honorary President, I have to admit that there are older Burns Clubs, there are certainly bigger Burns Clubs, there are clubs who cherish direct links with the Poet and there are clubs with priceless historical documents and artefacts, but amongst them all, it is the Burns Club of London which is accorded the honour of standing at No. 1 on the Roll of the Burns Federation.

For me, beside the happy companionship of my fellow BCoL members, many of whom have become more than co-members to my wife Ann and me over the years, the special heart of the Club is due to the extraordinary man who founded us in 1868 - an expat Scot in London called Colin Rae Brown. He made us ‘Number One’.

Few people recognise his name nowadays, and even those Burns scholars who know of him probably underestimate his importance. There is hardly a part of the history of the popularising of Robert Burns where Colin’s democratic philosophy of ‘Burns for All’ – cannot not be found.

Like Burns, Colin was a committed Freemason and carried a philosophy of brotherhood through all his endeavours. He was President of the venerable Greenock Burns Club when the 1844 ‘Demonstration’ at Alloway was being arranged to welcome the younger sons of Burns on furlough from India to meet their elder brother and relatives at The Cottage. Here, the organising committee envisioned a grand entertainment led by the Tory aristocracy for the benefit of ordinary folk – Colin saw it differently and although a young man, he was heavily involved in publicising the event such that tens of thousands of day trippers came by stream boat and railroad on pilgrimage to Alloway, overbalancing the planned ‘top-down’ formality turning the day into a wider and more inclusive popular event.

An auctioneer to trade, his skills and enthusiasm for the common man and woman launched his career in popular journalism, and after the removal of the iniquitous Stamp Duty on newspapers he founded the first mass circulation daily paper in Scotland, the Bulletin. It was in January 1858 when he was giving a Burns Supper to his staff that he realised that the following year would be the Poet’s Centenary. He was walking across the old Brig o’Doon itself when the thought struck him – to encourage Scots and Burns fans and lovers of Poetry and Freedom the world o’er to hold as many Burns Suppers as possible to cheer The Immortal Memory on the centennial natal day. Many, many people helped, including the Burns Club of New York City and over 814 Burns Suppers, soirees, balls and concerts were held from Bombay to Baltimore, from Mauchline to Malta and from Edinburgh to Dunedin. There were great glittering events in London’s Crystal Palace and Glasgow’s City Hall and of course, in Ayr and Alloway, but the unique thing was the spread of activity – the people took Burns into their homes and parties, rather than having to make a pilgrimage as in 1844. Burns was diffused through the world in the medium of the Burns Supper, and Colin’s ideas were at the root of it.

He moved to London to develop his publishing interests on Fleet Street, and for twelve years from 1868 held a Burns Supper in his own (rather capacious) home for the new Burns Club of London and swiftly became a prominent figure in the capital’s Caledonian cultural scene: he strong-armed the millionaire John Gordon Crawford to buy and donate a copy of Steell’s Central Park statue of Burns for London’s Embankment in 1884, and he was influential in settling the maximum donation of one shilling for the Burns bust unveiled in Poets’ Corner the following year (so allowing 20,000 men and women to share the honour of depositing our National Poet’s effigy in the National Church). And it was here in London that he came up with the idea of the Burns Federation, in conversation with a delegation from the Kilmarnock Club, and in so doing personally leading the foundation of that great worldwide family which still prospers today. As a token of that inspiration, he was allowed to place the Burns Club of London as No 1 on the roll of federated clubs and was annually elected its Vice President until he died. (The fact that Kilmarnock declared itself Number 0 is another story!). Once the federation was established, his publisher’s eye saw the need for a journal to collect and disseminate knowledge and critiscm of Burns, so naturally he was behind the creation of the Burns Chronicle.

Towards the end of his life, his love of Highland Mary – which first quickened in his Greenock years when he was active in setting up her first monument in the West Kirkyard – was the guiding star of his declining years and his final energies were expended in fundraising for a monument to her in her birthplace, Dunoon which he saw unveiled the year before he died in London, aged 75 in 1897.

He was laid to rest in Greenock’s earth, happily a few graves away from his heroine, Mary Campbell.

One man – with a great heart – whose favourite Burns Poem was Honest Poverty, and whose catchword, in politics, freemasonry, journalism, or Burns celebration was:

That man to man, the world o’er
Shall brothers be for a’ that.

(This article is dedicated to the memory of Mark Ray who with his wife Fiona, watched their three children (Adam, Eleanor and Madeline) lay the wreath on behalf of the Burns Club of London and Burnsians the world over in Westminster Abbey at the national celebration of the 250th Anniversary of the Poet’s Birth on Sunday 25th January 2009).

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