In 1955, a group of Scots living in Tulsa, Oklahoma decided to form a Scottish Saint Andrew’s Society, calling it the Scottish Club of Tulsa (S.C.O.T.). The first known Oklahoma Burns Supper occurred on January 25, 1956. This annual event went unabated until the scheduled 66th Burns Night event, which had to be cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The S.C.O.T. Club now holds its formal Commemorative Supper honoring the Scotland Bard on the 22nd of July, 2023. Don your Scottish Best and come experience a Robert Burn’s Tradition unlike any you have ever attended.
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A Burns Supper is a celebration of the life and poetry of the poet Robert Burns (January 25, 1759 – July 21, 1796), the author of many a Scots poem and song. Robert Burns is global writer whose life and work have given rise to a global cultural phenomena – the Burns Supper. At the heart of this celebration of Scotland’s national bard is his word – from poetry to song.
The suppers are normally held on or near the poet's birthday, January 25th, and known as Burns Night. It’s an important date on the Scottish national calendar! But why? For that, we need to go back in time…
Burns’s father had come to Ayrshire from Kincardineshire in an endeavor to improve his fortunes, but, though he worked immensely hard first on the farm of Mount Oliphant and then at Lochlea, ill luck dogged him, and he died in 1784, worn out and bankrupt. It was watching his father being beaten down that helped to make Robert both a rebel against the social order of his day and a bitter satirist of all forms of religious and political thought that condoned or perpetuated inhumanity. He received some formal schooling from a teacher as well as sporadically from other sources.
Proud, restless, and full of a nameless ambition, the young Burns did his share of hard work on the farm. He took sides against the dominant extreme Calvinist wing of the church in Ayrshire and championed a local gentleman, Gavin Hamilton, who had got into trouble with the kirk session for Sabbath breaking.
Burns developed rapidly throughout 1784 and 1785 as an “occasional” poet who more and more turned to verse to express his emotions of love, friendship, or amusement of his ironical contemplation of the social scene. But these were not spontaneous effusions by an almost illiterate peasant. Burns was a conscious craftsman!
Meanwhile, the farm was not prospering, and Burns went ahead with his plans for publishing a volume of his poems at the nearby town of Kilmarnock. It was entitled “Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect” and appeared on July 31, 1786. Its success was immediate and overwhelming. Simple country folk and sophisticated Edinburgh critics alike hailed it, and the upshot was that Burns set out for Edinburgh on November 27, 1786, to be lionized, patronized, and showered with well-meant but dangerous advice.
In Edinburgh, Burns had met James Johnson, a keen collector of Scottish songs who was bringing out a series of volumes of songs with the music and who enlisted Burns’s help in finding, editing, improving, and rewriting items. Burns was enthusiastic and soon became virtual editor of Johnson’s “The Scots Musical Museum.” Later, he became involved with a similar project for George Thomson, but Thomson was a more consciously genteel person than Johnson, and Burns had to fight with him to prevent him from “refining” words and music and so ruining their character. Johnson’s “The Scots Musical Museum” (1787–1803) and the first five volumes of Thomson’s “A Select Collection of Original Scottish Airs for the Voice” (1793–1818) contain the bulk of Burns’s songs.
Burns spent the latter part of his life industriously collecting and writing songs to provide words for traditional Scottish airs. He regarded his work as a service to Scotland and oddly refused payment.
Burns was a man of great intellectual energy and force of character who, in a class-ridden society, never found an environment in which he could fully exercise his personality. He lived during the cultural and intellectual tumult known as the Scottish Enlightenment, and the problem was ultimately more than one of personalities. The only substitute for the rejected Calvinism seemed to be, for Burns, a sentimental Deism, an offhand belief that God lives through us in our good heartedness. That Burns, in spite of this sometimes hostile environment, produced so much fine poetry and song shows the strength of his unique genius, and that he has become the Scottish national poet is a tribute to his hold on the popular imagination.
After Robert Burns died of ill health in 1796, a group of nine friends and patrons got together to celebrate his life in memoriam on the fifth anniversary of his death, on July 21, 1801. The event was held in Burns’ family home, “Burns Cottage” in Alloway.
The organizer, Rev. Hamilton Paul, kept notes of the occasion and it is surprisingly similar to what we do today, with a haggis being “addressed” and eaten, an immortal toast to Burns' memory and a number of Burns’ own poems and songs. With the exception of the group serving toasted sheep’s head with the haggis, the celebration was already recognizable as Burns Night in its current form.
One year later, loosely organized Burns Clubs were already springing up in Paisley and Greenock. In the early 1800s there were clubs for everything. Some were formal, with a written constitution, membership fees and a president’s chain of office, while others could be as informal as the regulars in a pub. The first Burns Clubs were more like the latter.
The very first Burns Club (which still exists, by the way), was founded in Greenock in 1801 by merchants who were born in Ayrshire, some of whom had known Burns. Those original friends met with the founders of Greenock Burns Club, holding the first public Burns Supper on January 29, 1802, on what they thought was his birthday, January 29, 1802. But in 1803, they discovered in the Ayr parish records that his date of birth was actually January 25, 1759. Since 1803, traditional Burns Suppers have been held on, or about, the 25th of January.
By the end of the 1800s, the Burns Night celebration had spread around the globe with Burns Suppers on every continent except for Antarctica. By the middle of the 20th century, the Burns Supper Tradition had begun to take shape.
Back in Burns’s homeland, the Scottish Parliament itself considers the celebration of Burns Night each year to be a key cultural heritage event. “The Parliament welcomes the annual celebration of Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns, which is held on 25 January, each year, to mark the Bard’s birthday” The Scottish Parliament considers that Burns was one of the greatest poets and that his work has influenced thinkers across the world.
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