The sporadic tradition of Robbie Burns Nights

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

Many local history buffs are delighted to see that Tim Taylor has revived an old tradition, the Burns Night, at the Elora Mill.

These evenings, marking the birthday of Scottish poet Robert Burns, go back to at least 1860. Although Burns Nights have not been held every year, the programs have varied little since they began.

Robert Burns (1759-1796) has been unquestionably the most popular Scottish poet from the time he established his reputation in the 1790s. His major achievement was his success in incorporating Scottish folk traditions and songs into the literary mainstream of his time.

He was among the first to use Scottish dialect in his writing.

Burns had a particular appeal to the independent-minded Scottish settlers who came to this area. He shared with them a dislike of pretense, phoniness and special privilege. As well, Burns grew up in Ayrshire, the original home of many settlers in Wellington County. To them, Burns personified a proud cultural tradition.

Many Scots began celebrating Burns’s birthday in the 1840s and 1850s. Major celebrations took place on the centenary of Burns’ birth on Jan. 25, 1859. In this area, Guelph hosted the event in the City Hall, which was then less than three years old. Most of Guelph’s working people took the day off, making it an unofficial holiday.

More than 600 people crowded into the City Hall quarters that were designed to hold only half that number. The throng included people from all the villages around Guelph. The speakers included A.J. Fergusson, son of the founder of Fergus, who was the local MPP. Some local writers read their original poems or selections from Burns. The readings included a new poem by Alexander McLaughlin, the noted Canadian poet. A buffet supper was served in another room, and the evening concluded with dancing until dawn.

John Bain, proprietor of the Commercial Hotel, hosted a smaller celebration in Elora. The Fergus celebration is more intriguing: it was staged by the Sons of Temperance. Burns, as one of Scotland’s most accomplished and enthusiastic drinkers, would have enjoyed the irony, though he surely would have shunned the weak tea and stale biscuits served as refreshments.

Although Burns was widely admired at the centenary of his birth, the recognition was not universal. Ministers still took offence at his religious satires, and moralists took a dim view of his various illegitimate children, womanizing and drinking. Groups such as the Fergus Sons of Temperance could celebrate Burns while arguing that his lifestyle led him to squander his talent.

Nevertheless, it is more likely that rheumatic heart disease rather than drink caused his premature death at 37.

A committee of Elora residents followed up the centenary with a Burns Night in 1860, which attracted 60 people for a dinner beginning at six o’clock. The haggis, of course, was the centrepiece of the three hour meal. At nine o’clock a group of Fergus revellers showed up. To welcome them, Andy Spaulding’s band of Elora musicians struck up an enthusiastic version of “The Campbells Are Coming.”

The rest of the evening required strong elbows and stronger livers. There were more than a dozen toasts, interspersed with selections of Scottish and patriotic music played by Spaulding and his friends. These were followed by recitations and songs, most from the pen of Burns.

The selections included “Epistle to a Young Friend,” recited by Elora carpenter John Wilkinson. Songs included “Scots wha ha’e wi’ Wallace Bled” and “Highland Mary,” sung by George Elmslie of Bon Accord, and Robert Perry and James McQueen of Fergus.

The Burns Night celebrations of 1859 and 1860 set the tone and style for similar events in succeeding years. Sometimes these were sponsored by impromptu groups or committees. In other years a group such as the Sons of Scotland would be in charge. The later Burns Nights did not challenge the endurance of revellers to the extent of the early ones. There was also a broadening out over time, as non-Scottish people felt more comfortable in joining the festivities.

Up to about 1880, Burns Night competed with St. Andrew’s Day celebrations for supremacy as the most important Scottish date on the calendar. St.Andrew’s Day was usually sponsored by the St. Andrew’s Society, a benevolent association. The St. Andrew’s Day banquets and concerts had a much more staid and dignified air than the early Burns Nights. They also attracted the participation of Presbyterian ministers, who rarely participated in Burns Night celebrations.

In more recent years, Fergus, rather than Elora, has taken the lead with Burns Night events. Some of the more memorable ones were in the 1950s hosted by the Couples Group of St. Andrew’s Church in Fergus. These consisted, as had the earlier ones, of a dinner and entertainment. Over 200 people attended the events.

The 20th century Burns Nights attract crowds from a variety of backgrounds, and menus often reflect this diversity. The 1958 Burns Night in Fergus featured a roast beef dinner, for example, though the haggis was piped in to be enjoyed by those who dared sample it.

(Note: Robert McMurdo performed at the 1957 Burns Night, and was so popular that he was invited back the next year. Ivan Ostic acted as chairman for the evening.)

Surprisingly, there was no Burns Night in 1959, the 200th anniversary of the poet’s birth.

The Elora Mill’s Burns Night has reverted to a more traditional Scottish menu, reflecting the fact that people have become more adventurous in their eating preferences. The appeal of Robert Burns, though, seems undiminished. All the tickets were sold out two weeks before the event. Those lucky enough to be present will be continuing a long tradition of good eating, good entertainment, and good fellowship.

2020 update: The sporadic nature of Burns Night events has continued into the 21st century. In recent years the duo of Athol Gow (whose ancestors no doubt in their day enjoyed Robbie Burns celebrations in Fergus) and Jason Thompson have mounted Alt Burns Nights to raise funds for the Centre Wellington Community Foundation. This year’s installment will take place at the Shepherd Pub in Elora on Jan. 25.

In Fergus, the Fergus Pipe Band is offering a Robbie Burns supper at the Legion, also on Jan. 25.

*This column was originally published in the Fergus-Elora News Express on Jan. 18, 1995.

Thorning Revisited