Highland fling

Calgarians celebrate Robbie Burns Day

Robert Burns was a famous Scottish poet whose work is still celebrated around the world. (Photo by Victoria Cockriell/SAIT)

Robert Burns was a famous Scottish poet whose work is still celebrated around the world. (Photo by Victoria Cockriell/SAIT)

Quickly gaining in mainstream popularity, you might have heard of Robbie (or Rabbie, depending on who you ask) Burns Day. 

This is perhaps less so from the lasting influence the man’s poems and songs have had on lovers of literature around the world, and more likely from the poster for an event in his honour at your local pub.

So who was Robert Burns? And why should Calgarians care to celebrate the life and work of a poet who lived over 200 years ago, an ocean away from us? 

Henry Cairney, president of the Calgary Burns Club, said it’s largely because of the enduring legacy of the Scottish influence on Canada. 

“Most of Canada’s history has Scots involved in it somewhere. The first prime minister, John A. MacDonald, was a Scot, and some of the first people who settled here were Scots. They were some of the first people to put together the Hudson’s Bay Company.”

Bill Hawes, co-owner of Calgary’s Highland Shoppe, and, coincidentally, a piper at SAIT’s convocation ceremonies for the past 15 years, said the influence is even more apparent here in Alberta, with places like Calgary, Airdrie, Strathmore, Cochrane and Fort MacLeod all named after locations in Scotland or influential Scots.

As for Burns’ enduring popularity, Cairney, who hails from Ayrshire, Scotland, where the poet once lived, said it all comes down to just how relatable his poems and songs are, even to this day. 

“He spoke of the common, everyday working life, politics, love, you name it.

“Abraham Lincoln had a copy of Burns’ poetry with him all the time. Bob Dylan was influenced by the songs and poetry in some of the works he produced, and he’s a Nobel Prize winner.”

Jim Osborne, owner of The Scottish Shoppe in Calgary, agrees that the poet’s influence is vast.

“He appeals to the world over. He’s been quoted by Kofi Annan, he’s been quoted by Nelson Mandela, who is probably one of the greatest humanitarians who ever lived.”

Indeed, even Michael Jackson was developing a musical based on Burns’ life, and legend has it, “Tam O’Shanter,” one of Burns’ poems, inspired “Thriller.”

Though Robbie Burns Day is officially on Jan. 25, Calgary plays host to many Burns Day suppers and celebrations throughout January and into February, from the traditional, such as the Calgary Burns Club’s gents-only annual dinner, to the more modern, which are usually sponsored by local bars and pubs, and considered to be more along the lines of St. Patrick’s Day-lite than a proper ceilidh with traditional dancers, pipers and singers.

For those interested in checking out one of the city’s best Robbie Burns Day events, the St. Andrew-Caledonian Society is holding their annual Burns’ Night supper on Saturday, Jan. 28 at the Polish-Canadian Cultural Centre. 

This is a great opportunity to experience all of the classic traditions, such as the recitation of  “Address to a Haggis” and “The Selkirk Grace,” a toast to the “immortal memory of Robert Burns,” a couple of good old-fashioned comedic roasts during the toast to the lassies and the return from the lassies, and of course, a full meal, complete with haggis. 

“[The evening] ends with people singing the best-known song in the world, and that’s ‘Auld Lang Syne,’ which was written by Robbie Burns,” said Osborne, who is originally from Aberdeen, Scotland.

Kensington Wine Market, Crowfoot Wine and Spirits and Willow Park Wines and Spirits all hold their own Robbie Burns events, complete with whiskey tastings.

Shelf Life Books is holding a literary version of Burns Day, with storyteller Calum Lykan regaling those in attendance with some of the bloodiest tales from Scotland’s history.

Many local pubs and bars will also be holding events to commemorate “the peasant poet,” on Burns Day, including the Ship & Anchor, with pipers and dancers in attendance, and haggis served all night.

Hawes encourages first-timers to go into the night with an open mind – especially when it comes to trying the haggis.

“It’s quite tasty!”

Osborne said that when attending a Burns supper, it’s important to remember the life and work of the great poet, who, in his short life of 37 years, wrote over 600 poems and songs.

Hawes agrees.

“There’s this romanticism with him, you know? And I think people like to be associated with great tradition.”

“Some people don’t understand that some of the things he did are in your every day life,” said Cairney. “Some of his sayings, like, ‘The best-laid schemes o’ mice an ‘men’.

“And I would say to you this: what other literary genius has a day celebrating them? Shakespeare, Kipling, no other famous writer does.”

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