"When chapman billies leave the street, And drouthy neebors, neebors meet; As market-days are wearing late, An folk begin to tak the gate; While we sit bousing at the nappy, An getting fou and unco happy" Tam O'Shanter by Robert Burns
One thing we know well: Robert Burns liked a party!
How much more would he have enjoyed a whole festival especially if he were the guest of honour! The quote above is the opening of his epic poem where the people finish up the work of market day and head to the bar for some well-earned enjoyment and that is exactly what happens every May in Ayrshire at the Burns An' A' That! Festival.
There is an old tradition of celebrating Rabbie which started almost as soon as he died. But these weren't wreath laying ceremonies or church services, our Poet serves something alive and human. It only took a couple of years after his early death for spontaneous celebrations to begin the first was a band concert by a regiment stationed in Ayr who marched to Burns Cottage and performed 'popular Scotch songs and airs', while the following year saw the very first Burns Supper when nine friends of the Poet gathered in Burns Cottage for a night which we'd still recognise today Haggis wi' bashed neeps an' champit tatties washed down by a fair sized dram (or two) and, of course, songs and poems.
This invention was so successful that it spread like whisky out of a broken bottle Paisley, Greenock, Edinburgh, Oxford, London, Philadelphia, New York, and out to the world at large. Good news for Scots folk who liked a party (and better news for speciality haggis butchers everywhere!). By my rough calculations, the number of people who attended a Burns Supper in early 2007 was greater than the total population of Scotland at Rabbie's death in 1796!
The Burns Supper, I have often said, is as much fun as you can have with your clothes on (and some lads have fewer on than usual) but a dinner can only cater for a finite number of people, and the Burns phenomenon quickly needed a bigger canvas to paint on. The first large festival was to commemorate the centenary of his birth with the next big bash being in 1896 for the centenary of his passing. It does seem rather odd to have a party on the date of his funeral but I think he'd have found that funny but the birthday jubilees remained the more popular.
These Centenaries though tended to be a patchwork of many peoples' ideas, events and functions, with no central point of reference except maybe a rally (not quite Glastonbury or Woodstock). One famous one at the Crystal Palace in London gave the thousands there a day of speeches, a few poems and a cold buffet including a pint of sherry! Perhaps you needed a bit of help through the afternoon speeches.
One of the challenges about Robert Burns is that he is so broad and deep, the risk is that you focus on one aspect of his life and works and in so doing, miss many other equally compelling facets. So what a stroke of genius it was to devote not a dinner, not a single day, but a whole week in Burns's own Ayrshire for a festival to celebrate anything and everything about the man, his life, his works and most of all his vitality.
For the last nine years, at the end of May there all sorts of events and activities taking place in Ayrshire, some old and some new in music, the arts, theatre and dance. Quite literally, something for everyone. But I hear someone ask what's the link between Rabbie and a jazz concert? The answer's easy he liked to share in company and even more, he understood the essential human need to create and entertain.
"There's some are fou o' love divine;There's some are fou o' brandy;An' mony jobs that day begin,May end in houghmagandie"
There's neither sermons nor sex on the programme, but bands, street theatre and in the old spirit, stalls selling local food and crafts.
These are some of the big events, but the joy for me is the host of smaller and quirkier shows. The Festival Club - a tent in the middle of Ayr - hosts activities throughout the day whether it's to amuse the kids, have a laugh at some stand up comedy or enjoy up-and-coming Scottish talent. The choice here is very close to the feel of the Fringe in Edinburgh.
One of my favourites is the wonderful !, a dedicated exhibition on Scotland's national drink and its production. Based in Ayr Carnegie Library, distillers from all the whisky regions coming to persuade you that theirs is the true element of the malt. That's one to make Rabbie smile.
One of the highlights as a party, a spectacle and a precious memory of Rabbie's love of his fellow man and woman is the Robert Burns Humanitarian Award Dinner. Held in the Ayr Town Hall, whose 225 foot steeple dominates the Brigs of Ayr, Ayr Academy and the Sandgate the streets of Ayr so well known to our poet; the festival has taken the enjoyment of a convivial dinner but imbued it with a sense of purpose.
Each year an on-line poll is held to encourage nominations for the Robert Burns Humanitarian Award recognition of someone who has made a difference to the world by standing against injustice. Nominees can be from anywhere in the world, of any gender, age or creed and are eligible if through personal self-sacrifice, selfless service, 'hands on' charitable or volunteer work, or other acts in the name of humanity and charity, they have saved, improved or enriched the lives of others or society as a whole. A good work indeed.
In effective symbolism the prize is an artist-crafted manuscript of the poem and it is accompanied by 1,759 gold coins representing the year of Burns's birth.
Previous winners have been worthy people in diverse fields: John Sulston of the Human Genome project; Clive Stafford Smith who tirelessly represents people under the shadow of the death sentence in the US; Archbishop Pius Ncube of Bulowayo who continues to speak out against government injustice in his homeland or, Marla Ruzicka of the US whose nomination described her as a 'one-person aid agency' for the victims of war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Killed aged only 28 in a Baghdad suicide bombing; this was the first posthumous award of the prize.
It's not all formal and arranged though. There's a great chance to be spontaneous as one of the nicest aspects of the Festival is that it's held right across Ayrshire, taking place in the very towns, villages and fields where Burns lived, wrote, loved and drank. So as well as sharing in the scheduled events, you can take a break from the bard and explore Culzean Castle or the Johnnie Walker Distillery; or take a ferry trip to the beautiful Isle of Arran and enjoy some most pleasant hill walking or to Bute and see the palatial mansion of Mount Stuart (whose noble owner is a former racing driver, new meets old indeed!).
The adventurous can even break away to Glasgow: once the great engineering powerhouse of the British Empire, now re-inventing itself as the city of culture and of style. Or, of course Edinburgh our capital that wonderful mix of the elegant parallel lines of the New Town cheek-by-jowl with the higgledy-piggledy Old Town nesting under its castle the Jekyll and Hyde of architecture!
Whatever you do, don't stint your time in Ayrshire. It is a beautiful county, not the driest in the world, but greener and more welcoming for all that and what better way to meet Robert Burns than in his own context? But then I am biased, I was born there too!