Commemorations of Robert Burns around the world

13 Jan 2010
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After Queen Victoria and Christopher Columbus, Robert Burns has more statues dedicated to him around the world than any other non-religious figure.

Every January, in the run up to the Burns Supper season, you will see iconic pictures of the Scottish poet staring enigmatically from menu cards on every continent.

But you might not know that Rabbie's popularity extends further than that. Over the last two hundred years he's been commemorated in many other ways than a mug shot on a menu. In fact, after Queen Victoria and Christopher Columbus, Robert Burns has more statues dedicated to him than any other non-religious figure.

So when you are next on your holidays, you might just find a statue of Burns on your travels. For while Scotland boasts fifteen monuments to him, America is close behind with fourteen, ranging from Quincy, Mass across to San Francisco and from Barre in the snowy North of Vermont down to the newest statue, a life sized bust in Houston, Texas. Canada and Australia tie with seven each, England praises the Scottish national poet six times (including a bust in Westminster Abbey's famous Poets' Corner), New Zealand boasts four and Ireland has a single statue in Belfast. In the true spirit of the auld alliance, there's even one at the Sorbonne in Paris. In some, he stands thoughtfully staring into the distance, in others, he is inspired and in the process of penning a verse, but my favourites are where you can see Rab the ploughman, like Boston's dramatic monument, with young Robert tramping through the fields with his faithful collie dog, Luath, at his heels.

The thing I find interesting is that when choosing a sculptor, many of the towns opted for copies of existing statues that they liked. When New York unveiled its blockbuster in 1880 (in Central Park alongside Sir Walter Scott) it was a popular success and within weeks Dundee had a copy to be followed over the next few years by London and Dunedin (a town founded by Robert Burns's nephew!). It depicts Rabbie quite literally larger than life in the midst of writing 'To Mary in Heaven' and its 46,000 pounds of bronze remains massively popular today. In fact another of Scotland's poets, the Dundonian William McGonagall, was so moved by the unveiling of Burns's statue he wrote his own poetic commemoration:

Fellow-citizens, this Statue seems most beautiful to the eye,
Which would cause Kings and Queens for such a one to sigh,
And make them feel envious while passing by
In fear of not getting such a beautiful Statue after they die.

And you can't say fairer than that! So if you like the look of the centrepiece of Burns Statue Square in Ayr, you go on a round the world trip to see the same statue in Halifax, Nova Scotia and Montreal, then across the continent to Vancouver, then pop down to Melbourne and back home to Ayr via Paris!

Burns Cottage US Style

Of all the memorials, there is a very special one in Georgia. Off a road called Alloway Place in the lovely city of Atlanta there isn't a representation of the poet but a life size replica of Burns Cottage! At the great Worlds Fair in St Louis held in 1904 one exhibit was a replica cottage which gave a dedicated group of Atlanta Burnsians the great idea of obtaining detailed plans from Alloway and, on land donated by one the Coca-Cola Company's founders, this labour of love was undertaken in 1907. The Atlanta Burns Club still meets there the only difference is that the local fire brigade asked for the thatched roof to be replaced with something a bit less combustible. Just imagine how exciting it is to have your Burns Supper in the cottage but 5,000 miles west of Ayr!

Gung Haggis Fat Choy

That ability to capture a bit of old Scotland and transplant it into another culture can be seen if you jump across the North American continent to Vancouver. Not just to see the statue in Stanley Park (or the one of Robert Burns and Highland Mary across the bay in Victoria) but to enjoy the fusion that Todd Wong a.k.a. Toddish McWong has created in blending the best of Burns Night and Chinese New Year together in the extraordinary celebration he calls Gung Haggis Fat Choy! 2010 saw the Year of The Tiger come roaring in with rantin' rovin' Robin alongside kilts and dragons, bagpipes and great Chinese cooking.

Mandarin Burns

And on our way home after looking at some of the surprising places you can find our Rabbie, let's stop off in China. We can join in Burns Suppers in Hong Kong, Beijing or Shanghai and share some of Burns's great poems translated into Mandarin. His poems have a resonance with traditional Chinese poetry, with themes about the land and love and a peasants struggles with life and an enduring love of his country. In fact, sixty years ago a translation of 'My Hearts in the Highlands' was adopted as the marching song of the Chinese resistance fighters in the Second World War! It's hard to underestimate the love felt for our Poet in China today. Robert Crawford in the book of the year - The Bard - quotes the famous artist Chiang Yee who felt that Burns was so close to Chinese culture that perhaps 'he was brought back as a baby from China by a missionary named Burns'!

So right around the world every January you can find something that bit extra and surprising if you are looking to celebrate with Robert Burns!

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