It happens in January and there is special food, music, dancing, singing and reciting. There are Burns clubs and burns societies, all over the world, a fact I wasn't aware of until I started touring as a writer. There are Scots everywhere – even in Estonia there is a huge burns night.
There is a specific order of service and it can be quite boysy and rude – Burns himself was quite the club man himself and the event can be with racy stories and no women. But now, the modern version is more mixed and has a love of Burns. Speeches include one about the immortal memory, which is about an aspect of Burns' writing, and a “toast to the lassies”, which addresses Burns' love poetry and looks at the relationship between men and women from the male side. Then I always get hired to do the “reply to the toast to the lassies”, which is the Scottish women replying. It can be very funny.
Fathers and then their sons will recite the same poems. It's very moving. Then we eat haggis. There's a specific address to the haggis and the piping in of the haggis, there's a piper who plays while the haggis is wheeled in and then murdered, with at least an enormous dagger if not a sword. You dance all night and have breakfast together. It's a big undertaking! In London there is a big Calendonian club which was a social club for the relief of destitute Scots in London, but it's been around for so long that they have a huge mansion in Belgravia. And for the month of January they host a Burns night every single night. The fact is, Burns clubs are everywhere. Russia loves him, because he's quite egalitarian, a man of the people. Japan loves him, because they have a real enthusiasm for different types of literature. He fits in well with lots of people's philosophy. Scottish soldiers reported meeting Russian soldiers in world war two and not being murdered because they could all recite Robert Burns together.
All the Burns Clubs around the world send a message of greeting to the Burns Club number one. It's quite moving: as the clock goes around the world, all the burns clubs take it in turns to celebrate the memory of a writer. It's a bit weird and a bit hokey and some people call it too old fashioned but when you are actually in it, it is immensely moving and very affectionate.
It's about a man who died poor, he was quite ill, came from a humble background, became quite famous but never really got money for it. People have tried to do Ferguson suppers or suppers for other writers, but they haven't taken hold. It's a lovely thing: It's the biggest Scottish celebration, and, importantly, it's a celebration of a writer.