Burns Night 2014

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Burns Night is a night when the life of one of the most famous Scots in history is honoured; a night when Scots the world over remember the man who put Scotland on the cultural map. And of course, as a salute to the man's own humour and fun-loving personality, it is truly a night for celebrations and speeches that are completely unique.

Who but the Scots would begin a party with a piper piping in the haggis, and in celebration of whom else but the man who wrote an address to a haggis?

Five years after Robert Burns' death, nine people who knew him gathered at his old cottage in Alloway to commemorate their friend and his works. The master of ceremonies that night was a minister named Hamilton Paul, who had been a fellow mason with Burns. Perhaps it was the copious amounts of whiskey consumed, but the small group enjoyed the evening so much they decided to meet again the following year, and thus a great tradition was born.

Those nine friends could never have guessed the example they had set. Others followed suit, forming Burns clubs and meeting on the anniversary of the Scottish Bard's birth. While the first club created outside Scotland was at Oxford University, Robbie's appeal was not limited to the well-educated. Born in a cottage as the son of a poor farmer, he spent years travelling the highways between Ayr, Edinburgh, and Dumfries, where he met people from all walks of life and addressed many of his works to them. He knew what it was like to be poor, and he valued the rights of man. His work had universal appeal and spread to the four corners of the earth, gaining him fame even in such distant places as Russia and China.

As one might expect, the principal speech of Burns Night is the immortal tribute to the man himself, Robbie Burns. You should be able to recite one or two of his works in the context of your speech. Much of what you say will of course depend upon your audience. The speech may be light-hearted or erudite, or a combination of both. It is worth remembering that Burns was a man of many talents, and could write about political matters in English as well as pen some of the best-known love poems of all time in his own local dialect. In your speech, your aim is to pay homage to the poet and to bring him alive to your audience. Traditionally, many such speeches end with a poem. Now that’s a challenge when you are paying tribute to one of the world’s greatest poets!

There was a time when women only cooked the meal, but did not attend the actual celebration. Today, however, they are often guests, and so a toast is raised to the lassies. Such a toast must be gracious in tone, but if you can make it witty as well, it will certainly be well received. Robbie was a great admirer of the female sex, so emulate him and declare how special they are in your own inimitable manner.

Sometimes a lassie replies to this toast, accepting the compliments given by the speaker. At other times, a man takes on the delicate task of replying on behalf on the lassies. He must receive the praises given in the toast as well deserved, and diplomatically mention the fact that the lassies are well aware that the ladies are equally important in the grand scale of things. Again, a few humorous remarks will greatly add to this speech.

During the evening, there are toasts to the guests and a reply from the guests, as well as votes of thanks to the chair, the organizers and the entertainers. Acting as emcee for such an occasion requires a good deal of knowledge regarding the various customs and procedures. Despite the fact that there are Burns clubs all over the world, the traditions are much the same wherever the festivities take place. Alternately, you may choose to hold your own Burns Night in which you plainly remember him and his works without any of the formalities. In fact, the poet himself would likely appreciate this type of remembrance. Despite being remarkably clever and lionized by Edinburgh society, he was, above all, a simple man.

However, if you speak at a Burns Night where the traditions are kept, it would be wise to do your homework on the Bard. There are countless books on the subject, and certainly many of his devotees will be delighted to share their knowledge of the Ploughman poet. If you are abroad, the night will mean a great deal to emigrants, and you should mention the homeland. A touch of nostalgia will add tremendously to your words.

On the 25th of January, just remember that Robbie Burns belongs to his own, and then make the most of the occasion with whiskey and wit, toasts and tributes. So if you are providing a Burns Night speech, remember that you are speaking about someone who would thoroughly enjoy the party. After all, a Burns Night supper is a night for warmth and wit, poetry and prose, and of course, lots of uisge beatha!



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