Arts & Culture

‘Man to man, the world o’er’ … academics set out to map history of Burns Suppers

By Ellen Thomson at

Academics at the University of Glasgow are to map the global phenomenon that is the Burns Supper.

They will create a digital map of Burns Supper activity, past and present with detailed information on format, food and drink products used.

The map will detail speeches, toasts, all elements of the performance by men, women and children over all the many and diverse communities involved.

Glass window of Burns

Burns is celebrated around the world every year

The funding for the ambitious project has come through the generosity of American benefactors Frank and Susan Shaw of Atlanta.

The research project, which will run from 2020-2022, is being carried out by the Centre for Robert Burns Studies (CRBS), which has the world’s largest concentration of Burns experts.

Professor Gerard Carruthers, who is co-director of the Centre for Robert Burns Studies based at the University’s College of Arts, will be leading The History of the Burns Supper project.

Prof Gerrard Carruthers

Professor Gerard Carruthers, co-director of the Centre for Robert Burns StudiesPhoto: Martin Shields

He said: “Robert Burns is world writer whose life and work have given rise to one of the great world cultural phenomena – the Burns Supper.

“It is a testimony to the bard’s enduring appeal not only within Scotland but around the world.

“And at the centre of the supper of course is his great body of work from poetry to song which speaks so strongly to people.

“On 21 July 1801, close friends of Burns held the first Burns supper to mark the fifth anniversary of the bard’s death. They would never have guessed nearly 220 years on that this would have grown into such a worldwide phenomenon.

“We feel it is fitting to launch this research project during Burns Season 2020 and we will produce our findings across 2021-22, as we mark the 220th anniversary of the first Burns Supper.

“By the end of the project we aim to have have a one-stop shop for everything you want to know about the Burns Supper, past and present.”

Gerrard Carruthers

University of Glasgow research will look at the worldwide map of contemporary Burns Suppers. Photo: Martin Shields

Every year on the birthday of Robert Burns – 25 January – millions of people around the world celebrate his life and enduring legacy with haggis, whisky and poetry.

Since the first supper was held in 1801 by the bard’s close friends as a memorial dinner it has morphed into a worldwide event celebrating Scotland’s distinctive heritage and culture.

Today it is estimated that over nine and a half million people around the world take part in a Burns Supper every year.

Bill Nolan, Secretary of the Irvine Burns Club, one of the oldest continually existing Burns Clubs in the world and Immediate Past President of the World Burns Federation, said: “Burns Suppers are a very special part of Scotland’s social fabric that we have exported successfully to the rest of the world.

“I can’t think of any other writer or poet who is remembered annually in this way and that’s why Robert Burns is uniquely Scotland’s international icon.

‘Spontaneous’

“It’s a myth that there’s any formal protocol that has to be followed other than the basic one that every Burns Supper has to be fun and that’s easily assessed by asking one question ‘Would Robert Burns have enjoyed this event?’ To which the answer should always be a resounding ‘Yes – and he’s coming back next year’ “

The History of the Burns Supper project will build on the pioneering work of Dr Clark McGinn, an advisor on the project who did his PhD with the CRBS.

Dr McGinn said: “Within a few years of the first dinner, Burns Suppers were being held across Scotland, but in England, India, America, and Jamaica too; with Canada, Australia and New Zealand following.

“This spontaneous, global growth was because the Burns Supper was the kind of party Burns himself would have enjoyed, so what better way to showcase and celebrate his life, poems and songs?”

A recent Scottish Government commissioned report by the University’s Professor Murray Pittock shows that Robert Burns is worth over £200 million a year to the Scottish economy and the poet’s brand is worth nearly £140 million annually.