Sunday, 19 April 2009

At the Burns Club of Atlanta

On January 25th 1896, a diverse group of business, professional and tradesmen founded the Burns Club of Atlanta, and they met in various premises around the city until around 1907 they resolved to build their own Club premises, and in pursuit of this they bought around 15 acres of land, some way out of town but yet accessible as it was right at the end of the trolley tracks. The next decision was somewhat inspirational, to construct their building as one of the finest memorial tributes to our Bard, a replica of the Poet's birthplace, the "auld clay biggin". An Architect in Scotland was hired to record exact dimensions of the Alloway cottage, and the Club raised the finance for the building by selling off half of the land as residential plots, with the land now divided by new streets, Alloway Place, crossed by Ayr Place at the top. There were certain adjustments made to suit the Club's needs and available materials and talent, this cottage is built in granite from the nearby Stone Mountain, and the barn and byre areas have been constructed as one large meeting room, but the building curves as the original, and the detailing is faithful, there was even a thatched roof but that has been replaced of late to comply with local Fire Marshals. The Atlanta Cottage was completed for the Poet's birthday in 1911, a fantastic achievement for the Club, and a testament to the enthusiasm that Burns works inspired in the USA at a time when the movement at home was only just beginning to muster real strength and restore the birthplace to its original condition as a place of pilgrimage for admirers.

The level of enthusiasm in Atlanta lives on; I have previously blogged on my visit in the afternoon to meet Victor Greig with his Kilmarnock edition, and my visit to Frank Shaw’s fantastic library with his Kilmarnock, now I want to give you an appreciation of my return to the cottage that evening. The Club meets in the cottage on the first Wednesday of every month throughout the year, (and on the poet’s birthday,) and at these monthly gatherings they have a programme of entertainment and an address from invited speakers. This being Wednesday 1st of April I was invited to be with the club and give them that short address on a topic of my choosing. The members start gathering around 5.30pm, as some go straight to the cottage from work, and the gathering commences with nibbles and soft drinks laid on, although many of the members keep their favourite malt on the premises for these gatherings. So the evening begins with a relaxed gathering and lot of informal chat. There is a meeting of the Club Board to catch any business matters, and prospective Members are interviewed. Several Members bring in plates of food to the gathering, and these are laid out in the library with a load of fried chicken and everybody enjoys an informal supper. The organisation of these programmes are the responsibility of the Vice-President, in this year Eddie Morgan, and he called the gathering to order, and asked for everyone to introduce themselves. Most attending are in familiar surroundings, introductions are often jocular, many slightly barbed against some group or someone and so there was a great deal of light banter as everyone took their turn introducing themselves and any guest. We started the more ordered programme with Burns a reading, carefully chosen by a nominated member, and then it was my turn. With perhaps more bravado than knowledge, I had offered as my topic “The American Influences of Robert Burns” and spoke for about twenty minutes on how perhaps in the 18th century the emerging independent and democratic states of America had influenced the political thinking and ambitions of Burns, and how in turn his works achieved wide appreciation and had influenced many great American figures, then the current ongoing enthusiasm and depth of scholarship that Americans contributed to the worldwide appreciation of our Bard.
There was a response on behalf of the Club, and there followed some very shrewd observations and questions, coming from a base of knowledge that demonstrated the wealth of understanding there is in this Club, evoking discussion and interest in where Burns and Scotland are in the current global picture. I am sure that among the clubs in North America the Burns Club of Atlanta is not alone in the views they hold and the understanding they exhibit in valuing the works and philosophies of Robert Burns. With enthusiasts of this calibre joining regularly in fellowship in the name of Robert Burns, we can be confident that in another 250 years the whole world will again join and celebrate a great anniversary.
I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Atlanta, it was only too brief, I am now looking for a reason to return for a longer visit among the many friends I have made there.

Friday, 17 April 2009

Southern Hospitality

When I first planned my trip to USC, Frank Shaw suggested that I come a couple of days early and visit with him and the Burns Club of Atlanta before travelling to Columbia. I jumped at this invitation, because everyone knows Frank has an outstanding Burns library, and a great enthusiasm for the Bard.

Frank came to Burns relatively recently, his first love in literature is for Sir Walter Scott, and on entering his basement library I saw his massive Scott collection, then the bookcases of other Scottish literature with a substatintial array of Hugh MacDiarmid, on to general Scots interests with a bias towards his Clan background and history. American literature also grabs Frank and he has a fantastic collection by and about Ernest Hemmingway with some really rare items.

But there is a special room set aside for Robert Burns, and in here we find the treasures, in fact almost every treasure one could imagine that a Burns library would hold. The Kilmarnock Edition heads the printed works, and there are both Edinburgh variants, the 1787 piracies of Belfast and Dublin, 1787 London, and, of course, the first American editions of 1788 Philadelphia and New York.

All the great editions;- Johnson's Scot's Musical Museum, Thomson's Select Collection, Grose's Antiquities, and on to the early biographies, some in quite beautiful bindings, all in very good condition and lovingly cared for. Shelves full of the mass of Victorian writings and Burnsiana, and the most important works of Burns scholarship and comment kept at hand close to the desk, for Frank is not only a collector, he has become known as a prolific writer and speaker to Burns, St Andrew's, and Scot's gatherings over a wide area. His "Robert Burns Lives" pages on Electric Scotland are among the best read Burns pages on the web.

The enthusiasm for Burns and collecting runs on into a mass of ephemeral items, programmes from great dinners through the ages, hundreds of postcard's, several nice pieces of Mauchline Ware, various items of Burnsiana, many statuetes and busts, and here is another uniquie piece, a larger than life bronze bust stands high overlooking the room, specially commisioned from the artist Robert Lewis "Whisper" Frankel, it is surely a great testament to the love of Burns exhibited everywhere in this library.
Frank is the epitome of the Southern Gentleman. He and his wife Susan are among the finest people you could meet, they will be touring Scotland with their family in June, if anyone bumps into them please show them some of our hospitality. I will always remember the couple of days I was their guest in Atlanta and enjoyed their Southern Hospitality.

Wednesday, 8 April 2009

Man to Man the World O'er Shall Brothers Be.

When I heard in 2000, that the Federation were to hold the 2001 conference in Atlanta, I got a map out to see if I could day-trip from the conference venue to the University of South Carolina to see the Ross Roy Collection, which I had often dreamed of visiting. I figured this was not practicable so dropped plans for the conference. When I found out a few weeks before the due date that Prof. Roy was taking some choice exhibits to display in Atlanta, then the conference trip was hastily replanned. I had a great time in Atlanta and met many Burnsians from "across the pond". The following January at Strathclyde Conference, I again met one of these enthusiasts, Leslie Strachan from Virginia, and after that we carried on a sporadic email exchange. In spring 2004 at the end on an email, he mentioned that he was shortly going to USC for a couple of days and that Ken Simpson, Gerry Carruthers and all would be there, I replied immediately with "What is going on at USC?" and next I was on the email to Patrick Scott of USC, who I had met in Atlanta, and arranged to get there for their Conference. I flew in to Columbia on a Thursday afternoon, and out for home again on Sunday, it was the best time I had ever experienced in my pursuit of my interests in Burns, I made several very good friends in these few days, and have greatly enoyed email discussions with these several friends since. Now I am in the middle of a great tour that derives from these friendships, in Atlanta with Frank Shaw and his fabulous Burns Library and Collection, (blog on that soon), an outstanding meeting at the Burns Club of Atlanta, ( blog to come), a fabulous Conference at USC which I now rate as my best Burns experience of all time, (and the blog for that will be just as exciting), and now I am in New York meeting another friend tomorrow, and filling my days with more exciting Burns experiences, (New York Blogs soon), all this from a chance remark in an email 5 years ago

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

Two Kilmarnock Editions in "Burns Cottage"

Last Wednesday, I had the almost unique pleasure to be standing in "Burns Cottage" with two of the exceedingly rare Kilmarnock editions in my hands, and all this in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. No, this is not a joke for April 1st, there is a replica of the famous birthplace Cottage, exact in almost every respect, in Atlanta and it is home to The Burns Club of Atlanta, who commisioned an architect in Scotland to take dimensions off the Alloway cottage and had their own constructed and completed way back in 1911. I was there for the first stop on my US tour, and went in the afternoon to meet a couple of old friends, Frank Shaw and Victor Grieg with the express purpose to cast my eye over their own copies of the famous book. There are surely few clubs that can boast of two individual members who own this rare treasure. The next day I travelled with Frank and his wife Susan to Columbia, South Carolina, with these two Kilmarnocks, plus our Presidential chain of office, in the rear footwell next to me, surely the most precious Burns cargo of all time.

Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Ploughing on Mossgiel

It can be argued that Burns wrote his best poetry during his Mossgiel period, 1784 -1786, and that he formed many of his rhymes while working in the fields, ploughing and such. Recreating this whole image on Sunday 29th March. Mauchline Burns Club held a Ploughing Match, with a dozen teams of horses and ploughmen exercising their skills more or less the same way and on the same ground that the Bard had ploughed. Courtesy of the long term Tennant
This was a magnificent spectacle and festival, the weather was kind if a little windy, but this is Mossgiel, the Clydesdales strained, the ploughmen toiled, and the furrows followed. They ploughed plots of 50 x 15 yards, and took around 5 hours to complete, now these Clydesdales are larger than Burns horses, and he ploughed around an acre a day with a much heavier wooden plough. The crowds turned out to enjoy the spectacle, the stalls and attractions in the adjacent field, ancient farm implements, historic tableau of various eras, stalls selling all manner of traditional goods and food. I enjoyed the porrige in the morning and the haggis for lunch, and generally had a great day. I spoke to a couple of the ploughmen who were thrilled to be trying their hand in front of the large crowd, and particularly on the same fields that Burns had ploughed. A great day for all participants and spectators. A magnificent anniversary occassion by Mauchline Burns Club. Look forward to more great events from in Mauchline.

Club Meetings

Outsiders might suspect that a Burns Club has not much to do in late March, but a couple of meetings I have atended this last week give a different impression.
On Friday I was at Denny. This is a monthly occassion for this very active Club and they gather to enjoy a bit of fellowship in the name of the Bard. An enjoyable evening as the chairman went round the company asking those assembled to take their turn entertaining. We had a variety of Burns and Scots numbers and the evening went off very well. Mid-way we had a few words from myself on the subject of how great it is to be President of the World, then took a break for a small refreshment of sandwiches and beautiful cakes, and resumed with songs and poems as before. I love being with these community clubs as they keep things together in the name of Burns.
On the Tuesday previously I had been with Perth Burns Club as they gathered for their last meetig before the AGM and close for the season. President Donald McGregor had laid on a special treat as he brought along a good friend, Jonny McCormick. a well known whisky writer to educate the membership into the finer points of malt whisky appreciation. Of course to educate the masses you must give them something to appreciate, and President Donald had laid on a generous welcoming dram of a nice wood finished Glenfiddich, before setting five glasses before each of the entire company for Jonny to guide us through the senses that were required to detect the featuring scents, tastes and characteristics of each glass. It seemed to me that Jonny's enthusiasm for the subject extended beyond the desire to teach, or perhaps by the time I got to the fourth glass my ability to learn had diminished, but I certainly enjoyed it all and look forward to the next lesson. Well done President Donald.

Monday, 23 March 2009

250th Specials.

A number of Clubs and area organisations of the Federation have had or are planning to have special events for this 250th anniversary year. On 25th January there were a number of such events, around the country, and indeed around the world. I wish I could have split myself into many parts to join with all the special events, reports from those I did not get to still come in and always the memories are of unique celebrations of this great time.
The Glasgow and District Association, on the 25th, held a special service in the Cathedral, to which they put out a wide invitation and many travelled to share with them on this occasion. This fitting tribute was embellished with entertainment of the highest order, including some of their Children's Competitions winning choirs, and all was greatly enjoyed by those attending, and was video-linked worldwide with reciprocal messages received. Following the Service the City Council hosted entertainment in George Square, attended by a huge swell of people from all over the city and beyond this was all greatly enjoyed and has been highly applauded.
My 25th January started with a Church service in Alloway, added to this year by the attendance and participation of the First Minister, Alex Salmond. Following this he and I both were at the Ayrshire Association wreath laying service at the Burns Statue in Ayr, and this year the number of wreaths swelled to around 50 despite the weather not being the kindest. After my lunch with The First Minister, hosted by South Ayrshire Council Provost Winnie Sloan, I went up to Irvine Burns Club where they unveiled a wonderful artwork in bronze, specially commissioned to mark this anniversary. An image of Burns at the plough is seen with a representation of William Wallace, very appropriate for the Irvine connection, and well done Irvine Burns Club. I could not stay for the programme of entertainment they had planned because I headed to Dumfries, just in time to catch the climax of the Burns Lights event which attracted around 20,000 participants and spectators to the centre of Dumfries. Then it was up to the Easterbrook Hall for the SSCBA special anniversary Gala Dinner. Drawing an audience from across the area to this wonderful event, the Immortal Memory was given by Presiding Officer Alex Ferguson, and Prof Ted Cowan gave the Toast to The Lasses with super songs and verse to compliment the evening.
On the Friday following I was in Aberdeen where Grampian Association really pushed the boat out with a fantastic dinner. It was held in the five star Marcliffe at Pitfoddels, and everything else was at least five stars too. There was a variety of pre-dinner entertainment, the dinner formally started with a full pipe band marching into the hall, there was a parade of Scottish historical figures in wonderful costume, and that was before the excellent dinner. The international audience all greatly enjoyed the spectacle of it all, with David Purdie's Immortal Memory shown on several screens, but even he was eclipsed by the entertainment, the best of Grampians youngsters, and top of the bill opera singer Tony Henry.
It is not only organised area groups who have held gala dinners, several clubs around Clackmannanshire got together earlier this month to mark the anniversary with a one of dinner, perhaps it is because they are single gender clubs that they thought it a good occasion to extend the franchise a little for this. Again the scale of the occasion was grand in all ways, with many invited guests, quality speakers and entertainment that included a fiddle orchestra and a pipe band.
At Club level many are putting just a little extra int0 a regular event to mark the 250th, Kinross Jolly Beggars included and extra toast into their dinner programme,Perth Burns Club normally have a club night in February and this year they engaged Kev Thomson with his one-man Burns 250 show and the night grew into a great occasion with many from outwith the Club joining to enjoy an evening of celebration. Kev's show is of course superb, I have seen it a couple of times, and he varies to suit the occasion so it is always entertaining. If you have not seen him take any chance you can get, or have your local group engage him for a great Burns250 night.
Many other Clubs are marking the year in their own way, from special medals and badges for members, to commemorative plaques and other ware, to special school prizes etc, This anniversary will long be remembered.