Monday, 28 September 2009

Tam O'Shanter Competition and Ellisland Ploughing Competition

One of the highlights of the President’s year is the Tam O’Shanter Competition, held in the Globe Inn (see right), the poet’s favourite Howff, and organised by the Dumfries Ladies Burns Club No1.

This year’s competition was no exception and I had the honour and pleasure of being one of the judges alongside Willie Horne, last year’s worthy winner, and Isa Hanley, the Federation’s Schools Convenor. We had six excellent and very different recitations which made judging a real challenge. However, Margaret Cook, from Irvine Lassies Burns Club, was chosen as the worthy winner. She is seen below, proudly clutching her trophy, alongside the other competitors, judges, and President of Dumfries Ladies Burns Club No1 Shona Shaw.
How appropriate that my next event following the Tam O’Shanter competition should be held at Ellisland Farm where Burns had written his masterpiece. And what an event it turned out to be! Much to the envy of all my male colleagues I was privileged to spend a whole day as escort to Joanna Lumley at the Homecoming Ploughing Match organised by the Friends of Ellisland Farm.

She was an absolute joy and threw herself wholeheartedly into the event, ploughing with tractors and with horses, signing autographs, posing for photographs, conversing with the competitors and public with her easy charm and showing a genuine interest in all that was going on. Her husband, internationally renowned composer and classical musician, Stephen Barlow, also played a full part chatting freely to everyone he met.

Before opening the event she received a surprise visit from a Nepalise family from Moffat who wanted to show their appreciation of her campaign to support the Ghurkas by presenting her with a bouquet of flowers. Most interestingly, the father, Dawa Sherpa, is the gardener at Craigieburn House, an area closely associated with the lovely Burns’ song Craigieburnwood written for Jean Lorimer.

Joanna opens the Homecoming Ploughing Match Surprise visit by Dawa Sherpa and his family

A full programme of entertainment was skilfully compeered by Robert Burns himself (AKA William Williamson) and included a supremely talented group of young Burnsians from Sanquhar who performed a selection of poems and songs from Burns and other poets. Joanna was particularly taken with Heather McCafferty’s expert rendition of ‘The Rights of Women’ and was pleasantly surprised to learn of Burns’ radical thinking on the issue.

'Robert Burns' explains the workings of Ellisland Farm

We both had the chance to plough a furrow with a pair of horses, the first time for us both, and quite a challenge, especially with the swing plough, but very fulfilling. As the owner of a shire horse herself, Joanna took a deep interest in the Clydesdales and the ploughing equipment. She clearly understood the enormous influence on his poems and songs which the unmediated closeness with the earth afforded Burns during his ploughing. I certainly began to appreciate how Burns might have developed a slight stoop.

During the day I had the pleasure of announcing the opening the new ‘Jean Armour’ path. Generously funded by the Glasgow Masonic Burns Club and the Rotary Club of Dumfries, the path was laid by the Friends of Ellisland and offers a new route from the farm down to the banks of the River Nith. All in all this was a fantastic day, blessed with good weather but I am only too aware it could only come about by the sheer hard work of lots of dedicated volunteers. My thanks go to Ronnie Cairns as chairman of the Friends of Ellisland and especially by Tom Johnstone who mastermined the event and ran it with calm determination and good humour.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Friday, 18 September 2009
Federation 'Homecoming' Conference Edinburgh

What a dream start to my year as President with a most memorable Annual Conference in the capital city. Now, almost two weeks after the event, I am only just surfacing from that dream. The weekend started in the sumptious surroundings of the National Gallery with a reception generously provided by the Scottish Government. My last duty as Senior Vice President was to propose a vote of thanks and I had the opportunity of meeting the First Minister Alex Salmond who had earlier given a rousing speech, rightly highlighting the outstanding success of the Homecoming initiative, with its special focus on the 250th birthday of our National Poet, extolling the virtues of the Robert Burns World Federation and challenging us to redouble our efforts to promote a greater understanding of the Bard's life and works. Master of ceremonies, Hardeep Singh Kohli, kept the evening's entertainment at high tempo and we were treated to acts of the highest calibre from singer Charlotte McKechnie, poet Rab Wilson, musical group Sgiobalta and the three wonderful Scottish tenors, Caledon.

Following the Annual General Meeting, at which Jim Shields was elected as the Junior Vice President, the delegates were treated to four outstanding lectures from Professor Ian Campbell, Dr Kirsteen McCue, Dr Gerry Carruthers and Professor David Purdie, each addressing an interesting aspect of the life and works of the poet. Clearly the highlight for me was the investiture dinner in the 'Thistle Suite' at Murrayfield Stadium. As I have already said in my first blog, it was a huge honour to assume the office of President of the Robert Burns World Federation. It was also a great honour to have as our guest speaker Mike Russell, MSP, Minister for Culture, External Affairs and the Constitution, who gave an inspiring speech which demonstrated both his deep knowledge of, and admiration for, Robert Burns. As someone who had benefitted from studying for an honours degree in Scottish Studies at the Glasgow University Crichton Campus in Dumfries, I was delighted to be able to offer my personal thanks to him for his tireless efforts in helping to establish the campus in the first place but also for supporting the decision to save the campus from threatened closure in 2007.

I am particularly pleased to have such fine deputies in David Baird and Jim Shields. See the trio above, having clearly enjoyed our wine with dinner or maybe it was the effects of superb drinks reception hosted by official sponsors of the Federation, Isle of Arran Distillers, earlier in the evening.

Sunday's Morning Service was held at Canongate Kirk, The Kirk of Holyroodhouse and Edinburgh Castle and will long be remembered by those attending. Superbly conducted by the Reverend Neil Gardner MA, BD and with a suffusion of Burns music, including a beautiful solo of Ca the Yowes by Nicola Wood, the service was hugely uplifting. Dr Donald Smith, Director of the Scottsh Storytelling Centre, delivered an inspiring address in which he masterfully dispelled many of the myths surrounding Burns' religious beliefs. Burns again took centre stage when Mike Russell, MSP, unveiled a bust of the poet (see above), created specifically to mark the 250th anniversary of the birth of Burns by international sculptor David Cornell and generously donated to the Federation. Also on display was the 'Tam O'Shanter' chair, acquired by George IV in 1822 during his visit to Scotland, and sent to Holyroodhouse by Edward VII in 1901. It came to Canongate Kirk specially for the Federation Service by gracious permission of HM The Queen.

As a most fitting finale to the weekend a large group gathered on the Carlton Hill to witness the re-dedication of the Robert Burns Monument. Following a long campaign, led initially by Tom McIlwraith and continued with unwavering dedication by Ralph Balfour after Tom's death, the monument has been beautifully restored in a collaborative project between the City of Edinburgh Council and Edinburgh World Heritage. The re-dedication ceremony was ably led by Jim Shields in his capacity as President of the Edinburgh and District Association of Burns Clubs and will be forever treasured for the 'roof raising' rendition of A Man's a Man for A' That. Luckily, a reporter from BBC Radio Four, there to record an interview with me as part of a series looking back at the 'Year of Homecoming,' arrived in time to record the singing, so hopefully it will feature when the programme goes out in late November around the St Andrews Night period.

Overall this was a memorable Federation Conference, a fitting tribute to the late Harry McGuffog who, as conference committee chairman, had set up the overall plans for the weekend. My sincere thanks go to his widow May who, along with other members of the conference committee, ensured all the arrangements worked seamlessly. This was especially true of the slick operation involved in getting all the delegates bussed to and from the venues, done with humour and efficiency by John Caskie and his team of 'bus stewards'. I also want to recognise the generous contribution made towards the cost of transport by Floridian, Frank Campbell, currently President of the Robert Burns Association North America (RBANA). Finally, I am indebted to Chief Executive Shirley Bell and Office Administrator Margaret Craig who spend weeks before the conference working hard to ensure the important business and social aspects are properly addressed.

Monday, 14 September 2009

President's First Blog

The first sentence in James MacKay’s book The Burns Federation 1885 to 1985 reads: “a chance remark in a London park a hundred years ago led to the formation of a body which today ranks as the oldest national literary association in Scotland.” Little did I think when I regularly took my lunch in that same park near Embankment Station in the early nineties that I would become the President of that association, now known as the Robert Burns World Federation. However, last weekend during a marvellous annual conference in Edinburgh to mark the 250th anniversary of the poet’s birth, I had the honour of doing just that. And what a singular honour it was to don the chain of office bearing the names of so many distinguished predecessors who have kept alive and promoted the spirit of Burns which clubs and individuals, throughout the world, hold so dear.
I am delighted to be taking over at such an exciting period in the Federation’s history. There has been a huge stimulation of interest in the life and works of Burns generated by the Scottish Government’s Year of Homecoming, to which my immediate predecessor, Bill Dawson, has given his full and enthusiastic commitment. We must capitalise on the platform which the Homecoming has given us and use it as a springboard to launch new initiatives and also to build on events which have already proved successful. In particular, we need to find new ways of communicating with a younger audience so that they become enthused about Robert Burns beyond their initial contact through the Schools Competition. I have been delighted to note the drive towards closer ties between academics and what I would call ‘ordinary Burnsians’ for want of a better description. Each can aid the other in the study of the Burns story and so enrich our understanding of the multi-facetted poet who continues to fascinate us all. Finally, we need to work hard to remain relevant as a ‘worldwide’ Federation by strengthening our existing overseas links and forging new partnerships to broaden our appeal.
Thanks largely to the outstanding work done by the Chief Executive, Shirley Bell, over the last twelve years, the Federation is now on a sound financial footing and is recognised as the pre-eminent focal point of contact for all matters relating to the life and works of our national Bard. As she leaves on well-deserved retirement I look forward immensely to working with her replacement, Sam Judge, as he continues to build on that legacy. I am blessed with a very committed and capable board of directors, ably supported by Margaret Craig, now entering her twenty first year of administration work for the Federation. I have been overwhelmed by the generosity and kindness of members and offer a sincere thank you for all the messages of good wishes and congratulations. I will do all in my power to promote the works of the Federation and look forward to seeing as many of you as possible during the year. If I can help you in any way in my capacity as President please let me know. I wish you all the very best in your endeavors in celebrating and promoting the life and works of Robert Burns.