Ian McMaster has a twinkle in his eye as I confess I had no idea.
“Most people don’t,” he assures me.
“It’s the second most sung song in the world after Happy Birthday and it can be traced back to wee Robbie Burns, quite an achievement!”
The former president of Sheffield Caledonian Society leans in a little closer, as he adds: “Actually he didn’t exactly write it. The tale goes that he heard an old man singing it, so he extended it and jotted it down. Now every New Year’s Eve, people all over the world join hands to sing it.”
And the reach of the iconic 18th century poet’s work doesn’t end there; it is claimed that Michael Jackson’s hit Thriller was inspired by Burns’ Tam O’Shanter poem, that artist Bob Dylan considers Burns’ poetry his greatest creative inspiration and that John Steinbeck took the title of his 1937 novel ‘Of Mice and Men’ from Burns’ poem ‘To a Mouse.’ One of Burns’ books of poetry has orbited the earth 217 times in the backpack of astronaut Nick Patrick and the Scot was the first ever person to feature on a commemorative bottle of Coca Cola. His fans included US president Abraham Lincoln, who could recite his works by heart, and designer Tommy Hilfiger, who claims to be his great, great, great-nephew.
Today, on the 257th anniversary of his birthday, millions of people all over the world will holds ‘Burns Suppers,’ where they raise a ‘wee dram’ of whiskey to the man voted ‘The Greatest Scot’ of all time. Among them are the 150 members of Sheffield’s Caledonian Society, which was established in 1822.
“Burns Suppers are all about ceremony and tradition,” smiles current president Ann Macaskill, who joined the society in 1994.
“We’ve been holding these suppers in the city for nearly 200 years, and they’ve changed very little in that time.”
As she speaks, Ann produces programmes from two of the society’s Burns Suppers - one for this year and one from 1947. The running orders are almost identical, each including all the expected highlights - the ‘Piping of the Haggis,’ the toast to ‘the immortal memory’ and, of course, ‘the toast to the lassies.’
“Burns Suppers all over the world follow virtually that same programme,” explains Ian, who has been a member of the society since 1980.
“The haggis is the crowning glory of the supper, so it is always piped in to an upstanding audience and, following a reading of Burns’ ‘Address to a Haggis,’ a dagger is plunged ceremonially into it. ‘The immmortal memory’ toast is the keynote speech, where someone who is a great authority on Burns will speak about his life and his work, before a ‘toast to the lassies’ as, year ago, women would have done all the preparation, and it’s a tradition that has remained.”
One perfect example of the changing times is that this year, for the first time, all of the speeches and toasts at Sheffield Caledonian Society’s Burns Supper - held at Sheffield Hallam University - will be given by women.
“Burns would have loved that, he loved women,” laughs Sue Cameron, who joined the society in 2002.
“We have a female president so we think it’s great that, this year, we happen to have an all-female cast.
And according to Sue, that’s not the only sign that the society is rolling with the times.
“We always send and receive Fraternal Greetings for Burns Night with other Caledonian Societies all over the world - in Australia, America and Canada - but this year 20 of them arrived via email!”
Ian explains that Sheffield has always had strong ties to Burns, going back to his death in 1796 when a group of Scots in the city sent his widow gifts of two Sheffield steel candlesticks and a snuffer.
“In the years since, the face of the society has changed,” says Ian,
“We’ve gone from an all male membership of 1000, just after WWII, to today’s 150-strong male/female population. It is also no longer necessary to be Scottish to become a member. We opened it up years ago to include anyone with an appreciation for Scotland and the work of Robert Burns.”
And Ian, Ann and Sue - all true authorities on the subject - have plenty of advice for people who fancy celebrating their own Burns Night at home this evening.
“You need haggis, mashed tatties and turnip for a Burns Supper,” says Ann.
“Luckily you can buy haggis from Waitrose now; they sell it by the slice and you can heat it under the grill - they even have vegetarian haggis.
“No gravy is allowed, though tradition says you can moisten the meal with a few drops of whiskey if you like.”
And while you may not have a set of bagpipes handy, Ian says a track of Scottish music will do nicely as you welcome the Haggis in from the kitchen.
“After someone addresses the Haggis, and the Selkirk Grace has been said, everyone must be upstanding for a toast which is always done in silence and without clinking,” he says.
“I’m not sure why, but that’s the way it has always been.”
Sue adds: “You could finish your evening off then with a reading of some of Burns poetry.
“And whatever you do - make sure to throw a little tartan into the mix.”
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