When I joined Irvine Burns Club back in January 1969, I never imagined that I would someday become President of that long-established local Burns Club, but it happened to me in 1989 when I followed my lawyer friend, Matthew Brown into the President’s Chair. If that elevation came as a surprise, then it was nothing compared to my reaction when some Past Presidents of the Robert Burns World Federation suggested that I should allow my name to go forward in September 2016 for election to the post of Junior Vice President, something that would lead to me becoming President two years later.
Such an outcome was never on my radar and, as Honorary Secretary of Irvine Burns Club, I was happy to continue to promote Robert Burns, his life and his work, and to make our Wellwood Burns Centre & Museum more accessible and user-friendly. Being invited to promote Burns on a national and international scale was a unique opportunity which I would have found it difficult to refuse but I was only able to accept that challenge because of the support that I knew I would receive from within the Federation from individual members, family members and member clubs, all given freely and honestly in the spirit of fellowship and friendship that is at its core.
Two individuals from Irvine Burns Club, namely Sam Gaw and John Inglis, had supported and educated me in Burns writings and lore since I first arrived a Wellwood and when it became known that I was standing for the post of Junior Vice President of The Federation, they were among the first to offer me their support and encouragement. Sadly, Sam passed on earlier this year before I had begun my journey in his footsteps as President of the RBWF but I was delighted that my other mentor, John Inglis, also a Past President, was able to join us with his wife, Margaret, in Irvine’s Townhouse on 8th September when I was given the highest recognition that the Federation can give to any member.
Each of us is different but I hope that I can serve the Federation in a way of which both Sam and John would approve and that I can repay them in some small way for the hours that they spent encouraging me to learn, respect and love this remarkable man called Robert Burns whose short stay in Irvine in 1781/82 changed his life forever. Both Sam and John, and others from within Irvine Burns Club and from within the Robert Burns World Federation, certainly changed my life and my appreciation of Scotland’s heritage and history, its songs and its music, and above all, it’s remarkable canon of Scottish literature in both verse and prose. It is a debt that I will probably never be able to repay fully.
I’m not often stuck for words but I came close on that September evening when Ian McIntyre, a magnificent ambassador for the Federation last year, installed me as his successor and the uniqueness of this honour finally sank in. Since then, I have been made welcome by so many people in so many different ways and, now a few weeks into my year of office, I am beginning to realise what Ian and other Past Presidents meant when they said that this year would pass very quickly.
My first official Presidential visit to a member club was on Sunday 23rd September to my good friends in The Dumfries Howff Club in The Globe Inn where Mary and I were completely enthralled at the talent and enthusiasm shown by three young Russian students from the City of St Petersburg and by two young Burnsians from the local community. The young Russian students were a revelation not only for their command of English but also for their knowledge of Scotland which would have put many Scots to shame. They spoke about their love of Scotland with real passion and it was clear that much of that initial impetus towards having an interest in our small country had been created through their exposure to, and later love for, the poetry of Robert Burns.
Their presence in Scotland was a clear demonstration to me of the importance of that third word in our official title as an organisation, namely “World” and we should never forget that while we are Scottish-based, we cannot afford to be inward looking in taking Burns to other parts of the world. To demonstrate the reality of that comment, only some 48 hours after leaving Dumfries, I was heading for Canada to re-join some of our friends from Calgary and Medicine Hat, most of whom I had met in Irvine for the first time during our Conference only a few weeks earlier.
In Calgary, I was looked after by Trekker Armstrong, whom I had meet previously in Peebles in 2017, and I can never thank him and his family enough for the courtesy and kindness with which I was treated in their home and throughout my stay. On my first evening in town, Jim Hope-Ross, a most inspiring gentleman and a great lover of Burns and his works, hosted a dinner at the legendary Ranchmen’s Club in Downtown Calgary where I was much impressed by the level of knowledge about Scotia’s Bard that was evident within the room. These individuals, all long-serving members of the Calgary Burns Club, were clearly inspired by what they had learned about Burns and his writings from the late Dr Bob Carnie, as a result of which the Calgary Burns Club has continued to encourage literary research and discovery at a higher level than that to which many could aspire. I was both honoured and privileged to be invited to attend a Carnie Group, so called in memory of Dr Bob, meeting to be held in Tony Grace‘s home on the afternoon prior to my return to Scotland … but more of that later.
Next day, by which time I had already experienced my first snowfall of the Albertan winter even though it was only 28th September, I headed for Medicine Hat along with Trekker but not before I had visited a huge statue of Robert Bruce (Yes, The Outlaw King himself!) in the centre of Calgary. The statue is a replica of that which graces the field of Bannockburn and was commissioned specially for Calgary with part of “Scots Wha’ Ha’e” proudly inscribed on its plinth courtesy of Calgary Burns Club. How a statue of Bruce ended up in Calgary is in itself a long and fascinating story.
Medicine Hat and Calgary aren’t that far apart, not by Canadian standards, but far enough to have had us travelling on one of the most featureless and flattest highways that I’ve ever been on for close to four hours. Ken Montgomerie, now President of RBANA, and his wife, Brenda, were my hosts in Medicine Hat where I survived Ken’s now legendary Welcome Ceilidh held in the cellar of his home. This unique venue contained not only a very well-stocked bar but also held an astonishing collection of personal memorabilia relating to Burns, Scotland, the Montgomery Clan, the RCMP, the Armed Forces and, of course, the Medicine Hat Burns Club. Next day, after an interesting tour of Medicine Hat, including a pit stop for lunch at a local brewery, I was presented with my own balmoral hat - the Medicine Hat Burns Club’s trademark - and became Chieftain of the 10th Jolly Beggars’ Banquet, an honour conferred on all recent RBWF Presidents who have attended this unique event. I have no doubt that Burns himself would have enjoyed The Jolly Beggars’ Banquet and that surely has to be the only criterion for any Burns Night being a success. Even Possie Nancy was there along with three mini-kilted whisky waitresses!! At the dinner, I delivered a short 15 minutes’ Immortal Memory to an audience of only 37 people (all men!), a number not unfamiliar to Burnsians as being the life-span of Burns. I was impressed that Ken and his team had sourced Isle of Arran miniatures from a local supplier to recognise Arran Distillers’ role within the RBWF commercial structure. In all, it was a night of fun, stories, poems, songs and friendship and one that will probably live with me for the rest of my life.
My only regret was that Henry Cairney, originally from Irvine, was unable to travel from Calgary to be there on the night as I was really looking forward to seeing him again. Unfortunately, he was laid up in bed and we never met up during my stay in his adopted home town – so we’ll have to make up for it in Niagara Falls early next May when RBANA holds its Annual Conference there.
Next day, Sunday, it was back to Calgary with Trekker by road for some much-needed rest. The early snow returned during the night but fortunately had disappeared by the afternoon when I headed Downtown again with Trekker to meet up with the Calgary Burns Club’s Carney Group for some serious discussion on Burns and his poems, songs and letters. To provide some ideas of how seriously they take Burns in Calgary, you should visit their club website: www.calgaryburnsclub.com/bob-carnie-group.html There you will find a wide range of papers covering not only Burns and related interests of those times but also thoughtful papers on other Scottish writers and their work, including Sir Walter Scott, Robert Tannahill, James Boswell, James Macpherson and Thomas Carlyle. The afternoon that I spent with the Carney Group in Calgary certainly gave me a lot of food for thought.
That same evening, my last in Canada in 2018, was interrupted by what I saw as a blizzard but about which the locals simply shrugged their shoulders! However, it did curtail my reception and meeting with other members of The Calgary Burns Club in The Danish Club in Downtown Calgary but not before I had spoken to everyone present. In response to a question, I assured them that RBWF would become increasingly active in promoting itself as a globally-focussed company which, like Burns, would embrace the entire world. I probably shouldn’t mention it but, like many others since then, the women of Calgary were gob-smacked by the beauty of the Presidential Medal and Chain if not by the President! On the other hand, Security at Glasgow, Toronto, and Calgary Airports largely ignored the Chain even when it was mentioned to them and it never even raised an eyebrow among the x-ray screening teams.
The home word journey back to Trekker’s was accompanied by really heavy snow and plummeting temperatures. The latter fell as low as -6C while the snow was lying in places to a depth of 9” to 10”. Next morning, it took us over an hour to drive 15 miles to Calgary International Airport where “Airport Temporarily Closed” signs were to be seen everything. Eventually, it re-opened, all departing aircraft were duly de-iced including us, and we took off for Toronto where the local temperature was 17C.
On the evening of the day on which I returned (Thursday I think!) I was back in Wellwood Burns Centre to say a huge “Thank You” to Irvine Lasses at their Inter-Club Night for the astonishing support and hands-on assistance they had provided before and throughout the Annual Conference. They deserved our heartfelt Thanks as does the team from Irvine Burns Club for a fantastic Conference.
What had been an eventful period was rounded off by several visits to John Dickie Street to finalise arrangements for the Special General Meeting in Irvine on Saturday 6th October at which Lesley McDonald was elected Schools Convener. Many thanks to the members who turned out to ensure that the meeting which had a Single-Item Agenda was duly quorate and its legality was not challenged.
At the end of the SGM, I had the sad duty to offer my personal condolences and those of the RBWF to Enez Anderson on the passing of her husband George on 24th September. George Anderson had been a true stalwart and Past President of the Glasgow and District Association and a Past President and Honorary President of the Robert Burns World Federation over many years. He was a dedicated Burnsian as were many others who paid their respects on Saturday 13th October at St Oswald’s Scottish Episcopal Church and later at Linn Crematorium. George Anderson certainly epitomised Burns’ “social, friendly honest man” from within his Second Epistle to John Lapraik. It was a real privilege to have known George, and Enez remains very much in our thoughts.
31 October 2018