Robert Burns Centenary Festival

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The Robert Burns Centenary Festival was celebrated in Ballarat on 26 January 1859.

Details[edit | edit source]

A celebration dinner was held at the John o'Groat Hotel in Main Road, Ballarat East.

About fifty Scottish and other gentlemen, admirers of the "inspired ploughman," whose hundredth birthday was thus being worthily kept, sat down at eight, p.m. last (Tuesday) evening to a well arranged and handsomely got-up dinner provided by hosts Roy and McIvor at the John o'Groat Hotel, Main road. Nothing could have exceeded the comfort of the occasion for every seat at the tables, which occupied the entire length of the long room, was occupied. Immediately over the chair the arms of Scotland stood prominent, in which were the standards of St. Andrew's Cross and the lion of Scotland, with the ever memorable motto of Nemo me impune la-cessit.

The chair was occupied by A. W. Semple Esq., at whose right hand sat Messrs M. P. Muir, and J. McIvor, and at whose left sat Messrs Graham (of Chalmers, Graham, & Co.] and Mr W. B. Boyd (of the Tannery Hotel). Mr Hugh Gray occupied the place of Vice-President. The table was laid in Scotch fashion, and sheep's head kail, haggis and whisky, with other dainty edibles, successively shared the attention of the guests, and now and then Mr Rowan gave the company a little welcome Scotch pipe music The meal passed off with great success. At its conclusion, The Chairman commenced the "business" of the evening by giving the toast of the "Queen," which was drank with the honors befitting the occasion.
The Chairman then gave the health of "Prince Albert and the Royal Family." He did not-think their training had been any the worse from their acquaintance with the hills of Scotland in their Scottish home. It was drank with the customary honors.

The Chairman then gave the health of his Excellency the Governor, Sir Henry Barkly, who had, besides other merits, that of being a Scotchman. It would not be set against him that at that moment Sir Henry was in all probability proposing the health of "Scotland" in Melbourne. The company sang, "For he's a jolly good fellow" heartily.

Donald Bowan here piped the familiar air of " A man's a man for a' that." The Chairman, then rose to give the last of the evening. He said he 'was sure the company all knew the occasion of the present meeting, viz., to do honor to the Poet Burns. It was impossible for him to place the life of Burns in a fresh phase, or throw new light over his career. They were met to celebrate the memory of a man who was born in Scotland 100 years ago, but whose extraordinary faculties of mind were only now beginning to be fairly and properly appreciated. Of all the poets of Greece and Borne, not one had been so much honored as the hero of the present occasion. They had heard of a girdle round the earth, but Burns' songs had formed a chain of sympathy so strong that all round the world a similar festival to the present was being celebrated. The speaker deferred to a writer in the Geelong Daily News, who reckoned that the festival began three hours since in New Zealand, and would conclude at 8 a-m. the next morning at New York. This he considered the most extraordinary specimen of enthusiasm for a dead poet ever heard of. The privilege of holding a centenary festival was one very rarely enjoyed, and fell only to the lot of a few, who would transmit their memories future generations. Future festivals, would, he was sure, only tell of fresh appreciations and newly found admiration tor the poet Burns. It was hardly his place to enter into any exoráium on the genius of Burn?, as so many other men had exhausted eulogy, but it was just possible to profitably refer to Burns' life. He then reminded the company of a similar assembly taking place on Ballarat a year ago, when some of the speakers took the liberty of speaking of the great poet in terms of apology. If those speakers did not think the good in Burns life transcended the evil they had no business to be present. Were every man's character stripped as bare as Burns' had been, how many would stand the scrutiny as well? Would there be five? or one ? If all one's little thoughts and feelings were so completely exposed, was there any one present who could bear the operation as poor Burns did. Burns' extraordinary grasp of mind and sympathy with the better part of human nature, made him full ready to join convivial parties,but when it was recollected that most of his convivialities took place while he was receiving £7 10s. per annum as wages, they could not have been carried to such a great extent. This was a sufficient answer to the sneers of those who tried to exhaust their bad nature upon an ill-deserving subject. He thought, however, he had said enough upon this topic. What we most admired Burns for, was the association of his poems with the most beautiful of Scottish airs, which he had married to words that would hand his name down to immortality. He had picked up airs he had heard sung by Scotch maids or the laborer at the plough, united to ribald words, and then, (with his own words) given them a world-wide fame. Burns had collected these in a volume comprising about 80 songs, and they formed a repertoire, which he believed was not to be equalled in any country. The speaker then proceeded to describe the origin of the Burns' Centenary Festival, which had been initiated in Scotland some 7 months ago, when a festival at Alloway had been planned, and now within a short time it would be celebrated equally in Edinburgh, Glasgow, London and Dublin, as well as in Alloway; and in Sydney, Melbourne and Ballarat. In Melbourne he could say provision has been made in the Exhibition Building for 600 gentlemen and 400 ladies, and the enthusiasm was so great that sufficient tickets could not be issued. In Geelong, though some slight misunderstanding had arisen with the High land Society, the birthday was being celebrated with due honors. At Bendigo, Castlemaine, Tarrengower, Heathcote, in fact every place with a newspaper similar festivals were being celebrated. He would not wish to have seen the room more crowded than it was now, and if another festival was being held it rather increased their enjoyment than lessened it. (Cheers.) He would say no more but call upon them in silence to drink to the memory of a man who, 100 years ago, had commenced his career, but who only now was being recognised in his true character. Burns' genius was an extraordinary one, for it took common materials, and from them wove beautiful descriptions, the admiration of which formed a common link among Scotchmen wherever situated. To Burns was due the praise-shared in some slight degree by Sir Walter Scott-of attaching an interest to Scotch scenes and Scotch views, possessed by no other nation or country. After a few more words the chair man called upon the meeting to drink to the memory of Robert Burns. (Applause.)

The memory of Burns was then drank with due honors. Song-" There was a lad was born in Kyle,"Mr M'Indoe. Encore song -" We're a' met the'gether owre a wee drappie o't." Mr Hugh Gray (the Vice President) then gave the health of "Scotland" in a speech of great humor dashed with appropriate sentiment. He remarked that Scotland could not number such glorious names in the present day as in time past, but he would look to the future hopefully. There was no country in the world which could produce such a tremendous number of great names, who formed a sort of permanent milky way in history. He knew of no country at all like Scotland in her prolific production of great men, such as Buchanan, Allison, James Watt, Or Black, Dugald Stewart, and others. As for poets, their name was legion, and to mention any would be invidious, so excellent were they all. He would ask where Byron got his inspiration if not from Scotland? and among fighting men few could compare with those who had left their Scottish home with a spirit like that which filled Scotland's great son, Sir, John Moore. After alluding to the ubiquity of Scotchmen, the speaker concluded amid loud cheers. ... [1]

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Ballarat Star, 26 January 1859.