The Making of the Supper

Article in the Konect Directory, December 2010/January 2011

Karen Murray found out a little of the history of the Burns Clubs of Balerno as well as those who established them and attend them today. 

Scotland’s national poet, Robbie Burns, is treasured and revered by most Scots, his life and work being celebrated the world over, most notably of course on or around the anniversary of his birth - 25 January - when Burns’ Suppers are held globally.

A typical Marchbank Burns Supper

A typical Marchbank Burns Supper 

Informal suppers are held in many a household with the partaking of traditional haggis, nips of whisky and recitals of the poets’ work along with making merry. I have certainly hosted and attended many a lively evening of celebration. 

However, there are much more formal suppers held and these are eagerly anticipated by the true admirer of Burns who will have spent time on a waiting list to get into the official Burns’ Club of his choice. These exist all over Scotland with Balerno being in the fortunate position of having not one but four Burns Clubs. 

I was given an overview of the clubs by a real Burns aficionado who has somehow managed to become a member of all four - one Jack McCaig.

The original of the four is the Balerno Burns Club, established in 1881 and affectionately entitled ‘Let it Blaw’, due to the weather conditions at the time of its founding - a snowy January afternoon when a few of the village ‘worthies’ were enjoying a glass at Henderson’s Inn, now the Grey Horse.

Mr James Pearson a joiner from Ravelrig, Mr James Fairbairn, a joiner from Balerno, Mr George Henderson a coal merchant from Balerno and Mr William Garlick, manager of the Hannahfield Quarries were the men in question. They were discussing the Bard and how to celebrate his birthday, when they were joined by Mr James Wales, a butcher from Currie. He was having the same thoughts and further discussion led to the forming of the Balerno Burns Club, the first celebration supper being held on 25 January 1881 with the attendance of 23 gentlemen.

Membership grew and suppers have been held every year since with the exception of the war years. There are now around 100 members and each year they sing ‘The Balerno Song’ - a ‘bothy ballad’ first sung on that inaugural supper.

Mr McCaig had been an admirer of Burns for many years and all through the fifties had been trying to get into the club to no avail. At this time you could only get a drink on a Sunday in Scotland if you were a bonafide traveller. That meant hotels were the place to get a drink and on one such Sunday Jack discovered that someone had got into the club ahead of him. The premise of the club is that there are no hierarchies; everyone is a ‘cronie’ and no one is treated differently to anyone else. 

Jack was not happy and decided he would simply found an alternative Burns Club. Hence the formation of Balerno’s second club - the Marchbank Burns Club. It was 1959, the bicentenary of the Bard’s birth, so it seemed fitting to hold their first supper then and legend has it, it was so good that everyone wanted to be a member of the new club!

The founder members were Jack McCaig along with Bill Ramsay (aka Loppy), Tommy Napier and Archie Dickson, the landlord of The Marchbank where the Suppers would be held. Members were mainly locals but Archie had many friends who came from all over to the supper - ‘frae a’ the airts’ - so that song became the song to kick off the suppers every year. They soon became three suppers to attend.

Sadly Jack is the only remaining founder member of the Marchbank Club but the club goes on as strong as ever and Jack remains as enthusiastic as ever. 

The suppers were and still are formal affairs with a programme drawn up and adhered to but the evenings always include much hilarity. ‘Loppy’ took to dressing up as the ‘Kinleith Ghost’ and hanging around outside the hotel while the piper would walk off into the distance playing so the sound got fainter and more ghost like. Several poor folk were somewhat terrified if they ever came across this scenario unexpectedly.

William Ramsay plays the ghost of Kinleith

 William Ramsay plays the ghost of Kinleith

Both Let it Blaw and the Marchbank are men-only clubs but there are others that allow women, including the other two Balerno Burns Clubs, run by the SNP and Folk Club respectively. 

Considering his total admiration of Burns it is probably not surprising that Jack has ended up as a member of all the clubs. He is not alone however, as there are a number of men who belong to at least the two main clubs.

Rivalries between the clubs eventually subsided and harmony now reigns with the Suppers arranged not to clash each year.

As well as the actual Suppers and the meetings held to organise them, the clubs hold other events throughout the year, not least the very important post mortems. In the case of Let it Blaw, the get-together is called ‘the picking of the baines’, while the Marchbank call theirs ‘the hash’. 

The other important aspect of the Clubs is to encourage the younger generation to enjoy and appreciate the Bard. The Balerno Burns Club runs a school competition to this end - a tradition that reaches way back to the beginning. The first prizes were given by the club to the children of Balerno School in 1893 but the competitions became more regular under the guidance of Fred Belford, the headmaster from 1922 to 1932 who was himself a club member. Mr Belford was in fact made the first ever Honorary Life President of the Burns Federation in 1978. 

The schools competitions have continued at Dean Park Primary School with both the Marchbank Club and the Balerno Burns Club sponsoring the prizes and judging the various competitions.

The clubs are thriving but the current members are keen to get young blood involved to ensure the traditions continue. Preparations are now in swing for the 2011 Suppers, which will take place over a three week period around 25 January. It would be good time to brush up on your Burns, get on the waiting list and maybe you’ll be a fully fledged ‘cronie’ by 2012.

On the back stairs at The Kestrel - members of The Marchbank Club. Top to bottom - Alec Hood, James (Jimmy) Johnston and Jack McCaig.

© Lothian Publications Ltd