Burns Night is on its way to eclipse Hogmanay as a Scottish cultural celebration – Brian Ferguson

It has been an odd experience seeing memories of last year's Celtic Connections festival appear on social media feeds at the same time as articles marking the first anniversary of Scotland going on alert for a global pandemic.
Poet Kevin Williamson performing at Robert Burns' birthplace in Alloway, in Ayrshire (Picture: National Trust for Scotland)Poet Kevin Williamson performing at Robert Burns' birthplace in Alloway, in Ayrshire (Picture: National Trust for Scotland)
Poet Kevin Williamson performing at Robert Burns' birthplace in Alloway, in Ayrshire (Picture: National Trust for Scotland)

I doubt I paid much attention to a news release from the Scottish government on 24 January 2020 declaring that the first coronavirus tests carried had come back negative and that “the risk to the public remains low”.

Looking back at my diary, I was probably in Glasgow, enjoying its annual music festivals along with tens of thousands of others.

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I can’t imagine there was anyone at the event, probably the single most important in the calendar for its showcasing of authentic culture, who could possibly have imagined how much things would have changed within 12 months.

There is little doubt that the pandemic has been disastrous for the vast majority of those involved in live events and entertainment in Scotland.

The prospect of audiences and performers being reunited in any meaningful way, in the venues that both have known and loved, still seems way over the horizon.

Yet, despite a backdrop of huge uncertainty about when live events will be allowed to resume, recent days have seen an explosion of Scottish culture unfold.

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I wrote this time last year on a growing sense of momentum behind the staging of new festivals inspired by, and deliberately timed to coincide with, Burns Night.

The whole idea of a Burns-themed celebration had already been regularly reinvented by Celtic Connections.

The Big Burns Supper, in Dumfries, and a more recent arrival in Edinburgh, Burns and Beyond, have deliberately aimed high in terms of the quality of their programming and the level of artist invited to take part, helped with Scottish government funding.

But the events of the last year meant that it was inevitable Burns Night would have to celebrated in a different way this year

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The three aforementioned events certainly pulled out all the stops to ensure they had a strong online presence this year, with KT Tunstall, Ricky Ross, Karen Matheson, Eddi Reader, Janey Godley, Donovan and Dougie MacLean among those appearing.

But the opportunities offered by the online world also inspired new virtual events from the National Trust for Scotland, which deployed Robert Burns’ own birthplace in Ayrshire for its celebration, haggis maker Macsween, which staged its own global Burns Supper online, and this very newspaper, which had none other than Outlander star Sam Heughan as a special guest.

However the thing that really struck me by the time Monday night came around was how much enthusiasm there was for people to create their own performances of music, song and poetry at home, as well as share photographs of their own festivities.

Now, much of this could have been down to the fact that everyone is pretty much grounded by the current restrictions and looking for new ways to entertain and be entertained.

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But my strong hunch is that the Burns Night is fast becoming the biggest single event of the year to showcase the best of Scottish culture and creativity.

It may well be that the legacy of the creator of Auld Lang Syne is to inspire an occasion that has become even more meaningful to Scots than Hogmanay.

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