Tartan-tailored tradition

With Robbie Burns Day just around the corner, there’s no better time for Queen’s to embrace its Scottish heritage

Born in Alloway, Scotland in 1759, Burns was a self-educated poet and lyricist. He enchanted Scots and others alike with his raw, passionate poetry.
Born in Alloway, Scotland in 1759, Burns was a self-educated poet and lyricist. He enchanted Scots and others alike with his raw, passionate poetry.
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Tartan and tams are only the beginning — Queen’s has plenty of reasons to celebrate Robbie Burns Day.

Jan. 25 marks the 255th annual celebration of the birthday of Scotland’s national poet and lyricist, Robert Burns, whose words remain revered across the globe.

Beloved by the Scots as ‘the people’s poet’, Burns wrote during the latter half of the 18th century. Many of his poems and songs are still recited today, the most famous of which, “Auld Lang Syne”, helps ring in each New Year in the Western world.

While Burns’ work is universal, those of Scottish heritage have been known to accompany his words with whiskey on the anniversary of his birth.

Queen’s, with its tricolour tams and tartan-kilted pipe band, is no stranger to its Scottish roots.

“You can’t go far at Queen’s without encountering a Scottish tradition,” said Duncan McDowall, the University’s historian.

Indeed, the energy of Scottish highland culture lives on here. The Gaels’ football team often plays surrounded by students chanting in Gaelic, Queen’s Bands parades proudly in tartan kilts, and every first-year student is given a tam with a tricolour rim.

According to McDowall, however, there’s irony attached to these unique traditions. The practices mentioned above are those of Highland Scots — traditionally those of Catholic origin — while Queen’s was founded by Lowland Scots, who were Presbyterians who typically spoke English.

Although Highland traditions have been a means of asserting Scottish identity at Queen’s, they haven’t been entirely true to the Lowland values on which the University was founded.

Still, Presbyterian values have made an impact at Queen’s throughout its existence. Founded as a Presbyterian college in 1841, Queen’s differentiated itself from Ontario’s Anglican universities.

“The Presbyterian religion has a very strong emphasis on doing good on earth,” McDowall said. “The kind of values that seeped into Queen’s from that Presbyterianism were such things as doing service to the society beyond the University.”

A devotion to the Protestant religion wasn’t a necessary condition of thriving at Queen’s, however.

“This wasn’t really a religious thing; it was this notion of social service,” McDowall said. “There’s this element of a Queen’s education that extends beyond the classroom, and your exams.”

In 1912, Queen’s Presbyterianism diluted when the Ontario government mandated secularism as a condition of state funding for universities. While Queen’s became a secular institution, many of the Presbyterian traditions continued.

Some, like its commitment to community service, persist today, while others such as Gaelic speaking competitions, faded away as Canadian society evolved.

McDowall referenced sociologist Benedict Anderson’s theory of “imagined communities” when describing how Scottish identity remains a unifying factor at Queen’s.

“A successful community is one that develops these rituals and badges of community that people can buy into, without making them feel excluded,” McDowall said.

He noted, however, the risk of loud cultural traditions in a country as diverse as Canada.

“Sometimes you can project those rituals and it makes people who are certainly not Scottish — maybe new Canadians, maybe Catholic Canadians — feel uncomfortable,” he said. “So the Scottish traditions have to be very carefully managed, so that they don’t become forces of conformity.”

While Scottish heritage may unite the Queen’s community, it’s also a link between the University and the city of Kingston, according to Jeff Blair, President of the St. Andrew’s Society of Kingston.

“John Hamilton, one of the co-founders of Queen’s College at the time, was our first president, and his first vice-president was Sir John A. Macdonald, who later became our second, forth and sixth president of the St. Andrew’s Society,” Blair said.

The St. Andrew’s Society of Kingston, founded in 1840, was initially started to assist Scottish immigrants who had come to Canada with dire means.

“The St. Andrew’s Society was founded by fairly prominent people within the community who had means … doctors and pastors and clergy who were there to get these people on their feet as quickly as possible,” Blair said.

The society now assists those in need, regardless of background.

“Last year we gave funds to Beads of Hope, for kids undergoing cancer treatments,” Blair said. “This year, we actually focused our fundraising efforts on the Philippines.”

Blair said the historical settlement pattern in Eastern Ontario has created a strong base of Scottish origin in and around the city of Kingston. With about 200 members, the St. Andrew’s Society of Kingston celebrates Robbie Burns Day annually.

This Saturday, they will salute Mr. Burns in the traditional manner, with an address to the haggis and Burns poetry readings.

Haggis is a traditional Scottish meat pudding, made from sheep innards. While it may not seem appetizing, Blair said it tastes better than it sounds, especially when served with “neeps and tatties” — or, turnips and potatoes.

This Scottish entrée is only peripheral, however, to the celebration of Burns’ treasured poems.

According to Queen’s English professor Robert Morrison, millions of people regularly recite the words of Robbie Burns, blithely unaware of their authorship.

Other than “Auld Lang Syne”, Burns’ most famous works include “My Love is like a Red, Red Rose” and “To a Mouse”, the poem that coined the phrase; “the best laid plans of mice and men”.

“Everybody knows that phrase, and not everybody recognizes that it comes from Burns,” Morrison said. “He is somebody that has, like all great poets, what seems like effortless mastery of phrase, and amazing ability to come up with a phrase that everybody remembers.”

Morrison noted that Burns’ work would likely be better known had he written exclusively in English. Still, it’s his mastery of the central Scots dialect that has made him an epitaph within the Scots’ history.

Every January, Burns fans all over the world celebrate the life of the poet whose raw talent brought candid reflections on the joys of everyday life, including food, libations and sexual pleasure.

“He talks a lot about temptation, he talks a lot about passion, he talks a lot about seduction and he doesn’t do it feeling guilty, feeling bad,” Morrison said. “So it is fitting that there is a Burns night and on that night there is drink, there is celebration, there is camaraderie; there is this sense of celebrating.”

Despite being one of history’s most talented poets, Burns had a poor farmer’s upbringing in rural Scotland, never receiving the Oxbridge education of his contemporaries Shelly, Byron and Tennyson.

After introducing a simple and plain poetic language into Scotland’s literary landscape, Burns died at the age of 37.

Morrison said it’s easy for Canadians to connect with Burns, as he advocated for a Scottish identity completely separate from that of England.

“I think there’s a level on which Burns appeals to Canadians because he recognizes that he comes from a culture that is sometimes in the shadow of England, and yet Burns is the great voice that defines Scotland in positive terms,” Morrison said.

Burns’ influence is deeply entrenched in Scottish society, according to Isabelle Turner, former Mayor of Kingston. Turner held office from 2000-03, after which she became president of the St. Andrew’s Society for five years.

After immigrating to Canada from Scotland at the age of 21, Turner, who descends from the Graham clan, took her Canadian citizenship before entering into local and municipal politics.

“When you come to Canada and you take your citizenship, you’re Canadian, but that doesn’t prevent you from bringing the best of what heritage you have to share,” Turner said.

According to Turner, well-rounded education is a cornerstone of Scottish culture, and further evidence that Queen’s was founded by Scots.

“Look at your pipe band, what do they wear? Tartan.” She said. “What is the band around your tammie? Tartan. So there’s a lot of connection there.”

Turner thus encouraged the celebration of Robbie Burns Day.

“It’s a celebration,” she said. “People come for the food and the fun.”

Peter Milliken, former Member of Parliament for Kingston and the Islands, said he’s always enjoyed celebrating Robbie Burns Day, especially since he has Scottish ancestry himself.

During his time as Speaker of the Canadian House of Commons, Milliken hosted an annual Robbie Burns Day party on Parliament Hill.

“It’s a fun occasion,” Milliken said. “You get to taste some whiskey and celebrate a famous poet, so it can be quite a jolly evening.”

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