Celebrating St. Andrew’s Day (November 30) is not uncommon among Scots, especially in the English-speaking world, but the widespread commemoration of the birthday of the poet Robert Burns (January 25), even by non-Scots or “Scots for a day,” sets this national group apart from all others. No other national heritage rests so heavily on the memory of a literary figure. The English do not honor Shakespeare in similar fashion, nor the Italians Dante.
There are many clan organizations and St. Andrew’s and Caledonian societies in the United States today, and one of the oldest still functioning, founded in 1858, is the Robert Burns Club of Rockford, Illinois. There were two groups of Scots settling near the Rock River in northern Illinois in the 1840’s. One centered around the agricultural community of Caledonia, where the Willow Creek Presbyterian Church still maintains the memory of the early settlers, most of them farmers from the peninsula of Kintyre in Argyllshire. The other included the mixed group of farmers, merchants, and craftsmen who settled in the growing town of Rockford. There were few Highlanders among them. They came from a variety of Lowland communities and were not acquainted before coming to America. It was these “invisible immigrants,” living among many others of European ancestry, who took the opportunity of the forthcoming Robert Burns centennial in 1859 to found the Rockford Burns Club and keep their cultural heritage alive.
The club’s remarkable longevity is due to the service of successive leaders who kept the organization going through thick and thin. These leaders consistently reflected the populist outlook of Robert Burns himself; they were bankers and entrepreneurs, machinists and molders, men from all walks of life. The highest offices of the club were never denied to anyone on the basis of rank, which Burns labeled “but the guinea-stamp.” In its aim to honor the immortal memory of the Scottish bard, perhaps the Burns Club’s greatest achievement is its witness to the principle that “a man’s a man for a’ that!”
During its early years, the Civil War curtailed the club’s activities somewhat, but in the decade that followed, its annual banquets and summer picnics became major social events in the Rockford community. The members of the organization met regularly in their rented club rooms in downtown buildings. They eventually acquired a library of 400 volumes and sets for the occasional dramatic productions they presented to the public. But the event that inspired their founding, the celebration of Burns’ birthday, remained their premier activity throughout the years.
Initially held in the Holland House, these January banquets attracted 150 diners, the hotel dining room’s limit. Later venues would allow for twice as many guests. The format followed a pattern established in Scotland and became traditional, although streamlined in the 20th century. The celebrants entered the dining room with a grand march, enjoyed a plentiful meal, and then listened to a scries of short speeches in response to various toasts pertinent to the occasion, usually by local dignitaries. The primary toast was always “To the Immortal Memory” of Robert Burns, sometimes delivered by a guest from Chicago or elsewhere. Second in popularity was the toast and response “To the Ladies,” which was usually humorous. Until a local pipe band was organized around the turn of the century, there might be a single piper from Rockford who played for some Highland dancers (men), and invited vocalists rendered several Scottish melodies. The evening ended with a ball lasting into “the wee hours.” The banquet halls were always appropriately decorated, and in 1875 a local artist and club member, Edinburgh-born George J. Robertson, gave the club his portrait of Robert Burns, which is still proudly displayed at every January celebration.
From the outset these banquets indicated that their sponsors were both Scots and Americans. On the walls of the Holland House dining room they hung not only a portrait of Burns, but also one of George Washington and the national motto “E pluribus unum.” William Wallace and the Scottish motto “Nemo me impune lacessit” appeared along with a representation of Daniel Webster. Their speeches noted that Burns was a poet for all humanity. They sang “Hail Columbia” as well as “Scots Wha Hae” and toasted both American governors and the British monarch, the land of their adoption and “Scotland’s worthies,” and the American free press and the Scottish educational system. These gatherings clearly manifest the dual patriotism of Scottish immigrants and their descendants and a continuing appreciation of the Scottish traditions of popular education and freedom of thought.
The one stumbling block at the early celebrations, where liquor was banned, was the reconciliation of Burns’ virtues as a populist, freedom-loving poet and his personal habits as a profligate. In most cases speakers blamed his vices on the social mores of his day and credited his virtues to the Scottish character.
By this time it was customary for the club to stage an annual summer picnic, open to all who came, and attendance reached its peak in 1879. Held at a stone quarry north of town that year, the club picnic drew a record crowd. The steamer Transit made regular runs up and down the Rock River to the picnic site on the west bank. Boats had to ferry across those from the countryside east of Rockford. The local newspaper recorded that 400 teams of horses brought as many as 2,000 picnickers to the quarry grounds. Obviously, some wagons were left on the east bank, but it staggers the imagination to think of two “parking lots” filled with 400 teams of horses.
At these picnics a few speeches followed the midday meal, and then the athletic contests began. Throwing the hammer and putting the stone were the only events which are traditional for Scottish Highland Games today, but the other contests were those characteristic of American picnics everywhere: running, jumping, chasing a greased pig, riding bicycles as slowly as possible, marksmanship, etc.
The club’s halcyon years were shortlived. By the late 1880’s membership had dwindled, and the summer picnics were no longer needed as other forms of entertainment emerged. The club could not afford rented meeting rooms and gave its books to the public library. Yet, it rallied for funerals of its members, sometimes raising funds for their widows. It purchased four cemetery plots and used two of them. It sent an ill young Scot home to his mother in Peterhead, to her eternal gratitude. For two decades the Burns Club teetered on the brink of dissolution. One member even suggested that the annual Burns banquet be discontinued. But each year as January 25 approached, often in just a few days, the core membership would make the necessary arrangements, and the memory of Burns would be publicly honored.
By the turn of the century the club’s active members numbered no more than a dozen or so, and the only meetings held were the annual gatherings to plan the Burns supper. Then an influx of Scottish immigrants to Rockford about 1909 brought new interest in the Burns tradition. The membership increased, and the January banquets drew up to 300 guests. Regular appearances by the locally organized Clan MacAlpine Pipe Band added to the colorful pageantry.
The Rockford Burns Club experienced lean years during the Great Depression, but was rejuvenated in the years after World War II. A new generation of postwar leaders expanded the club’s activities with the inauguration of a newsletter, occasional educational programs, and participation in local international festivals. A new indirect dimension of the club’s identity came with the organization in 1945 of the Pipe Band of the Rockford Scottish Educational Society, seen as a resurrection of the Clan MacAlpine band, which had disbanded a few years before. The centennial banquet of January 1958 was an extraordinary event, with speeches, dancing, and music by the pipe band and invited performers; By the 1970’s, a “Tartan Ball” had become one of the club’s principal activities, and the “Highland Games,” which had attracted little interest in the Rockford area in the late 1970’s, were successfully revived this summer.
Formal membership in the Burns Club was always somewhat amorphous. Dues were no longer collected by the end of the 19th century, and it is unclear when the practice resumed. The officers honored the restriction of membership to native Scots and their sons and grandsons more in the breach, and membership was usually considered to include those who attended Burns Club activities. This changed in 1974, when club officers amended their constitution to read: “Membership is open to all persons interested in retaining the Scottish Heritage and the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns.”
A common custom at Burns banquets around the world is to begin the activities by “piping in the haggis” and then reciting Burns’ poetic address to this “Great Chieftain o’ the Pudden-race.” Almost all the Rockford celebrations included this practice until shortly after World War II, when there was a hiatus of several years. Resumed in 1962, United States Customs officials jeopardized the practice when they seized the ordered shipment of the exotic “delicacy” at Idlewild Airport on the eve of the January banquet. A hurriedly devised substitute had to be prepared, but the challenge of making haggis domestically suspended its inclusion until 1983, when it was again “piped in,” as it has been ever since.
At the first Rockford Burns Club banquet, local Judge Anson Miller predicted that the club would celebrate Robert Burns’ 200th birthday. His prophecy came to pass in 1959, and by that time the Burns Club was Rockford’s oldest social organization in continuous operation. Now a few decades into its second century, local Scots and “would-be Scots” still rally every January to honor “the immortal memory” of the bard and to enjoy the distinctive pageantry of this Scottish tradition. For many it is also a time to remember their sentimental “hame,” as did Burns himself:
My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here;
My heart’s in the Highlands a-chasing the deer;
A-chasing the wild deer, and following the roe—
My heart’s in the Highlands wherever I go.