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Burns holds very special place in hearts of his kith and kin in Ulster

By Nelson McCausland

Published 21/01/2016

The Burns Night Spectacular featuring the Ulster Orchestra
The Burns Night Spectacular featuring the Ulster Orchestra

Next Monday, January 25, is celebrated in Ulster as well as Scotland as Burns Night, and there will be celebrations in many other lands forbye.

The great Scottish poet Robert Burns was born in Ayrshire on January 25, 1759, and the anniversary of his birth has become an annual celebration of the man, his songs and his poetry.

It was said of Burns: "He speaks tae Scots. He speaks tae aa." That is true, and his poetry has been translated into many of the languages of the world, but he speaks especially to Ulster folk for he was one of our kith and kin, on the other side of "the narrow sea".

There will be formal Burns Suppers as well as less formal events, and they don't even have to be on January 25.

This Saturday night there is a Burns Night celebration in the Ulster Hall with the Ulster Orchestra and guest musicians and singers from Scotland, as well as the Ulster-Scots Agency Juvenile Pipe Band and the Markethill Ulster-Scots Dancers, so it should be a "richt guid nicht".

Ulster folk have long had an interest in Burns.

His first volume of poetry was published in Kilmarnock in 1786, and in the same year some of his poems were published in a Belfast newspaper.

The following year another volume was published in Edinburgh, and later in the year a pirate edition was produced in Belfast by James Magee.

It sold out in 10 days and had to be reprinted.

The centenary of his birth was celebrated in Belfast in 1859, and a Burns club was founded in the city in 1872.

Of course the interest in Burns extended beyond Belfast, and there were very active Burns clubs in Larne and Londonderry.

It was even said at one time that in every Ulster home there were two books - Burns and the Bible.

Moreover, in Ulster the readers did not need to use the glossary at the back of the book because they were already familiar with the Scots words that the poet used.

The Linen Hall Library holds what is probably the largest collection of his works and related items outside of Scotland, and the story of that collection illustrates the strong cultural connections between Ulster and Scotland.

The collection was made by Andrew Gibson (1841-1931), who was born in the village of New Cumnock in Ayrshire.

He came to Belfast as a shipping agent, and he was a cultured man with many interests.

Outside of business he was president of the Belfast Burns Club, president of the Belfast Scottish Association and a governor of the Linen Hall Library.

Gibson was also associated with Cliftonville Football Club, whose founder had introduced the game from Scotland to Ulster, and he was a member of the Royal Belfast Golf Club, whose founder introduced that game from Scotland to Ulster.

His son William Kennedy Gibson was another interesting character.

He played for Cliftonville and for Ireland, and was elected to Belfast Corporation as an independent unionist with the support of the football club.

He was even selected to stand as a unionist in the general election in 1918, but agreed to step aside and make way for another candidate, Sir Edward Carson.

Gibson's collection of 2,000 items of Burns and Burnsiana was purchased by public subscription in 1900 and presented to the Linen Hall Library for the people of Belfast.

In recognition of the collection, there will be a talk about Andrew Gibson in the Linen Hall Library next Thursday evening, January 28, at 6.30pm.

Last year the librarian spoke about the Gibson collection, and this year I have been asked to speak about Gibson himself - a man who left Belfast a great legacy and one who deserves to be remembered.

An obituarist described Gibson as an "ardent son of Scotland", and so he was. But he was also an adopted son of Ulster.

Belfast Telegraph

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