Robert Burns in Princeton: An Exploration

by John Bartlett and Rika Ruebsaat

The world-wide popularity of Burns is attested to by the sale of his poetry, of CDs of his songs, by many conferences, and by the holding of yearly Burns’ Suppers on the traditional night of 25 January. This paper considers one facet of that popularity by looking at the history of Burns’ Suppers held from the turn of the last century to the end of the Second World War in the interior town of Princeton and its satellite communities.

Princeton is a community in the interior plateau of BC, founded in the mid nineteenth century as a farming and ranching area. It began to flourish as a mining town in about 1900 with the triple discoveries of gold, coal, and copper in the surrounding areas. Its population in that year was 316 [1]. As the mines and railway connections developed the population grew – by 1911 it had reached 408 [2] — and “satellite” communities such as Coalmont, Blakeburn, Allenby and Hedley sprang up. Princeton’s first newspaper, the Similkameen Star, began publication in 1900.

Princeton’s early immigrant population was predominantly British with a few Americans. When the town began to boom other nationalities arrived in search of jobs. Princeton owed its existence to mining. The first gold rush on Granite Creek in 1885 was followed by coal and copper finds, the mining of which had to wait a dozen years to be successfully prosecuted. Many of the Chinese on the creeks in the years following the Granite Creek rush lived on the proceeds of placer mining, which required diligence, some degree of skill, luck of course, but little capital. To prosecute copper or coal mining required deep workings, transportation infrastructure and a stable and skilled work force, and thus a considerable capital base. Once this was gained, the settlement of the community itself, as well as of its satellite communities (Coalmont, Tulameen, Hedley, Copper Mountain) could proceed. The earliest settlers of the area in the mining era were from Europe, and, more particularly, from the British Isles. At its first census, Princeton could boast of 316 inhabitants. Some forty of these, almost entirely young men, were Chinese, mostly working placer finds on the two rivers (Similkameen and Tulameen) which meet at Princeton. A further twenty-five were local First Nations people. The balance were of European extraction: 82 from England, 67 from Scotland, 42 from Ireland, two from Wales (for a total of 193 from the British Isles) and 58 from ten west European ethnicities. [3]

The accounts of Burns Suppers examined here are taken from the Princeton newspapers – the Similkameen Star and the Princeton Star from 1912 to 1946 as well as Hedley’s Hedley Gazette (1905-1917) and its Vermilion Valley Spotlight (1944-1949). In the Princeton area, it was the Burns’ suppers that provided the cultural template for public festivities, a template whose Scottish origins over time became watered-down with more widely known cultural material. Burns’ suppers functioned, as it were, as “training wheels” for a new society. Over the course of time, Scottish cultural material became appreciated but not required. The significant exception is “Auld Lang Syne”, a song which today throughout the English-speaking world is less relevant for its Scottishness than its role as a performative utterance, indicating the close of an event.

The earliest Scottish celebration in the Princeton area was a celebration of St. Andrew’s Day in Hedley in 1906. It is instructive to note that, even at this early date, of the thirty-four attendees, only two were Scots, though some others were of Scots stock. The structure of the proceedings reflects the early-established pattern of Burns Suppers. The meal itself:

Scotch broth w’ kail, carrots an’ neeps in till ‘t, Fresh herring frae Labrador, Lobster Salad, Breist o’ Birds wi’ Dressing, Haunch o’ Venison frae the hills o’ Hedley, Loin of Beef, The Haggis, Apple and Hot Mince Pies, a Kebbuck frae McClaren’s o’ Perth, and Fruits, Nuts and Raisins.

Then the toasts: “The King”, “The Land We Live in”, “the Army and Navy”, “Scotland’s Patron Saint”, interspersed with songs: “Loch Lomond”, “The Land o’ Cakes”, “Wully Brewed a Peck o’ Malt”, “March of the Cameron Men”, and, as the paper reported, “possibly the most important toast of the evening, “The Mining Industry”, which brought a speech from the General Manager of the Daly Reduction Co., the principal mining company in Hedley. Then, more toasts: “The Learned Professions”, the poem “Jim Bludso of the Prairie Belle”(an American sentimental epic of some 56 lines about a brave engineer), “The Pioneers”, “The Ladies”, a local adaptation of “Comin’ Thro’ the Rye” [4], “Green Grow the Rashes O”, “Our Absent Friends”, and, to close the evening, “Auld Lang Syne”. [5]

Between 1912 and 1949 there would be two dozen more Burns Suppers reported in the newspapers. The earliest of these took place in Princeton between 1912 and 1920 organized by hotels and then the Rebekah Lodge and the I.O.O.F. [6] Except for one “revived in Princeton” Supper in 1931, the Suppers moved elsewhere after 1920. The 1922 Burns Supper was held at the Coalmont Hotel and after that the Caledonian Club in Blakeburn took over and hosted Suppers from 1923 to 1940. The next locus of Burns Suppers was back in Hedley, where the Moose Lodge hosted the Suppers from 1944 to1949. In 1945 there were two concurrent Suppers, one in Hedley and one organized by the Community League in Allenby. [7]

Almost every Burns Supper included singing, sometimes as performances and sometimes as a singsong. The one sure song to end the evening was of course “Auld Lang Syne”. Other favourites were “There was a Lad”, “Ye Banks and Braes” and “Scots Wha’ Hae’”. In the 1930’s non-Scottish popular songs began to creep into the repertoire. A 1930 Burns concert in Princeton included “Just a Song at Twilight” and “The Laughing Chorus” [8] and at a similar concert in 1938 the repertoire strayed as far as “Only a Cowboy’s Sweetheart”, “Cowboy Joe”, “A Capital Ship” and “Paddle Your Own Canoe”. [9]

After supper there were often musical performances including violin, piano, accordion, mandolin and the like. Blakeburn even had its own pipe band. There were recitations of Burns poetry and displays of highland flings and sword dances. Until 1922 all the after-dinner entertainment was Scottish in content. From then on it incorporated other local talents such as acrobatic stunts, sailor’s hornpipes, Irish jigs, comedy sketches and recitations of Robert Service poetry. Many of the suppers concluded with a dance beginning at midnight.

We see thus a gradual evolution of the Suppers from evenings that followed a preordained, exclusively Scottish course to ones which incorporated contributions from popular culture and from the wider community. As Italians, Slovaks and the like immigrated to the Princeton area Burns Suppers, which were open to everyone, became more inclusive. The incorporation of popular songs as well as displays of local talent allowed everyone to participate, whether or not they were Scottish or had even heard of Burns.

References to Burns over and above reports on Suppers appeared regularly in Princeton area newspapers. “A Chiel’s Amang Ye Takin’ Notes an’ Faith He’ll Prent It.” is the headline in a November 1904 paper, a reference to Burns’“On Captain Grose’s Peregrinations Through Scotland”, suggesting that the editor expects his readers to understand, if not the reference, then at least the vernacular. [10]

This first reference to Burns was followed by others: a week before 1922’s Supper, there appeared an appreciation of Burns in the form of a long letter, written in the Doric entitled, “Aboot Burns Nicht Frae Tam Spiers, January 25”. [11] The letter ends with the observation that Burns’ “…gift o’ lauchter an’ satire hae shaken th’ thrones o’ supersteeshon an’ broken mony a tyranny.” Though the 1932 Supper itself was not reported, a lengthy piece entitled “ Robert Burns: The Man and His Works – An Appreciation by John Bennett” appeared two days later in the Princeton Star. [12] Written in standard English, it attempts to explain Burns’ value to the Scots diaspora:

The ideal Scotchman is the one to whom Burns poems have the widest appeal. To him Burns is prophet, priest and king. He established a supreme halo over the Scottish mind and an allegiance, which will last for all time.

Another lengthy piece appeared in 1935 entitled “Robert Burns: Today”, which attempts to de-ossify Burns suppers – “the annual homage that the world pays to the poet at the anniversary of his birth has become, in a degree conventionalized and stereotyped” – and to make Burns meaningful beyond the Scots diaspora — “genius is the ability of a man to rise and to interpret the spirit of his age in permanent terms of human understanding”. [13]

The report on the 1937 Burns Supper was published with a companion piece, “The Immortal Bard”, that expounded on the universality of Burns. Burns’ poetry, says the author, contains, “the mirroring of man in his fundamental moods. No art more than Burns simply bristles with humanity.” [14]

The Burns pieces that were published during World War II began to include references to “the world” rather than just to “humanity”. “Poet and Peasant” a 1942 editorial states that

Burns was the incarnation of robust integrity, the sworn enemy of all forms of cant and hypocracy (sic). He could be tender in love, terrible in sarcasm, humble in prosperity and magnificent in defeat. The poet was a true prophet, and the ringing challenge to his contemporaries still echoes around the world. We do well to remember so great a gift to mankind”. [15]

A piece entitled “Burns’ Day” which appeared the following year strikes a similar note:

…Burns touched chords deep and universal in human hearts. Whether he sang of love or war, the daisy or the banks o’ bonnie doon, his words found an echo in human hearts. That is why we remember him in spite of the passing of time. He belongs to the glorious company of immortals. [16]

The 1945 Similkameen Star published “Bruce’s Address to his Army at Bannockburn” (“Scots wha hae”) on the front page of the paper, [17] a fitting reflection on the tenor of the times, and the following year an editorial titled “The Immortal Memory” marks the first occasion when discussions of Burns refer directly to current world events:

Burns sang of the time when man to man the world o’er would be brothers. The present meeting of the United Nations Organization is an effort to give effect to these prophesies. [18]

We see thus reflected in the Princeton newspapers over the course of the first half of the twentieth century a gradual movement from cultural specificity to universality and relevance. Scottishness is expanded to include the “ideal Scotchman” of which Burns was the epitome with his ability “to rise to and interpret … in permanent terms of human understanding”. During World War II the Burns pieces were particularly poignant. The poet’s message was seen as “a ringing challenge…[that]…still echoes around the world”. In 1943 the Similkameen Star bemoaned the fact that, “We are still working, fighting and praying for the realization of the dreams he cherished; and still looking forward to the time when “man to man the world o’er, will brithers be for a’ that.” [19] By 1945 with the publication of “Scots Wha’ Hae” there was hope that Burns’ vision might be realized:

Lay the proud usurpers low!
Tyrants fall in every foe!
LIBERTY’S in every blow! –
Let us do or die!

Though democracy gained through this loss of specificity, through Burns becoming not just a Scottish but a world-wide hero, many resented the inevitable watering-down of what Burns meant to the Scots themselves. The result was thought by many, and not just MacDiarmid, to be vulgar and cheap.

You canna gang to a Burns supper even
Wiout some wizened scrunt o a knock-knee
Chinee turns round to say “Him Haggis-velly goot!”
And ten to wan the piper is a Cockney.

No wan in fifty kens a wurd Burns wrote
But misapplied is aabody’s property,
And gin there was his like alive the day
They’d be the last a kennan haund to gie –

MacDiarmid went further: Burns’ sentiments had been taken over by an Empire class, led by
Croose London Scotties wi their braw shirt fronts
And aa their fancy freinds, rejoicean
That similah gatherings in ‘I’imbuctoo,
Bagdad – and Hell, nae dout – are voicean

Burns’ sentiments o universal love,
In pidgin English or in wild-fowl Scots,
And toastan ane wha’s nocht to them but an
Excuse for faitherin Genius wi their thochts.

This is MacDiarmid looking at Burns from Scotland – from the heartland out, as it were. But how does it look from the farthest reaches of the Empire, looking in, and why Burns’ popularity there?

The re-settlement of BC (to use Cole Harris’ useful term [22]) coincided with the era of nascent national consciousness and its representation in the creation of national profiles. National anthems, national dress, national songs, and national stereotypes (the garlic-eating Italians, the beret-wearing French, the industrious Dutch, etc.) all came into existence in the latter half of the nineteenth century. How was Canada to be represented? Alexander Muir’s “The Maple Leaf Forever” of 1867 handily ties together the English, Scots and Irish (but not the French):

In days of yore, from Britain’s shore
Wolfe, the dauntless hero, came
And planted firm Britannia’s flag
On Canada’s fair domain.
There may it wave, our boast and pride
And join in love together
The thistle, shamrock, rose entwine
The maple leaf forever.

Muir had no emblem for Britain itself, but had to resort to those of three of the four ethnicities in the islands. The pre-eminent cultural construct was, in fact, “the British Empire”. The nostalgic pull of the Motherland, to settlers who still thought of themselves as “British”, and who were proud of belonging to the British Empire, upon which the sun never set, stood in for Canadians for an absent national consciousness. This was the character adumbrated in Sara Duncan’s successful The Imperialist of 1904. [23]

British Columbia was founded as a colony in 1858, only twenty-seven years before Princeton’s first gold strike. The town’s ethnically British population (just over 60 per cent of the total) was in fact from disparate backgrounds. Some had come directly from Britain. Some had come from Britain by way of the United States or eastern Canada. Others had fathers or mothers who had come over the same routes. All claimed British ethnicity, though sharing little life experiences with each other: this was not an emigration movement like that of the Irish in the famines, with millions of people from much the same station in life, leaving the homeland in droves over a few short years. In the migration to Princeton, we see people of different classes, urban and rural, and trained and untrained. For the town to cohere, organizations and structures were necessary that could speak to everyone. What might those organizations and structures be?

Certainly not the Church. Not only had religion lost or left behind its primitive enthusiasm, its urgings to its adherents to live a properly Christ-like life, but its divisions (English Anglican vs. Irish Catholicism vs. Scottish Presbyterianism) would most certainly have been the locus for disunity. Churches in the new colonies became instead only a “clearing house”, a locus for meeting others of the same persuasion, but not for Christian action.

Neither could politics have functioned. Where a political party had been the focus for revolution or an anti-colonial struggle (such as Congress in India), it could function as a unifying force: but in the Canadian colonies, with parties (Liberal and Conservative) still connected as by an umbilical with their Mother-parties in the homeland, it was not possible. Religion and politics have always been banned as disuniting elements from the best tables.

What of the national stereotypes themselves? If we ask ourselves what are the national emblems of Britishness, of the Empire itself, we realize that apart from a set of moral strictures, mostly deriving from British public schools (“play up and play the game!” [24]; The Marquess of Queensbury rules [25]; never hit a man when he’s down, etc.) there is no such thing – only etiolated versions of the three sub-nationalisms (mostly content-free and not instrumental). What of these three sub-nationalisms then? Could elements from England, Ireland or Scotland function as unifiers?

English settlers might know that their national flower was the rose, and their national saint St. George, but other folk cultural forms, such as Morris dances, traditional vernacular song, Maypoles, well-blessing, Wakes, or mumming were already at least a generation away from the settlers, and might never have been heard of. Each is rural (rather than urban), oral (rather than written) and local (in that the customs of this village may be unknown to the village ten miles away).

Irish settlers would have known only too well what their national markers signified in Britain: the shamrock and St. Patrick were too politically aligned with the movement to free Ireland from England to function in the manner needed in the new colonies. What was left of her national markers was mostly invented in New York (the Blarney Stone, green beer, leprechauns, the “stage” Irishman, the nostalgic songs, the luck o’ the Irish, etc), because New York had a significant number of Irish settlers.

It is one of the great ironies that the very items banned by the English following the last unsuccessful attempt to sever England and Scotland, the great pipes and the kilt, should be the most enduring signs in British culture of Scottishness (and also, of course, of Britishness). Scotland is rich with both folklore — ballads, folk songs, dances – and literary culture – most notably Scott and Burns. Scottish social organization was highly developed. The Scots were the mainstay of the standing British army. Scottish Highland Games were the precursors of more modern public sporting events, including, most notably, the Olympic Games. Public education, particularly in the useful arts, came to Scotland much earlier than elsewhere. The Scots were thought – and not just by themselves – to be hardy (which a more northerly climate might foster), intelligent, thrifty, capable and adaptable. Were one looking for characteristics to help unite a disparate population drawn from all over the British Isles, it is to Scotland that one would turn.

But the primary characteristic of Scottish culture that made it accessible to all was its class neutrality. In English social organizations the “natural” leaders are identified as soon as they open their mouths. In Scotland the Doric transcends class boundaries. Burns, simply by writing in the Doric, espouses a classless society. [26] The content of his poetry confirms this. In that sense Burns is the archetypical Scot: he is a literate, Doric- speaking, hardworking man of the people. But his linguistic specifity is a vehicle through which he promotes inclusivity. These are the characteristics that nurtured his popularity in the far-flung corners of the Empire. Everyone could go to a Burns Supper and feel included, regardless of class, religion or nationality.

Since the Second World War, Burns has lost much of his public role as cultural hero. He is still admired, by some Scots, by some poetry lovers, and by some democrats; but his role now is a private one. The irruption of American media in film, novels, and movies has swamped not just Burns but all vernacular culture on any but the smallest scale. Eric Newby relates in Short Walk in the Hindu Kush how he came across a small barefoot child high in the mountains wearing nothing but a T-shirt with the words “Grateful Dead” emblazoned thereon. Burns Suppers are still held in Princeton, though in private homes; the days of the public celebration of Scotland’s echt poet are long gone.


[1] Census, 1901
[2] Census, 1911
[3] Census, 1901
[4] the words of which have not been yet located.
[5] as reported in Hedley Gazette and Similkameen Advertiser, 6 December 1906
[6] The Independent Order of Odd Fellows, a fraternal Society founded on the north American continent in 1819 and with a Lodge in Princeton, and the Rebekah Lodge, the sister organization, both founded in Princeton in 1911
[7] Hedley Gazette, Similkameen Star, Princeton Star, Vermilion Valley Spotlight, passim
[8] Princeton Star 30 January 1930
[9] Similkameen Star 27 January 1938
[10] Similkameen Star 12 November 1904
[11] Similkameen Star 22 January 1922
[12] Princeton Star 15 January 1932
[13] Similkameen Star 25 January 1935
[14] Similkameen Star 28 January 1937
[15] Similkameen Star 22 January 1942
[16] Similkameen Star 21 January 1943
[17] Similkameen Star 25 January 1945
[18] Similkameen Star 24 January 1946
[19] Similkameen Star 21 January 1943
[20] Similkameen Star 25 January 1945
[21] MacDiarmid, Hugh. A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle (1926), ed. John C. Weston. Amherst, MA, 1971: University of Massachusetts Press, lines 37-68
[22] Harris, Cole. The Resettlement of BC: Essays on Colonialism and Geographical Change. Vancouver, 1997: University of British Columbia Press.
[23] Duncan, Sara. The Imperialist. Toronto, 1968: McClelland & Stewart Ltd.
[24] from Newbolt’s 1897 poem “Vitaï Lampada”
[25] Codified in 1867 for boxing, but functioning, through the notion of there being rules instead of a free-for-all, as a template for other sports
[26] The only other author who is as widely known as Burns is Shakespeare. But Shakespeare could not unite disparate people as Burns did because his plays propagate class differences. The characters in his plays that speak non-standard English are comic and usually part of the sub-plot.