The Early History of the Club


by Robert Rodger, M.A., B.Sc.

The Dumbarton Burns Club was formed on the centenary celebration of the poet’s birth in January, 1859.

At first the club seems to have had a somewhat chequered existence. If formal records of its meetings were kept in its early years, these are no longer extant. The earliest minute in the archives of the club is one of a meeting of ” admirers of Burns” in the Elephant Hotel on Friday, 24th January, 1873, “for the purpose of resuscitating the Burns Club in Dumbarton.”

Writing in 1894, however, Donald MacLeod, the local historian, who was president of the club in 1877 and 1895, in his account of “The Clubs of Dumbarton Past and Present,” was able to give the names of some of the founders who attended the first anniversary supper in 1859. ” The chair was occupied by R. G. Mitchell, Esq., Procurator Fiscal of the County, supported right and left by Messrs J. B. Risk and T. Macintosh —Dr. B. M. Richard, being the croupier, had Messrs James Ure and Henry Adams flanking him on each side.”

1859 marked the end of a decade of expansion in the Burgh. Until recently the town had not extended.

From its resuscitation in 1873 until the end of the century the member­ship of the club was restricted, except in special circumstances, to 36. The committee met once a year, usually within a fortnight from the anniver­sary of the poet’s birth, to arrange for the annual supper, to purge the roll and admit new members, and to recommend the names of office ­bearers for the ensuing year to the annual general meeting which was held on the evening of the supper.

Its proceedings were recorded in terms of a commendable verbal economy. The attendance at the supper seldom exceeded 30 and was often less. During the evening every individual present was required to contribute to the entertainment by ” speech or song, toast or sentiment, reading or recitation,” and the com­pany never failed to include a minor bard or two.

The restriction in membership tended to the formation of junior clubs. In the nineties there were at least six other Burns Cubs in the town — Alclutha, Co-operative, Helenslea, Jolly Beggars, Lennox, and Conservative. It was customary for greetings, often in verse, to be exchanged among the clubs, and there are records of ” telegraphic despatches in rhyme” to clubs in Kilmarnock, Irvine, Falkirk and London.

One of the Oldest

The Burns Federation was formed in 1885. The Dumbarton Burns Club was affiliated in 1886 and is No. 10 on the roll. In October, 1958, there were 355 Burns Clubs and Scottish Societies in the Federation, and the Dumbarton Club is the llth oldest.

The anniversary supper was not held in 1900 owing to the war in South Africa, nor in 1901 owing to the death of Queen Victoria. By 1914 the membership had increased to 50. The club’s activities were suspended during the First World War. They were resumed in 1919.

Towards the end of June, 1787, Burns visited Dumbarton and spent some days at Levengrove House, the home of John McAulay, then Town Clerk. While he was there he was royally entertained. Thereafter a strong tradition persisted that he had been proposed for admission as a gratis or honorary burgess of the burgh.

The omission of Burns’ name from the Roll of Burgesses was popularly ascribed to the opposition of the Rev. James Oliphant, at that time minister of the parish, a man of marked per­sonality and great influence, the memory of whose ready wit and eccentricity is enshrined in many stories which were current a century later.

This was a reasonable assumption, for Oliphant’s previous charge had been at Kilmarnock, where his extreme Calvinistic tenets had incurred the satire of Burns, who in his ” Ordination ” wrote:

” Cursed common sense, that imp of hell

Cam’ in wi’ Maggie Lauder;

 But Oliphant aft made her yell,

And Russell sair misca’ed her.”


A less dramatic, but equally likely explanation of the absence of Burns’s name from the minutes may be found in the laxity in the admission and recording of honorary burgesses in the eighteenth century which Mr Fergus Roberts describes in the intro­duction to his compilation of the distinguished guest has proposed the toast ” Scotland,” among whom have been the Right Hon. Thomas Johnston, Sir Angus Cunninghame Graham and Sir William Wallace.

From its earliest years the club’s minutes record the sending of dona­tions to various charities, chief among them being the Jean Armour Burns Houses and the National Burns Memorial and Cottage Houses at Mauchline. The club has also given substantial support to the Scottish National Dictionary Fund.

It has subscribed for three com­plete copies of the dictionary which will consist of 10 volumes. One of these will be retained in the club and the others presented to Dumbarton Library and Dumbarton Academy. So far five volumes have been pub­lished and are available to the public on the reference shelves of the local library and to the senior pupils of the Academy.

The club has competed in the McLennan Cup Bowling Competition for Burns Clubs since its inception. It has won the cup on two occasions, in 1926 and in 1958.


Centenary of the Club in Burgh Hall

The arrangements for the celebra­tion of the centenary of the club were set in train at the annual general meeting in 1954, when it was decided that the president for the centenary year should be elected from among the senior past presidents of the club. In 1957, Dr. George Harvey, one of the oldest members and president in 1951, was unanimously appointed president for 1959.

The centenary year was inaugurated brilliantly with the St. Andrew’s Day Dinner, which was held in the Burgh Hall on the evening of Friday, 28th November, 195S. Dr. Harvey pre­sided over a company of 290 members and guests.

The President wore, for the first time, the handsome badge of office and chain which the members had provided to mark the centenary. The toast of “Scotland” was proposed by General Sir Gordon MacMillan. Mr Tony Britton, father of the current TV personality, Fern, proposed the toast to ” The Lasses,” and Mr Lionel Daiches, Q.C., replied on their behalf.

The roll of presidents of the club contains the names of many who were at the time, or were later to become prominent in the life of the town.

It has always been the privilege of the president to propose ” The Immortal Memory ” at the anniversary supper, and this tradition has been, followed almost invariably down the years.

Since 1875 the toast has been reported at length in the Dumbarton and ” Lennox Heralds.” These reports have been preserved in the records of the club. They are of con­siderable interest. All give evidence of a sound knowledge of the poet’s life and works; many display a measure of original treatment of the subject.

It would be idle to pretend that the familiar and acceptable forms of the oration are not often to be found. Everything has been said and written about Burns that could possibly have been said and written; perhaps also much that one would have thought impossible. Seldom, however, have these things been better expressed than at the anniversary suppers of the club.

One of the Highlights

The entertainment has always included the traditional items usually found on the programme of a Burns Supper. Mention must be made of the singing of the trio, ” O Willie brew’d a peck o’ maut.” For many years it has been one of the highlights of the Dumbarton supper. The rendering by George Bryce, Jack Macphie and R. P. Stewart is always acclaimed with great enthusiasm.

There is, however, an item peculiar to the Dumbarton Burns Club, one long associated with the name of Mr Jack Macphie, the singing of “The Piper o’ Dumbarton,” a ballad com­memorating the career of a legendary character, Rory Murphy.

The number of toasts is consider­ably fewer that it was 60 years ago. At the 1893 supper there were 13, including toasts to “The Army, Navy and Reserve Forces,” ” The Learned Professions,” “The Minor Bards of Scotland,” and ” Kindred Societies,” all of which have now disappeared from the programme.

Fortunate in Secretaries

The mainspring of a successful club is its secretary. Dumbarton Burns Club has always been fortunate in its choice of men to fill this post. It may be permitted to name a few; Robert MacFarlan, secretary from 1874 to 1888; a stalwart of the club for more than 50 years, he proposed “The Immortal Memory” on four occasions, 1874, 1884, 1902 and 1905. John Menzies, now the “Father” of the club, secretary from 1919 to 1931, whose inestimable services in the matter of Burns’s burgess ticket have already been mentioned. John Lithgow, secretary from 1937 to 1953. whose faithful service is still fresh in the minds of the members.

Those who were present at the recent St. Andrew’s Night celebration will readily agree that the present holder of the office, Kenneth Williamson, will maintain and indeed enhance its traditions.