One festival entrepreneur in Dumfries wants to ditch the saint and celebrate the National Bard. Can he take Scotland on the journey with him?
The man behind the biggest Burns Night event in Scotland has called for the annual celebration to become a National Holiday – and questioned Ministers’ “obsession” with St Andrew’s Day as a focus for events funding.
Graham Main, the producer of the Big Burns Supper in Dumfries, believes more empahsis should be placed on Robert Burns, the national poet, owing to the “incredible” popularity of Burns Night events.
He urged government ministers to take part in a debate which would take soundings from across Scotland as to the status of Burns Night and how it might be celebrated as an annual event.
There are thousands of Burns Night celebrations which take place yearly on January 25th – on or near the poet’s birthday, across Scotland and worldwide, from Tanzania to Delhi, St Petersburg to Dhaka.
EventScotland provides funding to Burns Night events as part of its Winter Festivals funding programme but there is no single event which acts as a unifying platform to promote Scotland’s Bard, which Main wants to draw attention to.
The producer, who in the past has worked on cultural festivals in Dublin and currently the Carlisle Fringe, believes the Scottish Government has been overly influenced by the success of St Patrick’s Day in Ireland – and wanted to replicate that in Scotland.
But he said the Irish event is largely now absent of cultural meaning, unlike Burns Night, which has the power to bring together audiences of all backgrounds, cultures and faiths, and reach out to young and old.
“The Scottish Government is obsessed by St Andrew’s Day because they’ve looked at at Paddy’s Day and what that does for Ireland round the world, and they’ve said, ‘that’s what we need’,” said Main, who counts the Dublin Fringe and Dublin Opera among his past projects.
“I think the Scottish Government looked at what the Irish Government was doing when the Celtic Tiger thing was going on, which is understandable given the enormous growth in popularity of Paddy’s Day celebrations across the country. But I don’t think that model translates to Scotland; I know thousands of people who celebrate Burns Night, but I know hardly anyone who does the same for St Andrew’s Day. Burns Night is so much more meaningful, it’s much more intimate and it’s about sharing stuff and evoking memory; Paddy’s Day is just a ****-up,” he added.
Main, Executive Producer of Electric Theatre Workshop, which puts on the annual Big Burns Supper in Dumfries, which describes itself as the ‘world’s biggest Burns celebration’, adds: “Dialogue has to happen about what Burns Night is; it has been very formulaic, almost masonic in approach [in the pastt]. I’d be up for a national conversation about what Burns Night is and where we can take it.”
He said the highly eclectic 11-day programme that has been created in Dumfries could be a model for replication across the country and there is room in the calendar for a signature event which unifies the country.
“We’re up for that,” he said. “We think other places would be too – think of the economic boost they could get from it. We could create a Big Burns festival if we got the likes of Creative Scotland, Event Scotland around the table to talk about that. At the moment there is no real strategy. The government think they are doing that, but there is no real strategy to grow Burns Night. They are merely distributing a fund to support Burns events.”
When Main first explained the concept of the multi-day festival, which includes comedy, cabaret and music, he said the reaction had been one of “confusion”. Traditionally, the majority of Burns Night events in Dumfries were closed to the public, were quite often “stuffy” and extremely formal.
In addition, Main said he had been “embarassed” about the absence of public-facing Burns Night celebrations when he introduced a friend to his home town, where there had been “apathy” among locals to do anything more expressive.
“I just think there’s room to do more on Burns Night – we’re not puritans about it; we’re really just a smaller version of the Edinburgh Fringe. There’s a real spirit of festival producers here making bold work. I think there’s lots of potential on Burns Night – it’s Scotland at its best, bringing people together. My aspiration would be that the Scottish Government make it a national holiday and help us get over the mental breakdown that is January. It will also give towns a much-needed economic boost. Dumfries is not quiet in January any more and our survey shows that 30% of the audience went to dinner before or after an event.” It also grew by 66% this year – drawing a footfall of 24,500 – and featuring artists such as veteran comic Bill Bailey, Donovan, Public Service Broadcasting, Eddi Reader, Badly Drawn Boy and Camille O’Sullivan.
Seven years into his creation, Main says there is now an appreciation of the diverse collection of performances the Big Burns Supper has curated under an 800-capacity Spiegeltent, which he deploys after it’s finished in Edinburgh for the Christmas festivals season (the tent itself is supplied by Dutch firm Van Rosmalen). It hosts performances such as the five-star award-winning cabaret Le Haggis; the festival, which received £30,000 last year from EventScotland and has been funded since 2012 by the national events body, as well as through the philanthropic Holywood Trust, also employs a collection of several small town-based venues to house performances.
“We’ve already exported Le Haggis to the Edinburgh Fringe, where it did very well,” says Main. “It’s been proven that if you do something creative about what an event means, it has an impact. We have a ‘festivalised audience’ here in Dumfries – they want a fix when it comes to culture. We also have a major events strategy, which is unique to Scotland, and events like the Wigtown Book Festival. We were in bad need of cultural development but now we have emerging producers and funding to develop original event infrastructure to support that work.”