With the cancellation of the Burns Club`s Dinner due to Covid that means there is no report to give on this event. However I thought readers of the Crier might like to hear about two most unusual “ Burns Suppers“ that took place during the 2nd World War and in Lebanon in the nineteen eighties.
In 1941 Edinburgh art teacher Andrew Winton had bailed out of his stricken bomber over Frankfurt and was taken a prisoner of war. On the last of his repeated escape attempts, he and fellow escapees were overtaken by Red Army tanks as they swept across Poland towards Berlin. In his memoir “Open Road to Far Away“ he recalls an extraordinary episode as they billeted with the Russians. ‘We settled back in the straw, a bit drowsy, and then a voice, a girl’s voice was heard. “Where is the Scotsman ?“ I felt the hair at my neck rising and wondered, “What next?”. I struggled to my feet and there she stood, second in command of a Russian women`s tank unit, a round muff hat on her head and looking very neat and official in a dark green uniform. She addressed me directly. “Do you know what day this is? “ Just a little bewildered I shook my head. “This is the 25th January, Robert Burns’ birthday and tonight you will recite his poetry and sing his songs. I will translate for all these people“’.
Winton starts to protest that he doesn`t know much Burns but is silenced by an imperious wave of a hand. It turns out that the tank commander has relatives in Scotland and has been brought up on Burns. An impromptu recital ensues, with its backdrop of snow and tanks, and the two of them, dazed Scots POW and Soviet officer, end up hand in hand, singing “Ye Banks and Braes o` Bonnie Doon“ to rapturous applause from the Russian Tank crews.
“I was uplifted and proud and then felt two hands on my shoulders and she turned me round and my hands were taken in hers and an emotional voice spoke. “Tonight I am your Jean, tonight you are my Robert“.
Make what you will of that!!!!
The next day the order comes to cross the Oder, Winton meets her one more time and she walks back to her tank and they never see each other again.
Fast forward to 1985 when Tom Sutherland, a US domiciled Scottish agricultural geneticist and teacher, is captured by the Islamic Jihad in Beirut and kept captive for six and a half years. “I thought of Burns and how he would have handled the situation, with no whisky, no women no companions with whom to sit boosin’ at the nappy. Then I would recite to myself all the poems I had memorised over the years, To a Louse, To a Mouse, Holy Willie`s Prayer and as much as I could of Tam O` Shanter. It was a grand way of making the time pass and a wonderful inspiration.”
Sutherland (pictured at left on his release) was granted a standing ovation at a Strathclyde conference where he spoke after his release in 1991. He recalled one particular “Burns Supper” he held for the edification of fellow captive Jean Paul Kauffman a French journalist.
‘I was chained to the wall in South Lebanon along with Jean Paul. On the 25th January 1988, I asked him if he had heard of Burns. He confessed that he had indeed heard of him, but did not know much about him. I proceeded to give him a fair introduction – in French. Translation had to be a bit loose of course, since even the English can have difficulty with Burns but Jean Paul readily picked up the nuances. Later in 1993 he helped me to make a documentary film entitled “Burns in Beirut“ ‘.
So there you have it from “ Ye Banks and Braes “ in the frozen plains of Poland in 1945 to “Weel done Cutty Sark “ in a dark cellar in South Lebanon in 1998, it was the poetry of Robert Burns that inspired his two fellow countrymen to survive their hellish situations. Hopefully it will inspire all of us to make his great vision that “ Man to Man the world o`er shall brothers be for a` that “ a little nearer.