Amongst its extensive collection of Burns' memorabilia & artefacts in the possession of Irvine Burns Club is another collection of unique documents, which catches the attention of many Burns enthusiasts. This collection is the 250 or so handwritten letters accepting Honorary Membership of the Club.
In 1826 the decision was taken to invite local man, John Galt - the novelist & Canadian pioneer together with James Montgomery, - the "Christian Poet", to be honorary members. Both accepted the invitation by letter and thus began the tradition.
Over the last 174 years 250 letters have been collected, including James Glencairn Burns, the son of Robert, together with individuals represented in almost every field of human endeavour.
Great landmarks in World History from First World War statesmen & international leaders including Prime Minister David Lloyd George; President Woodrow Wilson; Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig; Admiral Sir David Beatty & Marshal Foch, the Western Front Supreme Commander.
From the Second World War, heroes including Field Marshal Montgomery; Winston Churchill; Dwight D. Eisenhower; Douglas Bader; & Earl Mountbatten of Burma.
Statesmen & victims of the Middle East crisis, Henry Kissinger, Sheik Yamani, President Anwar El Sadat, and hostages Terry Waite & Tom Sutherland, who found great inspiration in the work of Burns during his long incarceration.
The great men of science and medicine who have accepted honorary membership include Theodore Martin & Sir James Salmon, both physicians to Queen Victoria; Lord Kelvin; Sir Alexander Fleming who discovered penicillin; South African professor Christian Barnard who performed the first heart transplant operation.
Those who achieved great feats of human endurance are also represented. Sir John Hunt, conqueror of Everest; Roger Bannister, the first man to break the 4 minute mile, and Sir Vivian Fuchs who achieved the first overland crossing of Antarctica.
A large number of British Prime Ministers since 1826, a number of US Presidents and many Poet Laureates are honorary members. Philanthropists such as Andrew Carnegie and Albert Schweitzer are included. Sport, theatre, music & cinema are represented by famous names. By far the biggest group however, is drawn from the fields of literature and poetry including fascinating responses from Dickens, Masefield, Tennyson, Betjeman, McIllvanney, McDiarmid and many more.
These letters of acceptance are
fascinating documents in that they reveal and reflect, sometimes unintentionally,
the character of the writer. For example, it is typical of Margaret
Thatcher that, not only did she take the trouble to write personally, but
also to include an appropriate Burns' quotation. Other recent Prime Ministers
responding in their own hand include Harold Macmillan & Edward Heath.
On the other hand, the irascible Lord Reith, the first Governor of the BBC, gave a less than gracious acceptance in which he attacked the secretary of the club for getting his title wrong, not knowing the difference between kt. And Kt. (Knight), AND for waiting so long before asking him to become an honorary member !!! William Golding the Nobel Laureate novelist was typically laid back in his response stating that "as long as I have nothing better to do but to write this letter, I am happy to become an honorary member" Perhaps the most unusual and amusing replies is in verse from Anne Lorne Gillies while the letter from Sean Connery is written in particularly flamboyant hand.
Burns' International Appeal
The international appeal of Robert Burns is typified in letters from, amongst other places, Egypt; Japan; Moscow; Japan; France; Saudi Arabia; South Africa; Australia; New Zealand; USA; USSR; & Rhodesia with Burns scholars and enthusiasts being found in all of these countries.
Leafing through these letters is fascinating not only because of "whom" but also the great cross-section of mankind represented. This confirms beyond doubt that "international appeal" and worldwide fame & recognition that Robert Burns has himself achieved, as being one of the most fascinating and gifted men in history.
Dr Jack Lovie
The Irvine Burns Club
© 2008 The Robert Burns World Federation