A Celtic State of Mind at the Tommy Burns Supper – 26 years and counting…

I have a confession to make… until last Saturday, I had never attended a Tommy Burns Supper. Sacrilegious, I know, and although I regret waiting all these years to sample this unique take on a Scottish tradition, the 26th instalment was well worth waiting for.

The Heriot Watt and Edinburgh Universities CSC, who were founded in 1984, decided to create an alternative to the various Burns Suppers arranged at Edinburgh University and hosted by “such repulsive entities as the Rugby Club and the Young Conservatives”. By 1987, the Tommy Burns Supper was born.

The TB Suppers aimed to pay tribute to Celtic – particularly our own flame-haired maestro – whilst also ensuring that the charitable roots of our football club were always at the core of any fundraising endeavours.

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The fact that Celtic’s stylish midfielder shared a surname with Scotland’s famous Bard made him the obvious choice as the central subject of these evenings, but that wasn’t the only reason that Tommy Burns became the main focus of these Suppers, as renowned writer Kevin McCarra recently pondered in ‘Over and Over’, the fanzine-style programme that is produced for each of these occasions, “Tommy Burns was the perfect embodiment of Celtic. My friend Glenn Gibbons put it well when he said that Tommy would have been one of the club’s founders if he had been born 100 years earlier. After all, he would certainly have been at Mass before the meeting at St Mary’s on Sunday 6 November 1887 where the decision was taken.”

If you can lose your head when all about you are losing theirs as well,
Or manage to squeeze in one more drink before last orders’ bell.
If you stamp your feet to ‘Mack the Knife’ while it’s sung acapella,
So beautifully and honestly by our favorite Calton fella.” – James McQuillan (HWEUCSC member, 1988-1994)

The inaugural Tommy Burns Supper took place 32 years ago in the Sandwich Bar in Edinburgh University’s Teviot Row Union, where a capacity crowd of 120 marvelled at top-table contributions from special guests Brian McClair and Hugh Keevins.

An upgrade in capacity was required by the second year, where the Supper was moved to the Teviot Row Banqueting Hall for an audience with, among others, Tommy Burns and Jim Craig. The event had quickly established itself as an integral part of the Celtic social calendar, and I recall reading about the Supper’s exploits in late ‘80s editions of Not the View.

Over the years, the Supper hosted an eclectic cornucopia of guests including Packie Bonner, Danny McGrain, Brian Wilson MP, Tony Mowbray, Gerry Collins, Tony Roper, John Collins, Paul McStay, Charlie Nicholas, Billy McNeill, Elaine C. Smith, Kevin McCarra, Peter Grant, Jackie McNamara, Alan Stubbs, Tom Campbell, John Colquhoun, Tom Shields, Mark Burchill, Pat Nevin, John Barnes, Mike Galloway, Pat Stanton, Tom Boyd, Neil Lennon, Andy Walker, John Hughes, Frank McAvennie, John Fallon and Hugh MacDonald.

One of many legendary Supper tales involved Teenage Fanclub’s Norman Blake, who was bestowed with the “guitar-in-the-haggis” spot for the 20th dinner back in 2006, as former committee member, Davie Collie, recalled, “About 15 years ago, I had the pleasure of meeting a new neighbour – Norman Blake out of Teenage Fanclub… we subsequently had numerous discussions about music, football and our support of Celtic.

“On one occasion, I told Norman all about the Supper, its origins, previous guests and traditions, and asked if he wished to ‘guitar in the haggis’ at a forthcoming Supper. Norman was honestly thrilled that I had asked him, stated he would be delighted to take part and, being a true professional, asked to borrow a Celtic CD so that he could learn the music.

“On arrival at the Supper, we were taken to an ante-room in Teviot along with the other guests, including Tommy, of course. Before sitting down for dinner, Norman explained to me the technicalities of the chord structure and key changes within the Celtic Song and jumped on stage to do a quick sound-check and tune his guitar.

“When the time came to parade the haggis, Norman began playing but within seconds the place erupted and his guitar was drowned out by 230 voices singing, chanting, shouting, clapping and stamping along.

“When the mayhem died down, Norman came back to his seat joking that he could have been playing anything up on stage and that he needn’t have bothered learning the tune. He took it all in good spirits, however, and absolutely loved the rest of the evening.

“A couple of years later, on the day that Tommy passed away, I received a text from Norman which said simply, ‘Thanks for giving me the opportunity to meet Tommy’. This sums him up and I was struck by the similarities between Norman and Tommy; both wonderfully talented yet, above all, both genuine, lovely, respectful, humble people.”

Following the untimely passing of one of Celtic’s fondest sons, the ‘final’ Tommy Burns Supper was announced for 30 October 2009. Tommy’s wife, Rosemary, and some of his closest friends attended this emotional farewell event, which ended with the traditional rendition of Tommy’s favourite song, ‘Mack the Knife’.

After much deliberation, the HWEUCSC decided to resurrect the TB Supper in association with the Celtic FC
Foundation in 2017. Guests at the Kerrydale Suite of Celtic Park included Brendan Rodgers, Gordon Strachan, Tom Boyd, Tosh McKinlay, Pat Bonner, Billy Stark, Peter Grant and Bernard Ponsonby. The evening was such a success that the CSC decided to bring it back as an annual affair at the Teviot Row House Student Union.

The Supper now supports The Tommy Burns Skin Cancer Trust and The Celtic FC Foundation, with Emma and Jenna Burns having this to say of the fundraising:

“We know it is an event our Dad looked forward to and enjoyed over the years… even if it was just because he could treat you all to a rendition of ‘Mack the Knife’.

“When dad was diagnosed with malignant melanoma skin cancer, never in a million years did we think that we would be where we are now – setting up a skin cancer charity in an attempt to raise the profile of this deadly disease and him not being here to help us do it. That is because back then we did not know that one in every three cancers diagnosed is a skin cancer.

“We did not know that malignant melanoma is the least common but most deadly type of skin cancer and we certainly did not know that it would claim the life of our dad…

“When dad passed away, the tributes and messages of support were so overwhelming that it almost didn’t seem real – it still doesn’t. To see the streets of the city lined with people paying their respects to someone we simply knew as ‘Dad’ was quite surreal. It was probably that day that we thought we should give something back to these people; the least we can do is make them aware that what happened to our dad is something that could just as easily happen to them. It may not sound like giving something
back, but if we knew a few years ago what we know now this may have been prevented.

“Therefore, the aim of our charity, The Tommy Burns Skin Cancer Trust, is to raise awareness and hopefully help in the prevention of skin cancer.

“With the help of people like yourselves we are sure that this venture can be a successful one. Once again thank you kindly for your support.”

On a personal note, Tommy Burns was one of my earliest Celtic heroes. His Testimonial match against Liverpool in 1987 was the first game I ever went to. His first season as manager was my first as a season-ticket holder.

Almost six years to the day from the release of my debut book, I stood with pride at the top-table of the Tommy Burns Supper, and shared a few stories I have picked up over the years about this special Celtic figure. Make no mistake, I know the absolute honour that is bequeathed to anyone who is fortunate enough to be part of this prestigious event and I feel blessed for having been asked to attend.

The spirit of Tommy was strong within the Teviot Row House that night and the Supper is a wonderful tribute evening from a supporters club which has been blessed to have enjoyed so many great nights in Tommy’s company.

I left with the sound of ‘Mack the Knife’ in my ears and the memory of Tommy’s immortal words forever in my heart: “Because they’re there and they’re always there. And God bless every one of them.”

Paul John Dykes

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