Robert Burns World Federation

Director, Marc Sherland, talks to Ayrshire Magazine

by Gill Sherry

As we all know, Robert ‘Rabbie’ Burns is Scotland’s national bard and the country’s most loved poet. More than 230 years after his death, his work is still celebrated worldwide. However, these celebrations are not limited to one annual Burns supper on 25th January. In fact, Robert Burns World Federation doesn’t just celebrate, but continually educates and promotes the life and works of Rabbie Burns across the globe.

“The Federation came into existence in 1885 to create an umbrella organisation for all of the Burns clubs and Burns movements that were going on throughout Scotland and the rest of the world. The Federation is in every part of the world so we have American, Canadian and Australian directors. We are literally a world organisation.”

I’m chatting to Marc Sherland, director and former president of Robert Burns World Federation. He continues: “Over time, it’s grown hugely. At one point we had well over 1000 member clubs and member associations. We’ve now also included individual members and family members.”

If you’re looking for insight into Robert Burns and Scottish culture, the Federation is an ideal place to start. However, as Marc explains, there’s so much more to it than that.

“Schools competitions have been added to the package of what we were basically set up to do. We also support the organisation of events. We’ll help to structure new clubs coming into existence and we’ll give support to existing clubs and associations that are out there. So it’s far more than just education. It’s about support and mechanisms for engagement. We also do a lot of things like online lectures which have now started to attract a very wide demographic.”

Marc is one of 14 voluntary directors worldwide, all of whom have a certain specialism. Marc’s specialism, for example, is merchandising and marketing. There is also a sponsorship director and an archivist.

“We have an archivist because we have quite a lot of material that’s been given to us over time that we have a responsibility to look after and to let people see, and to develop and curate.”

But surprisingly, it’s not just about Robert Burns himself.

“When Burns was alive, he supported other Scots writing poets and we have a duty to offer support to other Scottish poets and writers so we take that very seriously as well. For example, in our schools competitions, although the main body that’s usually presented is Burns, we do encourage the younger age groups to be looking at other Scots writing poets because that’s part of our duty of care.”

It’s clear that Marc and his fellow directors take their responsibilities very seriously. With the Federation being a registered charity, these responsibilities also include fundraising.

“Fundraising is essential,” Marc confirms. “There just isn’t enough money to do all the things we want to do.”

The Federation sells merchandise from its online shop including postcards, pens, keyrings, candles, mugs, aprons and scarves. In fact, everything you would imagine a heritage organisation would sell. Plus one very special keepsake:

“Robert Burns wanted to get a coat of arms made for himself. It was towards the end of his life and although he knew quite a bit about the design of coats of arms – he was a very intelligent man and there was little that he didn’t have an interest in – he was never able to get them matriculated to himself. So we managed to get that done a couple of years back and we now have the arms that Robert Burns himself wanted to have matriculated posthumously to him through the Lord Lyon King of Arms. That was a real achievement and we now sell copies of the coat.”

At the time of our conversation, Marc is looking forward to the Federation’s summer festival which takes place from 22nd to 31st July. Even the date has significance, as Marc explains: “31st July is the anniversary of the date when the first edition of poetry that Burns released in Kilmarnock was published. It was published on 31st July 1786, so it’s a key date in the Burns calendar.”

The festival is an ideal opportunity for the Federation to let people know what is happening in the world of Burns and what it has planned for the future. Marc hints at a significant and exciting project but is unable to divulge full details: “It’s Burns related… it will be very visible.”

In the meantime, Marc encourages anybody with an interest in Burns to become a member.

“The more members we have, the more projects we can get involved with.”

On the subject of getting involved, I ask how Marc came to join RBWF.

“It was completely accidental,” he laughs. “I’m a small-scale publisher and I had a friend who was writing Scots. He was a member of a local Burns club, but he wasn’t very good at promoting his own work so asked if I would go to his club in Cumbernauld.”

Marc did go along and was able to sell a number of books for his friend. He was then asked to go to another meeting, and then another, until he was (inevitably) asked to join.

“That was 2016,” he tells me. “When I first became involved and discovered its reach, I thought it was a tremendous organisation. Which is why I continued to engage because I thought it was something really useful.”

Marc has, in fact, been a Burnsian his whole life, giving his first Toast to the Lassies when he was 16, and his first Immortal Memory when he was 21. And it’s clear he has no regrets about joining the RBWF.

“It really is good fun. I don’t really know of many Burnsians who don’t thoroughly enjoy being part of the Federation and being part of the Burns clubs that are here, there and everywhere. It’s such a warm and friendly community.”

Again, he encourages anyone with an interest in Burns to get involved. Individual membership costs £47 per year with family membership costing £55. Benefits of membership include the bi-annual Chronicle produced by Edinburgh University Press, plus the Federation’s own bi-monthly newsletter, The Vision.

“The Chronicle is a summing up of the academic research going on at that moment in time into Robert Burns and his associates. It’s a very interesting document. The newsletter includes current information, results of schools competitions, activities going on in different clubs, and anything else that we can spot that’s going on in the Burns world.”

Membership also allows attendance at the Federation’s annual conference which will take place this year at the Cairndale Hotel in Dumfries from 8th to 10th September.

For more information, visit RBWF.org.uk.