This Sunday, 25th January 2015, will be Burn’s Night or Burn’s Supper, when Scots around the world celebrate the life and works of their national poet, Robert Burns (1759-1796). This year it falls on his actual birthday, but otherwise takes place on the nearest Sunday. Traditionally a haggis is piped in with the bagpipes, whisky is drunk and Burns’s poems recited.
Around 1780, there were about eight legal distilleries and 400 illegal ones. In 1823, Parliament introduced an Excise Act designed to encourage the licensed distilleries and ease out the hundreds of small illegal operations. Technology improved whisky production with the introduction of the column still in 1831. This was a less expensive method of production and made for a smoother, and more commercially attractive drink. Punch, or toddy, made with whisky, hot water or tea, honey or sugar, and sometimes lemon, was a popular form of drinking whisky.
This punch-bowl of Inverary marble was made by James Armour a Mauchline stone-mason, and presented to Robert Burns on his marriage to his daughter Jean Armour in 1788. Marble or stone punch bowls are rare. Solid and largely unbreakable, their weight may have prevented them from becoming popular. The Works of Robert Burns: With an Account of His Life (1801) describes Burns making a whisky ‘punch’ in this bowl:
‘On the table they found boiled beef, with vegetables, and barley-broth, after the manner of Scotland; of which they partook heartily. After dinner the bard told them ingenuously that he had no wine to offer them, nothing better than Highland whiskey, a bottle of which Mrs Burns set on the board. He produced at the same time his punch-bowl, made of Inverary-marble, and, mixing the spirit with water and sugar, filled their glasses, and invited them to drink. The travellers were in taste, and besides, the flavour of the whiskey to their sutbron (southern) palates, was scarcely tolerable; but the generous poet offered them his best, and his ardent hospitality they found impossible to resist.’
This punch bowl was apparently used by Burns at his brother Gilbert’s wedding to Jean Breckenridge on 21 June 1791. On the bottom of the bowl, a label reads “Toddy was made in this bowl by Burns at the wedding of his brother Gilbert at Mossgeil, June 21 1791”. It is in the handwriting of the poet’s nephew Gilbert Burns and is dated Knockmaroon Lodge (Dublin) 1874.
On 25th January 1819, attendees of the Burns Supper at the Globe Inn, Dumfries decided to open a subscription for the purchase of a porcelain punch bowl, for future use at this annual event. The punch bowl, a silver punch ladle, serving mugs and three dozen wine glasses were purchased and presented at a meeting of the subscribers on 18th January 1820. The subscribers to the bowl decided to form a Society, to be named ‘The Burns Club of Dumfries’. The punch bowl is decorated with several images, and the foot is inscribed with 35 names of the original subscribers.