In late 1999 Ken Montgomery moved to Medicine Hat from his home city of Edmonton. Ken had been used to attending what may be termed `proper Burns dinners’ when living in that city, having attended many annual events hosted by the Edmonton Burns Club, that Burns club being established in 1920. Ken had been introduced to Burns by his father who had also attended these dinners over the years with his grandfather and great grandfather. Ken was very surprised to find that here in Medicine Hat, other than one casual effort hosted by a local Church there was no formal event that interested individuals could attend.
In time Ken became active with both of Medicine Hat’s two Masonic lodges, and in Canada, wherever you find a Masonic lodge, generally you will also find Brits, and specifically Scottish ex pats. Robert Burns was also a Freemason so there was also a connection there. In order to gage interest Montgomery started chatting up local Masons including Albert Fyfe, originally from the Isle of Bute, Neil Chisholm, originally from Jedburgh in the Scottish borders and John Ellis, born in Glasgow but raised in Ireland. All had experience with Burns dinners and Neil and John had also both served in the British military so had additional experience with military mess dinners.
It was agreed that our event would be held on the Saturday closest to 25 January (Robert Burns birthday), and where most formal Burns dinners were men only, and it was agreed that Burns himself probably wouldn’t want to attend such a function if there were no lassies, it was also unanimously agreed this event would be open to men and women.
It was soon determined there were also other home grown Masons who were interested in supporting such an effort, and soon we had a core group of individuals and the basic talent required to host and put on a traditional Burns dinner program.
On making other inquiries it was learned that Medicine Hat did have a pipe band, the South Alberta Pipes & Drums (SAPD) led by pipe major Eric Kean. It also had the McConnell School of Highland Dance managed by Karen Pillman, and a well known local butcher, Mike Steiner of Mike’s Meats, who Ken heard made an adequate haggis. As the local liquor stores stocked Scotch it appeared we had everything else we would need.
The local pipe band was contacted and agreed to participate. Next we talked to Karen Pillman and she agreed to provide dancers. Ken felt a special touch had to be added and was aware the daughter of his neighbours, Steve and Annabelle Welling was a trained singer then working as a vocal instructor at the Medicine Hat College. Mrs. Jennifer Brown would be pleased to assist and her involvement would prove to be the icing on the cake. Last, and a personal favourite, Albert Fyfe, and accomplished harmonica player also agreed to fill in and play a few tunes, not that Albert needed much encouragement.
The date set for the first annual event was Saturday, 27 January 2007. The event would be hosted by the Freemasons of Medicine Hat and held in the Masonic hall located on Bannon Avenue.
Initially we expected about 100 people to attend. The hall could comfortably seat 140 and we were pleasantly surprised when almost 160 people showed up, some standing along the walls just to watch the entertainment. It was a hit, and we would do it again.
After this event the Club was formally established as the Freemasons of Medicine Hat Burns Club, and was enrolled as member 2064 of the Robert Burns World Federation (RBWF). Initially the Club’s goals were to preserve and promote the memory of Robert Burns, Freemasonry and Scottish culture and traditions.
The second annual dinner was another success and the Club was then presently surprised to involve two new individuals, both being British army soldiers with the British Army Training Unit Suffield (BATUS) which was part of nearby CFB Suffield. These were Major Ian Cameron of the Royal Regiment of Scotland (SCOTS), formerly of the Queen’s Own Highlanders, and Major Andy Harrower of the Royal Mechanical Electrical Engineers (REME). Both were Scots and both loved Burns.
Andy’s first gift to the Club was that of introducing Atholl Brose, a Scottish military concoction comprised of Scotch soaked in oatmeal, cream and honey. Delicious!
The Club’s major highlight of 2009 was putting on the annual festivities in conjunction with the 250th Anniversary of Robert Burns. Here we pulled out all the stops. First the Club organized organised a storming of city hall where with pipes, drums, haggis and Atholl Brose. Members of the Club met with the mayor and council and put on a special performance that ended with a sample of haggis and a toast of Atholl Brose. The mayor then proclaimed the week of 25-31 January 2009 as Robert Burns Week, and this event concluded with the Club raising Scotland’s two flags, the Lion Rampant and the Saltire at city hall. These flags remained up for the entire week.
Next was the Burns dinner itself. We expected well over 350 to attend so we relocated to the Medicine Hat Cypress Centre. Where all the traditional entertainment remained we added Johnny bagpipes, a professional comedian who wore a kilt and used the bagpipes as part of his act. Johnny Johnston, as he was really known had appeared in Las Vegas and opened up shows for the likes of Wide Mouth Mason and Rich Little. Johnny Bagpipes was a hit.
The day after the big dinner was the actual Burns day of January 25th. Here the Club with various dignitaries and those interested met in the foyer of the Medicine Hat College where the Club presented the college with a custom bronze bust of Burns to commemorate the event. This was finish with a coordinated worldwide toast to Burns that would be entered in the Guinness Book of World Records.
In time it became clear that where Robert Burns himself was a Freemason, and many Masons traditionally have an interest in Burns, if the Club were to truly succeed and prosper it could not be exclusive, or seen to be exclusive to Freemasons. As a result, in 2013 the Club changed its name to the Medicine Hat Burns Club, changed its mandate to more specifically relate to preserving the memory of Robert Burns and Scottish culture and traditions, and allowed any person who had an interest in the Club’s mandate to then join.
The Club was next fortunate to add another Brit to its ranks, that being Major Les McCulloch (AGC) SPS. Les, joining up with Andy and Ian were instrumental for thinking outside the box and initiating the first annual Jolly Beggars banquet in 2010. This event, now normally held the end of September each year is black tie and reserved for thirty seven (37) gentlemen as burns was 37 when he died. Initially the event was held at the Combined Officers Mess at CFB Suffield however that changed in 2012 when the event was re-located to Medicine Hat’s prestigious Cypress Club, where it now remains.
The Club is now proud to have a significant following and with additional new blood joining its ranks the Club expects to continue to grow and assist in benefiting the cultural interests of Southeastern Alberta.